Behind almost every successful musician is a dedicated arranger and producer -- someone who does everything from deciding the individual instrumental parts that will comprise the song, ensuring that the song is well-harmonized, coaching the musicians in-studio, and generally overseeing the creative process behind putting a song out into the world.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Marti Amado, an arranger and producer with over 25 years of experience under her belt -- creating music for TV, film, and advertising, as well as working with countless songwriters and performers to translate their musical ideas into the finished product.
In this insightful interview, Marti talks about her early musical life, the internship that opened her eyes to her dream job, the process of building her own studio, and the lessons she’s learned from a long, rich career of bringing musicians’ dreams to life. Aspiring producers, lean in -- Marti shares the skills that you’ll need to succeed as a producer in the industry -- giving the lowdown on marketing yourself, the importance of ear training, and the dogged determination needed to make it in an ever-changing, dynamic field.
Q: Hi Marti, and welcome to Musical U! Before we dive into talking about your career and how you’ve gotten to where you are, let’s start from the beginning -- how did you begin with music?
Both my parents were musical so there was always a lot of music in my house growing up. My mom has a master’s degree in choral conducting and led choirs, and her father was a trumpet player and big band leader in the 30s and 40s. My dad played piano by ear and sang bass in the choir. I started classical piano lessons at the age of 7.
I was a very high-anxiety kid and teen, but when I was playing the piano, it took me to this other place where everything made sense and felt right. I felt spiritual connection -- I just didn’t know that’s what it was at the time!
As a young teen, I joined a local singing group -- an off-shoot of Up With People. That’s when I discovered that I could play along with their songs on the records after hearing them once, without ever having seen the charts. That group also was the first place I felt social camaraderie and I loved it.
Q: Sounds like a love-at-first-sight experience! When and how did you go from simply playing, to songwriting and composition?
I wrote my first song when I was 13 years old. I wrote it on the piano, singing the melody and lyrics. Not coincidentally, it was in the same key and had many of the same harmonic structures as a Brahms Intermezzo in A Major I was learning to play and had fallen in love with:
Because I played classical music and was a pretty good technical pianist and had a lot of ear training and theory, I was able to come up with fairly intricate things harmonically on the piano when I was writing -- which proved to be detrimental when I started trying to write pop songs!
Q: That’s an impressively early start to songwriting. What came next? How did you figure out you wanted to be a producer?
That revelation happened when I was in college. I started music school at Northwestern University as a classical piano performance major. After spending one semester locked in a practice room, I knew that wasn’t the life for me; I enjoy people too much and wanted a more social career in music -- and also, I had horrible stage fright.
I started changing majors like crazy, but finally landed back in the School of Music with a degree in Commercial Music. My senior year of college, I had this amazing internship in downtown Chicago with one of the largest commercial music houses, ComTrack, that produced original music for national advertising campaigns -- McDonald’s, United Airlines, Busch, and Miller Beer. Five days a week I sat in the back of these huge downtown studios and watched the producer and arrangers work with these incredible singers and studio musicians (including many Chicago Symphony players). That was it for me. I knew then that was what I wanted to do.
Q: What kind of training did becoming a producer involve?
I have a Bachelor of Music Degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, USA, with an Ad Hoc concentration in Commercial Music -- which essentially meant I designed my own degree program, taking music basics like theory, ear training, music history, and music business, but also taking classes in advertising and journalism and marketing from the NU School of Journalism, communications, orchestration and big band arranging, and psycho-acoustics (the science of why we hear things the way we do).
I also continued piano and voice as applied instruments. As I mentioned above, one of the most educational experiences was an internship my senior year of college with a commercial music company in downtown Chicago. A huge amount of my training after I finished school was just diving in and learning how to use computers and the recording equipment hands-on.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your early years as a music producer. What was it like being a woman and breaking into the recording world?
When I was starting out, the combination of being young and a woman made it hard for people to take me seriously in the studio. I was producing people 10-15 years older than I was, and a few men who weren’t that thrilled to have a 25 year old woman telling them what to do (and granted, I was pretty green for awhile too!). I got comments from players like, “Ok lady, where do you want the couch?” after asking someone to try a guitar part a few different ways, and, “Is that your real hair color?” from a recording engineer I had just met in the studio at my session!
