In The Studio: With Spike Leo

In the Studio with Spike Leo

Spike Leo is a sought after music producer/mix engineer/songwriter in Australia and has worked with some major Australian acts as well as helping many independent artists get on their feet. We chat with Spike about creating the show, “Sama-Sama” with Cirque Du Soleil in Spain, his studio gear, the step-by-step program in music production and his initiative in conducting “Squad Sunday’s’ which helps many local artists and budding producers find their way in the Music Industry.

What was the catalyst for getting into the Music Industry and who were your biggest influences growing up?

I started very, very young. I got into music when I was in school. I remember I just had a good sense of rhythm, I’m not sure why, and my music teachers suggested to get into either drums or something like that. I started off as a drummer and I guess it all started from there. I started drumming, got more and more involved in music. I went through high school as the drummer, playing for all these little soirées and whatever there was to play at, and eventually in year 9 I ended up moving schools to VCA (Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School) Went there for 3 years and did music and it just progressed from there. I guess my influences were The Beatles, Rod Stewart, James Brown, I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. Stevie Wonder. My dad played a lot of those types of tracks and I guess some of the parents of the girlfriend’s I was dating, I remember being in the car and hearing Stevie Wonder for the first time and was like, ‘oh my God who is this guy’. So it was just a natural progression of something I was always attracted to. Creative arts, I was into acting and drama too. I really was just always in love with music from a young age and I had incredible people influencing me directly.

Can you tell us how it came about that you ended up creating the show, “Sama-Sama” with Cirque Du Soleil?

So Sama Sama was this concept of making this huge interactive musical park where people could enter the park and interact with these musical contractions and instruments. Sama-Sama means together in the Philippines. The whole idea was to bring everyone together and we had these characters called the “Samis” and the Samis were part of this fantasy world and they kind of kept the park moving. They would perform in-between, everything was structured on this clock, so 2 – 2.5 hours where people could interact at the beginning, middle and end and in-between there was interactions with the “Samis”.

My job was basically to help create parts of the show and help train the performers. I had been performing for many years, I started off as a performer I had done about 7-10 years of performing prior to that. I worked alongside some really incredible people who have done some amazing shows around the world. It was a really great experience, I had to come up with drum parts, there was a lot of technology we used and created. I also had a bit of a life as a dancer so I helped with choreography and stuff like that so we just created this show. I performed in the opening show and in the first few numbers after that, and then I got to see it from the other side as well.

Can you tell us how Spike Leo Studio ended up being amongst the Aviary Recording Studio and Creative Hub?

I had a studio in my house for about 5-6 years. Last year, a mentor of mine, “Jack the Bear”, Tony Mantz, mastering music, mastering life he calls it now. He does a lot of mentoring and speaking. He just gave me this kick up the butt. I was having my first kid and I couldn’t have clients coming into the house anymore. The timing just happened to be right, I moved to the Aviary studios and two of my best mates from Fight Night Records, Harley and Delaney, work next door and their good mate Fraser who runs the Aviary Recording Studio, said there was a spot upstairs. The only problem with the spot is that there is a record store down stairs and every now and then there might be a little bit of bleed, which worked out fine because their lovely blokes down there as well. So I moved into “The Aviary” and made Spike Leo Music, Spike Leo studios and that’s kind of where it all started. I started writing music out here and it was the best decision I made, I was terrified of having extra rent over my head but just moving the studio out, and having a creative space outside of the house, it actually was a really positive move.

In The Studio: With Spike Leo

Can you give us an insight on the step by step program in music production you provide?

I made a music production program through my frustration, through the difficulties that I found, and now I’ve been helping all of these up and coming music producers for the last couple of years. My step by step program is basically designed from the fundamental elements of music production. Obviously technique is hugely important, you know song writing and arrangements, sound design, understanding sonic character and how that works. But there are a lot of things we don’t talk about like depression and mental health, these are things I coach my students on. Majority of people struggle with self-doubt, that’s not just music production, that’s any types of creative art. So for me I’m really trying to make sure they have a healthy mind because with a healthy mind you can really be the most positive you, you can create in a really positive environment and kind of go from there. I’m not saying the technical stuff isn’t important, I teach all of that stuff as well, but there were things I didn’t know when I started producing, like I remember the first time I found out that it matters what your order of plug-ins are. It blew my mind. I was just literally putting plug-ins on and making it sound good. And that worked. It’s great when you create something and your ears are telling you that it sounds good. If it sounds good, it sounds good; it doesn’t matter what plug-ins are there but it’s also really comforting to understand why we do things the way we do things. The digital realm is actually just trying to emulate the analogue world, obviously we all can’t afford the analogue gear we would love, but there is a structure and there is a template. We can break the template but I think to learn the template is really important. It gives you a lot of confidence. I did some studies from a teacher in LA and it really gave me the confidence to say ‘oh my God, I get it’ I understand compression now. Compression was this big scary thing and I’m sure for many people it still is, but there were just really easy ways to explain it. And of course when you take those things on just through my experience and understanding, I have ways that I explain them and I think I’m one of the only people in Melbourne doping private one on one music production courses. I make sure that every student walks out happy and feeling good. I have students who have been learning from me for 1 -1.5 years and they’re completing songs and their songs are awesome. So that’s basically my music production program and how it all started.

