Today, I had the privilege of attending a really cool music clinic titled “Secret Sauce of Music Arrangement” by Mac Chew at Qactus Space. As a renowned composer, arranger & musician – Mac Chew’s wealth of experience and collaborations with exceptional musicians over the past 36 years made this event particularly intriguing.
The clinic was packed with a diverse audience, comprising professional musicians, working musicians, music students, my own students, and friends from the music scene. The session began with Mac Chew sharing his musical journey, from his beginnings in Segamat, Johor to his studies at Berklee College of Music and eventually to his work until today.
He initially studied business (in Canada!) but ultimately focused on Music Production and Sound Engineering at Berklee College of Music.
One of the unique aspects of the clinic was Mac Chew’s initiative to have everyone introduce themselves. This helped everyone know each other better & also helped Mac Chew shape the presentation even better to the level of the attendees.
Arranging Music: The Cook, The Tailor & The Servant
Mac Chew portrayed himself as a “cook,” “tailor,” and, in some instances, a servant to those who hire him as an arranger. He emphasized the importance of seeing and hearing music, drawing from his experiences at Berklee, where he honed his skills in writing and transcribing a Billboard number one hit every week. He recalled how he learned cool things from George Duke’s arrangements. Mac Chew acknowledged the mistakes he made during that time at Berklee as a student arranger and the significance of continuous learning, as music is an ever-evolving art form.
Formative Experiences and Career Highlights
Returning to Kuala Lumpur, Mac Chew recounted his early experiences playing at the Regent Hotel and working at Kings Studio with engineer Peter Chong during the 2 am to 8 am shift. One of his transformative moments involved recording the legendary rock band Lefthanded, where he had the opportunity to work with notable musicians and run the sessions. His journey led him to perform with Sharifah Aini and begin his touring experiences. He also met Fauzi Marzuki and A. Ali – and how that opened up other work opportunities.
Mac Chew also shared his insights as working as session musician during that era, where he recorded ten songs in a day, part by part.. Mac Chew delved into the process of choosing different sounds and recording onto analog tape, providing firsthand accounts of his time in the industry. It was such a different time… and I believe his stories provided more context of how much music technology has changed from the 1980s until today.
The Evolution of Technology: From Analog to Digital
Mac Chew explored the technological advancements that shaped his musical career. He discussed the transition from cassettes to MIDI, highlighting the significance of the Roland MC50 & MC500 and their limitations. The Akai MPC60 played a crucial role in allowing swing beats to be incorporated into sequences (and thus shaping hip hop too!) The changing landscape of technology, from MIDI to MP3, opened up new possibilities and workflows for arrangers like Mac Chew.
The Balancing Act: Demos, References, and Arrangements
Mac Chew emphasized the importance of receiving briefs from producers and songwriters. He shared the challenges arrangers face when deciding whether to align their work with the demo or the references provided. Melody took center stage in Mac Chew’s workflow, as he transcribed, determined the key and tempo, and meticulously examined the chords for precision. His approach to arranging involved improvisation and playing with the melody, always considering it as the boss.
Workflow, Orchestration, and Equipment
Mac Chew provided insights into his workflow, layering different parts, experimenting, and orchestrating. He discussed the significance of having diverse sample libraries and using a portable 2TB solid-state drive loaded with his favorite sounds.
This setup enabled him to work seamlessly from his laptop, utilizing his collection of samples. Additionally, he addressed the challenge of revisions, emphasizing the need to be adaptable and open to accommodating the preferences of producers, songwriters, and clients. Mac Chew also touched upon the importance of maintaining good health through supplements and exercise, as arranging often requires prolonged periods of sitting at a computer.
Question and Answer Session: Exploring Arrangement Nuances
The clinic concluded with a question and answer session, where I asked if we could hear an example of how a demo sounded like and how he transformed it into an arrangement.
This was a really cool part of the event! What a treat it was to hear (and see) his DAW timeline.
Mac Chew also talked about the differences between live and studio arrangements. Mac Chew graciously shared his perspective on these topics, along with the challenges he encountered throughout his career. A particularly intriguing insight was his belief that doubt, stress, and pressure are catalysts for growth and improvement, keeping musicians curious and continuously learning.
In conclusion, attending Mac Chew’s music arrangement clinic was such a great part of my day! His vast expertise and willingness to share his journey and insights into the craft provided invaluable lessons for aspiring musicians and seasoned professionals alike. The event was a testament to the importance of continuous learning, adaptability, and embracing the evolving landscape of music arrangement. I am immensely grateful to the Qactus Space & the entire organizing team for hosting such an enriching session.
Can’t wait for the next one!
If you enjoyed this post, I encourage you to explore my other articles and posts, which offer even more guitar and music tips.
You might enjoy reading:
10 Things I Learned From the Ichika Nito Guitar Clinic at Bentley Music Auditorium, Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
Event Review: Laney Presents Lari Basilio Asia Clinic Tour at Bentley Music Auditorium, Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
7 Things I Learned From Mateus Asato
and this series:
[WORKSHOPS: LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS]
10 Things I Learned From The Mateus Asato Singapore Guitar Clinic
10 Things I Learned From The Julian Lage TIJC 2017 Workshop
10 Things I Learned From The Jack Thammarat Kuala Lumpur Workshop
10 Things I Learned From The Guthrie Govan Kuala Lumpur Workshop
And for jazzers… interested to check out what I learned from the Thailand International Jazz Camp 2017 (12 hours of workshops & 2 hours of jam sessions), check out the 3,100+ word blog post here: Thailand International Jazz Camp 2017 with Shai Maestro/Desmond White Group and Thailand International Jazz Camp 2018 with Will Vinson Quintet.
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