Careers in Music Part Two: First Studio Job
In this entry I’ll concentrate on leaving university and the first steps in my personal journey to working in the music industry. This is by no means the only way, but it will provide some insight in to getting a job and what working life was like starting out in a professional studio..
Towards the end of my degree, I’d decided that I really wanted to pursue a career as a sound engineer, and that the best way would be employment in a studio, no matter what the size or calibre. My tactic was to get hold of a directory of recording studios, (I used a book that listed companies in all areas of the music industry, but now it’s easier with the likes of www.allstudios.co.uk), and send them all a speculative cover letter and CV. This was a long arduous task of finding out the correct contact for each studio, signing each cover letter, and labelling and stamping every envelope. In total, I ended up sending around 150 CV’s to studios around the country, literally from Aberdeenshire to Cornwall, and was prepared to travel to, (and eventually move to), each of these places should an opportunity arise. Out of these 150, I received 8 replies, 6 of which were “no”’s and two of them offered me an interview. This was a disheartening response, but something you’ll have to get used to! The two interviews I was offered were for De Lane Lea, a post-production house in Central London, and Sarm West, Trevor Horns recording studio complex near Notting Hill. The De Lane Lea interview was pretty standard, without many technical questions, as they wanted somebody to train up from tea boy, (again, a position I was happy to accept in order to get on the ladder), although I was unsuccessful in this instance. The interview for Sarm included a written test as well as a short interview. The test ranged from music theory, (explain a triplet), to practical questions, (how should you should store tape?), to a whole Pro Tools specific section. I actually had never even opened a Pro Tools session when I went for this interview, and nobody is expected to get 100% on the test, (at that stage in your career, it’s a pretty tricky test!), but what they are also looking for is how logically you answer the questions. There is a question I remember which is simply, “how would you record a bass guitar?” and you’d be surprised how many people forget to mention things like a pre-amp. As I mentioned, I personally had never worked on Pro Tools, so the section dedicated to it was pretty daunting! However, I was honest to the studio manager and explained the situation, and that I was eager to learn, and actually found that I was able to relate my knowledge of other DAW’s and have a pretty good guess at a lot of the questions.
You may have guessed that I got offered a job at Sarm off the back of the interview. When you start working at Sarm you are employed as a night receptionist, which is exactly what it sounds like; recording studios operate for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and some keen person is going to have to man reception at night and weekends, so who better than some eager graduate?! This was common at the time, but from what I understand, studios now tend to use freelancers to do both assisting and night reception. The working hours when I started were 2am to 10am for one week, including 2 x 12 hour shifts over the weekend, then a week of 5pm to 2am including the weekend shifts, followed by a week of day shifts, working 10am to 6pm, then, a week off on call… or that was the plan! You could almost always guarantee that if you were working the night shift, finishing at 10am, you would be needed to stay on to help out with the sessions just starting for that day, and if you did the day shift, you’d more than likely be given jobs and have to stay much later than 6pm, and you could forget the week off! I was initially asked to cover a weekend shift and didn’t get a day off for over 3 months!
Even with a foot in the door at a major recording studio, you are still a long way off from working on any major projects. Night reception duties included cleaning the kitchen, toilets and communal areas, answering the phones, changing light bulbs, the logging in and signing out of equipment and tapes, helping move heavy equipment, and if you were lucky, help somebody with the set up of a studio so that it was ready for the session in the morning. You could be doing this for years, depending on the turn over of staff, your attitude to work, your ability to learn and your persona around high profile clients. Not very glamorous, but it is there to teach you the inner workings of a studio; what goes on behind the scenes, all of the little aspects that mean when Madonna walks in everything runs smoothly, there are enough fancy tea bags, and she can wipe her ass! All as important as making sure the vocal chain is working and sounding great. If the little jobs around the studio complex aren’t done, then the engineer’s life is made harder, slowing things down, which can go on to directly affect the session. Likewise, You are the first person people see when they come in, you might also be the person the client comes to talk to when they need a break, and if you aren’t happy and conversational, it may put a downer on things; these are high profile people, who are used to a certain type of service… it’s all part of the job! Remember the story about Van Halen and the brown M&M’s? Well if the night receptionist doesn’t change a lightbulb, how can you be sure the mic stock check is done properly and that the correct mic is there when it’s needed? I’m a big advocate of night reception, a lot of people turn their noses up and expect to be allowed on a session within a couple of months, but it is those people it is in place to weed out! Not only does it give you the chance to see how the delicate ecosystem of a studio works, it allows you in to the studios at night, when nobody is around, and (providing you don’t touch anything), this is a great chance to see how different people work, where mic’s are generally placed on various instruments and what outboard is used and it’s settings. You also get a chance to show your willingness and skills; if you show willing, the in-house, and regular external, engineers and producers will pick up on it, and will more than likely want to teach you and request you should they need an extra pair of hands. Likewise, if you get asked to set up a studio for the next morning, (maybe a vocal booth, or a selection of mic’s on stands), and you show extra attention to detail, it won’t go unnoticed!
It might sound like, if you have gone to university, that you are taking a step back, (“but I know how to record, I’ve done a whole project at uni!”), and if you thought you’d put a lot of hours in doing your course work, you’re in for a shock, (my record was a 38 hour shift, without days off either side), but what you are learning is studio etiquette and the ability to adapt and develop your skills; there is nothing worse than being given an assistant who thinks they know how to do it better than you. You might know how to do the job very well, and when you get to engineer, you can do it that way! In my early days I saw an assistant being asked by a a long time professional recording engineer to mic up a guitar cab, and after the engineer had positioned the mic where he wanted it, the assistant took it upon himself to move it as “that’s not how you do it”, I don’t think he lasted long after that!
So far this has all been from the perspective of somebody joining a studio from a university course. But that’s not the only way, I know a lot of people who haven’t had any previous experience, but are keen and quick learners. This is another great use of the night reception path. As I mentioned earlier, I had never used Pro Tools before starting at Sarm, so night reception provided me with hours upon hours of time to learn it from books and videos, and if the time was right, asking questions from professionals.
Was university worth it then? That’s hard to answer, in my case I think yes, but other people would argue that in those 3 years, you could have learned on the job. However in my opinion, not only did my degree get me a foot in the door, and I was able to pass the written test as part of my interview, but it does put you a bit further up the ladder technically, and personally, I wouldn’t have known I even wanted to do the job that I now love! In a few cases, (I believe Abbey Road and Real World operate like this), you can’t get a job unless you have been to university and done a placement year at the studio. But it is by no means the only way, as long as you are willing to put in the leg work and have the patience.
Nowadays it seems to me that studios don’t really hire people, but everybody works on a freelance basis, and while you may still have to cover reception duties, the internship part of the job may not be there as much. Also, you are likely to get put on a session a lot sooner, which is both good and bad. On one hand, there needs to come a time when you are thrown in the deep end, (mine was with Tom Jones), but on the other, you may not be ready for it. Personally I’ve been on sessions where I’ve been teaching the assistant as the session goes on, which is fine, and I quite enjoy it with a more relaxed client, but an absolute nightmare at busier times.