Mike Emmerich: sound, ready, action! Nashville's young sound engineer / music producer on the rise.
FM: Hi Mike. Thanks for taking some time away from your mixing board to sit down with me.
Mike: The pleasure is all mine. I appreciate being considered for an interview in Fretboard Magazine.
FM: Let's start with a simple question, where did you grow up?
Mike: I grew up in New York City, and park slope Brooklyn. It was during a time when MySpace was the way to find new music, and DIY shows were in full swing.
FM: Several music producers I know got their start in the industry at a young age as a musician or playing in a band, live performing, etc. Were you interested in music as a kid?
Mike: My interest, for music, developed into a more serious obsession after a year of guitar lessons with Jason Sprinzen. He had an incredible amount of patience and positivity I was craving as a kid, and once I started learning how to play songs on my own, I started getting into bands and writing my own songs as well. My parents always had music around the house, and a lot of my musical taste came from the artists they showed me as I progressed. They nurtured my interest in music, and are still nurturing it with new music they find every once-in -a-while.
FM: When did you first think about becoming a music producer?
Mike: I never did. It was something I kind of fell into. The foundation of my work stems from learning how to play a number of different instruments, and that happened pretty circumstantially as well. I started with guitar, but there were too many guitarists in the high school jazz band. They needed a drummer. So, I learned how to play because I wanted to be a part of that group. I picked up basics of piano during college for my theory classes and started recording people because no one else was doing it, and I thought the talent at school should be showcased. Next thing I knew, I was recording and writing songs with friends, filling in full songs with the instruments they wanted but couldn’t play themselves
FM: How did you start the ball rolling to become a music producer and what gave you the motivation to stay with it? Because it’s a tough profession to have success at.
Mike: When I was a senior in college, I recorded a song with my friend Juliette at my house that was well -received on YouTube. I was in the process of learning how to record and mix music using Reaper, and together we recorded a song called “Keep You.” After it gained popularity, Juliette asked me to produce two more songs with my housemate, Dave Goodheart, which were also received extremely well on the internet. The third song, “Hero,” ended up winning the "Song Door International Songwriting Competition." Keep in mind, this was only the third song I had ever worked on, and the second song Dave had ever had published. We were amazed, and wanted to keep chasing this success. We have put an incredible amount of time into learning how to progress and optimize our skills. With the help of Juliette, and her boyfriend, Jesse, (who commissioned our work), Dave and I have been able to evolve into the producers we are today.
FM: With all of the music producers in the world, what made you think that you were still going to be successful in this field?
Mike: Making smart decisions and setting reasonable expectations. My priority is to keep learning and asking questions, rather than to fuel pressure to be successful. Success comes to those who work for the right reasons. There is so much I don’t know, so many perspectives on mixing techniques, songwriting, and performance I haven’t experienced yet, and I know if I keep my ears open, I’ll be able to add to the foundation I have set for myself. I’m in the right town for it. All I need to do is be a sponge. And of course, I’ll continue to learn from the internet. That is where I learned what I know now.
FM: Did you have any doubts in your mind that you weren’t going to be successful?
Mike: My idea of success might be a bit different than most. I have accomplished more than I thought I would. To have songs that have been in the iTunes Top 10 for the genre singer/songwriter, to have hundreds of thousands, even millions of views on songs I produced blows my mind. But I still have so much more I am working towards. I am generally always working towards something. I’m a firm believer that you can accomplish nearly anything with the right mental attitude, it just might take a little longer for some people than others because of the resources and experiences they have. I have no doubt that I will be successful in whatever it is I care about with that kind of perspective.
FM: When you’ve had doubts, what did you do to prevent yourself from giving up?
Mike: The best thing that I believe a person can do when faced with doubt or fear is to talk to others to understand it. I’ve been fortunate to have the support of my friends and family to help me understand what makes sense. Whether or not music is my full-time financial support or not doesn’t matter. Music means an incredible amount to me, and it is something I will never give up. If you really love music, if it’s who you are, then doing it full-time doesn’t matter. I don’t care about the fame people chase, I care about making something meaningful, that can tell a story and evoke feelings people have forgotten about on their day to day. I’ll never give that up, and I don’t think I’ll ever have to.
