Mike Willson is a self-taught musician, engineer, and producer based out of Orange County, CA. Mike owns and operates MAPS (Music and Arts Production Studio) in Huntington Beach, where he strives to bring the music community together and make amazing records. Mike is also the drummer in Big Monsta, Gardeners Logic, and Shape Pitaki. He has a degree from Cal State Long Beach in English Education, was a part of the Academy for Performing Arts at Huntington Beach High School, and still works closely with the program to develop young musicians in Orange County.
What advice do you have for someone looking to enter the world of music production?
MW: Figure out why you want to do it in the first place. If you aren’t in this business for the right reasons, then do everyone a favor and do something else instead. A producer needs to be able to give everything he or she has to a project and make sure its the best it can possibly be. Production can’t be about anything else but making good music.
How did you first get into music production?
MW: I was always in bands throughout high school, and eventually every band needs to record. It came time for our first legitimate recording experience, and my band at the time decided to go with an engineer/producer that we knew through our high school music program. Our singer’s dad was paying for a fully produced single, so we did countless hours of pre-production and recorded our own demos for the producer before the day of the session. We had one day in studio for tracking and an additional day for mixing. On the tracking day, I brought in my drum kit and was waiting for some direction on where to put it, how it should be mic’ed for recording, or any general guidance on how to operate inside a studio. After all, this was my first time even entering a real recording studio. We eventually got underway, and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. The producer was running around, moving mic’s, and messing with programming in the computer while I just sat there waiting to play my part. Eventually he just told me through the talkback to “punch in the verse here”, “Give me the fill in the chorus”, “Actually, switch that bridge to double time.” And then I was done. I can’t even recall if I actually played through the entire song once. He just had me doing punches. When I went into the control room to listen back my drum parts sounded entirely different, and I knew there was no way that those sounds came off of my drum kit. The producer explained that he was using samples from the latest Paramore record to replace my drum sounds. That’s when I knew my song wasn’t going to turn out the way I wished it would have. The mix ended up being far from anything I would ever want my music to sound like, and it actually led to me leaving that band. The singer ended up paying close to $2,500 for one song. Again, it was one day of tracking and one day of mixing for something I didn’t even like. That terrible first experience in studio led to me buying some basic recording gear, and then recording and producing my next band. The following year we put out an EP that I recorded in my parent’s backyard. I ended up opening MAPS that same year and have been doing this ever since with the goal of never putting anyone through a disappointing recording experience.
Does being a musician lend any specific advantages to the field of production/engineering?
MW: Absolutely! It really helps with communicating and understanding what the artists are trying to accomplish musically, and it helps in working with them to get all of their ideas out and recorded the way they want to hear them. Being a musician helps a lot with the business side as well. I know what it’s like to fund your own record, and I never want an artist’s budget concerns to prevent good music from getting properly recorded and produced. I always want my clients to understand that I’m in three bands; I’m playing local shows, and I’m trying to get our music out there as well. I know what it’s like out there, and I want to help bands put out the record they want.
What advice you can offer to first time recording artists; what’s something you wish more people knew before starting a recording project?
MW: It may sound ridiculous, but be able to play your instrument. I love working with people to get the best possible performance, but if things like timing, pitch, tone, or basic music theory are an issue, we all become more worried about getting an acceptable take rather than a memorable one. Solid pre-production always helps bands before coming into the studio. Everybody’s different; some people need extensive rehearsal and some people need one-on-one pre-production with the producer to go through a list of ideas before getting into the studio. Either way, knowing what you want to do in the studio and making sure you are capable of doing it is extremely important. There’s nothing worse than an artist expecting their producer to magically make their music sound amazing.
What’s one of your craziest studio experiences?
MW: I once rented out my studio to a friend for a short film he was directing. It was about a musician dealing with an insane music producer, so it was fitting to shoot it in a recording studio. I was sitting in the lounge most of the day making sure nothing blew up and what not, and then later I traded shifts with my business partner, Ian, and started heading home. Within 5 minutes of leaving, I got a phone call that something had caught fire in the control room. I obviously freaked out and drove straight back to the studio. It turns out a gel on one of the video lights caught fire and started burning the ceiling of our control room. In a panic, the director grabbed the flaming gel with his bare hands and looked at everybody saying, “It’s ok! I got it!” His hands were burned pretty badly and we sent him home. After all was said and done, the ceiling had a little char spot, but nothing else was damaged. That could have ended terribly, and I’m not sure how I would have handled my studio going down in flames.
What do you find unique about working in the OC music scene?
MW: I grew up in Orange County and know it will always be a huge part of my life. After seeing a bit of what the world has to offer, I’ve realized that Orange County really is a special place. It is tight knit and there is a relatively small group of people making records around here. There’s plenty of opportunity, but it is no comparison to LA. That being said, anybody looking to do music in Orange County is forced to find everybody else involved in the music scene and start developing relationships. These relationships are what I love about working out of OC. On any given day I am bound to run into a musician, engineer, producer, promoter, etc. It is generally a really supportive music community and I love being apart of that. It’s so great to be surrounded by all these talented people. I can always just make a quick phone call and get an amazing team together to make a record with people that I love working with. It’s the quality of people in the Orange County music scene that really gives me an advantage when it comes to making records the right way.
Follow Mike Willson and MAPS @mapshb