"I'm currently a junior in high school, and I have a lot of interest in recording and how a studio and the equipment in a studio works — I'd even like to open my own studio one day. There's only one problem: I'm totally lost. I would like to take classes in college, if I can find a college that offers a sound engineering course, but my major problem is I really have no experience in recording. I just don't have the money to even buy simple equipment to start with. My major fear is that if I get into a college that offers the classes I'm looking for, I'm going to be totally lost while the rest of the students in class know more than me because they've had more experience than me. Can you maybe give me some pointers on where to start?" -Eric M.
All apologies to Eric M. above, but I get letters like the one above all the time. Sometimes they're far worse, with people who want someone else (me) to do all the thinking for them and tell them exactly what to do.
Don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently wrong with contacting folks and asking questions — the same as, 'there's no such thing as a stupid question' (but there are plenty of stupid answers). I learned many things on the way to building my own studio and career by asking others. The engineers I had worked with as a musician, people that sold used gear, friends that were building home studios — they all got questions for a while. But that wasn't my only way to learn.
Let's say you are just getting into the concept of recording music as a hobby and want to do a decent job of it. This is how I started — the idea of making ANY money at this sounded like science fiction.
I can't stress often enough that if one wants to be a recording engineer that they must record and record a lot. As a teenager I learned my basics with two 2-track cassette decks, a 4-channel Radio Shack mixer and a pair of battery-powered omni condenser Radio Shack mics. I recorded me, my friends, my sister, etc. I did overdubbing by bouncing from deck to deck while adding new instruments. I 'discovered' flanging while playing two copies of a song at the same time. I even learned about tape hiss buildup! Now you can pick up 4-track cassette recorders that do all of this and sound better, and the used ones are CHEAP — I've seen them go for $45 on eBay. There's no excuse. If you have a computer (or access to one) chances are you can get free software to do multitracking on it. Buy one crummy mic and learn placement and overdubbing skills. Record your friends and learn how hard it is to please people.
Go the library. Now. Type in "music recording", "record production" and "home recording" in their search engine. Borrow and read every book they have. I exhausted the books on these subjects at Multnomah County Library. Every one I could find I read. No shit. This was all pre-Internet (at least for most of us). Now you bastards have the entire world of information on your computer. Don't have a computer? Go to the library and use theirs. Bring some cash to print out pages. Write down URLs of important sites. There are pages up that are solely links to even more hardcore information just on recording. I've found piles of articles on subjects so specific books just touch on them. Anything you might want to know is out there. Do you have questions that you can't find any answers to? Go to any of the forum websites, like the Tape Op Messageboard, prosoundweb.com or many others. Beware of "flames", where people with nothing better to do poke at each other and pretend they know a lot, and watch out for the 'stupid answers', when people who have never even been in a room with a certain piece of gear offer all sorts of insights that they've only gleaned from others (who might not have ever used said gear either). But ask away and you will be amazed when people who actually make many records or record very cool music are helping others get a leg up. It's pretty cool. What about magazines, like the one in your hands right now? There are 39 more issues of this magazine you might not have read yet, or could re-read! Plus there's Mix, EQ, Recording, Sound On Sound, Electronic Musician, Resolution and many more. Do you read them all? Have you even seen them all? What about old copies of Recording Engineer/Producer? Even if you don't care for any of these mags, or even this one, there's still lots of information in every issue that relates to recording. Subscriptions are not that expensive and some can be had for free (just attend an AES conference).
Meet people. Get out and see live music. Find out where local bands record. Find out who does these recordings. Meet those people. Ask if you can intern or even just sit in on sessions. Be quiet, use your ears and eyes and take it all in. Help out — offer to clean toilets and sweep floors. You can learn much from watching others work, even if all you learn is how not to record or run a session. Help at as many studios as you can so you can see different places at work.
Be flexible with your life. Do you want to record music? The hours are long and the pay (if any) is low. If you have a 'real' job make sure you can get time off when needed. I quit two jobs as my recording 'career' developed. The first one would keep scheduling me on days I usually had off and had sessions booked for at my home studio, and the next job was very flexible but I just got too busy. I've seen engineers live out of their cars and couch surf in order to have low expenses and open schedules. Does your significant other understand your drive to record? Many otherwise rational people become extremely jealous when their partner spends all day at work only to rush home and start recording. Not to mention when they do 16-hour studio days for weeks on end.
Keep studying. Any engineer worth their salt keeps reading up on new gear, talking to other engineers about experiences, buying new CDs to listen to and keeps an open mind and open ears.
You can study recording at school. There are many four-year colleges with recording arts programs, community colleges with select classes, and trade/technical schools whose sole purpose is to train music recording. Scholarships, student loans and begging your parents are good ways to get into school. Of all the 'working' engineers that I know who have gone to school, most have a four-year college degree. This isn't a slam on the trade schools, but just an observation.
Getting a Job. The myth is that you get some skills under your belt, walk into a professional studio and get hired. This rarely happens. More common is that after slowly building up your skills, and working with an expanding group of artists, you will eventually be bringing work into other folks' studios, if not your own place. Most engineers that I know who don't own a studio are freelancers, meaning that they bring jobs into professional studios that they generate on their own. They get these jobs because people know their work, skills and personality and think they will help them make a better recording. Being a freelancer has its perks, but from what I see it can be a precarious — a feast or famine existence.
The bottom line is that you have to make this happen for yourself. If the prospect of recording music is just so strong that you have to follow it to the end of the earth, then do so. Record as much as you can on anything you can get your hands on. Get yourself into as many situations where you can witness or make recordings as possible. Learn everything then re-learn it again. School or an internship is only a stepping-stone — no one else will provide you with a career in this field. It's only your own initiative that can make this happen, so go for it.