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He's so cool, he only needs one name: Fett!
He's so cool, he only needs one name: Fett!

I was reluctant to do a Passenger Profile about Fett (yep, that’s his entire name!) because we’ve known each other for more years than either of us would care to admit and we’ve become close friends during that time. I was afraid I might not be objective in my “reporting.”

In the end, I decided to do the Profile with Fett because he can offer a unique perspective for a number of reasons:

In a nutshell, Fett should be an interesting interview subject because he can give a 360 degree view that could very well open other members’ eyes to perspectives they may not yet have. Let’s find out!

Your career was much different than most musicians. Why don’t you tell our readers what you used to do for a living before you started your company, Azalea Music?
I was a Software Architect for GE – about as far as you can get from being a record producer! I designed and implemented large software systems for international banking, global telecommunications (long before the Web!), and Electronic Document Interchange. Really musical stuff!

Wow, that sounds like some pretty heady and challenging work! What made you leave the security of the corporate world to go into something much less stable, but maybe more fulfilling?
I had always been seriously involved in music, since I was a kid growing up in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. In addition to being a musician and writing songs, I had always enjoyed tinkering with recording equipment. I was fascinated by anything that made or recorded sound. After I got out of college and began working for GE, I started messing around with my first multi-track recorder, a 4-track TASCAM 244 cassette unit. I originally did it so I could record all the harmony parts to songs I played. But, in pretty short order, I found that I enjoyed recording and producing other people’s music much more than my own. I got the “producer bug” really early! One of those people was my partner-in-crime-to-be, Nancy Moran. Working with Nancy and her music was the first time I thought seriously about making a career in music rather than the safe, secure, corporate world of software development. I pretty much knew that, one way or another, I was going to make a career as record producer. Looking back, it all happened pretty quickly: seven years after I bought that 4-track TASCAM recorder, Nancy and I had already formed the Azalea Music Group together, and were looking at how we could work our way out of our day jobs and into the music industry. Three years later, we made the super-serious career commitment and moved to Nashville.

But I have to mention here that through all of that lightning-fast transition and relocation to Nashville, I never actually quit my job at GE. In fact, I hung onto that day job until the absolute bitter end—basically until I had to quit because my music career had taken off. That ended up being another eight years after we moved to Nashville. So, unlike a lot of musicians, I never thought of my day job as the enemy; in fact, I always considered it my ally, and most importantly, as my “virtual venture capitalist.” That day job is what made it possible for me to buy my gear, build my studio, afford to tour with Nancy on my vacation days, and make decisions about my music career for the right reasons. Although my goal was always to leave, while I was there, I made that day job as advantageous to my music career as I possibly could.

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t make #1 records with relatively modest gear in a ‘home studio.’”

Looking back, I know that that attitude, combined with a slow, gradual, methodical approach is what made it possible for me to build a solid, sustainable music career. And just as importantly, spending so much time in the corporate world taught me a lot of vital skills that proved critical later: effective verbal and written communication, managing a team, working with diverse personalities, running a business, and rock-solid engineering discipline. Those skills have been a significant differentiator in my success in the music industry. I will always feel indebted to my career at GE for making what I have today possible. I wish more musicians felt that way about their day job; it would go a long way to helping with their longer-term success in music – not to mention making the job a lot more bearable as long as they have to be there!

I know that your studio is on the lower level of your home. Tell our readers what it’s like in terms of gear and space.
Well, that’s an interesting question... One of the things I pride myself on and consider a strength is that I have technically always been a “home studio owner.” I didn’t start my producing career sweeping floors at some big-name, commercial recording studio. I started it by recording my own music in an efficiency apartment. A fold-out desk, where I placed that TASCAM recorder, was the extent of my “studio space!” And through the years, I have worked at all kinds of studios, large and small, but my own studio has always been in my house. As a result, I have never lost touch with the “home studio mindset,” which might be why I resonate with so many of my clients. Basically, I’m just like them, and always have been.

Having said that, I’ve steadily grown and improved my “home studio” over the years. When we moved to Nashville, we intentionally bought a house to build a studio into from the ground up. We had nearly 3,000 square feet of completely open space to use on the lower level. So, today we have a roughly 2,000-square-foot facility with a very large control room, two large main recording rooms (one with high ceilings for the drums), a vocal booth, and two overflow recording rooms. We have the best of both worlds: a top-notch, finely-tuned, commercial recording facility, in the comfort of our own home. Basically, I’m spoiled rotten! My “commute” consists of getting out of bed and going downstairs. I feel for my professional colleagues who have to brave the Nashville rush-hour traffic and schlep to and from Music Row every day – thanks, but no thanks!

