Written by Jay Sanders | Photos by Anthony Harden
Mixerman, aka Eric Sarafin, details a life spent (so far) as a recording studio rat, an author, and an instructional video star.
The faint scent of incense lingers in the air as Mixerman sits in his basement recording studio. The walls are covered in Buddhist and Hindu tapestries, and the space has that perfect audio stillness that is the hallmark of all great mixing rooms. Anchoring the middle of the gallery, his audio workstation sits patiently showcasing his yin-yang inspired Mixerman logo.
“Mixing is the most elusive discipline of all in this business,” he says. “For whatever reason, there’s just very few people that can become good mixers. It requires a certain combination of personality traits I feel. Willingness to be obsessive. Willingness to not obsess. It’s kind of like riding the line between left brain and right brain thinking. It’s such a technical process, but it’s such an artistic process at the same time. It’s a lot of alone time; you have to be in control of your own demons when you’re sitting there mixing for hours at a time.”
Eric Sarafin, better known around the world by his public persona, Mixerman, is an enigma. At any given moment, it’s equally possible that he could be writing the story of an Indian billionaire’s entitled child’s quest to become a famous Bollywood producer, publishing videos about how to create a homemade delay effect using standard drainage pipe, teaching the world how to record a vocal that will make a grown man weep, or working with some of the most famous names in music, including hip-hoppers Tone Loc and The Pharcyde, contemporary rockers Ben Harper, Lifehouse, Nine Days, and Barenaked Ladies, Christian musician and pop star Amy Grant, and classic rock legend Foreigner, just to skim the surface of his discography. Eric is a gold and platinum award-winning producer and mixer, author, video blogger, and one of the first viral internet celebrities. He recently relocated to Western North Carolina after 25 successful years in the Los Angeles music scene.
Creativity energizes Mixerman; the visionary process that inspires music and writing are one and the same. “As long as I’m creating I’m happy. If I’m mixing an album, I’m creating and I’m happy. If I’m producing one, I’m creating and I’m happy. The same with writing a book. There’s not much room for getting bored when you’re switching between the different disciplines. There’s really no difference between making a record, making a book, and making a video. There’s still a story arc. You still need to push the listener or the viewer forward at all times. All of the techniques are the same. They all transfer perfectly.
“Someone pointed out to me there’s something very musical about my writing, and I realized what they meant by that,” he continues. “If you read my writing, there’s a musical pentameter to it. There’s phrasings: It will be nice and flowing, then halting, then it will be flowing again. To me, the order of the words and the syllables and how they come out is tied directly into the rhythm of melody and of music. It’s no different writing a melody or writing a song than it is from writing a book.”
There weren’t that many guys that wanted to do the hip-hop stuff for some reason. I did want to get into rock music, but getting into rock music was a very closed door.
I Can’t Do a Hip-Hop Album Anymore
Perhaps it is best to drop in on Mixerman where he recorded his first snare drum: Boston. As a student at Berklee College of Music in the late ‘80s, Eric found himself in the fortunate position to be living above Dimension Sound Studios, the classic Boston recording studio where blues rocker George Thorogood had recorded many of his hits. “The chief engineer was willing to teach me how to use the place if I helped him out on his sessions, so I made the trade. He taught me how to work everything. I just would practice and record and find bands and record them again and again and again, until finally after several years I realized that my recordings were finally sounding as good as stuff on CDs,” Eric says. He spent three years tirelessly perfecting his recording techniques. “I was like, ‘Nope.’ Then I was like, ‘That’s great,’ and then three weeks later, ‘That’s crap.’ Then you do it again.
“The only thing that kept me going was the incremental improvement. It’s a very frustrating process—it takes a long time to learn how to record well.“
Eventually he concluded that his recordings were as good as what he was hearing on CD. “I was like, ‘Why am I staying in Boston for this?’ So I decided to move to LA.” He took a bunch of his stuff down to his parent’s house in New Jersey, packed up his old Honda CRX, and drove out to Los Angeles armed only with his freshly honed skills. “I got a gig at Capitol Studios doing setup, which is a glorified runner position. My job was to set up the sessions for string dates and rock gigs, whatever came in really. There were lots of string dates. I learned about microphones. All these different guys would come in and set them up in different ways, so I learned how they set up their microphones and how you record an orchestra in the studio setting.”