FM: So, when you first decided to get into the producing aspect of music, where did you start? At home with Garage Band?
Mike: I began the recording myself in high school with my laptop mic and some apple ear pods. I would record acoustic instrumentals and occasionally some songs with lyrics using Garage Band, before it was what I call Logic Lite. Once I got into college, I was introduced to Reaper, and my curiosity of the mixing process exploded. I started watching a lot of YouTube videos on what compressors were, how to EQ reverb, what bussing and automation could accomplish. I couldn’t get enough of it. I got into Pro Tools because of the tutorials I was watching from the Recording Revolution. But, I became frustrated with a lot of the functions that I felt were lacking from that DAW recently. I love Pro Tools for editing, but Logic Pro has become my favorite software for creating music. It has sped up my creative workflow tenfold, and hasn’t unexpectedly quit on me yet, so I am excited to continue to optimize my workflow with it.
FM: Roughly, how long did it take you to start excelling with your career?
Mike: That is a hard question! It took me a while to start monetizing my work, and I’ve only been working for pay for about 3 years. I started small, getting paid about 100 dollars for a fully produced song. Once Dave and I got our home studio set up, we started as low as 15 dollars an hour. We were still learning, still figuring out what made sense. As we continue to develop our skills and services, we continue to modify the costs
FM: How did you promote yourself, to build contacts and/or clients?
Mike: At the moment, I have a few key clients that have allowed me to make this work a career. And I have no problem saying I am a very fortunate person because of it. The more people you meet, the more you put yourself out there, person to person, the more opportunities arise. I have tried things like Fiverr, which can be a bit more impersonal. I built clients by recording my friends and making friends. We have social media advertising, we have people that know us through YouTube. Nothing has been more effective for me than making friends with the people you want to record, and then offering them something fair that lets them work with you. I’m sure there are more effective ways to get clients on a mass scale, but that method has been working really well for us.
FM: Tell us about the most memorable recording session you’ve had with a client.
Mike: Every session is different, most of the time there is a lot to laugh about. We make a lot of dumb puns and jokes in the studio, especially when we are listening to the same vocal over and over again. But the most memorable experience that sticks out to me now is a live session I did in our house with Paul Raymond. We had a five- piece band set up in our live room and it was the first time I had done a live recording in that space. These were for his first album, and it came out great. I was really proud of how it sounded, and it was the first time I realized we could use the space we had for an endeavor like that.
FM: That's great! When did you realize, “Yeah, I can do this…I’m going to do this and I’m going to be awesome at this?”
MIke: Never. There hasn’t really been an epiphany, it’s been a lot more natural. I just want to make some great tunes, whether I’m great at it or not is up to the listener.
FM: I've heard that your father is a huge fan of music, and is one of your biggest supporters. Did he guide you toward this profession or is this something you decided you wanted to do on your own?
Mike: My dad has been a supporter of my interests for all my life. He has tried to guide me towards jobs that have reliable income as well, but he has always been supportive of me in my passions and in the arts. I feel very lucky and thankful that he has so much confidence in my ability to succeed, and I’m grateful to know he will support me in what I think makes sense for myself. I remember telling him I wanted to try writing music in a basement for a couple of months after I graduated college and laid out my financial plan for it. He respected it and even helped me move down here to help me settle in. I made this decision on my own, but he has been supporting me in what I think for as long as I know. Even when we disagree, he will respect what I think after I express it.
FM: That is a gift, to have a father who is that way. Like any profession, there’s always going to be that day when all hell breaks loose, when things go wrong, deadlines aren’t met. Tell me about your worst day on the job. What went wrong?
