10 Questions With: Michael Whittaker
(AbbiR | Posted 2010-03-31)
Michael Whittaker is a unique hybrid of his diverse upbringing. Growing up in Los Angeles, Michael grew up listening to both funk and R&B while his father would encourage him in Jazz and classical music. Playing in church since he was in his teens, Michael, now 38, has molded his own identifiable sound. His current album Modern World melds his virtuosic piano playing and elements of jazz, world music, and soul. ContemporaryJazz.com said “Modern World” is the highlight of the year, and actually added the record to their “top all time” contemporary jazz albums!
Michael’s experience in many styles, as well as his work as a producer, has earned him the top spot with numerous artists. Michael has been a sideman and produced for noted artists such as Paulina Rubio, Wayman Tisdale, Warren Hill, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Kimmel Live house band, Jeff Golub, Midi Aibair, Eric Marienthal, Brenda Russel, Paul Jackson Jr., Everette Harp, Cake, Boyd Tinsley from the Dave Mathews Band, Alex Acuna, Abe Laboriel, Gary Meek, Keith Carlock, Brandon Fields, Cecilia Noel, Marco Mendoza, Andrew Gouche, Don Grusin, Keith Carlock and many others.
As a film scoring student from UCLA, Michael’s classical training and knowledge of orchestration allowed him to be a staff composer for Fox for over 6 years. Michael has composed the score for over 300 television episodes and TV movies. Currently, Michael is independently scoring and producing for companies like Disney, Sony, NBC and Lions Gate Films. Michael has won many awards such as the Telly award for his score to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, a Bank of America Musical Achievement award, International Association of Jazz Educators player excellence award, and the Clarence Brown Memorial scholarship for jazz.
1) What are you currently working on? Anything you're really excited about?
I wear a lot of hats these days. I wish my focus was a bit narrower, but being able to do a few things well helps keep a steadier stream of income. Currently, I am very exited about my new record which will be called, “Southern Exposure.” It's basically a blazing jazz, funk, and fusion excursion featuring some of Nashville’s top players (known and unknown) including Keith Carlock and Marcus Finnie on drums, Adam Nitti and Calvin Turner on bass, Jeff Coffin on Sax, and some incredible guitarists including Tom Hemby and Adam Agati. Best of all, it will be sold to raise money to build wells to bring fresh drinking water to people in Africa who die every day from contaminated water. You will be able to pre order it at my website (Michaelwhittaker.net) in the next week or so. Other than that, I have been in the film and television scoring business for a long time and find most of my time orchestrating and scoring television shows and films. Oh yeah, and I find myself spending much too much time on facebook!
2) Tell us about your current rig.
My Live rig is constantly evolving and changes with the kind of music I am playing. For larger gigs and tours, I use a Yamaha Motif and Korg M3 midied to a rack that has a Muse Receptor 2 (for plugin instruments such as Ivory and Omnisphere) and a Nord Rack for B3 sounds. Also on larger tours and where I don’t have to lift anything, I will ask for a real B3, Rhodes, or Wurlitzer. For Live sequencing, I have used both Logic and Digital Performer, although I just got a copy of Ableton Live… can’t wait to get into it!
My studio rig is a whole other animal. Since I do so much midi orchestration, I use 4 giga studios and Vstack midied to 5 computers to emulate the orchestra with several libraries including the East West stuff, Vienna and my personal samples. I am also very fond of Spectrasonics Omnisphere, it is instant cool factor. However, technology can never beat the real deal, so I have a real B3, Fender Rhodes, and grand piano that I use to track on records. I am a bit of a synth junkie with my collection of synthesizers at about 16 now. Everything has a thing it does really well. I also vowed never to sell stuff, because you always regret it later. My main computer is a MAC tower 8 core.
3) Any special techniques or adjustments with your gear that you've developed throughout your career?
With all my keyboards, I really get into programming my own sounds. The stock sounds on most stuff today to me can be greatly improved. With the receptor and all the available soft synth plugins, the sound we can create today is staggering! Whatever gear you use make it your own. There is no one that sounds like you, so I would spend a lot of time creating your own voice, getting creative.
4) How do you adapt your gear/rig to fit the style of music or artist that you're playing for?
