Friday, July 22, 2016

Climbing the audio ladder

This time around I’d like to talk to you about climbing the ladder in the audio world. When I got out of recording school, I moved to Memphis, TN to work at a studio there and get some experience in a major market. Now, Memphis is mostly known as a blues town and that really wants my thing, so I came back home to KY after a few months and got a job at LIRCo. After being here a few years, I decided to enter the major market again and made the move to L.A. The only problem was that local experience doesn’t really count for much when you are going to the bigs. It’s pretty much just something else to put on your audio resume.


If you are going to pursue this as a career (and not start your own local studio), you need to understand one thing. In the world of major league pro studios, everyone starts out at the bottom as a runner. A runner is just that - you run and get things. Food, packages, clean the kitchen, answer the phones - whatever is needed. Sometimes you are the studio taxi. Whatever the band/business needs done outside of the recording rooms, you are the one doing it. On the plus side, you get to just hang out with the bands in a more more relaxed capacity. When they are in the room tracking, it can be a very stressful environment, but when they are eating dinner, they are much more relaxed and easy going.

I was a runner years ago at a studio where the band RATT was recording, and a few days a week when things were slow, I just hung out and shot pool with their guitarist, Warren DeMartini. At the time I was a guitarist (I use the term loosely), and to be around a player of his calibre and just talk to him like a regular guy was amazing. Being in the studio, they drop their guard and the whole “rockstar” trip and you get to see them as real people.

Just working in a major studio can be awesome. Imagine watching the Beach Boys practice singing harmonies only a few feet from you, watching John Sykes from Whitesnake/Blue Murder lay down guitar tracks, or hanging out on the couch with some of the guys from Guns N Roses just watching TV. Well I don’t have to, because for a while, that was my life. And eventually, I moved my way up the ladder and became an assistant engineer on some sessions.


This whole business on the major level revolves around “who you know”. You could be the best engineer in town, and if you have no reputation, no one cares. You basically ride the coattails of others as you rise in the ranks. When you are a runner, one of your main goals is to make friends with the assistant engineers. If you make their studio lives easier, they remember that. Most major studios don’t like it when the rooms aren’t being used and will sometimes allow the assistants to bring in local bands for a discount to get more experience in the engineer “seat”. They will in turn, bring you in to be the assistant (at least you hope so!) on these sessions. Being an assistant engineer requires lots of long hours in the studio. Sometimes you’ll sleep on the couch between sessions because it’s just easier than driving all the way home and back again. It can be grueling at times, but when you are doing a job you love, it never really seems that bad, at least to me!

When an assistant moves on (more on that later), everyone moves up one in the ranks. So now YOU are one of the assistants. Now your job is to place microphones in basically the right spot, keep logs of everything, and run the recorder. The engineer will come in and make the final mic placements. If you keep the sessions running smoothly, people will notice. When the band is talking about food, you slip off to the side and call the runner in to take orders. If the artist and producer are talking about trying a different mic setup, you go ahead and get the mic on the stand before they even ask you to do it. Basically, you are trying to stay one step ahead of everyone and keep the session running smoothly so the artist, engineer and producer can do their jobs better. Your ultimate goal is to be so good, that the producer wants to bring future sessions to your studio and use YOU as the assistant engineer.

If you work hard enough and get noticed by the right people (coattails!), you may be asked to become part of a team outside the studio. Many times, an engineer will be asked to produce a band because they like how he worked on some other band’s project. So now he is becoming a producer and needs an engineer that he can count on. That engineer is YOU! So you will travel with him to different studios (sometimes around the world!) tracking bands until you have such a reputation in the business, that you start getting offers from OTHER producers and then you will become a truly freelance audio engineer. One of the top assistants at the L.A. studio I worked at left just as I was coming back to KY and became the go-to engineer for most of the early 2000’s rock and metal acts, so it can happen! It just takes lots of long hours and perseverance to get to that level. After I came back to KY, I was able to come back to LIRCo and moved up to the position of Head Engineer that I have had for a while now. Even though I had a lot of fun in those early days, I love where I am and I’m glad I came back to KY where I can help others starting their journey.

So if you are down for that kind of life, The Lexington School for Recording Arts can give you a great education to put you on your way. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set up a tour or get some info sent to you. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS