Jack of all trades and master of none definitely doesn’t apply to Mike Cave, who is a multi-Platinum award-winning record producer and mixer, and owner of The Loft Studios in Liverpool.
Mike didn’t waste any time when it came to forging his career in the music industry. He began by playing guitar, keyboard and drums in a variety of bands on the Liverpool circuit from the age of 13. By the age of 15 he was engineering sessions for his own band, The Sunlites, as well as others in the area.
He went on to study Music Theory at the London College of Music, and found his band in a major record deal with Mercury, allowing him to spend two years in the studio with the likes of Jeremy Wheatley, Mike Neilsen, Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby. Mike said: “At that point, I didn't have a clue about any of any of it. I was heavily into music, but I didn't really know about how to construct records, and what producers did. So that was a real insight, to just watch and learn.”
Switching Sides of the desk
Mike started working at The Pink Museum as a tea boy, when he wasn’t on tour. By the time the band split up he was was pestering Liverpoolʼs legendary Parr Street Studios, which was the biggest studio outside London in terms of their facilities - they had a Neve and an SSL and big clients coming in and out. Mike said: “I was checking in with them probably once a week for about a year. It's a difficult balance between pestering people and just reminding them that you're still there, and you still want to work. I was basically pitching to go in as an assistant and make tea. It's a bit old school nowadays, but that was the way in. It took a while - I make a great cup of tea now!”
A rewarding in-house engineer stint at Parr Street followed, where Mike worked with industry heavyweights such as Ken Nelson (Coldplay, Badly Drawn Boy, Gomez), Jeremy Wheatley (Space, Sugababes, Mel C), and Brendan Lynch (Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene, Cast).
Sometimes, you’ve got to Go your own way
After The Charlatans asked Mike to record with them in their studio, Mike left Parr Street and became freelance. As an early adopter of Pro Tools, Mike found himself working in a number of big studios as a Pro Tools programmer, at a time when a lot of engineers and producers were still working on tape and didn’t really want to learn to use the software. Mike said: “What started happening is that we'd be in a big studio and I'd have a load of drum edits to do, which would tie up the studio for X amount of time. Meanwhile, we were paying a big studio bill to do edits. When I set up The Loft it was very much supposed to be an editing suite, where we could do all our editing, component stuff, and overdubs in a more cost-effective space. Then we started doing so much work that I thought ‘I'm going to need some more equipment in here to deal with this’. And then before we knew it, we had started building a commercial studio.”
Over the course of his career, Mike has worked with artists as diverse as Professor Green, JP Cooper, The Coral, Riton, Elvis Costello, KRS-One, Lewis Capaldi, CamelPhat, Noisettes, Tinchy Stryder, James Vincent McMorrow, Digitalism, Fatboy Slim, John Martyn, Yuksek, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Rufus Wainwright, The Charlatans, The Zutons, and Echo & The Bunnymen, on many award-winning and record breaking releases.
His latest accolade comes from his work mixing and mastering Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, the breakthrough debut album by Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi. The record was released on 17 May 2019 through Virgin EMI Records, and peaked at No. 1 in the UK and Ireland. Not only is it the fastest selling album of the year, it also outsold all of the top 10 combined in both countries. It reached Gold status a week after its release, making it the best-selling British newcomer in over eight years. Mike said: “It's always nice to be involved in projects that do well. It validates the hard work that I've put in; everyone deserves a pat on the back when they work hard. But equally, there's lots of other projects that I've been involved with that haven't sold as well, that I'm just as proud of.”
He was very humble in his assessment of why the album has performed so well. He said: “I think some voices have just got so much character and unique flavour, that they are instantly recognizable. With Lewis, you don't want to mess with the delivery of what he does. You don't need to start pulling loads of studio tricks on it as everything's there, it just needs to be translated in the right way. The key thing with an artist like that is just don't overthink it. Let it be its own thing, and then just present it in a way that's natural.”