In terms of studio gear, people might be surprised to find out that I actually don’t have a lot of it. Because I do a lot of full-band tracking, I still use a recording console/controller (a Yamaha 02R96) recording to Cubase, but I’ve gotten rid of a lot more gear than I’ve acquired over the years. The thing that cured me of GAC – “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” – was working as the Technology Editor for Performing Songwriter magazine for seven years. The “big secret” I learned while working with all that gear (I physically got my hands on more than 300 pieces of gear over that time) and interviewing a lot of top-tier producers and engineers, is that great recordings – and great music production in general – are definitely NOT about the gear! It’s not about the quantity, the brand name – and definitely not about the price – of the gear.

Instead, it’s about two things: first, what you put in front of the gear (i.e., the material and the performance); and second, how you use the gear. Everything else is just gravy. I will take a really skilled recordist with a single mic and a two-track digital recorder over a room full of gear that looks like the Starship Enterprise, with someone who is clueless about how to use it any day.

All that to say, over the years, I have kept getting rid of more and more gear. Now, I focus on the front end (the mics, and to some extent, the preamps), the back end (the monitors) and a well-tuned acoustic space, and that’s about it. I have a mic closet of about 60 microphones, but to be honest, I use about a third of them 95 percent of the time, and most of those are relatively inexpensive, “work horse” models, like the Audio-Technica 4033, the Shure KSM44, SM58 and SM57 (of course!), Audix D series (for drums), EV RE20, Gauge ECM87, sE1a from sE Electronics, and a couple of indispensable MXL models, like the V69 ME tube condenser. The rest of them might look cool in the mic closet, but they’re hardly ever used!

Wow, I’m jealous!
On the rare occasions when I do need to use super-expensive or classic, vintage mics, I simply rent them for the day. What’s the point of spending ten grand on a vintage Neumann or Sony vocal condenser when I can rent it for fifty bucks a day? I’d rather spend that 10 grand on my own recording education (which I still invest in all the time), improving my business, quality marketing, or if on gear at all, then on really high-quality plug-ins that are going to radically improve my overall sound again and again. That’s the way to improve and grow a recording career, not wasting precious money on a ton of gear that you may or may not even end up using. I think that’s one of the most common mistakes I see among people trying to establish and maintain a music career: putting their money and effort into the wrong things – especially too much gear.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not “anti-gear” at all! I can drool over a flashy new $5,000 Taylor guitar just as much as the next guy, but I have to stop and ask myself, “do I REALLY need another guitar, or should I pay for some lessons so I can give a better performance, and make better recordings with the guitars I already own?” The answer is usually not to go for more gear.

Fett's Studio
Fett'�'s slightly messy studio at Azalea Music after a long day of recording.

Okay, enough soap-boxing! To round out my gear selection, I own a set of JBL LSR series self-tuning monitors that I absolutely love. The other “big investment” item that I have – because I do so much live, full-band tracking – is a really, really good-quality headphone monitoring system: the Hear Back PRO from Hear Technologies. Another one of those “big secrets” that I’ve learned over the years is just how critically important good headphone monitoring is, whether you’re performing solo and recording your own stuff one part a time, or recording a full band all at once. The better the performers can hear themselves, the better performance they’ll give you. And nowhere is that more important than with vocals.

The one other bit of “gear” that I’ll mention is my third-party plug-ins. While “stock” plug-ins that come free with all of today’s DAWs are getting better and better with every release, I really do believe that third-party, specialized plug-ins are worth the investment – as long as you’re willing to spend the time to learn to use them well. My two favorites are the UAD series from Universal Audio, and the PowerCore series from TC Electronic (sadly, no longer sold, but readily available on the used market; I’m also a huge proponent of buying used gear when it will do the job just as well as the brand-new version).

So, that’s about it, gear-wise. I can do absolutely everything I need to do with the relatively simple setup I have. To prove a point, I just got my first #1 album in Australia recently, and every track I recorded and mixed on that recorded was done with the setup I just described. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t make #1 records with relatively modest gear in a “home studio.”

What have your “typical” projects been like, as in the range or type of clients and how the work is split among producing, mixing, and engineering?
Well, it has definitely been an evolution, and it’s still evolving. I started out recording and producing people I knew personally, then people they knew and recommended me to. When I first moved to Nashville, to get my foot in the door, in addition to recording CDs for independent artists, I spent many years “in the trenches” recording song demos, which are the bread-and-butter of the Nashville songwriting industry. I did a ton of recording and producing work for NSAI (the Nashville Songwriters Association), and later, a ton of work for TAXI members (both song demos and artist recordings). Those were all recordings that I produced and managed entirely from start to finish, from arranging, charting, and hiring the musicians, to doing the recording and mixing. That business naturally evolved into my doing mixing (and eventually, mastering) of projects that other people recorded and sent to me. One of the huge benefits of living in Nashville and having access to arguably the most amazing concentration of studio players and singers in the world, is that I’ve been able to do a lot of work adding parts to other people’s recordings from all over the world. And with the Internet being what it is today, it’s so easy to send all the necessary, full-resolution files back and forth and communicate face-to-face with the client over Skype. It’s a piece of cake to add a pedal steel part played by a world-renowned Nashville player to a recording that was done in a bedroom in Sydney, Australia, or Frankfurt, Germany. I’ve done a ton of that kind of work, and a lot of it for TAXI members, over the years.

