Head Engineer, Lakewind Sound Studios, Cape Breton NS
By Robert Breen
As head engineer at Lakewind Sound Michael “Sheppy” Shepherd is one of the busiest audio engineers on the East Coast. Mike has won the ECMA (East Coast Music Awards) Engineer/Technician of the Year for three consecutive years after multiple nominations, and Lakewind Sound, with Sheppy at the board, has won numerous ECMA Studio of the Year Awards. Mike has worked with artists such as Damhnait Doyle, The Rankins, Natalie MacMaster, Matt Minglewood and a veritable “who’s who” of Maritime artists and industry legends.
Lakewind Sound was built by two mainstays in the Cape Breton music scene, producer Fred Lavery, the 2009 ECMA Industry Professional of the Year, and Songwriter/Musician Gordie Sampson. Gordie Sampson achieved worldwide fame as the winner of the Grammy Award for Country Song of the Year for Carrie Underwood’s hit “Jesus, Take the Wheel” which he co wrote. The song was also nominated for the Song of the Year Grammy. Mike co-engineered and mixed Sampson’s last two solo albums at Lakewind.
Mike’s path to success in music ran through OIART in the fall of 1997, but was nearly derailed early on. In the first months away from his home in Cape Breton, he admits to being intimidated by the backgrounds of some of his fellow students. “I looked at these classmates who seemed to know so much more than I did, had college degrees in music or had done some audio work before, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this, I’m going home.’” His roommate, who was also enrolled in the program, convinced him that he should stay.
As the year progressed, Mike quickly discovered that even those who come to OIART with little previous audio experience will quickly catch up with those who do, and it isn’t long before the playing field levels out. By graduation, Mike felt that he could handle any situation that came up. “OIART readied me because of the course depth and it helped me to get working at this level. I felt extremely prepared for any questions or situations that approached me...even in the presence of “The Masters” like George Massenburg.” More on George Massenburg shortly.
The job hunt after graduation wasn’t intimidating for Mike, but he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. “I knew I would have to be assisting, fetching coffee and working other jobs until I moved to a full time position as an engineer. It was dealing with having no money at first that was frustrating. So I ended up taking catalogue orders for Sears until then. I started doing assistant work and demos at Lakewind at first. About 6 months after graduating, I came back to assist in ADR for the CBC television series “Pit Pony”. Shortly after that I moved into a position doing all of the ADR recording and some album projects. By spring 1999 I was kind of settled in to the position of head engineer...extremely lucky I think!”
Since then, Mike has become beloved to numerous Maritime artists who trust him with their work. Despite numerous nominations and awards since, he considers his favourite accomplishment “my first nomination for the East Coast Music Awards. It was great feeling to know that I was being recognized for my achievements at a time when I thought I might be spinning my wheels.”
Even though Lakewind is situated on Cape Breton Island, where the population isn’t quite 150,000, the musicians and recordings the area has produced are known all over Canada and around the world. “It’s small compared to a place like Nashville. There isn’t a recording facility every couple blocks and it seems almost unusual to some that it exists here. Although we can provide similar technology as those places, the scenery is quite different. I’m a minute away from the edge of the island and the next thing you see is miles of Atlantic Ocean...people find inspiration in these surroundings.”
Among Mike’s most memorable clients have been producer Peter Asher and engineer George Massenburg. Peter Asher was first known as a singer in the duo Peter and Gordon, who rose to fame with hits penned by no less than Lennon and McCartney. He was then the first A&R person at the Beatles’ Apple Records. He discovered and signed James Taylor, then went on to produce Linda Ronstadt and a host of others. On working with Asher, Mike says, “It was great...you need a giant note pad to take notes on guys like this, that have so much history and success, because they have so much knowledge oozing from them. I got to hear a lot about that history when we were out of the studio as well, which I was really interested in. I also got to work with him on a television show related to the same project, which was a great experience.”
George Massenburg is also an industry legend, a Grammy winning engineer and producer who is doubtlessly known to every recording engineer. For readers who don’t know the name, through his company GML (George Massenburg Labs) has designed and built innovative equipment and Pro Tools plug-ins that can be found in most top studios worldwide. Mike says, “I broke the ice very soon with George by breaking the CD drive in his brand new iBook! So after that, things could only get better I thought... and they did. We got along great and he showed me a couple of his favorite mic techniques and tricks that I’m forever grateful for. I offered my experience with miking our C7 acoustic piano and some knowledge that I had in Digital Performer. I think I might have even shown George a thing or two in Pro Tools. Ha-ha!”
Mike says the main lesson he took from the sessions, though, was focus. “You need to be focused on the project that you are working on and execute it with precision to the best of your ability.” Mike is indeed a focused and detailed engineer who takes great care to make every project sound its best. Like any studio job, the hours are considerable, especially at first. “The hours can get crazy at times because I’m usually the only one working. It used to be 16 hours a day...TV work for 8 hours and music sessions at night. These days, for sanity reasons, I try to keep the days to 10 hrs.”
The industry has changed a great deal in the last five years and Lakewind has been adapting and even growing since. Mike says, “The bread and butter of our market is traditional Celtic music. They continue to do things without the aid of record and distribution companies and will for a very long time, which benefit us. In the global picture we still want to attract more high profile clients from other parts of the world. We have to accept that technology will constantly change the music business from now on and adapt to those changes. I know that’s easier said than done. I have a positive outlook on things and I know that from my seat down here as long as we make music, someone has to record it.”
When asked for the advice he would give to people starting out in the recording industry, Mike says, “My only advice, from experience, is be able to be versatile. In places like this these days you need to be the engineer, the editor, the midi guy, the webmaster and the coffee maker. Be open to a variety of genres and avenues in the field. When you are starting out you’re not going to enjoy every project you work on, but you’ll find your place somewhere in there and your success will grow. Do your homework and ask lots of questions. Whether you are starting out by sweeping the floor or getting coffee, or you are on top with the pros... have fun doing it!”
“The best thing for me, which continues to be the most exciting thing, is being able to work with 2 great guys (Fred Lavery and Gordie Sampson) and at the same time, be so close to my home and my family. Sappy but true!” Mike still looks back on his time at OIART fondly and has recommended the program to many prospective students. “It has definitely stuck with me and sometimes I still have dreams of giant signal flow charts.”
The Lakewind Vibe
Lakewind has been incredibly successful, winning numerous awards for technical excellence, but that isn’t at the heart of Lakewind’s appeal. Mike says, “I think it might be how relaxed it is, and how we can relate to the musicians on a personal level rather than treating clients as just a number. I don’t think that is much different than some other facilities, but people find that quite comforting when they make a record here. On the technical side, we have a beautiful Yamaha C7 that people love to use and a brand new recording space designed by Pilchner-Schoustal. Those are a few things you may not find anywhere else on the east coast.”