Curt Sobel was halfway through med school when he realized he was making a big mistake. He went around to all his science teachers and made his confession -- he was dropping out to go to music school.
Instead of chastising him, his teachers applauded and Sobel was off to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Film music was a perfect marriage for Sobel, who spent every weekend as a child "bribing" his mom to take him to the movies.
Good thing, too. Once he left school, he headed for Los Angeles and knocked on enough doors to get started making music for Hollywood pictures. "I met someone at a dubbing facility whose father was a music editor. He introduced us, and I was hired because of my background and education."
That was 1979. Since then, it's been one job after another. Sobel now lives in Pacific Palisades. He's done everything. He received an Emmy in 1992 for best song for the HBO production Cast a Deadly Spell. He was music producer for the feature film Blood and Wine. He was music editor for The Flamingo Kid, For the Boys (produced by Bette Midler) and Under the Cherry Moon (Prince).
"The longer you can stick it out here doing anything, the more people you meet, the more connections you make. Along with that is luck. If you meet the right people, shop at the right grocery store, you'll meet people who are interested in what you're doing," says Sobel.
Once you meet the right people, there's a trick to selling yourself. "If you have a good background, you'll be ready. But you could say you produced a few bands a few years ago, back in Boston. They don't have to know it was a college band. But the doors will be open."
Being a music producer requires a wide variety of personal and professional skills. Karen Kane can attest to that. A few months ago, she was pulling her hair out.
For five days, the music producer had been working with a hip, trendy band. The songs were great, but Kane's ear just wasn't getting what it needed.
"These guys weren't studio musicians, and we were having a hard time getting a good take," she says. "They're 23 years old and they have stuff that's as good as anything on the air right now, but it takes a lot of patience to work with them."
The boys just weren't into playing in synch. Kane set up headphones so they could each hear when they were supposed to come in. Even that didn't work. The tempo was still off. So Kane hooked them up to a drum machine with a click track, but that didn't work either.
"Finally, the best thing that happened was we went out to dinner," Kane laughs. "When we came back, they had fresh energy. You have to be sort of a psychologist. You have to know how to make the process happen."
Sometimes food is the answer. Sometimes altered lighting to create the image of a bar or nightclub -- right down to cigarette smoke hanging in the air -- is required. "It takes a lot of initiative on my part," says Kane.
"It's your responsibility to keep the guitars in tune, to keep everyone playing in time, and it shows when you mess up. You've also got to be totally creative. You might say, 'Why don't we put a harmonica right here, or a saxophone there.' In the end, it's as much my recording."
For Sobel, the challenges and rewards are different.
His greatest hurdle to overcome with every project is learning who the real boss is. The producers, directors, actors and studio managers all want a say in their latest big-budget production.
"You have to please all of these people. And the downside is making sure that you're clear as to who you're answering to."
Then there are the unexpected aspects to the job. Acting as a musical translator is tough. Once, Sobel's composer had a limited understanding of English, and the director had no musical background. Sobel had to use his listening skills to understand what the director wanted and then explain it in simple terms to the composer.
Another hurdle came while working on Gypsy, a CBS TV movie starring Bette Midler. Sobel had to create a score for the final scenes that would satisfy the exacting director. The composer hadn't completed the score, so Sobel had to find a way to record enough raw material in the studio that he could create a score to meet the needs. It was tough, but he got what he wanted.
"I don't take anything for granted," he says. "The fact that I'm actually paid to do this has always been a bit of a shock to me. I don't forget that feeling."