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.
What does it take to make it in the music industry (or entertainment industry) in today's environment? Is it raw talent or is there more? I would love to say hands down that raw talent is what will allow a person to make it, but that simply is not true. There have been a lot of articles and studies done about the American obsession with beauty. I personally do not think it stops with America. In a day in which information is so widely available online, I believe other parts of the world are also obsessed with beauty and image.
I want to make it clear that I do not see anything wrong with presenting yourself in a professional fashion (much like my heavy metal dude in the photo ...uh yeah, let's forget about that spandex - or drug - induced style). I believe that people in various industries do need to present themselves in a professional manner. But dressing the part doesn't necessarily make you a professional in your field. A nice looking man could dress in a really nice suit, and call himself a Wall Street investor, but he could actually be fresh out of college with no skill in investments. On the outside, this handsome and sharp dressed man, could be very believable, but in all actuality you wouldn't want him to handle the funds in your piggy bank, let alone your stock portfolio.
The same is true in the entertainment industry. A lot of time it is an industry that is driven by how you look instead of how well you play or sing. I have to admit that I have fallen victim to this many times. I remember a young handsome guy, who looked like a rock star, that approached me with a demo CD. The first thing that came to mind was that this guy must be a good artist since he looked like one. I told him that I would check out the CD and get back to him (you know the standard answer that music industry people give to hopefuls). I was totally impressed with his rock star do and trendy clothing. I was excited to play the CD until it started and I heard his voice on it. I realized, at that moment, that I had been buffaloed by image. It wasn't the first time, or the last, that this would happen to me.
There have been many scientific studies on what people find attractive in other people, and documentaries, as well. What scientists have found, is that there are key factors in a person being attractive from certain smells to certain face dimensions (the face dimension study can be read here from the BBC). So naturally, as a race, we gravitate toward beautiful people. But gravitate and obsess are two very different things. Gravitate says that we naturally are drawn to beautiful people while obsess means we are constantly preoccupied with beauty. We are preoccupied with whiter teeth, hair color, latest make up trends, manicures, pedicures, weight, clothing trends, eye glass styles, boot cut vs. slim jeans, fitted T's vs. regular, shoes, boob size, face wrinkles, gray hair - oh my, and the list goes on and on and on. This obsession dictates in our minds what successful entertainers should be - or what they should look like.
The TV show "The Voice" is my hero. Why is it my hero? If you notice, when a person comes out to audition, the chairs are turned backwards so the judges are not able to see the person, but are forced to listen (all audio, no visual). I vote that everyone is required to do that when listening to music from now on. A person's talent should be solely based on how good they are, not how good they look. I know of a very popular artist (actually more than one) who does not look, for lack of better words, very appealing. He would not be a "catch" according to our very high standards, nor is he anywhere near tall, dark and handsome. He is tall, but is missing the last two. Yet, when he sings, it sounds like the voice of angels are channeled straight through him. On a personality side....one of the most humble and amazing humans. He may be able to date a super model but I guarantee you it isn't because of his looks, rather from his popularity and money. He deserves better than to be judged by his looks.
Recently, CNN ran an article titled, "Has Image Overtaken Music?" One quote that I love, in the article, was this:
"The stuff used to be about something, dammit, not a soundalike drone of manufactured robots, lip-synching amid falling tinsel."
Such a true statement of the gimmicky way in which we present music now. In the YouTube video of Jay-Z (that I posted yesterday), he reminisces of a time when a person would sit on a street corner playing an acoustic guitar for 5 cents a day - long before there was a "music industry". He also (my paraphrase) said that musicians were in it for the enjoyment of music, and not for the fame or money of today.
We should be playing music because we would die inside without creating it. When I am at home, I get so anxious and antsy to create. When I can't create, I get annoyed, mad and a bit of an attitude (ask my wife). At this point in my life, I could care less about money, fame and throngs of fans. What I do care about is creating this awesome thing called music. It is my love, my passion and my life. Even when I was working in hell, also known as, retail management, (that will be saved for another blog) all I could do was think about creating, writing and recording music. Whether I make a living from music or not, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that I am able to play, write and create. Don't get into this, or any entertainment industry, to become a star, do it because it is part of your soul. Don't worry about your image, or your looks....it doesn't matter. Just because some fickled record executive is shallow, doesn't mean the whole world is that way - does Susan Boyle ring a bell? Don't buy into the lies of beauty - it is truly how the saying goes..."Beauty is only skin deep" - and let me add, true beauty comes from within and makes it way to the surface. Stay passionate and beautiful.
A while ago I was riding in the car with my wife and made the comment that I felt today's music is a lot more boring than yonder year's before (namely the 80's and 70's). I have known as a recording engineer that record companies have been pushing the loudness on CD's, and songs, for quite some time now. The theory is that if a sound is louder on the radio than the song before it or after it, then that song will be remembered by the listener. All I can picture is some record executive with too much time on his hands coming up with that stupid idea one day, and then deciding to put the plan into action. In our industry, attempting to make your artist's music louder than the other guy's is called a "loudness war" - and if you doubt that it exists (which there is way too much proof otherwise), then just take a look at this wave form graphic comparison of Michael Jackson's song "Black and White" from the original release in 1991 to the 2007 re-release.