We asked Mike what he thought of Lewis’ widely documented album marketing campaign and entertaining online personality. He said: “He's a character, isn't he? I wasn't really party to that early on, because I was just getting sent multitracks from the management. My first introduction to Lewis was just hearing his voice - that was what got my attention, not his character or anything beyond that. What I find interesting is that I was watching some footage of a gig the other week and it's like a stand-up comedy show. You almost forget what a voice he's got. And then all of a sudden, he stops telling jokes and just launches into a song and you’re like ‘whoa’. I think that's maybe one of the things that's got people’s attention; they can't put the two things together.”
But for Mike, it’s not all about winning awards or making money. Ultimately, it boils down to the music, and creating the best record possible each time. He’s humble, he’s hard-working, and he’s happy to help SAE students looking to land their first studio assistant gig with the following advice. He may have refused to tell us the secret to making the perfect cup of tea, but there’s enough here to help you forge a successful career in the music industry, so we’ll let him off.
The First Impression really matters
Mike can get between 10 and 20 emails a week, from students saying ‘can I come and shadow you so I can learn from you and further my career?’. Their emails are ‘me-me-me’, detailing only how they would benefit from Mike’s industry experience. Mike said: “What I would suggest to students is if they're going to approach producers or studios, they have to be able to add value, because we're all very busy. Every now and again I'll get an email from someone saying ‘I'd love to come in and help you out, I think I can really take some pressure off you, I make a great cup of tea, and I'm happy to run errands for you’. That type of thing is what appeals to me.”
Mike is happy to impart his wisdom to assistants or interns once they are in the door, but there’s a time and a place to ask questions. He said: “Quite often an assistant comes in and starts asking questions when we are trying to concentrate on what we're doing. That's no good to me, especially when I'm mixing; I need to be in my own little zone. But what I can do, is during the downtime - the lunches, and the beers after work - I can share information. I'm more than happy to share my skills with them at the appropriate times. But it's got to be a two way relationship, it's got to be a balance.”
Furthermore, you need to remember you are a professional, rather than a fan. Mike spends half of his time working with clients that he has had for many, many years. He knows how they work and what they expect when they come and work with him. Mike said: “If I've got another person in the room with me such as an assistant or an intern, I've got to be 100% certain that they're not going to either embarrass me or hold the session up. I've got to be confident that they're going to be cool in front of artists, particularly established artists. Don't get me wrong, if I got a call from Stevie Wonder tomorrow and he said, ‘Can you come in?’ I'd be a bit giddy, but once we walked into the studio, I would be me. Because, big artists don't want starstruck. They want someone that they can be on a level with, and that can work alongside them.”
"BIG ARTISTS DON'T WANT STARSTRUCK. THEY WANT SOMEONE THAT THEY CAN BE ON A LEVEL WITH, AND THAT CAN WORK ALONGSIDE THEM."
- MIKE CAVE, AWARD-WINNING PRODUCER/MIXER
In the past, Mike has seen assistants ask ‘can I get a selfie?’, only to be sacked on the spot. Whilst he’s never had to sack anyone personally thanks to his good character judgment, he emphasises the importance of respecting the fact that for an artist, the studio is their safe place.
Shiny Happy People skills are more important than technical skills
This leads onto the next bit of advice Mike has for aspiring engineers or producers, which is that people skills are more important than your ability to use the equipment in the studio. Mike said: “If you sit at a Neve, or an SSL or any piece of kit for long enough, you'll work it out. But it doesn't matter how much of a wizard you are on that piece of equipment, if you can't get on with people, then no one's going to want to work with you.”
Nor do you have to be a tech fanatic to work in a studio. Mike is definitely not a music tech geek; for him, it’s all about the music as a finished product and how it makes him feel. That’s not to say the tech isn’t important, though. He said: “All I know is that I'll find a tool that does something great, and I'll use it. If I was a plumber, I’d turn up to a job with a toolbox full of tools that I know are going make my life easier and help me do a great job. That's sort of how I see it, I just surround myself with tools that I know help my workflow and will help me deliver something great.”
