Michael Vail Blum on Working with Artists and What He Looks for in Apprentices
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We recently sat down with producer and engineer Michael Vail Blum to talk music making and working with artists. We figured he’d have some quality advice for us considering he’s worked with the greats including: Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Roger Daltrey and has sold over 100 million records to date. And, he’s also the guy to discover Kelly Clarkson before American Idol.
Do you ever have a hard time transitioning from the technical side of the work to the creative?
“For me personally, I look at engineering, electrical engineering, I look at mathematics, I look at those figures as creative things. Most people think of technical as just doing dry and boring, but actually…it’s problem solving. And music, many times, or writing songs is problem solving. Making a good record is problem solving, and putting all the pieces together kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. So I look at those things very similarly. And I’ve always been a creative person.”
How do you help artists acclimate to working with you in the studio?
“There’s always that get-to-know-each-other period. That’s really important, actually, because a lot of it is learning how to communicate well with your artist and get to know where they’re coming from, and what their songs are about, and why they wrote it and what motivated them. So you can cue into that and be sensitive to that. Also try to understand why other people sometimes might not get what they’re trying to communicate in their songs. So that’s what I try to do, and I think that it’s really important because then the artist understands that you’re really on their team. There’s so many producer/engineers and programmers and writers that just want to live through another artist and try to put their own stamp on them. That’s not my personal style. My personal style is to make the best out of what the artist can be, and that’s why I have so many varied styles from Madonna to jazz to rock.”
What qualities do you look for in potential externs?
“I love it when students are really there to put in the extra time, to do something that they want to learn, and it makes me want to show them stuff…If they’re just here putting in time so they can walk away or if they just want to meet a famous artist, that’s kind of hollow for me. I really want the guy who wants to stay with me until 3am, working on a mix because they really love it, even if they’re not mixing, even if they’re just assisting or just helping. And many times I’ll just get up and say, ‘Hey, you finish it.’ And then they can really try their skills at it. I’ve got a couple of guys that went through the program, actually, that are here at the studio now, and they’re great and they’re dedicated. And that’s how I was when I started. I’d sleep on the floor just to be in the control room, and I think that that’s an essential part of it because you want to learn it…My students, I tell them right off the bat, ‘Hey, if you want to put in the hours and you want to come in everyday, you want to stay until midnight, you can do that. It’s up to you how much you get out of it.’ I wish I had that kind of program growing up. I had to force my way in somehow.”
Why he chooses to mentor for Recording Connection.
“I think it’s a great program…I actually love teaching people that want to know what it’s taken me thirty years to learn. And I think other mentors probably feel the same way…It’s a great starting point to really sort of get an understanding of what to do and how to do it. But after that, then it’s important to focus on developing your own style, your own career. You can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen, because it doesn’t unless you do it.”