From little old Kuching to big-name Los Angeles, Alvin Wee has never let anything stop him from fulfilling his ambition to work in the music industry. We’re excited to share his story in our eighth Spotlight feature, as Alvin tells us about his journey towards becoming a music producer and sound engineer.
Based in Los Angeles, Alvin is a sound engineer who works on songs and music in films. A good part of what he does is mixing, which is “the process of combining all recorded and computer generated (if any) sounds that make up the components of a track to make it sonically balanced and musically pleasing … not dissimilar to a chef that puts a dish together.”
Alvin is also a musician himself as well as a music producer: “What that means is I help composers and songwriters alike craft their musical ideas into an easily understandable and accepted consumable product. As vague as that sounds, the scope of the job ranges from helping in the writing of melodies and lyrics, to shaping string, brass and band arrangements, to ‘making beats’ or ‘creating a track’. And as I help with this creative process, I often use my musician background and record instruments myself.”
Alvin had always been interested in music – he had performed at school assemblies in Lodge, and had also formed a band with some friends. But music didn’t quite figure into his career plan at first. Before he had even finished Form 5, Alvin started a computer science advanced diploma/twinning degree at Nusantara Institute of Information Technology. This meant attending school during the day and programming classes at night. After obtaining his diploma, he was told he would have to wait another two years before he met the prerequisite to complete his final degree year in the UK.
The interim gave Alvin time to explore his lifelong passion for music. He started gigging with local bands, and it was an experience that would shape his career ambitions.
“When I started playing in bands and made whatever little money it gave me, I realized I could actually do this for a living.”
Alvin was very driven and focused in pursuing his musical interests, though he demurs to say that it was more him being “stubborn” and “impulsive”! From one band rehearsal to another, he enjoyed playing all genres, from pop rock to swing jazz, and wanted to write and create his own music. Buying his own music production software (which before online downloads was a thing, meant waiting two weeks for the CDs to arrive in Kuching!), he taught himself to make simple band recordings as well as how to improve the quality of the music he recorded. He eventually hit a ceiling, and had to decide how to progress thereon.
One option might have been to intern with a major recording studio or music label, but Alvin learned about the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 2011, he enrolled into the Music Production and Engineering program. His second college stint was both an exciting and frenetic time, which Alvin took full advantage of:
I packed my schedule full of classes from 9am to 6pm and had my work study from 8am to 9am, or 6pm to midnight on Friday nights – basically, the shifts no one wanted to do. My work study involved me cleaning and maintaining the equipment in the recording studios. Early mornings, I made it a point to clean out the studio as quickly as I could and then spend the remainder of the time I had before any students came in or class started to learn my craft. On top of all that, I took the encouragement we received to collaborate with our peers seriously, and spent all my extra time creating music together [with them] in the studios. There’s only 24 hours in each day, and I was there till 6am every morning all throughout 2012!
In his final year at Berklee, Alvin got his first big break when he was given the opportunity to mix and record the music for the Final Fantasy XIII-3 video game. The rest, as they say, is history: the September after his graduation in 2013, Alvin moved to Los Angeles to meet as many people as he could and to expand his career in music: “Next thing I knew, I was recommended for a job that landed me in a studio where I was plugging in cables as fast as I could so that my boss could start working on the first Kingsman movie.”
Kingsman: The Secret Service was the first Hollywood film Alvin got to assist on; since then, he boasts music and mixing credits on a string of films, documentaries and video games. A couple he is particularly proud of include Kung Fu Panda 3, which involved working with famed composer Hans Zimmer as well as on the end credits song which was co-written and produced by Jay Chou – “Getting to play guitar on those tracks is definitely a career highlight.” – and Dope, an independently produced film which won multiple awards, including best editing, at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Dope also gave Alvin the opportunity to work on singer Pharrell’s music.
Alvin is proud to be a Malaysian, and prouder still to be a Sarawakian, working in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of America. He actively reaches out to other Malaysians in the industry, and has gotten to know a few of them pretty well. One such compadre is Rendra Zawawi, a music composer whom Alvin frequently collaborates with. Rendra and Sarawakian singer-songwriter Zee Avi wrote the theme song ‘Arena Cahaya’ for the Malaysian film Ola Bola, and Alvin produced, arranged and mixed the track. The trio did Malaysia proud when the song went on to win Best Theme Song at the prestigious Golden Horse Awards in Taipei last year, and Alvin feels privileged to have been able to perform the song on stage with Zee at the awards show.
Rendra and Alvin also worked together on the song ‘Together We Rise’, which became the official theme song for the closing ceremony of the 29th SEA Games this year at Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.
In fact, Alvin and Rendra together recently set up Amplitone Productions, an organisation which aims to serve as a bridge between the Malaysian and Los Angeles entertainment industries:
The goal is to be a springboard for those aspiring creators from Malaysia, to help them find their footing with whatever resources we have out here in Los Angeles. Both Rendra and I know how challenging it [can be], especially when dealing with the music industry. Amplitone is founded on a community-based platform distilled from the Malaysian “lepak” culture. We see it as an opportunity to partner with fellow accomplished and talented Malaysians here in Los Angeles, and make those skill sets available to the creators back home as well. I think this cross-pollination of ideas and resources will help an even larger population of creative types emerge from Malaysia and by extension Sarawak (and Lodge).
Alvin is grateful that he is able to make music for a living: “it really is a joy when you go into the studio and try to create something that didn’t exist before you showed up.” However, it’s not always glamorous, and it’s almost never easy. Alvin explains that he struggles to manage expectations, and he has yet to master organisational and time management skills satisfactorily:
The thing about this line of work is, most professionals are freelance. And what I’ve learnt is to try to not say no to anything (job-wise) that comes your way … a lot of the time, the schedules start overlapping each other and before you know it you’re six projects deep and running on three days of sleep deprivation … While there’s undoubtedly a lot of glitz and glamour in Hollywood, there’s still a lot of relentless work that goes on behind the scenes … Yes, a lot of us get to work with cool people, and while there is such a thing as getting “a big break”, there’s also just the years and years of chipping away at stone before that happens.
In addition to organisation and time management, Alvin has found communication to be an essential skill for his job. He also cites the advantages of being able to work under pressure, having interpersonal skills and being able to understand body language: “Imagine you’re going to be working with the same people 18 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 months … I’ve learnt my ability to listen to people carries more importance than my ability to play the piano.” Good business acumen and a rudimentary understanding of the economics of the industry also goes a long way in the field.
Alvin’s advice for current Lodgians interested in a similar line of work is to explore their options, and to always persevere:
Music is such a big field. Explore it all, educate yourself, identify your area of interest and then expand on it. There’s many ways to do life (in music) so don’t feel like you’re no good just because you’re not getting 100 million views on YouTube or your song didn’t make it onto Spotify’s Fresh Finds playlist. No one gets good at what they do over night. Certainly not me! Be the best version of you that you can be … That’s where you’ll find your real voice. Understand that it’s a very long game and that it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Alvin is happy to chat with anyone who has questions for him, and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Jane Leong
Photos courtesy of Alvin Wee