I remember when I started making music back in high school and college. I also remember the struggle of writing new songs, but there was so much fun in the struggle. Back then I had something to prove, so I would spend countless hours throughout the night writing and rewriting parts, lyrics and rhythms. There was something so amazing and so fresh about those days.
You see, they were the days before life became complicated with bill paying, 40 plus hour work weeks and multiple responsibilities. There are many days I long to go back to those days when everything seemed fresh and new. I also long for those days in the music industry. Things change, we all know that and sometimes for better, other times for worse. Currently, the music industry is a logistical mess attempting to make its way back to the glory days of old. The problem is that those days will never come back. This is a new day in the music industry with digital and streaming services driving the current industry model.
I also know that many artists long for the simple days before the business took over their lives. The reason most artists get into the music business is to make...music. They are artists at heart and they could not picture life without writing or making music. They breathe it and love it. The definition of an artist is; a person who displays in his work qualities required in art, such as sensibility and imagination. Many of today's artists fit that definition through and through. The problem isn't that they have forgotten what the definition of artist entails, it is that the business of music gets in the way of the creative process. We recently watched, in my class at Houghton, the documentary Artifact which follows the story of Thirty Seconds to Mars making their third album This Is War. In the documentary, the band is being sued for thirty million dollars for breach of contract. The film shows the band struggling to create great art while being distracted with the business end of the industry. The question raised in the documentary is, "Can art and business coexist peacefully in the music industry?" I believe it can, but it doesn't. This is the reason why so many artists long for the day when they were a "nobody" and there wasn't pressure to perform or write a hit. You made music... for the love of music.
The other night I was driving home from Houghton College, where I am employed as a the Director of Sound and Recording, and a music industry instructor. It was about 1 AM as I was making my way back through the dark lonely roads between Houghton and my house. I turned on the radio to keep me company and heard these words:
Yeah, yeah, somebody take me back to the days
Before this was a job, before I got paid
Before it ever mattered what I had in my bank
Yeah, back when I was tryin' to get a tip at Subway
And back when I was rappin' for the hell of it
But nowadays we rappin' to stay relevant
I'm guessin' that if we can make some wishes outta' airplanes
Then maybe yo maybe I'll go back to the days
Before the politics that we call the rap game
And back when ain't nobody listen to my mixtape
And back before I tried to cover up my slang
But this is for the hater, what's up Bobby Ray?
So can I get a wish
To end the politics
And get back to the music
That started this sh**?
So here I stand and then again I say
I'm hopin' we can make some wishes outta' airplanes
The song started to move me. I could hear the emotion and passion in the vocals. I could hear the longing for the simple life. I could see the small room as this artist started to write songs. I could see the tiny venues with family and friends supporting the unknown artist. And, I could see myself. I saw myself buying my first piece of studio equipment. I saw the tiny second floor room in Norton Village in Rochester where I started creating computer music. I saw my small beginnings before life became complicated. And at that very moment, listening to those lyrics, that song partly became my story. And in a strange way, at that moment, I fell back in love with this amazing thing called music. We all need reminders from time to time, and that song was mine.
If I were to ask my students to name an amazing producer or mix engineer, many would not be able to do it. Once upon a time, you sat in front of your stereo, unwrapped a freshly packaged vinyl album, cassette or CD and read all the credits while listening to a new masterpiece. For me this magical experience came in the form of Def Leppard and the album "Hysteria". I remember the day vividly as I sat in a dank, cold dorm room listening to this amazing sonic explosion coming out of my speakers - over and over. The album absolutely mesmerized and hypnotized me - so much so that it would stay in my CD player for three months. The album was played so much that my dorm mates would end up giving me a Golden Pear Award for the most likely person to work with Def Leppard in the future. As I was reading the credits inside the liner notes of this incredible album, the name Mike Shipley kept appearing. This was the day before internet and easy access, so you had to do some major investigating to find out about this magical mix engineer. I could go into Mike's long list of top artists that he produced and mixed, but you will have to do that on your own. His credits are truly amazing.