What is some of your favourite go to gear that you always gravitate to when producing in the studio?

I love the LaChapell Audio, the 992 pre-amp. It’s a stereo pre-amp. The first one I bought was the Avalon which was great, but Avalon is vanilla and this one is chocolate. I use it on everything. I use it on synths, bass, guitars, vocals. It’s definitely my favourite, amongst many others. I’ve just ordered a whole bunch of gear from this company called Stam Audio which I’m absolutely obsessed with. I’ve got an LA2a replica and an 1176 coming in, I mean they’re through Universal Audio. I use those plugs in all the time so I’m very excited to get some hardware that replicates those consoles. I would say that would be my go to. As you can see I’m obsessed with my synths. I’m just obsessed with sound. I’ve just got this Korg Prologue. It’s unbelievable, the sounds are incredible. The LF Compressor, it’s got this drive saturation button which is the tits. Every piece of equipment here, I’ve worked my ass off to get. It’s not cheap, it took me ages. I remember 7-8 years ago I went to my friend studio and I had that moment where I stood in his studio and I was just like, oh my God I need this. I’ve got this unhealthy obsession with gear. I’m definitely a gear slut. I do love every piece of equipment. The Ambika by Mutable Instruments, is one of my favourite synths, the chorus echo. It’s hard to pinpoint. But I do put everything through the LAChapelle. It saturates the sound incredibly and it’s just a really rich sound.

How do you start a song writing session? Do you gravitate to any particular piece of gear?

I was always on this journey for what inspires me, and as a music producer, sound inspires us. It’s sound. And when you don’t know what you don’t know, and what I mean by that is, when I first started I didn’t know what sounds I don’t like. I remember by friend gave me a Virus TI; it’s a $5,000 synth. In my head I kept saying it’s a $5,000 synth and I kept playing it over and over going through all of the patches, but in my heart I hated it. I just didn’t like the sound. It’s not a bad synth but that’s the thing in music and music production, it’s not about the best speaker or the best synth, it takes time to understand what you like. So it always depends, when I’m writing a song, what sound is inspiring me. When I am programming drums, I’ll always start with Maschine Native Instruments, for me it’s about work flow and what I’m trying to reiterate to my students is, we want to get you to the point where you can produce and fast as you can think. You want to be able to create without the technicalities holding you back. When I first started, I was dropping stems into Logic one by one, but with Maschine, you can make something in 5 minutes. It’s so fast and intuitive, I can tune the instruments. It’s an incredible piece of gear.

So what is next for Spike Leo? And can you tell us about ‘Squad Sundays”?

I’m still as ambitious as I’ve always been, I really want to be a staple producer in Australia and Internationally. I’m working towards being as great as I can, the sky is the limit. It’s corny, but that’s what I want. I just want to do this full time and I’m pretty much doing full time music, but there are no guarantees ether. There is no financial stability. I’ve seen people at the top who have just been killing it, earning great money, then all of the sudden, you’re just not. So you know, it’s always a constant battle to keep it going full time but I guess at the heart of it all, the two most important things for me are creation; I always want to be creating because I feel like that’s our calling as humans. Whether it’s music or anything, we just want to create. It’s what we love to do.

And making a legacy. And I guess in terms of legacy, it’s making great music, working with great artists and building a community. That’s something I have started doing, I had this fire in my belly to create this community at the end of last year. I started it this year and it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done. It’s less about me and more about other people. I basically got together a handful of music producers and artists that I had worked with, and that I felt would really benefit and enjoy this type of community. The first Sunday of every month we meet at the studio, next door in Fight Night Record’s studio. And it started with about 5-6 people and we now have about 20- 23 people coming to the next Squad Sunday. I buy pizza and wine for the crew. I don’t charge anything, it’s a free event at the moment. I get speakers in, we’ve had Jack the Bear come in, I speak about topics I’ve experienced from the month in terms of building the business, confidence and music productions. We have 2 guys coming in this Sunday to talk about song writing. One of the most important things is collaborations. We learn so much from collaborating with other people and this is what I want to start to formulate from this crew. Everyone on this Squad Sunday has starting collaborating. We have singers, rappers, music producers, engineers and it’s kind of, whatever people’s weaknesses are, they’re coming together and building something. The thing that really bothered me, again, it comes back to me and my experience… when I was locked in a room by myself for 5-6 years trying to figure shit out, there was no one there to help me and it was so frustrating.  The same thing that I hear from these guys, they’re like, this is just so great because we have this platform where we can share with each other. All these guys are young cats, from amateurs to professionals, they’re all spending shit loads of time by themselves so this is a really great way to combat that. We come together, we share each other’s music that we’re releasing and we give positive feedback. I don’t let anyone come to the event that I don’t think is going to be a part of the positive movement, not that Its’s exclusive, but it is because we only want really great people to come to this event.

A massive thanks to Spike Leo for his time & insight.

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