After six months he got fired from Capitol. “It wasn’t the right job for me. I was not the kind of person that could work my way up the ranks over years from assistant, then to engineer, and then whatever. That was not for me.” He ended up with a new position at the legendary Hollywood Sound Studios. At one time or another, world famous artists such as The Doors, Prince, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Jackson Browne, Iggy Pop, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madonna, and Rick James have created musical history at Hollywood Sound Studios.
“That’s where I met The Pharcyde and Mike Ross. Mike Ross was the president of Delicious Vinyl records and he was doing an EP with a group called The Pharcyde that no one had ever heard of—a hip-hop act. I was assisting on sessions. So consequently, I would have time with Mike Ross. He was the producer. We got along really well. One day he was complaining about how bad it was to record at Paramount Studios.”
As it turns out, Jesse Hodges, the owner of Hollywood Sound Studios had a production room with a digital audio workstation (DAW), but Ross had never even seen a DAW before. “I spent a couple of weeks learning how to use the stupid thing—it was a Spectra Sonics system or something like that,” continues Eric. “ProTools (a DAW designed for Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS X operating systems) had been out, but not many guys were using it. If you were in a major studio arena, we weren’t touching digital.” Eric convinced Ross to bring The Pharcyde over to Hollywood Sound: “I say to Mike, ‘Hey, Jesse’s renting out this room for $35 an hour, which is what you’re paying at Paramount. I’ve been recording for four or five years. I’m sure that the people that they’re getting [at Paramount] have been recording for all of five minutes, so why don’t you do the album here?’ The next thing I know, the very next day, I was recording The Pharcyde. I spent eight months recording them. That album was my first gold album.” Released in November of 1992, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde would be certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1996.
Internal drama led to a separation between Eric and Hollywood Sound’s direct relationship. “I had gotten into a fight with them. Vicki [Giordano, Hollywood Sound’s “Traffic Manager”] was trying to push me around a little bit. There’s this tension that happens when an engineer starts to get into this position where he doesn’t need the studio so much.” Eric turned in his key as an employee, and showed back up the next day as a client. “I was mixing in Studio A, hired directly by the same label that had been paying me through the studio the day before. From that point forward I was a freelance recording and mixing engineer doing mostly hip-hop. Part of that was because my first success was a hip-hop record. Part of that was because nobody in the studio wanted to do the hip-hop stuff. There weren’t that many guys that wanted to do the hip-hop stuff for some reason. I did want to get into rock music, but getting into rock music was a very closed door. The biggest guys were in rock music. In hip-hop you still had opportunity at that time.”
After a few years as a premier hip-hop mixer, Eric received a call from veteran A&R executive Andy Factor at Virgin Records. “‘We’ve got this artist Ben Harper, and we’ve put three mixers with him, and none of them have worked out,’” Eric recalls, of their conversation. “The next day I go in to start mixing, and I’m talking to those guys, and I realize that they want a rock album that has some low end to it. More like a hip-hop record but with rock. Nobody was doing that at the time. His stuff was so sparse and totally appropriate for it. I ended up doing the first mix. They loved it and the next one. A week later we were done with the album. That was [1995’s] Fight for Your Mind. After that I wasn’t doing any more hip-hop because the hip-hop guys found out I was doing a rock album and they were like—‘What, really?’ Just because I’m doing a rock album I can’t do a hip-hop album anymore.”
