In a few weeks, I will be saying goodbye to my assistant - John Buteyn. I have been wanting to write a fitting tribute to my assistant for some time, but every time I started thinking of writing this...my brain went into denial that he was leaving. I would then close my laptop and try not to think about this approaching day.
Many of you who visit this site (and blog) do not know John. But to me, John has been my right hand man for four years or so, and a brother-like friend for over seven. John was the first person I worked with as the new Director of Sound and Recording at Houghton College. From the start, I knew that John and myself would have a good working relationship, and more importantly, a good friendship.
A wise man once told me, "Kevin, when you meet a friend...a true friend, never let that friendship go because true friends are very rare in this life. When you meet the type of friend that 'gets you'...make sure you stay friends. That type of friend will walk the mountain tops and the valleys with you". The wise man, also known as my high school music teacher, was right on. I have traveled this earthly road for 45 years and have rarely found "true friends". I have many "friends", as a matter of fact over 3,500 "friends" on Facebook, but I have very few "true" friends...the kind of friend that sticks closer than a brother and gets me as a person. Many people become your friend with an agenda in mind. For many, that agenda is breaking into the music industry or befriending you to swindle you out of your industry contact list. I have had a few "friends" in my lifetime who attempted to use me as a stepping stone for the next level in their career...a few church tech "friends" come to mind here.
What I have always liked about John is that he never became my friend to "use" me, nor did he have an agenda to gather my contacts. He became my friend because we had so many common interests, especially in music technology and recording. We would sit in the office during the slow conference season time dreaming about Houghton, and what it could look like if we ever offered a music technology or a music industry degree. At the time, that seemed like a big huge pipe dream and talk, but as every year passed our dream and talks started becoming reality. It was the dream and vision that drove both of us at work - and common interests that drove our friendship.
After my first two years at Houghton, John went away to Georgia Southern to pursue his master's degree in music technology. When he left, during that time, you could feel the void that was left in my department. The old Charles Dickens phrase from A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." was being lived out in real time during the years he was away. The department and staff just wasn't the same with John gone.
Then John came back. At first is was to head up the summer conference tech team. Eventually, after a couple of years and a couple of jobs he worked around Houghton, we were able to hire him in my department as the Assistant Director of Technical Arts. And a new (and very cool) chapter started to be written again.
This past year, John, our boss and myself, started to create and pursue a major in music industry at Houghton College. Everything we had talked about seven years prior to this, started to become reality. We created a music industry minor, had upwards of ten new courses approved and finally a music industry major approved at Houghton. I don't think either one of us could believe how much was accomplished this past year. At times it was stressful...and at others times it was filled with celebration.
And so, it seems right that John is now leaving to pursue the next chapter in his life. In the time he has been at Houghton, and my assistant, we have seen great things happen. We have had a lot of fun and laughs with events, concerts, conferences (for the most part), classes, our team and most of all our friendship. Bill Hybels (a leadership guru - look him up) once said at a leadership conference, "Surround yourself with the best. Because you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with." For me, John was and is the best. He has been the definition of excellence and work ethic. He is a great husband to Kaylan, a great father to Fin and has been a great friend and brother to me. My only hope is that each person who reads this will have the same fortune that I have had these past seven years. I hope that each of you will find that person who makes you not only a better teacher and tech, but a better man or woman. As iron sharpens iron....Yohann, you will be missed.
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.
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.
I love this video. The video shows what people can do when they think creatively. I am a firm believer that the studio should be a place for creative experimentation, and not a quick hit factory. The video is currently hitting 6 million views and climbing each day. Check it out and watch these 5 intriguing guys make the instrument sing.
Also love this video...mashup of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know"
There is a lot of opinion on this subject, and some slight exaggerations too. To answer the question, "Is piracy wrong?" then I think we need to dive into who came up with the term pirates. The term pirates is a label that the software, recording and movie industries have given to people who either host or illegally download and distribute intellectual property that hasn't been paid for. Pirates are the scum of the earth, bottom of the barrel individuals who are single-handedly ruining all of the entertainment industries. Well, at least that is what all the industries want us to think. I am not advocating piracy, of course I am not advocating the name pirate either. I think the name pirate is a bit harsh. The original definition of pirate (which was changed recently to include the digital age) is, "a person who robs or commits illegal violence at sea, or on the shores of the sea". So if a digital pirate has a ship, a drunk crew and is stealing the new Windows system by violence on the ocean (maybe in transport?) or on the shores of the sea, then they can legitimately be called pirates...ARGHHHHH!
The truth is that the software and entertainment industries wanted to label this activity in the most fearful low-handed way possible. I have met a few "pirates" in my time, not the ones dressed like Johnny Depp, but some of the people who "hack", and they were some of the nicest people. Like I said, I do not condone what they are doing, but I do not condone the way in which they have been labeled. Some of the hackers are doing it because they feel they are on a mission. A mission? Yes, a mission. A mission of justice and to "level the playing field" in the professional arena - and corporate profiteering. I am speaking more along the lines of creative ventures like music, graphic design and video creation -and not so much music or movies.
