Mike Pepe is a writer, producer and mix engineer based in LA at the legendary Barefoot Studios. Known for production and mix work with Taking Back Sunday, Silverstein, Emarosa, Sundressed, Hearts Like Lions and writing and various work with members of Queens of The Stone Age, Haim, Holychild, Sugar Ray, My Chemical Romance and more, Mike has produced and mixed several Billboard charted songs and is a leading producer in the rock genre.
Mike created a pack of 50 Wet Reverberator settings he uses daily on his clients’ mixes and productions that you can download for free at our download page.
We sat down with Mike to discuss starting a career producing music, his thoughts on recording guitar and the ways the Wet Reverberator plug-in has enhanced his productions and mixes.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part 1: Introducing Mike Pepe
Part 2: Mike's Thoughts On Mixing
What was your entry into production? Was it mixing first or playing in bands?
I’ll give you the shortest version of a long story. Basically it started with me playing in bands like most producers do, you know? Played in a punk band when i was 14-15 years old, we’d do Ramones covers, Blink-182 covers, Sex Pistols, I was super into the punk scene, Rancid, Circle Jerks. I still do love that stuff for that matter, but when I was 14-15 years old that stuff was so fun to play, picking up a guitar I was instantly good at that stuff, you know? Like, “Oh my god, I can play ‘Hey Ho, Let’s Go’ and I’ve been playing guitar for 2 weeks and I can play it almost as good as the Ramones." That also kinda tricked me into maybe thinking I was better at guitar than I actually was. Just because you can play a Ramones record all the way through does not mean you’re good at guitar.
So we started as a cover band and we would start to write our own songs that were basically Ramones or Blink-182 ripoffs, they were using the same progression but trying out our own arrangements on them. So we started writing our own songs and decided eventually we should make our own CDs. This was in the late 90s, well early 2000s I guess. We decided we should record some of our ideas. We went to a studio when I was 15, maybe 16 and honestly just had the worst experience with the guy we hired. He just was not very supportive, definitely didn’t give a shit, that’s for sure. Having said that, looking back we were awful, we were just not a good band, and this guy is probably like, “I don’t want to be doing this shit.” Looking back, I get it, but also I don’t, because if someone hires you to do something and you set how much you charge, you should do that to the best of your ability, because if you agree to do something you just do it the right way you know? Anyway, that was such a negative experience that I said, “Well fuck that, I could do that better.” You know what I mean? That was my cocky 16 year old thought process. So I got an 8 track recorder, a Fostex digital recorder and some microphones. I want to say I got the 8 track for Christmas and the microphones with Christmas money and bought a bunch of stuff and our drummer had this great garage. I built this makeshift vocal booth out from all this wooden shit that his dad had in the garage i was 15 or 16 years old I had just looked at pictures online of what recording studios looked like. We would put our amps in there and I had this 8 track with headphones and we just made our CD, we recorded 4 or 5 songs and we made a CD. I had done it all because I knew how to work a machine. We would play shows with our friends in high school for our friends and stuff and we had a CD to sell and our friends thought it was so cool that we had a CD. So people would ask me how we did that and I would say “Well we made that”, and our friends would have me record their bands in their garages. They’d pay me like $50, but it was really good experience and it helped me form what I did and didn’t like.
I made a bunch of really shitty records for bands in high school and then I kinda found out that’s what a record producer did, they sat in a room with a band, picked out a bunch of gear and helped the band sound better than they maybe did before they walked in, and made records for people. When I found out that that was something people did for a living and not just for fun, I became really enamored with that idea. I went to college for production and engineering. I graduated and I really say those schools give you enough tools to be dangerous. You walk out and you think, “I’ve been recording bands in college for the last few years, I’m ready to go”, not understanding that’s a very safe space for learning and education. So I got an internship at a recording studio at 20 years old and I couldn’t drink yet, which was a thing because the artists weren’t allowed to give me alcohol when I was in the studio with them. I slept on the couch of the studio for probably like a year and a half, I was in and out of the studio. Finally got a break by getting to know one the artists, his name was Anthony Hamilton, he’s still a recording artist now. He gave me my first real break, not by being a producer but just doing edits, but that transitioned me from being there for free and getting coffee to actually being in the control room and having to do things for the artist. You find out quickly how much you don’t know by being in a room with major label artists and a major producer that’s like Grammy winning. That really humbles you, or at least, hopefully humbles you anyway, it humbled me. From there I started to build my own client base and I started working on my own and that was in 2010 so it’s basically been a decade of that, not working for anyone but myself.
The reason I always go into detail about that story when someone asks me is so often people when interviewed say, well you know I went to school, and then I was an intern, and then I was doing a project and then I won a Grammy, and I would always get frustrated as a kid because they wouldn’t tell you the shit they went through like when I was literally sleeping on a couch and at night I found where the keys to the vending machine were and I would go in to the vending machine and get M&Ms and ramen noodles without paying for it because I had no money and that was my dinner for the night. People never go into that, that shit sucked and it was really hard, it wasn’t fun, I did a lot of shitty stuff, I got coffees forever, one time I went to get food for an artist and got into a car accident and didn’t have any way to drive at that point so for 2 weeks we could only get food from places I could walk to, but that was the process that led me to being able to produce records on my own for a decade now.
It makes you realize that doing this for a living alone is a reward. The fact that I’m able to work for myself and make records that I like, that alone is a success. Everyone is so enamored with the famous people and that’s fun, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a grammy some day, but you have to be real about it, a lot of people never make it out of the “I ate ramen for a year and it was just too much so I stopped.” There are a lot of producers who work for themselves and win a Grammy and continue to work for themselves and that’s cool, I’ve had multiple songs on the Billboard charts and that’s been cool, but that’s another moment and I get to move on and make other records for other bands.
What are you doing to stay sane in the middle of COVID?
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to mix records in the middle of the pandemic even if I can’t have artists in the studio. 100% I have been learning to make my own pizza which is something I’ve wanted to learn for a long time and being in LA it’s very hard to find good pizza. It’s been really tough and incredibly unhealthy so I’ve had to scale that back a bit. I was making pizza every 3 days to keep tweaking my recipe and also eating tons of pizza every 3 days, which was just not good. It’s been a whole thing I’ve ordered different pans from Amazon, different pizza pans,
I’ve got different pizza racks for the oven, different olive oil, it’s been a thing. Unfortunately, I can’t do something half-assed, for a while it was like this is what I’m doing every day. I have a hard time doing anything halfway. I have a recipe book where I’m writing down all my findings, and my girlfriend laughed at me and said “this literally looks like your session notes.”
Part 2: Mike's Thoughts On Mixing
Part 3: In Depth With the Plug-in