The Birth of Mixerman
From 1995-2000 Eric had an amazing run as a mixer, but what he really wanted to do, and why he had traveled to Los Angeles, was to produce. “Mixing was good work and good money, but it wasn’t producing. I was finding it very difficult to make the transition from mixer position to producer. For whatever reason, it’s an easier transition from a recording engineer, but recording engineers didn’t get paid very much in the ‘90s. Not until the early ‘00s, when things were really just nuts. Then, all of a sudden, a recording engineer could command $1,200 a day. If I can make good money, then I’ll do some recording if that’s going to put me in a position to produce. I hooked up with Ron Aniello, who produced Lifehouse’s first album. He was having his run. I recorded a bunch of albums for him. I recorded Lifehouse’s second album, Barenaked Ladies, and Nine Days, but the Nine Days album was never released.” Eric and Ron worked on another record that never came out. He soon realized that he could easily work for an entire year on projects that would never be released, making it look like he wasn’t even working.
“That’s when I started getting a little frustrated with the business,” he says. Some things happened in my personal life where I needed to take a few months off. [In 2002] I got this idea to express my frustration with the business by writing this story called The Daily Adventures of Mixerman. I named it that, I had already been online as Mixerman, making a name for myself on Usenet. This new forum wanted to make money with people talking about audio, so they opened up and were paying me a stipend to grow the place. I was having trouble growing it, so I decided I would just post a diary about an anonymous engineer, ‘Mixerman,’ on a session with a bidding-war band and an infamous producer. I wrote the opening thing and one of the guys saw it and started posting on all these other places.”
At first his posts were attracting maybe 200 visitors a week, but word about The Daily Adventures of Mixerman quickly spread, and it became a bit of a parlor game in the music industry—the recording sector in particular—to try to guess exactly who this band, producer, and engineer really were, since they were given pseudonyms. (Besides “Mixerman,” the band went by the name “Bitch Slap,” while the producer was “Willy Snow.”)
“All of a sudden, I’m seeing the read counts are going up. If I refresh it goes up another five, and if I refresh it would go up another 10. I went from 10 views in a day to 10 views over five seconds. That thing just started blowing up and it started to become a lot of pressure. The first few weeks were great, but then I started to feel it. I wasn’t a writer. I was a good writer in high school, but I had never developed it as an adult. If you read the original, the first edit is atrocious. I can’t believe anyone bought into it, it’s so bad. It’s since been edited, but even the edited version, I can read it and see that I became a much better writer all the way through that book. It’s pretty interesting. Week 4, someone posted on Usenet and all of a sudden I had 25,000 people coming a day. By the end I had 150,000 people coming a day.” Eric wrapped the story up and took a two year break. Eventually he decided he should put the entire thing out as a book. After researching printing companies, doing the design, and editing the text, he printed 3,000 copies and started selling them online. Within a couple of years, all 3,000 copies had been sold. “[Music print publisher] Hal Leonard contacted me and says, ‘Hey, we want to put out your book, The Daily Adventures of Mixerman. After some negotiations, I agreed.”
By 2010, the winds of change were starting to seriously affect the music industry. Record sales were starting to plummet due to competition from digital file-sharing services such as Napster, and the money was starting to dry up. “I realized I should probably do some more writing because I could probably sell some more books.” Eric wrote Zen and the Art of Mixing, a book that has become one of the premier texts on the mixing process, and remains his best seller. “That book did well, so I decided to write Zen and the Art of Producing and Zen and the Art of Recording.” All three books have been met with accolades from critics and industry veterans alike. Legendary producer Ron Saint Germain, who has worked with U2, Sonic Youth, Tool, and Soundgarden, just to name a few, enthused, “Mixerman has done it again! With his signature humorous and entertaining style, he imparts a world of invaluable information for the aspiring recordist and musician in an easy to absorb (not overly technical) common sense manner.”
More recently, Eric has released the original The Daily Adventures of Mixerman volume as an audiobook (with his own narration, plus guests for selected other voices, along with original music), and he’s also been posting individual “days” as podcasts at the Mixerman.net website. In addition, he teamed with fellow studio veteran Ryan Earnhardt, of the Canton-based studio Lumen Audio, to create the eight-lesson tutorial video “How to Record Vocals That’ll Make a Grown Man Weep.” More are planned, and there are a number of other videos for viewing at the site, instructional and otherwise, all creative, informative, and infused with his trademark sense of humor.
