Mentor Michael Cancel on Staying Agile as an Engineer and Business Owner
With six engineers working at Mixed Wave Labs, Michael Cancel’s recording studio, located in Chicago, IL, the hardworking audio engineer is busy doing what he loves—making music and teaching tomorrow’s audio engineers and producers the skills they need to get their music careers off on the right track.
But Michael’s professional life wasn’t always so rewarding. There was a time when he had to think long and hard about the direction he wanted to go in life and make a plan that worked for him. Our interview with Michael below, offers a window into the ways in which this enterprising Recording Connection grad, now mentor, is both creative and practical in his mindset, as a studio owner and exacting audio engineer.
RRFC: SO WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN AUDIO ENGINEERING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Michael: I was doing open mics and stage shows by the time I was 15, 16. I got signed to an independent record label when I was 19, and I stayed in it long enough to produce one album project. The independent record label fell apart by the time I was 21, and then I went on hiatus and swore off music for about a solid 10 years. I came back to it … [and] knowing how to rap and knowing a little bit about beatmaking, I had to be more career oriented, ‘What would be a safety net for me?’…
In my mind, today you can be a hot rapper and tomorrow someone newer or younger will come out and take the spotlight. And I feel like it’s the same way for beatmaking. So those two careers, not to take anything away from them, they’re very hard and very competitive, whereas engineering, all rappers and beatmakers always need to go to an engineer to clean up their work. So there will always be a job for engineers. And I said, ‘Okay, that sounds more secure to me. I’m going to pursue it.’
Having to scrub all through YouTube and all through Google, I learned as much as I could. When I started understanding this reoccurring or repeating theme of how this super elite circle of folks only get in by this kind of networking, I said, ‘Okay, I need to get certified, and I think this is how I want to get my approach.’
RRFC: JOE ‘DANTE’ DELFINO WAS YOUR MENTOR. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR TIME WITH HIM?
Michael: Upon meeting Joe, we were sort of both, I guess, the right fit in the sense that he was sort of semi-impressed that I was already self-educated… I tried my best right off the bat to clear out all the basics so that I could take advantage of the extras. So we really gelled well in that sense.
…It’s definitely Joe’s fault that I’ve gotten addicted to analog gear… One of the things he was impressed by is I have a software that does ear training, and I would put myself through this ear training 20 minutes before jumping into any sessions at all, to help just level me out. I still practice that religiously every day.
So he was able to use that as a launch pad to go even further…show me what processing would sound like with analog gear…Whenever sound goes through any kind of processor that you’re using, there’s a lot of detail, a lot of menial things that change the gathering of all of that. And for me, having built my studio up and opening up my own business and picking and choosing my arsenal for whatever processors I like to use, I now understand how to listen for that detail and how to use tools for what they are versus just marketing gimmicks and saying, ‘Look what I have.’
RRFC: WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE RECORDING CONNECTION THAT STOOD OUT TO YOU AS A STUDENT?
Michael: Honestly, it was the externship, like the idea of getting in and getting hands-on. I had two buddies of mine who went to two separate schools, and they told me their experience of what it was like to be in a classroom with classmates and a professor giving lectures. When I compared it to my experience when I was active as a student, it was nothing the same. I was getting in there every day and getting hands-on experience with all the gear…
RRFC: HOW DOES KEEPING AN INNOVATIVE MINDSET HELP YOU MAKE GOOD CHOICES FOR YOURSELF AS BOTH AN ENGINEER AND A BUSINESS OWNER?
Michael: So I don’t pick a side when it comes to analog or digital, big house production or home studios, or remote engineers or established engineers. What I do is I ask myself, ‘Where is music headed and what’s becoming old? What old models still work? What’s dying out?’ That’s where the real innovative space comes in. You can take time to either ask yourself questions to create a new space that solves problems or you can roll with the punches…Having a vantage point of seeing what’s happening, that’s just a beautiful thing.
RRFC: SO YOU’RE BUSY WITH A STUDIO THAT’S OPEN 24/7, WHY DO YOU CHOOSE TO TEACH STUDENTS AS A RECORDING CONNECTION MENTOR?
Michael: Something about the saying, ‘If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for the day, but if you teach him how to fish, he can eat for life.’… As a teacher I can help change the face of music by raising up a bunch of students to take a different outlook and be courageous in how they approach music. I want to have that impact.
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