I think at the time I went home and cried about it. But ultimately, I loved being in the studio and creating music so much, I just persisted in working at my craft, tried to learn from seasoned producers, and just kept at it. When I turned 40, I finally kind of grew into my job.
Now, my style in the studio and with artists is nurturing and “mamma hen”-like, or so I’ve been told. At 40, I was comfortable in my own skin, and could be seen as more motherly, I suppose. I also stopped taking myself so seriously and my confidence grew a lot, which made me more relaxed. Today, I really feel that I am respected in my job because of my skill and the fact that I am a woman is incidental.
Q: Your hands-on training culminated in a pretty incredible accomplishment for you -- you built a home studio way before modern technology made it much easier. Tell us about that experience, how you did it, and where you went from there.
Ha! Yes, when I first moved to San Diego, my former husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment and it had a tiny washer-dryer closet in the kitchen with sliding panel doors. We had no washer or dryer, but put shelves inside the closet -- which held my first keyboard (a Yamaha DX7), an Alessis drum machine, and and awkward hard-to-use Alessis sequencer.
If I am remembering right (this was awhile ago!) I recorded everything playing off the Alessis sequencer directly into a two-track digital audio tape machine. Or worse yet, I might’ve been recording to a cassette player! I had been using a higher end eight-track reel to reel tape machine to record at my prior job in Chicago but we couldn’t afford anything that fancy.
Q: How did you establish your own studio, after working as a producer for other companies?
I was very fortunate to get a staff producer job with a big music company in San Diego for a few years, but ultimately really wanted to be my own boss and determine my own schedule and the kind of work I did. So I became an independent in the summer of 1993. My business has had several names over the years when I was working as a sole proprietor. In 2009, I formed an LLC and became Amado Music, LLC.
Q: The role of a producer encompasses many tasks and skills. How would you describe your work?
I see my role as a musical translator – it’s my job to bring every artist and client’s musical vision to life in the studio, and communicate their vision with the musicians, engineers, and singers who help to create the final recordings. Often an artist comes to me with an idea of how they want their music to sound, but if not, I also help artists to explore and find a sound that is unique and right for them and shows their talents in the best light.
Ultimately it’s also my job to create an environment in the studio that’s comfortable and fun, that makes it easy for everyone to relax and give their best to the recording process.
Q: Amazing! Tell us more about how you foster that environment -- what is your favorite “go-to” production technique or attitude?
A favorite production technique is layering. Layering two or more different sounds (with acoustic or virtual instruments) playing the exact same thing can create a totally new color.
Production attitude depends on who I’m working with, the personalities involved and what’s most effective.
Some artists respond best to a very nurturing and supportive approach and others respond better to a challenge, “I bet in the next take you can’t _____!”
Q: Please describe a typical “day on the job” for you.
Truly there isn’t one, and that’s one of the many things I love about my job.
Monday I may be in my home studio producing and recording vocals on a co-written pop song with a young artist for a publisher or production music company. Tuesday I might be in a big commercial studio with heavyweight jazz players producing tracks for an artist’s original project. Wednesday I might be editing tracks for hours. Thursday -- working on my website and bookkeeping, and Friday driving up to Los Angeles to have lunch with clients, many of whom have become friends.
Q: Your studio has many facets -- what are they and how did they come to be?
My physical studio has very nice equipment -- Genelec monitors, a Neumann vocal mic, Allen & Heath board, virtual instruments by IK Multimedia, Spectrasonics, MOTU and more -- but it’s currently in a modest spare room in our house.
I’ve had this same setup in many different spaces, both commercial and non-commercial, over the years. When I think of “my studio”, I think of it in the metaphorical sense -- it’s really me, as I am a one-person company. My brand has been built over the years, mainly by my becoming more focused on what I’m best at and not trying to do everything. For instance, big rock and orchestral film trailers are something I suck at! So I don’t bother.