Cool photo, huh? 1991, was the year "Black and White" originally released, and for those who care to listen I was a young impressionable wanna-be musician, producer and engineer living in Philadelphia. I can recall the minute I heard this song on the radio for the first time. I was driving down City Line Avenue listening to the morning show when they announced that this was Michael Jackson's new song "Black and White". My mouth dropped open as I heard sonic perfection coming from my car's speaker system. I then went out and bought the CD immediately. Over the various releases of that song, I felt that something was changing as they re-released each version. I thought that my mind was playing tricks with my ears, but then I came across the image above. Voila! I wasn't crazy after all....the record companies are literally sucking the life out of the original release with compression and limiting to make it louder. Which brings me to the original point of this blog.
Scientists in Spain used a huge archive known as the Million Song Dataset, which breaks down audio and lyrical content into data that can be analyzed, so pop songs from 1955 to 2010 can be studied. And here is what they found out:
"We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."
They also found timbres have become poorer. The same note played at the same volume on, say, a piano and a guitar is said to have a unique timbre, so the scientists found modern pop has a more limited variety of sounds. This shouldn't be too surprising on the timbre front since most modern music utilizes synthesizers and drum machines instead of real wooden (organic) instruments. On the other hand, we can also blame the timbre becoming poorer on over use of compression in both the recording studio/process and the reduction of sound quality in MP3's - which utilize compression to reduce the original file size, thus reducing quality in both the purity of the music, and timbre of it.
What does this mean? Like the scientists, many of us in the music industry have been saying that music is not as "musical" anymore due to the loudness and over-compression. Anyone who works with music for a living, and understands dynamics, can tell you that if you over-compress anything it normally brings out extremely ear fatiguing harmonics, thus making the music sound harsh and brittle. The flip side is that if I were to play one CD for you at a lower volume and then play another at a louder volume your ear would naturally gravitate toward the louder CD. Our brains associate loudness with being better, but it is an auditory illusion. Now, if I were to put you in a room and you listened to both CD's from start to finish with a small break in between, then you would say that the quieter CD was a lot better. The reason is that after so many minutes of listening to the louder CD your brain and ears get tired - or fatigued. With the quieter CD, and more pleasant dynamics, you could literally listen to it three times in a row, and come out wanting more. The reason is that our ears now perceive that CD as being pleasant, warm and non-fatiguing. And that is the reason why modern pop music sounds more bland and less pleasing than pop records from as little as eight to ten years ago.
So what can we do about this? A lot of engineers are fighting this trend against both the record labels and the artists who have bought into the nonsense. Louder is not better. As consumers of music it is all of our right to demand a better product from the record labels - and the artists we love. Personally, I gravitate toward older music (no, not because I'm old), but because the sonic quality is so much better and pleasant. A lot of 20-somethings down to younger kids have grown, and are growing up, in a time where MP3's are the normal format for music listening. I want to challenge anyone reading this to take an hour out of your day, sit in a quiet room or mom and pop record store with a quality speaker system or high quality headphones (no white little spawn of satan ear pods) and LISTEN to music. Close your eyes, open your ears and take in the sonic perfection - just listen to the music. I will leave you with this...if you do not feel that there is a difference in quality, then I ask you to read this article where a 20 year old discovered the beautiful sound of a vinyl record for the first time. Let's take back the industry with a sonic revolution!
Recently I was in a talk with my wife and made the comment that I am finding something very alarming which is the lack of promotion amongst my friends and indie artists. When I talk with my friends or various musicians they all tell me how much they want to do the "music thing" for a living, how they get excited when they think about making music and how it is their passion or calling.
When I hear an artists talk like that I get excited and start dreaming with them about the present and future. After my talk, I will often start searching for my friend, the artist, band or musician online. Some I find on Soundcloud, others on Indaba or like places. I search for websites or YouTube channels...basically anything that will point me to the artists and their art. Then it all starts to hit me, many are not promoting themselves.
In the technological age there is no excuse or reason not to promote your music or craft. Soundcloud has given anyone the opportunity to share their music with the world and what I have found on there is just plain sad. Out of all the friends and artists I know (which are hundreds of people), only three had anything to share on Soundcloud. Almost all of them had an account but when I went to listen to their music ....birds tweeting and tumbleweed blowing around their site.
Of course there are other sites as well to promote your music on. Sites like YouTube, MySpace (yeah I know its so 2005 but still a place to point people to your music), Reverbnation, Indaba, Bandcamp and many more offer services so a person can promote their music. So the questions this...if you don't post your music, or promote yourself, how are venues or anyone else for that matter suppose to know who you are or what you are about? If I were running a venue and an artists didn't have anything "out there", I definitely wouldn't be having you play my venue.
So, here are a few tips for promoting your music grassroots style:
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.