Mike: I started producing full-time in September, but before that, I was working as a Server at the 1808 Grille in midtown Nashville. It is now called West End, but when it was the 1808 Grille, I was working 30 hours a week and producing songs for an internet series called "My Virtual Escape". The deadlines were two weeks per song, and I was pulling an all-nighter to finish writing and mixing a Juliette Reilly song called “Astronaut.” It turned out they were able to push the deadline, but I was running so ragged, I could barely function that week. Take care of yourself before anything else, if you aren’t healthy, your mix decisions are going to be awful too. I ended up hating the mix and remixing it in January. It sounds a lot better with some proper sleep and perspective.
FM: What is the funniest or craziest thing you can think of that’s happened while working with a client? Fist fight? Sword fights with mic stands? Microphone to the head?
Mike: Oh, I wish I had a good story for you. Everything we find funny in the studio is generally only funny to us. Mostly inappropriate puns and references to TV shows like Rick and Morty and the movie Kung Fury. We are all actually five years old.
FM: Ha, sounds fun. If there was one word you could use to explain your experience so far while working as a music producer, what would it be?
Mike: Chair. There is a lot of sitting that happens when mixing and mastering work. I have learned how important it is to take breaks, realize when your ears are getting tired and how it is important to take care of yourself. Take a walk! Drink some water! Don’t get so glued to the computer that you forget to eat.
FM: In your opinion, what is the best thing about being a music producer?
Mike: Finishing a mix, forgetting about it for weeks after it’s published, and then listening to it. It’s so nice to hear your finished product for the first time after a while. Also working hard on a mix and showing it to the client for the first time. Nothing feels better than the reaction of an artist hearing their song for the first time in full arrangement.
FM: On the flip side, what is the most challenging thing as a producer?
Mike: For me, it has been remembering to stand up and take a walk. I get so involved and almost obsessed with the work I am doing that I forget to take care of things outside of mixing. I am a young producer in the game right now, there are veterans who have an amazing structure to how they work, where they are able to accomplish so much and still make sure they exercise and eat properly. I want to be like that. But the hardest part is different for everyone. In production, sometimes it's receiving tracks that really need to be worked on. I know people who would refuse the takes I receive and ask it to be recorded again, but generally, for the client’s sake, I go into the work and do the tedious editing that no mixing engineer would ever want to do. It’s important to be positive and supportive of the musicians you work with. As a producer, I want to be a facilitator.
FM: Maintaining a successful career takes a lot of work and commitment. How much time do you dedicate towards your work?
Mike: I was working close to 12 hours everyday for the last 6 months. I don’t recommend binge work; balance is the key. If you want to do something well, be patient. Give yourself the time to learn and understand your craft. I love what I do, but I am putting 8 hours a day limits on my work for the next couple of projects
FM: It happens to all of us now and then. So, here we go...professionally, have you ever embarrassed yourself? If so, what did you do to embarrass yourself and how did you overcome the incident?
Mike: I don’t find myself really shaming myself for my musical mistakes too much, I haven’t really embarrassed myself in the studio. Outside of the studio, I have several experiences that are hilarious to my friends. One time when I was working at the restaurant, we had a private dinner for Carrie Underwood. I was working as a server assistant. I spilled water all over the seat next to her and froze for a bit. I was relieved I didn’t spill it on her, but that definitely didn’t feel great.
FM: That’s a funny story! What do you do in your free time when you have some?
Mike: Working on that whole free time thing. I love practicing yoga and going to acupuncture. I have been working on skateboarding at a park nearby as well. My goal is to start traveling more and eating new and different types of food. I love food.
FM: There are times in a career when life isn’t going your way, how do you keep your mind on your work without losing focus?
Mike: I’m fortunate that when I’m working, I hyper focus on it. I’ll be so absorbed in my work that people can walk into the control room and I won’t hear them. Dave scares me way too often that way. Outside of work, I spend a lot of time talking about how I feel and what I’m think about with friends and family. I find understanding those things and learning from negative experiences makes everything feel a lot easier.
FM: Who helps you deal with deadlines? Anyone?
