How Do I get started in the recording side of the music business?
July 13, 2008 7:31 PM   Subscribe

Where's a good starting place for a 22 year-old looking to get into the recording studio side of the music business?

I don't have any training of any sort, classes or work. I'm kind of hoping for on-the-job training, or internships, all unrelated to schooling. Or are college classes necessary?
I'm very interested in getting into the field, and my only real qualification is an acute musical ear.
Cleveland or North-east Ohio if you have location specifics, please and thank you
posted by photomusic86 to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what kind of music you want to work in, but one of the best small classical music labels in the country is based in Cleveland. Thunderbird Records. It's got an extremely good reputation and the guy who runs it seems to know his stuff, since I have bought about ten of their albums.

As for internships, you have to start sending out cover letters essentially mentioning that you don't mind stuffing envelopes and making copies. In a way, don't worry about a resume, focus on a good cover letter that states you an absolute beginner. Something worth doing where you'll get experience is hook up with local bands and help plan events. That's a good way of gaining some credibility. The fact is that 99% of the music business is the planning to make it big and the planning to remain big. Music is just a small part of the business of keeping people entertained.
posted by parmanparman at 7:55 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IMO, there's only one way to do this. Show up at a studio and offer to clean the joint up. Stick around and don't ever leave. Bring a lot of food for everyone - nothing that leaves dust or crumbs on the mixing board! Don't expect pay. Once you've established some credibility, ask for pointers. Don't talk about your "acute musical ear" - it'll mean nothing until you get your chance to *show* them. Be as helpful as you can and be prepared to do a lot of lugging. I'm assuming you're interested in music more geared towards rock / indie / punk / urban / dance, as opposed to classical or jazz or jingles. I know people who, after doing this for a year or eighteen months, were engineering records, doing basic production, digital editing and mastering, for labels of the Sub Pop / Matador / Merge size. Every studio person I know sneers at the idea of going to class for this; it's truly a learn-by-doing and starting low on the pole kind of job. That's pretty universally true, from London to Tokyo to Sydney.

Studio rats are a weird breed. I wouldn't bother with a cover letter or even a phone call; I'd just show up at appropriate place at a good time. If you have friends in a band and can "join" them, hang out in the studio and never leave, that's a great way to start.

This isn't to contradict what Parmanparman says - that's kind of a different field. But running a studio can be tedious and no one wants to take much time to mentor until you've paid an advance. And everyone likes a slave! Just making a studio smell nice gets you points, and picking up the Mexican food, well hell, I'll show you how to mike a bass drum for that.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:39 PM on July 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also, you might be able to get something going at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I think they have a program in audio recording.
posted by parmanparman at 9:34 PM on July 13, 2008

SeƱor padraigin had a long stint in San Francisco studios with no formal training (he'd been in bands, had a vague understanding of how to set up and mike and how the sound board in a shitty bar works, and had to unlearn a lot of what he thought he knew to begin with).

He basically started as an intern, unpaid, and took every opportunity he could grab until it eventually became a paying job (not that it really paid for a long time, though). He'd second Dee Xtrovert's post, and notes that no matter what your ear is like, you'll find that the studio guys have backgrounds that will make you want to cry, they're that illustrious. Your ear won't impress them; your work ethic might.
posted by padraigin at 10:03 PM on July 13, 2008

Best answer: First: read "The Daily Adventures of Mixerman" to see what you're getting yourself into. You will be fetching muffins and coffee for the first year or so, then you'll graduate to drum kit.

Second: professional music studios as we know them are dying out. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is going home-based. Now that Protools and Logic make even your crappy old gaming PC into a decent music rig, people aren't spending thousands on studio time. Why would they? Record directly into your $400 outboard gear, direct to hard drive, edit and mix on Protools, run it through an mp3 encoder to do monitoring (yes, this really happens now. Engineers aren't stupid: if an iPod is the number one listening device, guess what, the album is getting mixed so it sounds best on white headphones.) -- and you're done. In ten years time, a "studio" is either going to be a cubicle, the bassist's parents third bedroom, or it will be a live recording of an orchestra in a traditional pit.