I think coming up with your palette of sounds for the artist you are working with is really important. Go into rehearsals with your sounds dialed in. If I am just playing Rhodes sounds, I will bring a REAL Rhodes, because nothing sounds like it. If I have to play a ton of different patches, I will program patch changes into my receptor rig and control them with Midi so everything is mapped out. It is pretty slick with the Korg M3 because all the midi sliders can be pre assigned to sounds in my receptor. That means I may have strings on slider one, Rhodes on two, B3 on 3, etc…They are there instantly and can be turned up and down or brought in and out at will.
5) Is there any specific piece of equipment that you would recommend every keyboard player to have?
I think gear is so personal to the art you are trying to make. Imogen Heap always blows me away with her unusual gear choices. It's what gives her a unique “voice.” It is why any time I hear Marcus Miller, I just know it’s him, in his sound. There are too many great players who can all play the same part as you. It is about what you are going to bring to the music to make it fresh.
6) What are some things that you do differently in a live setting versus in the studio? (In terms of gear AND playing.)
I think when I play live, I try and capture the moment. I prefer it when the moments are different every night. It is pretty boring when you have to recreate note for note the record and the artist won’t allow any creativity. So when people hire me, I would hope they are getting passion, and a unique expression every time. In the studio, often you are painting another person's picture and are more limited to what colors you can paint with sort of speak. As a session player, I try and show up with my best sounds ready to go. I will almost never use a built in string sound on a keyboard. It sounds so plastic. With the receptor, I have a massive array of samples that sound amazingly real that are ready to go.
7) You attended LA NAMM this January... Was there anything there that you were excited to try or that caught your ear while you were there?
I am really exited about Ableton Live. The idea of instant creativity with loops and video is very exiting. For example, you can trigger a video clip when you get to the bridge with a midi pad. Ableton looks to be the platform for me to be more spontaneous. I am also a music director for the Oasis Church in Nashville, TN and love the idea of being able to trigger live video, loops and massive sounds to create an atmosphere during praise and worship. Or maybe you are playing with an artist and want the video to stutter to the beat of a song, it can all be done on the fly… It's all getting so creative and going to another level.
8) You've been on the road with quite a few artists. Any advice that you could give our readers about your gear on the road? (What to do/not to do, what to bring/not to bring, what works/doesn't work, etc.)
I would say if they are renting backline, make sure your rig is readily available by most backline places. If you need an obscure synth, bring yours, because most places wont have what you need. You always need a plan B. With a laptop or Receptor controlling your sounds, you don’t have these issues as much. On a large tour, they are carrying your rig everywhere so it is less of an issue. Also, if you are running tracks from a sequencer on your computer, bring some serious sound dampening material like Auralex foam to put under it. The subwoofer can affect your hard drive, and as I learned on tour with Paulina Rubio. The dancers jumping off of your rig can crash the whole show! Also, I will run a back up computer locked with SMPTE timecode in case the main rig goes down.
9) What lessons about life/the business do you find most important?
I think for me, music doesn’t define me. What I do to help others, and the difference I make in my family and community is more important. Otherwise, you wake up every day comparing yourself to someone else, when God made you a unique and amazing person. It doesn’t take the most amazing chops in the world to help feed the homeless, or give some time to help a friend who is hurting.
With that said, I have had the good fortune of doing well financially in music. I think is because I pursue music like a business person. I am currently writing a book called “Uncommon Sense for Creative People.” Here are a few things that have made a huge difference for me; maybe you might find them useful.
1. Do everything with excellence, and then do it better. You will be in demand.
2. Be on time, every time.
3. Money grows on the tree of relationships.
4. Don’t ask people to help YOUR vision, offer to work on theirs. When they see your ability, they will help your vision.
5. What time do you have to wake up in the morning to be successful?
6. Most Nobel Prize winners feel they are just scratching the surface of what they’ve learned… don’t ever stop learnin or think you’ve arrived.
7. Buy the best equipment you can the first time. (Without your credit card.)
8. Don’t practice/study what you are naturally good at. Don’t just jam all day on music you already know!
9. Once you have small success, duplicate it…again and again.
10. How many demos did you mail this week? Give yourself eight uninterrupted hours a day (if your income isn’t where you want it to be) to work on “your business.”
For more information about Michael Whittaker, please visit:
Abbi Roth is a touring and session bass player, singer, and songwriter
based in Nashville, TN. She has played for, recorded, and toured with
numerous acts. Most recently, she was on tour with Bo Bice from
American Idol this past summer, playing bass and singing background
vocals. Currently, Abbi also writes for Bass Frontiers Magazine. She
is a proud endorser of EBS bass equipment, Dean Markeley strings, and
Gayle Winde Design guitar straps.