The Dark Side of the Industry
The business of music has been in a constant state of flux and uncertainty since Napster hit the scene in June of 1999. Music has seen its sales numbers drop at a precipitous rate as the sector has transformed from a commodity to a service over the past 18 years. Where paying customers used to form lines that often wrapped around the block in anticipation of a big release, now they can get anything they want anytime they want through one of the major streaming services, typically for free. Eric Sarafin has been present throughout this entire industrial and cultural transition. “It’s hard to say what the future is because at the moment it is all being left to market forces, and the market forces are being dictated by enormously large companies like Google, Apple, and YouTube,” he notes. “Then you have the smaller companies that are trying to become enormously large, like Spotify. Music over the course of my entire career has been in the process of devaluation.
“Once we went digital, there was an explosion in record sales because everyone needed to transfer their catalogs from vinyl to CDs, so the [record companies] got another big bite of the apple for a good 20 years after that. They started to become less small companies and more corporate minded, so they were much more interested in quarterly profits. This is not an industry that does well with that model because you need to be able to stick with an artist for years before you might reap the benefits. That was just unacceptable from a quarterly profit model. Whatever you put out needed to sell now.” Eric quickly points to examples like classic rock supergroup Pink Floyd. Their early albums such as The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, and Ummagumma didn’t really sell. Then came Dark Side of the Moon. By sticking with the band, their record label EMI enjoyed the profits from one of the most commercially and critically successful records in music history. Dark Side of the Moon remained on the Billboard sales chart for 741 weeks from 1973 to 1988, and has sold an estimated 45 million copies worldwide.
“Labels started looking at the songs and saying, ‘We only really need one great song to blow up a band.’ They concentrated all of the efforts to make sure there was one great song on a 72-minute CD,” he says. “They insisted that bands were starting to feel the pressure of putting more and more material out. Instead of doing 10 songs, they were doing 15, 18, even 20 songs, and they were putting out their CDs less often. That is just a recipe for disaster. Three years between albums—that means by your second album, your 15-year old fan is now 21 and has moved on.
“Enormous amounts of money were spent to make the product, and the CDs were selling for $17. Simultaneously, people were able to get the music for free with Napster. That was the beginning of the end, really. Once the kids could not afford $17 CDs for one song—and shouldn’t—they revolted. They would just go to Napster and get the music for free. The record companies held on for awhile longer before streaming came. Streaming was the semi-legal alternative to Napster. Basically, they could play your music, but they didn’t have to pay you like you were being played on the radio because it was a loophole. They weren’t broadcasting it, they were playing it on the internet. Without getting into the weeds of all the legalities and how it all came to be, we can fast forward to where we’re at now, which is streaming is king. If I can play music for free, why would I buy it? There’s no point.
“If you don’t put your music out there, then no one finds you. If you do, then you’re giving away your music for free. What are you selling? The only thing you can possibly sell now is your live show, and that’s it.”
Once upon a time, there were three revenue streams for an artist: the live show with merchandise sales; publishing, which is licensing and radio play; and royalties from record sales. Nowadays, money from record sales are gone, and publishing is mostly gone—or is at least pennies on the dollar. “That leaves one revenue stream out of the three,” concludes Eric. “Now all the bands are in the business of selling T-Shirts.”
“I’m doing way too many things, but I don’t really see how there’s any other option given the current climate,” he noted. “My business is Mixerman.”
Entrepreneurship Really Is The Only Option
When you’re in the music business, you are your brand. To build and market your brand, you need exposure. Creative entrepreneurship for most people is really the only option. “To me, artistry and entrepreneurship are one and the same,” says Eric. “There’s only one model now. Get famous and capitalize. That’s it. If you don’t get famous, you don’t capitalize. If people don’t find you or discover you, then you have no way of making money. You can go and play gigs—you can make a living—but that’s never been the goal in the music business. The goal is to make a killing. If your object is to get famous, then the artistry is in the entrepreneurship. Yes, you need to make music too, it has to be compelling, but that’s all part of the same thing. That’s how you get famous: by making songs that people love and being a personality that people find interesting.
