Award-winning composer, producer, songwriter, and session musician Michael Carey is accustomed to wearing many hats. When he’s not composing music for high-profile commercial, television, and film clients including Disney, CBS, and Coca-Cola, he’s writing, producing, mixing, and playing on platinum albums spanning multiple genres. Carey took the time to chat with us about his successful and diverse career path, his tools of the trade, where he thinks the industry is headed, and advice for up-and-coming music producers and composers.
S&P: Tell us about how you launched your career. How did your early experience as a session guitarist lead to the diverse work that you do today?
Michael Carey (MC): I started playing guitar as a kid. By the time I was 14 I was playing in high school bands, and by 15 and 16 I was playing in clubs with guys who were 10 or 15 years older than me. Once I started doing that, everything sort of worked for me, and I never really considered another direction for myself.
By the time I was 18 I was in a band that was signed to Mercury Records, which was a viable label at the time, and we made an album. We toured, we did some interesting shows, and it was yet another great experience. But by the time I was 21, that band ultimately didn’t get any traction, and I was playing in cover bands. I was looking around and seeing what the life of a gun-for-hire musician looked like a few years down the horizon. I saw that there were some guys who were incredibly talented, but they were really reliant upon the decisions of people who hired them to work or not. And the picture doesn’t look real pretty when you see somebody who’s getting well into middle age playing in a cover band five nights a week. That sort of deglamorized that whole thing for me, and I realized I really needed to start writing and generating content. So I made some changes and started doing more of that with my own band.
In the process of gigging and promoting ourselves, we worked with some interesting people – some great producers, engineers, and people who were interested in developing us. I had the opportunity to work with a couple of really great old-school British engineers — a guy named Chris Brunt who had worked with bands like Level 42 and Earth, Wind & Fire, and a lot of the jazz fusion guys like Stanley Clarke and Dennis MacKay, a legendary guy who worked with a lot of artists whose careers I really respected at the time.
I fell in love with the whole process of being in the studio, and it was incredible to go in and work with these guys and watch how sounds that I was accustomed to hearing live in the room or on stage could be captured and maximized for the listener’s ear. It was incredibly satisfying when it was your own stuff that was coming back at you sounding just like a huge freaking record, and I wanted to learn how to do that.
I never went to formal engineering or recording school or anything like that. It was more through the process of doing those projects – watching, learning, listening – ultimately buying gear and just learning how to use it. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of consulting, a lot of calling my friends who were more skilled than I was at the time and asking, “How do you do this?” – but it was all desire-driven. I think it was the pursuit of learning how to do stuff that I was mesmerized by, and there was so much impact that you could make just with the sound of a record. So that was what got me started in terms of branching out from being a player to somebody who is interested in recording, producing, and mixing.
S&P: How did you begin composing music for commercials, film, and television?
MC: On the composing side, that was an absolute sort of serendipitous thing. There is a brilliant photographer named Moshe Brakha who has done loads of Rolling Stone covers and lots of fashion stuff and was heavily into the music scene. He was doing some work with our band at the time. He shot photos and videos and was starting to direct commercials. He is a very artistically disruptive guy, and he would do things that really made people pay attention. During the first job that he shot for an ad agency in New York, he heard the music they had put up against his picture he just freaked, and not in a good way. I received a phone call in the middle of the night saying “Michael, this is Moshe! This music they put up against my picture is shit, so I need some music with some sex do it.” That was his expression for something that had some soul and energy. So my brother, who was in the band with me, and I flew out to New York. We ended up camping out in an apartment for a couple of months and just cranking out a ton of commercials on tiny little Tascam Portastudios with a bunch of our gear. It was really primitive stuff, but we made it work and we got paid, and it was way better than anything that I had experienced before in terms of compensation.
It really was something that we fell into. Before too long we had a reel and we were doing work with other agencies. I didn’t see myself as a commercial guy, so it felt like a really cool day job to me. I continued doing band stuff and record stuff, but when commercials came we really hit the ground running. It sort of owns your life until you hit that air date, so it was like production boot camp in a way. That was a primary focus for several years and allowed me to acquire some good gear, have a studio of my own, and do some interesting things.