About 50% of my work is arranging and producing independent artists’ songs and helping them to record and release their music. 40% of my work is creating original music for Production Music Libraries in the US and abroad. I currently have about 260 songs in my catalog that are in production music libraries. This is something I have worked to build over the past 15 years. My catalog generates passive income (royalties) for me when my music is placed in TV, film, and advertising around the world. About 10% of my work is creating original music production for corporate clients or advertising directly.
Some of the songs are solo writes, and some are co-writes with artists or other producers. I create some instrumental music, but a tremendous amount of the music I work on is vocal songs. I love working with singers and I love the emotion the human voice communicates. I also have worked as a lyricist quite a bit with younger writers as well. I specialize in retro genres like French Gyspy Swing Music, and other acoustic genres like Bluegrass, Celtic Music, and Jazz.
Here is a tune written, arranged, and produced myself, sung by Allison Adams Tucker:
Q: Let’s hear a little bit more about your own artistic practice. As well as making other artists “sound good”, you do quite a bit of your own creative work -- both in collaboration or support of other artists, as well as creating your commercial music. What inspires your creativity?
Living! Walking and hiking in nature, listening to good music, watching films, reading good books, eating great food, prayer and meditation, spending time with my son and husband, and trying to be of service and give something back.
A song I co-wrote with artist Christine Parker, “Magic With You,” for Killer Tracks (under the Universal Music Publishing Group umbrella) in LA was placed in a national TV and Internet ad for Mitsubishi in Taiwan. The ad, with sweet funny visuals about a little girl and her dad who’s afraid she will grow up too soon, resonated with people -- the YouTube version of the ad got over 4 million hits! Fittingly, the lyrics I contributed to the song (which was performed by Parker and arranged and produced by me) came into my head while spending time with our son, who was 2 years old at the time:
Q: The word “producer” can have a different meaning today than it did when you first started out. How do you see these changes? How have they shaped your own career in production?
I think now even more than when I started 25 years ago, being a producer also means being an engineer at some level and being comfortable with the technology. I have always considered myself more of an arranger/producer than a producer/engineer. But because of the necessity of making demos with shrinking budgets, I have had to learn how to work with the technology.
I still love having enough budget in a project to hire an engineer who’s a real master and let them do their thing, but this is one of the areas where I am now challenging myself -- to not shy away from the trickier technical stuff in the writing and programming, especially since I’ve been starting to work on more EDM-type songs. Being willing to continue to grow, never getting too comfortable, and never sitting back on your accomplishments are a big part of being able to evolve with the industry.
Q: What do you love most about music? How does your work feed you?
When I sit down to arrange or compose a piece of music, it’s a very intuitive, in-the-moment thing for me. I love the spontaneity of it. I always go with my gut impressions of what adjustments to make, what sounds to use, and where to take the melody or the arrangement.
“Nothing makes me happier when I finish a project than hearing an artist or client say, ‘It sounds exactly like I heard it in my head!’, then I feel like I’ve done my job well.”
I believe my intuition is a direct connection with the ultimate creator, God, and that’s why I feel so good when I’m creating music. It’s a spiritual high. And I have finally learned that the ideas don’t come from me -- rather, they just come through me. I just have to show up and be willing to listen. Music is healing for people, music is therapy. I can’t imagine being in a more gratifying field of work.
Q: That’s beautiful, and so true. We’re blessed to make our living through the world of music. And in music, of course, there is humour, so I’ll ask -- what’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened in your studio?
A number of years ago, I was working on a piece of original music for a corporate client, Qualcomm, to use in a live performance for a conference of young programmers from around the world who made apps for their platform. With a collaborator, I created the music, which was a hybrid of rock and rap.
We hired a young black rapper out of Long Beach, Mark Jones, to rap in the studio. He took the basic messaging that I had put into a dummy rhyme, and on the spot in the studio, improvised and performed a rap with street language. Because the piece had to be presented to the suits at Qualcomm for approval, we had to type up a lyric sheet with the rap and “translations” below, since they didn’t have a clue what any of the rap slang actually meant!
It was pretty amusing at the time. It was the moment I gained a tremendous respect and admiration for rappers, and how improvisational their work is. The rhythms that Mark Jones came up with spontaneously were incredibly intricate, rhyming, and just sounded so cool. In a million years I could never do that!