“I’m doing way too many things, but I don’t really see how there’s any other option given the current climate,” he noted. “My business is Mixerman. If I’m Mixerman producing a record or Mixerman writing a book or Mixerman doing a video, I’m an artist. I’m trying to get people to buy into me and what I produce, whether that’s a book, a song, or a show. It’s a one-man show. I find what I like, make it, and hope to parlay that into something bigger.”
In 2008, Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelley published an essay titled “1,000 True Fans” in which he wrote: “To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor, you need only thousands of true fans. You have to create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan,” he continues. “You must have a direct relationship with your fans. That is, they must pay you directly. You get to keep all of their support, unlike the small percent of their fees you might get from a music label, publisher, studio, retailer, or other intermediate. If you keep the full $100 of each true fan, then you need only 1,000 of them to earn $100,000 per year. That’s a living for most folks.”
While the math behind Kelley’s theory may be open to debate, and it is certainly easier to discuss than achieve, Mixerman is a full subscriber to his theory. “If they’re going to buy everything that you do, then you can make a living on that for sure and maybe do better. At least it puts you into a position to expand,” Eric says. “It’s always where you’re at: ‘How do I grow the market that I have right now into a much broader market.’
“My ultimate goal is to be able to work on what I want when I want. To some extent, I may be there, although I don’t have total power to dictate when things happen.”
Blowing Up Asheville
Eric was first introduced to the Asheville area when he came to work with two successful, locally based artists. He recorded Josh Phillips’ 2010 album, Get Outside, and Dodge The Arrow by The Broadcast in 2013, both at Echo Mountain Recording Studios. “I moved to Asheville in October of 2015. I had to move from LA because the rents were just beyond outrageous. I was literally going to have to move out of this great house I was in, and for the same amount of money was going to get half as much, if that.”
Eric had also grown tired of the major label recording grind. The paradigm shift in the music industry now pays engineers pennies on the dollar with the same amount of stress. “I wanted to continue to produce what I wanted to produce. For me, not working on the major label stuff is amazing. We have total control over the product and the artist; basically I act as their A&R rep and their producer. We don’t have any of those tensions to deal with. We just make the product.”
Mixerman was quickly adopted as a thought leader in the local music community. “I had enough of a base of people that I wasn’t networking completely from scratch,” he says. “My discography has been a blessing as far as that is concerned, because people want to meet me, but even with that, I haven’t met everybody. It’s just amazing how big this community is and how hard it is to infiltrate the whole thing. What I love about the place is really how much music goes on here. Asheville doesn’t compare to LA; I didn’t have this kind of concentration. In LA if I wanted to get musicians together they could be two hours away from each other—here, I’m seeing everybody all the time. I’ve never had so many friends in the music business that I saw all the time in my life. It’s amazing, actually.”
For all of its glory, however, the chinks Asheville’s musical armor soon became very apparent. “We’ve got a great music community here. It’s amazing, it’s huge, it’s concentrated. There’s a lot of amazing acts, but there’s no way for them to make money. Tips are not a business model. It doesn’t make any sense. Another part of the problem is that a lot of this stuff is kinda thrown together. To survive as a musician you’ve got to play in multiple acts, which means they’re not really rehearsing, which means they’re OK, but it’s not anything that’s going to make people notice.”
A recent study conducted by the Economic Development Commission of Asheville-Buncombe County, and published in the Citizen-Times under the somewhat dubious headline, “Asheville area music industry growth outpacing Nashville,” tallied more than 1,400 jobs contributing to music’s economic impact on the region. The study calculates the direct impact of these jobs at more than $225 million, and the total effect at more than $383 million. Even with the presence of musical infrastructure such as Moog Music, Echo Mountain Recording Studio, and The Orange Peel concert venue, it is extremely difficult to see any of those coins finding their way into the pockets of local musicians. Efforts by the Convention & Visitors Bureau to promote Asheville as a music destination have also had inconsistent outcomes, something for which Eric has strong, but honest and truthful words: “Take all the money that you’re putting into advertising and invest it in the community. That will go way further than anything you’re spending on advertising.”