Nowadays, things are a little different. I still do a lot of that kind of work, but I’m very fortunate in that I can be a lot more selective about the projects that I take on. Basically, now I only work with people and music that I really like. It’s that simple. If we click on a personal level and I dig your music, then we can work together. Otherwise, there are plenty of other, very qualified folks who will be willing to work with you. Again, I’ve gotten very spoiled! And being “selective” doesn’t mean being “elitist.” I work with people at many levels, and with people the general public might not have heard of yet; what matters is the personal vibe and the music. If they’re good, we’re good to go.

I know what a great teacher you are based on the classes you’ve done at our convention, the TAXI Road Rally. How do you find the time to do both? When I worked in the studio, I barely saw my family!
Both my wife Nancy and I have extensive teaching backgrounds (again, thanks to our corporate jobs), and we’ve developed a number of extensive, video-based, online training courses, as well as private coaching and mentoring programs. Maybe it’s because we’re both doing it, that it feels like it doesn’t take time away from us being together.

Right now, for example, Nancy is using her many years of touring solo and as a member of The Four Bitchin’ Babes, is offering a great online course called Ultimate Booking and Touring, that teaches artists and bands how to book more, better-quality, higher-paying gigs and put together lucrative tours.

Nancy is a world-class expert on that stuff, and such an articulate teacher that I’m sure it’s got to be exceptionally good!
It really is, and while she was developing that, I was busy putting together several music-production-related online courses, the two most popular being my Recording Turbo-charge and Mixing Mastery.

If the courses are as good as your book, Fett’s Mixing Roadmap, they must be mind-blowing!
The courses go much more in-depth as you might imagine. And as you know from creating TAXI, The Road Rally, and TAXI TV, there’s no better feeling than helping others achieve their own goals by giving them the benefit or our experience (and having made all the mistakes ahead of them!).

But to get back to your question about having the time to do it all, I would say a typical year for me now is split 50/50 between music production (producing, recording, mixing, and mastering) and teaching/mentoring. For me, it’s the perfect balance, because I’m able to pass on my knowledge to others, while still keeping my own chops up.

Before you became a TAXI member yourself, you met a lot of our members at our annual convention, The TAXI Road Rally. You’ve picked up a lot of clients who are TAXI members as a result. Is there any commonality among them, or do they run the gamut from somewhat new and maybe not all that experienced to fairly professional?
I’ve been involved with a lot of professional music organizations and attended a lot of music conventions over the past 30 years, and I can say without hesitation that the music I’ve heard from TAXI members as a whole is way above average. As a point of illustration, each year I end up taking home about 50 CDs from members at the Road Rally. Most of them are really good, and consistently, about five of them – 10 percent – are absolutely outstanding, and can compete with anything that’s out there on the professional market, whether indie or major-label. Trust me, that is NOT the case with most other music organizations and conventions I’ve been involved with!

“I have a mic closet of about 60 microphones, but to be honest, I use about a third of them 95 percent of the time, and most of those are relatively inexpensive, ‘work horse’ models.”

I’m glad that came out of your mouth and not mine, but I agree. TAXI members, at all stages of their development seem to be really serious and committed. It shows in their music, no matter what level they’re at.
Absolutely, and that is exactly what I was going to identify as the second distinguishing characteristic among TAXI members; as a whole, they are what I call “serious, career-oriented music professionals.” They are either already making money with their music, or on their way to doing so. As a result, they are eager to learn, tend to be more flexible, and are willing to put in the time and effort that’s required to succeed.

Which leads me to the third distinguishing characteristic among TAXI members: they are positive people! They spend a lot less time whining about how the sky is falling and the music industry is going down the tubes, and more time actually creating, recording, and promoting their music. Again, this is NOT typical! After all the years I’ve worked with TAXI members and attended Road Rallies, I sometimes forget that, and then I run into one of those “typical music people” who spend all their time complaining and blaming other people for their lack of success, and it really hits me just how different the bulk of the TAXI membership is.

To be honest, I think part of the reason for all three of these common traits among TAXI members is that TAXI charges a quite reasonable fee for membership, and a modest fee for song submissions. It automatically weeds out a certain percentage of the population that you wouldn’t want to have in the equation anyway. TAXI members are serious to the extent that they are willing to lay down their hard-earned money to forward their career and be as good as they can be, and it really shows. Can you tell I’m a fan…?

Yeah, and I appreciate that, but I also worried that this interview could turn into a commercial and I didn’t want anybody to think that I picked you for this profile knowing what I would get. Actually, it was a TAXI member—if I remember correctly—who suggested that we do this interview. Speaking of which, let’s get back to it.

Don’t Miss Part 2 of Fett’s Passenger Profile in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!