It is sad that we so quickly forget - or maybe don't care - about the people who make the industry "go 'round". If I said the name Lady Gaga many of you would instantly know and visualize the eccentric blonde haired bombshell with the wacky outfits. But if I were to say the name Zedd, who would know of the person I speak? He is Lady Gaga's producer - as in the person who makes her and her songs sound incredible. In this day of iTunes and quick downloads, most of us do not even care to take a look at the "people behind the people". Yet those of us in the industry, know and do care tremendously. So let me take a moment to care and talk about the late Mike Shipley.
Many times we view guys like Mike as being untouchable and unreachable because their accolades are so enormous that they wouldn't even bother talking to us "lowly engineers". Mike was not like that, and to the contrary, was very involved in the lives of us "lowly ones". He would post on the Gearslutz forums and share with us his engineering knowledge regularly. He would answer any question directed at him under the moniker "shipshape". I heard great stories from others about Mike mixing an indie album for a beer and some lamb chops. He was a man who cared more about the industry than money or prestige. His last video appearance, talking about his craft (you can view the video below), was on Pensado's Place where he gladly shared his wealth of knowledge with the rest of the engineering community. He was a giving person, not selfish in the least and was not in the industry for selfish ambition or promotion. He loved music and loved the people in the industry. He was always in his element behind the board - or at the producer's helm. He loved the people he worked with and the people loved him. On July 22nd, we lost this industry giant and amazing talent.
So, what can we learn from a man like Mike Shipley? Passion, excellence and humility. Passion for music and this awesome field of engineering. Excellence in the way he crafted each mix - sonically beautiful and pure. Humble in the truest sense of the word - family members weren't aware of projects he had been involved with. I want to encourage each person who reads this blog to go out and find out about the people who have worked on the albums you love - the "people behind the people". People like Mike.
Though Mike has passed, his music and productions will live on for years, decades and centuries to come. I am a testament to Mike's life. At the age of eighteen, I put on a Mike Shipley mixed album and heard sonic perfection. I decided at that point that I wanted to learn this craft and how to mix like the man who mixed that album. And so began my journey to become the next Mike Shipley. I may never win a mixing or production Grammy like Mike, but my life has been rich in attempting to hit the excellence mark of this man. May you now rest in peace, Mike. You will be missed by all.
Recently our good friend Russ Hughes (at Pro Tools Expert) wrote a blog on "5 Ways To Get a Great Job In Music Production and Keep It". I wanted to post a similar blog for a while, but Russ really nailed it. I would only add that this advice applies to all fields - not just the creative field.
Here are the top five things I tell my kids on how to get a great job, stay hired and get promoted.
I am currently on winter break from my teaching job at Houghton College, and had a little time to post a new blog. If you notice, most of my blog posts take place during summer. The reason is that I have summers off which gives me time to write. If you haven't checked it out yet, I have added some tutorial videos from Shure, Presonus and Full Sail under the tutorial section on this site - there is some great information under that section.
Onto the subject at hand...Autotune or Melodyne aka tuning a vocal. Recently, I saw a Melodyne photo of the Marvin Gaye song "Sexual Healing". I will post the photo on here, but when you see the picture it will show a vocal that is completely out of tune - both flat and sharp at times. The question was raised, "Would Melodyne make it better?". Melodyne is the less known relative of Autotune in the music world - it is a "note correcting" software. The answer hands down (by everyone) simply was stated..."No it wouldn't." As a matter of fact, many opinions (including my own) have stated that it would make it sound worse and robotic.
It is true, note correcting software would (and does) make notes sound unnatural. What would happen if we took Marvin's classic song and turned it into a robotic, computer perfect version? It is a simple answer...it would take away from the original feel of the song. The original is so great (and listed as a classic) because the studio captured the "magic" of the performance with all of its imperfections. It was a day in the industry where talent was signed because singers and artists actually had.....talent. I don't want to go on and make this all technical by explaining how many recorded instruments are imperfect in their pitch and harmonics - but it happens. What if we get to the place where we are correcting everything? If that happens (and we are heading there rapidly) then music will become more stale (and lifeless) than it is already.