There have been several attempts to organize the musical community, with mixed results. One of the largest points of contention is the rate of pay for music in the city, and the relationship between artists and venues.
“A band plays for two hours,” he observes. “I watch them keep the people there. I watch people walk down the street, see what’s happening, and go inside. That has no value to the bar? The band kept them there drinking. I understand the venue’s position as well. A lot of nights they break even. They have to make their money on sometimes one night a week if they’re lucky. It depends on the venue. There’s nights they know they’re not going to make any money, but they have to keep their people working. The free shows aren’t working because the bars don’t want to give part of their take—because they don’t see the value in it. There’s so much competition… it’s so saturated that the bars don’t have to pay.”
For his part, Eric is trying to be a unifying force and has solid ideas about how to grow the true economic impact of the musical community, and provide tangible benefits for musicians, venues, hotels, and tourists.
“I feel we need to put together shows, real shows, very entertaining two-hour shows. Take an act and put them in one place every week, especially during the six month heavy tourist season. Instead of sending our acts out to go and find their fans, have them stay here and attract the fans as if this were a mecca. If you want to see a certain band, you have to come here to go and see them. It’s just too expensive to go on the road. If you want to target tourists, then we need shows that they can grasp hold of. We can get the hotels to send the tourists. If you talk to the hotels, they don’t know where to send anyone. They made this website that tells what’s going on, but we don’t know. Tourists look at it, I look at it, and I can’t tell what to go see for the night—and I know half the bands!”
“Right now I’m looking for funding to install the first show. If I can prove the model, then the spigot will flow. At the moment, everybody I tell the concept to thinks it’s a great idea that will work, but implementing it is a whole different thing. Now I’ve got to get some money people who find it a great idea. I wanted to install a show at the Salvage Station. You can make some really good money on shows there; the sky’s the limit on how many people you can bring in. If you’re dealing with tourists, you’re dealing with shuttles and not cars. It can expand or contract however you need. I’m not sure where I’m going to get the money from, whether I’m going to get it from investors or from sponsors like beer companies. I really think the beverage companies around here should be joining forces with the music industry. That marriage is already there.”
The Big Score
In so many ways, Mixerman is a role model for how artists should develop themselves as a brand, diversify their interests and income, and employ creative entrepreneurship—all in pursuit of the ultimate goal: the big score.
“I wish my business were predictable enough [to do financial projections],” he says. “I’m in a hit or miss business across the board. Either I get a hit and make a bunch of money, or I make some money. I’m always at the mercy of how many people are buying into whatever product I’m making at any given time, and I have a catalog. Anytime I put out a new product, I have the possibility of selling all the products that I’ve done up to that point. It’s more about the pursuit at all times of the big score. That’s what my business has been since I got into it. In some ways I’m starting to look at it less like that because I need to maintain some predictability, but at the end of the day, I need the big score because the big score is what is going to make my business explode. Then once it explodes, then I need another one to follow it up with, so it’s always about that.”
Having someone of Eric’s talent and music industry stature in Western North Carolina has undoubtedly increased the value of the Asheville music scene. As the town struggles with the growing pains of a booming economy and exponentially increasing tourism, the musicians and artists who have long augmented the natural beauty of the mountains with their talents, and created the bohemian reputation on which the town has capitalized, are struggling to reap the benefits of the region’s good fortune. Perhaps Mixerman has come to save the day. Will Asheville continue to rise as the musical “Billionheir Apparent”? (Eric’s latest book, published in June of last year, is about the aforementioned India billionaire’s son, Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent.) Will tourists turn their alcohol-induced jaywalking in the direction of The Asheville Musical Revue?
One thing is for certain: If Mixerman paints this small mountain hamlet as the backdrop for his next book, hilarity will ensue as the local character chart comes to life beneath Eric Sarafin’s witty pen.
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…