Learn IT skills, specifically, how to recover lost data from Protools sessions. If you can walk into a "studio" and tip off the engineer to a couple of brand new plugins out there that really kick ass, you'll be doing yeoman's work.
posted by mark242 at 10:59 PM on July 13, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with Dee Xtrovert but I think getting some sort of classes or training under your belt is a good idea. It gives you a bit of an edge because of some of the technical knowledge you will gain such as signal flow, rudimentary knowledge about electronics, experience with different kinds of studio equipment. You can learn it on the job, but it's better if you have an idea about what is going on, technically, before you start. However, this doesn't mean you know a goddamn thing. Book smarts is a good thing to have except when it is all you have. You are gonna get experience in the studio about how to behave in a session.

From my experience in working in a big studio....
Rule #1 if your are not the engineer, assistant engineer, client or studio owner: STFU. You don't know what the fuck you are talking about. Learn to be a fly on the wall and how to tiptoe like a ninja. Ask questions when there is a lull in studio activity or after the session. Once the seasoned staff realize that you are not a complete fuck-up and can behave yourself, they will begin to treat you like a fellow human being.

Important skills to learn that will make people notice and appreciate you:
Coffee: So important. If you make good coffee, people will notice you. "Hey, that new guy, photomusic86, that dude makes a damn good pot of coffee." If the pot is empty, make more.
Soldering: Learn how to solder XLR cables and patch-bay connectors. This shit breaks all the time in studios and somebody needs to fix them. learn how to work a digital multi-meter.
Analog calibration: If the studio still uses an analog machine, learn how to calibrate it. It is a pain in the ass, but it has to be done. If you learn how to do it well, the engineer or assistant will want you on the session.
Learn IT skills, specifically, how to recover lost data from Protools sessions. good advice. Familiarize yourself with whatever software or gear is used there and common problems associated with them and how to fix them.
Keeping the fridge stocked: If you know what the engineer's of client's favorite drink is, keep plenty of it in the fridge.
Know where shit is: Special cables, adaptors, cleaning supplies, etc. If the studio doesn't have a binder with menus from local take out places, make one.

*Also, if this appeals to you...*

Know how to roll blunts or joints: This is a good skill to have. My very first day as an intern, that was my responsibility. You don't have to smoke it. In fact, if you are an intern or assistant engineer, don't. Unless you are working in a studio that specializes in Christian music, there are going to be drugs and alcohol at some sessions. The clients, Producer, Engineer will offer it. Just say no. As the new guy, you need to keep your wits about you. If you are high and mess something up, you probably won't be coming back tomorrow. Engineer: Why is that ribbon mic smoking? You: Uhhhh, I dunno. It started when I turned on the phantom power..
Have a weed hookup: sometimes you can save the day even late at night.

Be polite and professional even if others around you aren't. If the studio staff or client yells at you for some stupid bullshit, even if it is not your fault, let it slide. Apologize and try to make it better. If you have beef with someone on staff, take it up with them after the session if you think it needs to be addressed. Avoid doing anything that disrupts the vibe of the session. This leads me to my big point.....

Vibe is the most important thing in a session. If the artist and engineers are comfortable and can concentrate on being creative and doing their thing, it will run smoothly. Believe it or not, the big task you need to learn as an intern, if they let you sit in the studio during the session, is to make sure that the others don't have to worry about trivial bullshit. Ordering food, taking care of refreshments, keeping sure the toilets are clean, picking up the used condoms left over from the prostitutes that visited the the hip-hop session last night (I wish I could un-experience that); that all helps keep the vibe right. You are a catalyst to helping maintain the vibe. Once the people you are working for see that you understand this and can do it without stepping on toes and making an ass out of yourself, you will move up quickly.
posted by chillmost at 4:00 AM on July 14, 2008

Best answer: You will have a much better time buying your own equipment and a couple of DVD training classes. Buy ProTools LE, a low-end version of what the pros use. Offer to record a few bands. Have fun.