The great thing about music is that it is imperfect, and played by imperfect people. It is human at its core and to take the human element out of music, we take out the very soul that makes it live, breathe and that which makes it great. If you are a musician or engineer (recording and mix) reading this blog....please return music to its human element. There may be times when we want to use Autotune or Meldyne for creative effect, but that should be the exception - and not the rule. Let's get back to great art and developing real talent.
Music production is smoke and mirrors. It is mostly manufactured sounds by various effects and software that make you believe it was recorded that way in a studio or manufactured to sound a certain way so everyone thinks it's hip. I am ashamed of where we have landed in recording engineering and the music industry. Everything keeps evolving and is creating a lazy generation of engineers and producers. The saying "we will fix it in the mix" has become the tag line in almost all music productions in recent years. Music production has always had a smoke and mirrors aspect, but not like now. The drums you listen to are fake, the singer is fake, the guitars are at times fake, the Rhodes is fake, the grand piano is fake, the orchestra is fake and the list goes on and on. When I say fake, what I mean is that most Rhodes, orchestra and grand pianos are created by software called virtual instruments.
Every year I have an "ask the producers" type forum where I shoot a question to top industry professionals and have them respond with answers. About a year ago, I asked a panel of experts to give me their view of drum replacement software. Drum replacement software takes the drum sounds that you recorded in the studio and replaces it with manufactured, often synthesized, drum parts. In the answers every producer, except one, stated they used drum replacement so they could compete with everyone else in the industry. Cool huh? Not really. How lazy have we become as engineers that we need to replace drum parts because we can not record them the right way? I may be old school here or not in the hip crowd, but there was a time when engineers would spend hours on the drum tone and sound. A movement of just an inch or two could mean the difference between an amazing drum tone or one that wasn't great. Just placing microphones alone was an art form and there were engineering Picassos "back in the day". It was a different time and place, long before computer software started churning out lazy engineers and producers.
A couple of years ago I played a video for my class called, "It Might Get Loud". In part of the film Jack White is explaining how he still plays his cheap guitar that he had as a child. He makes the statement that he loves the guitar because it makes him struggle with his art. I think that is what makes art so great....the struggle. A vocalist struggling to hit the right note and then hitting it triumphantly. A guitarist struggling to hit that one perfect pitch bent note. A drummer struggling to put, an almost impossible fill, into perfect timing. It is the struggle that makes the triumph so sweet. But, now you throw a singer through autotune, a guitar through a software pitch shift and a drum fill through beat detective, and what does it get us? Lazy musicians all the way through to producers. All of this because somewhere along the line we all decided perfection is what everyone wants, and not the human struggle with real art thus making it imperfect. I will take emotionally imperfect any day over robotic, lifeless perfection.
If you think about it, some of the greatest albums ever recorded were full of inconsistencies and imperfections yet they are emotionally perfect. Sonic perfection should never be the goal in any production, but rather emotional response. If you listen to classic rock you will hear albums that were full of sonic imperfections, but are considered some of the best albums of all time. Modern music has taken the human element out, and has replaced it with mechanical perfection through software manipulation. I say we go back to what made music great from the start....great songs that drew out great emotional responses. I want to pose just one question, how many artists, producers and engineers today could actually be good enough to make it in this industry back when tape was the recording medium? That is something to think about. My answer.....very few.
Kevin "Danger" Jackson is a New York-based producer, engineer, composer, performer, educator and Berklee College of Music alumnus. He writes, produces and engineers music for a wide range of artists in the pop, hip-hop, rock, R&B, classical and electronic genres. His work can be heard daily on a multitude of albums, radio and television stations worldwide.