What a lot of these hackers feel is that, like most things, companies cater to the rich and forget about the poor or up and coming. How can they think that? I will use one company as an example here - Waves. Waves is a plug in company that makes plug in software for digital audio workstations (DAWs). As of a little over a year ago their software suite called Waves Mercury Bundle cost an individual $10,000. For those of use who are professionals, and use a DAW called Pro Tools, it is almost a necessity to own the Mercury bundle to stay competitive in the music production world. The problem is that most people can not afford the $10, 000 price tag. Waves justifies their position saying that it costs them that much to program and market their product (which is laughable). One of Waves competitors offers a very similar package with, what I believe to be, better plug ins for around $2,000. If you do your math, that is an $8,000 difference in price. I always have said that Waves had better be including a good used car for the amount I am paying for their plug ins.
Profiteering thinking is nothing new in an industry that is notorious for ripping of its customers (mostly studios and musicians). I have many examples of reverse piracy (that is manufacturers raping and pillaging its consumers) going on in this industry. The first example is that yesterday I needed to order cable ties for my studio. I have taken this summer to get my studio neatly organized from cords to rewiring- and everything in between. I went around and started checking prices through the usual music supply chains for my ties, and kept thinking, "Man, this a lot of money for twenty ties." - It was $30 for 20 ties. They are not made out of gold, they are Velcro for heaven's sake. I decided to think outside of the normal music mind set, and go to other industries to find my ties. I found the exact same ties, that I use, in another industry's listing, which would cost me $8.00 for (get this) 100 of them. That is quite the difference in price.
The second example, is that I purchased a sample CD from a very well known company. Let me clarify this one by saying it was a while ago (think late 90's), and the internet was still moving at snail pace. Back then the company did not have any audio samples to hear, but had a description on their site. When the sample CD arrived, I opened it up, popped it into my computer and it wasn't like anything described on their site. I called the company asking to exchange it for something that I actually needed, and their reply was, "Once it is opened, you own it. No refunds." I told the company that it would be a long time before I did business with them again. On their end, the representative said, "We can't cater to everyone like you who complains. If you feel that way, then go to another company, and do business with them." In the twelve plus years since that time, I have only purchased one sample CD from them, and that was because I needed the sounds for one particular project. Even then, I watched for promo codes and got a 40% off discount.
I believe that "pirates" actually keep companies honest and "on the ball". I liken them to a person who watches his neighbor mow his lawn with a new John Deere mower. The neighbor graciously allows the other neighbor to try out the mower to see if that neighbor wants to go and purchase a John Deere for himself. Pirates (in a way) do the exact same thing. They release cracked software for people to "try before they buy". All of the cracking groups have that motto and, to be honest, it really isn't a bad way of functioning or thinking. Software companies have responded by allowing consumers the option of trying before you buy with restrictions and time limits. The restrictions I have seen are absolutely ridiculous. The software companies limit the feature set, so yo can't even try out the software with every feature or fully. What good does that do? That is like test driving a new car with a flat tire. Some companies require you to purchase a $50 iLok key before you can try it. No wonder hackers want to crack the software.
On my end, I have had terrible luck with companies who claim that this piece of software will "revolutionize" your music making process. I get excited, buy the software or plug in, only to feel like I had just been ripped off. I have paid more than $500 for a plug in, only to find out that it crashes constantly, or that it isn't compatible with Windows Explorer blah blah version installed on your computer. Don't even think about trying to get your money back....it isn't going to happen. You open it, you own it - period. I am now a lot more cautious when purchasing any kind of software. This is a case where having hackers, pirates (add degrading name here) around is actually very good. Companies are quick to point the finger, and say that pirates are the cause of the decline in their businesses. The truth is, that they are the reason for their demise by releasing poor quality products then selling them at outrageous prices. The pirates have been very good for quality control (checks and balances).
There was another company recently that made these crazy claims as to why they couldn't be more consumer friendly. It had to do with hardware, and forcing consumers to purchase their hardware to run the software. A cracking group got a hold of the software, and was able to crack it without having to use any hardware. The cracking group released a statement that this company had been dishonest all along, and they had proof via the code that the software company had built into the program. Within the year, the software company released a version that no longer needed its hardware to function. The hackers became the industry "police" that kept the company honest. Since that time, the cracking group has not released a new version due to them feeling their job was accomplished by keeping the software company honest and "on the level".
So, is it wrong being a pirate? Yes, it is wrong to freely give away somebody's intellectual property, but it is also wrong for companies to be raping and pillaging consumers. It is also wrong for companies to be charging exuberant prices while providing sub par and buggy merchandise. Before a company or lawmaker decides to call other people (or persons) a pirate(s), they should look closely at themselves ridding their closet(s) of poet shirts and eye patches. ARGHHHH!
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.