Q: You’ve built some wonderfully creative musical relationships over the years. What is your advice to aspiring musicians about building these relationships?
I have been so blessed to get to work with so many talented musicians, artists, engineers, producers, studio singers, collaborators, and clients over the years. I really try to lead with love and respect for the people I’m working with, leave my ego at the door, and have mostly learned when to keep my mouth shut!
My advice? Always hire the very best talent that you can possibly afford, and always look for opportunities to work with people who are better than you. You will learn so much from them.
Q: You left a classical performance track to pursue a career in multiple forms and genres of popular music. What can you share with other musicians who want to make this shift?
I don’t know the classical music career path very well -- my sense is that it’s a more traditional, conventional road, with emphasis on performance. It seems like there’s lots of practice and auditions required, but once you have an orchestra or teaching position, you have a sense of security.
Working as a composer and producer in the pop music world is unconventional, to say the least. There’s about an 80-90% chance that you will be self-employed and need to know how to get clients and gigs, so be prepared for that. Also, you must be willing and able to embrace technology as it changes. Understand it and learn how to make it work for you.
Q: While a great ear is important in classical music, ear training is often not as emphasized, especially in the early stages. What kind of shifts did you have to make in your reliance on your ears from classical to being a producer? How did you develop these skills?
Actually, I was fortunate in being blessed with a good ear, which I got from my dad, but I learned to be a great sight reader by playing classical piano. Playing and singing in a music group as a young teen, I had lots of practice learning songs by ear from records, and also had formal ear training in my classical piano lessons -- I had to identify intervals after hearing them, for example.
”Music is healing for people, music is therapy. I can’t imagine being in a more gratifying field of work.”
In music school, I actually was able to place out of my ear training classes because of ability and early training. Needless to say, ear training is incredibly important and I recommend that people find courses in ear training if it’s an area of weakness. Beyond interval training, theory, and sight singing, as a young producer, I also had to listen to lots and lots of different genres of music and analyze how the arrangements and production were put together.
When an artist or a client asks for something to sound “Bluesy Rock,” it’s a producer’s job to know how to create that. For this reason, I frequently work with musical references as a starting point, because it helps make things more concrete. As an exercise, I would sometimes listen to a pop song and using stick notation (rhythmic stems without note-heads), write out each instrument and what they were playing rhythmically as a tool for my analysis. Over the years as a producer, I’ve learned to listen at different levels -- listen to the song as a whole, listen to just the drums, listen to the pitch of the lead vocal, listen to the time and feel of the rhythm section, and so on.
Q: What would you advise aspiring producers who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Be comfortable (or get comfortable) with marketing. Be an extrovert who genuinely enjoys people (or hire someone like that!), and be willing to constantly reinvent yourself as the music industry changes. “Music Producer” is a very fluid job description, and it doesn’t hurt to have another skill outside of music that you can do part time or as a contractor to help support yourself while you grow your music business. I did PR and media relations part-time for years to support my music career, and ironically, that was ultimately how I learned to most effectively market myself objectively -- by doing it for others.
Ultimately, to take this journey, you have to love creating music so much and have such passion for it that you are willing to hang in there as long as it takes to start having a financially lucrative career -- which never happens for some people. Making music has to be its own reward.
Q: You’ve certainly made it happen for you, and have been rewarded in so many ways! Marti, thank you so much for opening up about your career, your inspirations as a producer, and your valuable advice to those wanting a career like yours.
We look forward to hearing where Amado Music will take you next -- so please do keep in touch with news about your future projects, collaborations, and achievements!
Taking Control of Your Musical Path
Incredible, right? It’s abundantly clear that Marti’s persistence, work ethic, creativity, and unmatched enthusiasm for her line of work has paid off, allowing her to open a studio that is entirely her own -- where she can work with whoever she likes, whenever she likes, however she likes.
There is certainly a lot to be learned from music mentors, coaches, teachers, and employers. However, taking control of the direction of your musical path and branching out to create something where you call the shots -- that’s an even more valuable learning experience.
For the ultimate challenge, take a page directly from Marti’s book, and try your hand at being your own producer. Learn your way around a simple digital audio workstation, upload recordings of your tracks, and experiment with using software to make them sound polished and impactful.
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