Breaking In

Nov 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

GETTING A FOOTHOLD IN THE AUDIO INDUSTRY IS TOUGH (BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE!)

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You don't need us to tell you that this is a challenging time to be entering the audio business. Commercial recording studios have been vanishing at an alarming rate for several years, triggered by the rise of home studios and a decline in the fortunes of the record business. The live touring industry has been rocked by increased expenses for nearly everything, from gas to hotels to equipment, often cutting into the pay of sound personnel. And at the same time, there has been a boom in recording schools and audio programs in colleges and universities, so there are more talented, qualified people looking for work in the industry than ever before.

To get a better sense of the job landscape that awaits aspiring audio types, we talked recently with several studio operators and job-placement coordinators at audio schools: Kirk Imamura is president of Avatar Studios in New York City; Rose Mann-Cherney is president of Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles; Becky Sullivan is operations manager of of the Hollywood post facility Soundelux, and is a successful supervising sound editor; Chris Haseleu is chairman of the Recording Industry program at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, Tenn.; and Jayson Khademi is the director of student services at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences (CRAS) in Tempe, Ariz.

Paying Dues

The first illusion to be shattered is that a fresh-faced kid graduating from a recording school/program — much less coming off the streets without any training — can waltz into a studio, land a good-paying job as an engineer and in short order be setting up mics for Bono and The Edge. Much more likely is the prospect of working as an intern for free for a while and then getting a low-wage position as a runner (“go-fer” has such an unappealing ring to it), which might include helping with documentation of Pro Tools sessions in between getting coffee and bagels for the engineers. This naturally raises the question: “I paid x-thousand bucks for an audio education to do that?”

Yup. 'Twas ever thus. Sure, we've all heard stories about the assistant to the assistant engineer who suddenly finds himself sitting at the console one day because everyone else in the studio is gone or sick and, say, David Bowie really wants to track that day. So the kid gets his shot, somehow sweats his way through the session (because he'd learned so much from osmosis just being in the studio), Bowie likes him and in no time the kid has graduated to a full-fledged engineer. Well, dare to dream, but it rarely happens that way.

“So many kids today know a lot about recording even before they come to a school,” says MTSU's Haseleu. “They've all done recording at home, whether it's GarageBand or Cakewalk or something, and many of them are even at the Pro Tools LE level. There's good news and bad news with that. They come in conversant with the technology, but a lot of them have learned some really bad habits as well because they're usually recording in bad environments.

“But even with this base of knowledge and then with what they learn here, I think they understand it's going to be a tough road out there,” Haseleu continues. “They don't come in with high expectations about the job market. It's still one of those things where you have to have the passion to make it in the business. Nothing gets handed to you.”

“Our production assistant interns know that they're basically getting a runner position,” notes Avatar's Imamura, who has taken on many former audio students for three-month internships and had some move on to real positions at the studio. “But it's still important work for the studio, and you're in the studio, seeing what goes on and helping out however you can. We've found that the people who can't tolerate that fall by the wayside. You do get some people who think they're going to walk in and be producing in a few months — that type usually doesn't survive. There's nothing wrong with feeling that way about yourself — maybe you will be a great producer — but that's not what it's going to be about at the entry level.” Imamura says it typically takes two or three years to work up to the assistant engineer level.

Know the Basics and More!

CRAS' Khademi says, “Regardless of what that entry-level position might seem like, a lot of the time it's still the way you break in usually, and the people who get those jobs are still expected to know about recording. They still need to know the basics — signal flow and miking and all that — but these days, too, they're expected to know so much more because of computers. Understanding digital patching is important — making sure this program talks to that program. We've had people come here who had literally never sent an e-mail before, but when they leave they're Pro Tools whizzes.

“There's a lot to learn,” he continues, “but first and foremost what studios ask us about when we're talking about students is attitude. The skills are almost secondary because they need somebody who can be cool and fit into the studio. They want cool people who can sit in the back and not get in the way. But they also have to be smart when the time comes for them to shine.”

Although Haseleu agrees that traditional theory, recording techniques and knowledge still form the basis of a quality audio education, he says, “No one gives a stitch about analog magnetic recording anymore unless you want to work for a restoration lab or something. These days, the more different DAW platforms you know the better off you are because so much of the work is going to be platform-specific, and they're going to ask you, ‘Do you know Nuendo? Do you know Pro Tools? Do you know Logic?’ And you have to be able to say you have some experience on it.”

Still, it's not an entirely digital world, particularly at the upper levels. Rose Mann-Cherney from Record Plant notes that “old-school” knowledge “is important, as all our clients still use analog boards and outboard gear. Knowledge of signal flow is just as important as it was 30 years ago. Analog tape machines are not used as often, but are still requested from time to time. Having the knowledge of ‘old-school’ recording and knowing the limitations that engineers were faced with can only enhance modern techniques.”






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