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John Michael Caldwell: Troubleshooter Turned Score Mixer

Hollywood is a long way from small-town northwest Louisiana, as up-and-coming score mixer John Michael Caldwell shares.

John Michael Caldwell in his home-based mix studio.
John Michael Caldwell in his home-based mix studio. Courtesy of John Michael Caldwell.

In mid-February, up-and-coming engineer/mixer John Michael Caldwell found himself seated at the Neve 88R console in the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, surrounded by the facility’s in-house engineering staff and the music team, working on the live-action film adaptation of the beloved children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon. The director, Carlos Saldanha, was there, as were a few producers. Through the glass, in the live room, a full orchestra had finished tuning and was ready to record.

Moving in and out of the control room was composer Batu Sener, who was making his solo theatrical debut after years of assisting and then collaborating with A-list composer John Powell out of the latter’s music recording and production facility, 5 Cat Studios. Caldwell had been working closely with Sener since joining Powell’s team in 2018, primarily on television projects—but now they were on their own, on a big picture with all the associated big costs and even bigger expectations. The film had to be in theaters on June 30. The pressure was real.

A little piece Caldwell put together to express his joy of troubleshooting technology.
A little piece Caldwell put together to express his joy of troubleshooting technology.Courtesy of John Michael Caldwell.

“I can’t say that I like the pressure, but I’m also a person who’s never been bothered by pressure, either,” Caldwell says later, from the vantage point of having delivered the score mix’s stems and breakout tracks to the re-recording team. “I think it kind of just grazes over me. Maybe that’s naive of me at this point in my life, but I’ve always had the attitude that whatever you lay in front of me, whatever the job is, whatever happens, we’re going to get it done.

“That said, the team at Sony really did a good job babysitting me,” he adds. “Those guys, the stagehands and everyone else, they’re out there every day setting up microphones with the Alan Meyersons and the Shawn Murphys of the world. If I were to make a bad decision, they would either let me know and make a suggestion, or say, ‘Good luck with that.’ They’re doing the patching and making sure that everything is being sent to the stage board for the headphones. They’re making sure everything’s being sent down the correct monitor path. I’m mainly there doing my best to get a sound for the mics and to get a sound for the room. It was a lot of fun, and I think it went well.”

It’s not that Caldwell was a total newbie. In the past couple of years, he had mixed Powell’s score for Don’t Worry Darling and Anthony Willis’ score for M3GAN, along with recording and mixing Powell’s score for the upcoming Michael J. Fox documentary to be released on Apple TV+.

Still, Hollywood is a long way from small-town northwest Louisiana, where Caldwell grew up, and tracking an orchestra in the Streisand is a far cry from setting a PortaStudio’s faders to zero and recording friends in the garage with two mics.

From today’s perspective, his 12-year journey, from walking into his first recording studio to sitting behind the console at Sony, reads like something out of the 1980s. Knowing how to set up and maintain a recording system provided his entree, while his knack for troubleshooting and an ear for music fueled his rise. The progression is even more laudable considering he knew nothing about the technical side of recording when he dropped out of college (studying music education) and enrolled in a three-month intensive program at The Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio.

“That exposed me to a lot,” Caldwell says of his time in school. “I had never learned gain structure or anything like that. I didn’t know to turn up the pot from the preamp or how to set levels, so it exposed me to a lot of the technical basics. Also, I kind of excelled in the troubleshooting arena. I like the puzzle of having to figure it out.”

After completing the program in 2010 and heading home, Caldwell landed a dream internship (and soon thereafter, a job as assistant engineer) at the soon-to-be-finished Blade Studios, a world-class facility designed by Russ Berger in nearby Shreveport.

He had the good fortune of arriving soon after the foundation was poured on the ground-up facility, taking part in the construction and learning about acoustics. He helped to install the new SSL Duality and set up the top-shelf Pro Tools rigs. He was in the room, soaking it all up, when Allen Sides flew in to tune the Ocean Way Audio monitor system. However, the real education came from the guy who would become his mentor, chief engineer Chris Bell.

“We didn’t have an intern, and we didn’t have any other engineers,” Caldwell recalls. “It was just us two, me and Chris, in the control room together every day for the year and a half I worked there. I learned a ton of my miking techniques—positioning, and how to track a band together—from Chris, and a lot of the decisions I make today are because of the way I learned from him. I owe a lot to Chris Bell for just kind of sitting there and putting up with me, and showing me how to do everything right.”

That exposure to recording top artists, often with the whole band in the room, opened Caldwell’s eyes to a new world, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities at the time in Louisiana, so when his wife graduated veterinary school at LSU in Baton Rouge, they started thinking about places to make a fresh start.

John Michael Caldwell, right, sitting with composer John Powell at the latter’s 5 Cat Studio.Courtesy of John Michael Caldwell.
John Michael Caldwell, right, sitting with composer John Powell at the latter’s 5 Cat Studio. Courtesy of John Michael Caldwell.

“In the back of my mind, I was always thinking about how much I love soundtracks and how much I love orchestral music,” he explains, “but there’s always a different quality in film music than there is in classical-sounding recordings. I had seen a few interviews with Alan Meyerson and Shawn Murphy, and these guys were saying things I’ve never heard of. They were talking about fold-downs and doing stuff in 5.1. That all just sounded kind of crazy to me, but I also thought that it sounded like a really interesting workflow. It just kind of felt like the place that I wanted to be in the film industry, so we moved to Los Angeles.”

Sending out 80 resumes resulted in zero callbacks, but on a lark, he sent a cold-call LinkedIn message to the engineer at 5 Cat Studios and got invited in for an interview. After a three-month trial, he was hired, and he’s been there ever since, becoming something of an expert in setting up—then maintaining, updating and troubleshooting—the facility’s elaborate Pro Tools HDX rigs. He learned sample rate conversion and he learned about sync. Now he’s tracking and mixing on some pretty high-profile projects, but he appears to be unphased by it all, whether setting up a custom rig to take to the scoring stage or mixing for Dolby Atmos in 5 Cat Studio’s Meyer Sound-equipped main studio.

“For me, it’s all about taking in the information that you have in front of you and assembling it in a way that makes the most amount of sense for the application at hand,” he says. “That is a lot of what troubleshooting is—taking what is in front of me, assessing that situation and then making a decision to put my best foot forward. Troubleshooting is normally about just trying the next thing, and trying things over and over again, until you reach the one that ends up working.”