Mike: I haven’t missed a deadline yet, but I have pulled more all-nighters than I care to mention. This has forced me to reevaluate my needs and what I can accomplish in certain amounts of time. Sometimes you must outsource work to get the big picture done. I do so much on my own, in writing, recording as a musician, editing, audio treatment for audio recorded on location, mixing, mastering, it’s a lot. Getting a team of people that specialize in these roles seems like a smart way to optimize performance and take on more clients.
FM: What goals did you have set before you started your career?
Mike: First, to learn how to do what I’m doing now. Second, to find a way to monetize my passion. I’m doing well right now, but it will always be a work in progress.
FM: What did you have to sacrifice to make your business happen? (friends, family, relationships, hobbies, etc)
Mike: A lot of time. I began very intense learning, where I wanted to only focus on sound and how to use the tools I had for mixing music. I regret that method immensely. I learned an incredible amount about mixing, but I lost touch with things of much greater importance; my interest in people, my ability to take care of my health, my curiosity for things outside of the mechanical knowledge of how to shape sound. When you take care of yourself and live a life connecting with others, you can take that into the art you create. Open yourself up to people and experiences, you’ll encounter more opportunities than when you hide away alone
FM: What type of music do you enjoy producing the most?
Mike: I very easily and quickly think of arrangements for indie, folk, instrumental, and acoustic music. The library of music I have developed in my head stems from listening to bands like Explosions in the Sky, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, The Dodos, Animal Collective, The Tallest Man On Earth, Local Natives, The Beatles, Lily Konigsberg, Palm, Fiasco, and Luke Lalonde. I also listen to a bunch of the Metropole Orkest, Snarky Puppy, Jacob Collier, and Vulfpeck. But one thing I find important is to open your ears to all genres, learn what elements of those genres excite listeners, and incorporate those ideas into new styles and sounds.
FM: Where do you see the music industry transition to? I’ve been around long enough to see classic rock move to disco, disco move to 80’s glam rock, grunge to rap, rap to hip hop, etc. What trend do you see?
Mike: It’s a small industry at the top, but with the internet, so many people are decentralizing the power that the music industry once held. People have the ability to create careers as content creators through resources like Patron and YouTube. Style-wise, there are so many niches, I don’t know if any one niche will dominate and unite people in the way people used to be united around a single sound. I feel like disco would be really funny to dominate again, so I’m going to go with that, but I miss the New York punk/indie scene I got to experience growing up. I’d love to experience that again.
FM: Tell me about your studio. Where is it located? Equipment? What do you use?
Mike: I run a home studio with David Goodheart in Nashville, TN called Two Tree Studios. We do mostly in the box work. We just discovered Sonarworks Reference 4, a software that flattens out the eq in your headphones, so you can use them for mixing. I'm very excited about this. We bought a pair of calibrated Seinheiser 650 HDs for an even more accurate frequency representation, and it will help me mix when I'm away from the studio. I'll still be checking those mixes on monitors and other speakers at the end of my process, but I feel a lot more comfortable doing the brunt work in cans now.
FM: Where do most of your clients come from?
Mike: We have been working locally with friends through word of mouth, and we have also acquired several of our clients online from different states through services like Fiverr and Facebook.
FM: What projects are you currently working on?
Mike: Currently I am working on an eleven -song album with a musician named Andrew Kaiser. He has been playing bass for Rachel Lipsky for sometime and is starting to work more seriously on his solo work. I just finished writing songs with Juliette Reilly, you can catch her music on iTunes - paired with Jesse Ridgeway's web series called "My Virtual Escape" on his new free app called Storyfire. I’m really proud of how those songs turned out, more to come soon!
FM: Where do you want to be five years from now?
Mike: I want to keep living smart and being mindful. Doesn’t matter where or what I’m doing, as long as I’m doing it right. I know that music will be a part of it, for sure. I have some plans right now to start a mobile recording studio in a converted Truck/Bus/RV so I can work with musicians who don’t have those kind of resources available to them. I’m excited to get that project underway.
FM: Plug away. Where can a singer / songwriter, musician find you? Bring it!
FM: Mike, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck with everything that you have planned, and I wish you nothing but continued success.
Mike: Thank you Fretboard Magazine.
Craig Marks, Editor