Alternatively, buy a multi-input firewire interface like a Firestudio and record bands at shows. Learn how to mix by practicing all the time!

The notion of pursuing a professional career as a recording engineer is folly.
posted by toastchee at 5:55 AM on July 14, 2008

Getting classes is a must. If it was easy enough to get started on your own, colleges wouldn't offer courses like these. You won't be starving for the uber-expensive equipment or software and you might be able to score a job in the field through the school's co-op program or just by networking within your class- guest speakers, teachers, peers.
posted by sunshinesky at 6:44 AM on July 14, 2008

Columbia College Chicago has a good sound engineering program.
posted by Ponderance at 7:41 AM on July 14, 2008

I'm surprised by how many people are chiming in to say what I'm going to say. K3wl.

Show up at the studio. Ask who needs help. Do it. Don't ask questions in front of the clients. Pretty soon you'll be setting up mics, zeroing the board, aligning machines (okay, that's old school, but still), which gets you "second engineer" credit. Do that decently for a while, and someone will probably have you punch record while they step out for a smoke.

That's what I did in high school. Works great.

Meanwhile, learn everything you can in your off hours: soldering, circuitry, electronics, and read the manual for every piece of hardware that exists. Sooner or later you'll have that session-saving piece of information.

I strongly disagree with sunshinesky. Studio classes are offered because they bring in students and money. Real engineers and producers and musicians come from the trenches (and have degrees in engineering, not "studio engineering"). When a Full Sail graduate phones up or mails in a letter, the guy already interning at the studio is the one who throws it away or puts him on hold.

Gofer. As in "gofer coffee" and "gofer that 7 pin din connector".
posted by lothar at 9:57 AM on July 14, 2008

Ok, so I wasn't talking from personal personal experience. I guess I should have said that YMMV, but someone close to me benefited quite a bit from taking production and recording courses. Especially since there weren't a whole lot of recording places around us that he could just pop into and hope for a volunteer gig. He got some great hookups for software and hardware, and practical stuff that really built on his previous self-taught production knowledge. The classes were entirely hands-on, so I don't see how it would differ terribly from "real world" experience, except for the accessibility. Then again, you may not be able to afford it, and have to rely on your smile and handshake.

And yes, most real producers are sound engineers. Some come out of MIT, for God's sake. That's serious shit- I'm just talking about what you can do on a smaller scale.
posted by sunshinesky at 3:41 PM on July 14, 2008

Response by poster: This has been absolutely brilliant, everyone. Thanks for all the input.
One more thing: Is there anywhere besides the studio to learn some of the jargon and what it means? Like a book or a site? And any other books or sites that are just helpful and knowledgable in general? I've read Everything You Need To Know About The Music Business by Donald Passman, Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, Making Music by Phil Ramone, and The Art of Music Production by Richard Burgess (the last two of which were unexceptionally helpful).
This really has been fabulous. Thanks again!
posted by photomusic86 at 4:08 PM on July 14, 2008

Best answer: Practical Recording Techniques, by Bruce and Jenny Bartlett is a nice overview of basic studio vocabulary and procedure.

When I was looking into studio internships myself, one sent out an application form that included the incredibly helpful insight that "studio recording is 80% psychological, 15% technical, and 5% creative." It's been my experience that people with the right personality (capable in almost any situation, even-keeled, high threshold for bullshit) tend to thrive in this field.

Interning is a good way to find out if you have this sort of personality. Turns out that I don't.
posted by corey flood at 8:36 PM on July 14, 2008

I'm late to this question, but the TapeOp Magazine message boards are a goldmine for tips and advice.
posted by Paid In Full at 10:54 AM on July 17, 2008

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