That branched into TV work and subsequently some film work. Every year I would make sure to do some album-related projects because that’s to a great extent where my heart still was and remains. So I stayed active, playing sessions while writing songs with artists. As time went by and as my production chops improved, every year or two I would produce an indie album or an album for an international artist, and it was always very rewarding. That’s the one thing about short-form work which I actually appreciate more now than I did at the time. You’re crafting a whole story and compressing it into typically just 30 seconds. So literally fractions of seconds count in terms of the choices you make, and you don’t have time to build or do gradual transitions the way you would in traditional song structure.
I developed a few incredibly loyal clients commercially, and one of them was the parent corporation of Outback Steakhouse. I became their go-to guy for over a decade, and it was a really incredible relationship. Every two years we would do a complete rebranding of their TV and radio spots and so on. It’s funny because commercial work like “Let’s Go Outback Tonight” gets heard by more people than a lot of songs that do well on the radio –because you can’t escape it!
In 2008 when the crash happened, there was a big shakeup in the industry and the whole dynamic of music for commercials changed in a lot of ways. At that time, I was ready to make a much harder push to get into the thick of album work. At that point, it was no secret that the record industry had its challenges as well, but it had always been a goal of mine to make a mark on that end of things and to at least do some credible, visible work. This was a good time to do it, so I threw myself into that and it has started to pay off as well.
S&P: You’re able to transition seamlessly between writing, composing, mixing, and playing music. How did you develop this versatility and become comfortable wearing so many hats?
MC: The first word that comes to mind is necessity – mixed with a certain degree of curiosity and the desire to get good at more than one thing, but necessity is at the core of it. By the time I was doing music for commercials, what I found is that quite often you’re under these insane deadlines and you don’t always have time to hire somebody. Sometimes you just need that part now or you need this mix now and so it’s on you to really close the gap and use what’s in front of you at that moment to execute your vision. I would say that’s a big part of how I’ve learned to work, mix, and record.
Every day there’s something that needs to get done right now, and the more you’ve had a chance to work with other really capable people, the better sense you have of how to approach it. If you know how to play one instrument well, it’s much easier to pick up another instrument even if the physicality of that second instrument is very different. The same thing applies to mixing and recording. You start to learn techniques and tricks that are reliable and proven, and then you learn when to bend the rules.
To me, it doesn’t feel like I’m changing hats. It just feels like I’m moving from one part of the process to the next necessary part that needs to happen to get closer to completion. Whether it’s a song, score, or commercial, I start off with a clear picture of how I want it to make me feel. Included within that is the sound, the kind of musical attitude, and the nature of the execution. Then everything else is just backing into that desired end result. With that kind of mental approach, it becomes very clear what needs to happen next and what tool you need to pull out of your toolset.
S&P: What gear do you rely on and how do you set up your workflow?
MC: When I first started doing this, we were still working on big two-inch analog tape machines. I had the granddaddy of those machines: a sixteen track Stephens. I was told it was the machine that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was recorded on, which is kind of mythical. They were astoundingly good-sounding machines and had fewer tracks but a bigger footprint, which allowed you to get incredible bass and drums.
I was a very early adopter of Pro Tools and at that point was doing a lot of music for picture. As much as I loved the sound of tape and had grown up working with it, the advantages of working with a non-linear format were just immediately apparent, especially for music for picture. I was getting revised cuts sometimes multiple times a day. If your stuff was recorded to tape, you’d have to jump through a lot of hoops to tailor it to the new cut if your timing changed at all. There are certain things that need to hit with a certain frame of picture and if that changes, your whole composition needs to be altered. When you can make that change very quickly on a non-linear format like Pro Tools or another digital audio workstation, it speeds up your workflow exponentially. I took to it very quickly and it was this kind of incredible rush of creativity because I sort of play it like an instrument. I know I can very quickly close the gap between the vision in my head and what comes out of the speakers. Especially now, since plug-ins and analog to digital converters have gotten so much smoother. There used to be this argument of analog versus digital, and I don’t even think about that anymore.
The other thing that makes a big difference for me is that everything on the front end is very warm, fat, round, and vintage or boutique. I use great mics and mic pres in several different flavors, like Neves and Tridents. They each have a slightly different character and they found their place for me. What I try and do as much as possible is create ‘set it and forget it’ chains, which really speeds up creativity. So if I’m recording bass I know exactly what that chain is – it’s already set up and ready to go. I play guitar on a lot of other projects and so I’ve got several dedicated mic pre chains that come into certain channels in Pro Tools and they are ready to bring up. It’s almost as fast as using a plug-in, but for me, it’s far more satisfying because you’re getting the real thing. You can feel the additional weight and the girth, and the fact that you’re catching molecules of air bumping into each other with a really good mic going through really good iron on the way in. The signal is fatter and juicier, and if you can achieve that coming in, that makes your job much easier because then you’re not trying to warm things up as much. It’s already sounding nice and satisfying, so you can be more creative instead of trying to solve problems or make something not sound sterile. Once I’m in I’ve been really enjoying a lot of the stuff that Steven Slate has been making. I rely heavily on those plug-ins for my mixes for any time I’m programming drones. Some other companies that are great as well are PSP, Sound Toys, and a few others. Those guys are getting a lot of love in my rigs these days.
S&P: What industry trends have you noticed in terms of composing for commercials, film, and TV?
MC: Generally speaking, music was once this central high-priority pillar of contemporary culture. It was something that received a lot of attention and was given a great deal of importance in terms of how the people who created it were compensated. It really has become much more of a readily-available commodity. The bar of entry to make something that sounds, if not brilliant, at least pretty good has been lowered because of all the great technology that allows us to work faster and make better sounding stuff. But it also creates a glut of content. In terms of people who consume music, it creates much more of a buyer’s market than a seller’s market. So it makes it harder to monetize, and when you have anything that’s infinitely duplicatable it’s harder to charge for it.
That applies to music for picture as well. Some years ago, if you were working with a high-profile ad agency you would almost never see them using pre-existing production music. While some of it probably sounded good, it was pretty uninspiring overall. It was sort of an anathema if you were a creative director or an agency producer. You just don’t do that. You hire a composer to make something special for your picture because it was going to be the next jewel on the agency reel and you wanted it to be brilliant. Music was always the last thing in the production chain and there was a lot of importance placed on it. Often if they felt a spot was falling short in some other area, the music was going to save it. It was high-pressure work but also really well-compensated.
As budgets have gotten tighter and cost-consciousness has become much more prevalent, there seems to be a mindset that is more cost and efficiency driven. It’s hard to argue with the economics of using production music. It can be edited, tailored, and trimmed to fit, so there seems to be less resistance to it. It’s a buyer’s market, there’s a certain convenience factor, and production music is getting better overall. There are still those TV spots where you get a score that’s originally composed to the picture, but it’s not as prevalent as it used to be.
I’m also increasingly seeing a more crowdsourced approach. Music houses put out the call to a bunch of freelancers, and they get them to send in tracks for free or for very little money. Then they inundate the client with a lot of options and sometimes it works out great. It’s a very different model and the dynamics are different. It poses a certain set of challenges and composers are competing in a much larger field.
S&P: Do you have any advice for aspiring music producers and composers in these changing times?
MC: Understand the landscape in which you’re operating. Know who your competition is and know what you need to do to stand out. Get good with your people skills. Be able to communicate and listen effectively to better understand your clients. If they aren’t effectively articulating what they want, take your cues from other things. Perhaps ask for a reference of something with a sound or a feeling that they like. That approach has been helpful to me when I’m trying to home in on exactly what a client wants.
Hone your skills. It seems obvious, but if it is what you’re going to do, get really good at it. Go beyond the skills that you need for your specific job description and incorporate them into your toolset. Even if you know somebody at the end of the line is going to be doing a gorgeous mix, it still really helps if you have basic solid recording and mixing chops. You’ll be sending first passes to your clients, so it really helps if you know how to make something sound good without having to rely on somebody else.
Learn more about Michael Carey: michaelcarey.com