JV: What were some of the greatest challenges of turning out one amazing library after another?
Mike: Thanks for the use of the adjective “amazing.” Sometimes it was most amazing to us that we were still alive. The amount of detail work that goes into a library at the end is frightening. You monitor the tracks on at least seven or eight different systems, including car and home set-ups. You freak out about the sound of the bass, the transients, the balance of material that you are including.
The biggest challenge is to be fresh. Every creator has a core style that occurs more frequently than any other in his or her work. When you are successful, the temptation is to do everything in the style that you have made popular. At Brown Bag, we were always cognizant of a desire for evolution. While you have to give clients the type of material that they want the most, you also have to anticipate tomorrow. It is part compositional, part technique. One of the big battles is always between synthesized-sounding material and “live” material. I must say that I could play you pieces where you would swear that the lead string part is done live and the backing tracks are sampled when it’s just the other way around.
JV: What was the most enjoyable part of the job over the past 20 years?
Mike: Two things perpetuated the enjoyment of this endeavor for so long. First, it was the passion of the clients about using the libraries. They would tell me about cuts that I couldn’t even remember, since by then we were already on to the next library. I was forever amused by their descriptions of cuts. Sometimes it felt like a movie director who creates something without deeper meaning. Then the critics find aspects beyond his intent. It retrospectively legitimizes your work. Plus, many of our clients are smarter than I’ll ever be. They can teach you almost anything.
The other side is in the studio. When you work so closely with people creatively everyday, you develop a single mindset. Bob and I have virtually identical creative minds. What one of us is thinking the other is articulating. The people we’ve worked with have learned our idiosyncrasies and usually anticipate what crazy path we will want to take. At its best, it’s an ESP laboratory. Standing in a room with some of the best guitar players, like Randy California, Bob Croft and Neale Heywood is a privilege. When you get a chance to write parts for great string players or mouth harpists or sax players and they make it better than you ever imagined, it’s a pure adrenaline rush.
JV: What would you like to say to the radio producers of the world?
Mike: Above all else, to thine own self and your listeners, be true. It isn’t about shareholder value or clients or management. They can’t guide you or motivate you to a higher level of creativity. In this business, you have to do that for yourself.
Don’t fall prey to the being cool mentality, where substance is sacrificed for technique. Great writing, multiple textures, varied approaches to production will always serve the listeners better. When you have tweaked them, made something memorable and gotten your message across, you are cool. All the great mixing and tricks in the world won’t make that same impact.
JV: What would you say to radio programmers of the world?
Mike: I’m not going to make any friends here, but they say the truth will set you free. In their defense, programmers are overburdened, under the thumb of corporate managers and besieged in many ways. The result is that radio programming is in an abyss. There hasn’t been a new format in more than a decade. The music being played isn’t identified. Innovation has flat-lined. Now we have the “family values” era of radio. Listeners never asked for it. Nor did they ask for endless commercials or totally predictable promotions.
The effect on imaging production is huge. It all trickles down to the small room at the end of the hall where one person grinds out 90% of the station’s creativity everyday. Most programmers want quantity. How many pieces you do, how often the liners and promos turn over is the way job performance is measured. Programmers have given up the fight for creative license, better technology and respect for people in production.
When I listen to most radio stations in America today, I am disheartened. Radio has fallen from a cultural leader to something you play in your car if you don’t have a CD you want to hear. Producers are not at fault. Programmers and their myriad bosses are.
To programmers, there is only one clear mandate. If you’re not proud of what’s on the air, you’re not doing anyone a favor.
JV: What does the future hold for Mike and Bob?
Mike: Right now, we’re hard at work installing our new studios. We have two Yamaha DM2000 consoles cascaded together with 192 inputs, full dynamics on every channel and 96k sampling throughout. The outboard gear is beyond belief. Now it’s time to find out what we can do in a time frame beyond 30 seconds. We’ve been writing songs and plotting to blow the minds of unsuspecting youth and many of our colleagues who probably don’t realize our true proclivities.
We will continue to consult Brown Bag thru January 15 of next year. Whether and how we’ll return to the world of libraries remains to be seen. But we’d like to take this opportunity to thank you and our clients for the ride of a lifetime. There is no comparable thrill in this business to hearing your sounds and music used in an incredible promo or sweeper. There is no satisfaction greater than working with the best creative talent broadcasting has to offer.