When it comes to knowing your way around the tech and learning to work effectively, practice makes perfect. You need to put in the hours for it to become second nature. Mike said: “It's a bit like driving a car, in that with lots of practice you can forget about the mechanics of it, and just drive. You can start thinking creatively again, and ignore that constant battle between the left brain, and right brain, the technical battling against the creative. If you can master the technical stuff and start thinking about music again, that's where you want to be.”
Be versatile, don’t just do what makes you Comfortable
When you’re practicising in the studio, Mike’s advice is to get as many bands in as possible, even if they aren’t genres you are particularly interested in. When you start in the music industry, you're not going to get the opportunity to choose what genre you're working in and be fussy unless you're very, very lucky. Mike said: “I know some people that have very successful careers just doing one genre, and they do very, very well. But for me, that wouldn't work, I think it would be too intense. I like to be able to jump between genres; I recently mixed a guitar band and then I've jumped straight onto an urban rapper thing. It’s exciting to be able to just jump from one thing to another, and it keeps it interesting.”
We asked Mike about the projects that have challenged him the most creatively, and he said that all projects should challenge you - if they aren’t, then you are probably not maximising their potential. Mike said: “You might be working with an artist that you've never met before, where you often get a very limited amount of time to get into their head to find out what they want from the project. That's a skill in itself, trying to suss people out very quickly and get on the right page with them. I think every project is a challenge in its own little way, and you can't just apply a blanket plan across every artist. Just because something worked with one artist doesn't mean it's going to work with another one. You really need to let a project tell you what it needs and approach every job on its own merits instead of thinking, ‘Okay, this is what I usually do’. That's the right strategy.”
The Knowledge is useful - even if it doesn’t seem like it when you’re learning it
As well as getting experience working in genres outside of your comfort zone, Mike recommends paying attention in school, college or university, because you never know when a skill will come in handy. Mike studied Music Theory at the London College of Music. He said: “At the time, I didn't think I'd use a lot of the skills e.g. reading music. But when I started working at Parr Street we were recording orchestras and following scores and then I was really grateful because at least I knew where I was supposed to be dropping an orchestra in on the tape. Even if you think that you're not going to need the skills, just absorb it all, as you never know when they will be useful.”
There is a lot of different technology and software out there, and it would be impossible to master it all. One question Mike frequently gets asked is ‘Pro Tools or Logic?’. He said: “It depends on your career goals. If you're looking to go into the industry as a freelance engineer, then Pro Tools all day long, because that's what you're going to be faced with in most commercial studios. Whereas, if you're an artist and a writer, then Logic would be my recommendation purely because I think it's a better writing tool. But having said that, it's all about what comes out the speakers and what you're delivering. So if you're on Logic, and you're delivering incredible mixes, then who cares? You just need to be efficient, and you need to deliver things on time. This means you need to structure your working day.”
I Didn’t Know My Own Strengths (and weaknesses)
When it comes to making music as an artist, Mike’s advice is to think hard about what you need. Each artist varies, one musician may benefit from learning some basic engineering skills. Mike said: “SAE is perfect for that, for an artist to spend a year or two just getting their head around the equipment and working out how to capture a performance properly.” However, the technological aspects of creating a record aren’t for everyone. Mike added: “Some artists become so absorbed with the technical side that they're actually compromising their art. If that's you, then maybe you should be teaming up with an engineer, or producer so that you can be free to actually write and create without that technical distraction.”
"EVERYTHING I DO IS ALWAYS WITH A VIEW TOWARDS THE PROJECT BEING THE BEST RECORD I'VE EVER MADE."
- MIKE CAVE, AWARD-WINNING PRODUCER/MIXER
Not only is it important to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, it’s also vital to remember that the clients you work with reflect on you. Mike warns that if you get involved in the wrong projects and put your name to them, then they can be detrimental to your career. He recommends working with the idea that ‘You’re only as good as your last job’ in mind. Mike said: “Everything I do is always with a view towards the project being the best record I've ever made. That's not always going to happen. But if you approach it that way, then that tends to keep the quality up.”
Wise words indeed. We’d like to thank Mike for taking the time to speak to us, and wish him the best of luck with his next project.