Friday, March 6, 2009

Paying Your Dues

QUESTION: How long does it take to get really good at recording?

I recently read a couple of books - one called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and the other The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen. The former talks about attaining excellence and the latter talks about the spread of mediocrity. I recommend reading both books. Later, I will have a post about The Cult of the Amateur. One of the main points in Outliers - that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something - has been mentioned and referred to a lot lately in the press and in many blogs.

I wanted to offer our take on this 10,000 hour principle from the perspective of how our staff members develop from being interns to freelance engineers.

As mentioned in a previous post, people join our staff as interns. After three months of internship, those that show dedication and the right fortitude, they are hired as production assistants (PA). Historically, it takes about 3-4 years to be promoted to assistant engineers. After about three years as an assistant, people start getting a little restless and consider becoming a freelance engineer. I put together a chart that plots the number of years since becoming a staff with the estimated time people actively practice their craft of recording, shown below (click on the chart for a better view).

I did not consider the years of schooling that people have before coming to the studio. You may think of the hours counted as a craft practiced on-the-job. As an intern and then a production assistant, many of the hours are spent running around getting coffee, cleaning, moving things, printing labels, ...etc. Not a lot of time is spent learning the craft other than studying manuals, learning the rooms through practice time, help setting up sessions and watching and listening to engineers. This happens mostly during off-duty hours. However, during this time, one learns what goes on in the studio and how to behave around other people, which is very important.

Toward the end of being a PA, one gets a chance to sit in on sessions or "second assist" and shadow another assistant engineer. This is preparation for becoming an assistant engineer.

Once one becomes an assistant engineer, a lot of time is spent in sessions working with a variety of seasoned engineers. Working at Avatar, this means working with James Farber, Al Schmitt, Kevin Killen, Paul Northfield, Niko Bolas, Dave O'Donnell, Roy Hendrickson and many other talented people. One gets exposed to many different set ups, approaches and techniques and this is where a lot of knowledge is absorbed. This exposure and experiential learning is the invaluable part of working at a large studio. When assistants leave prematurely, they miss the concentrated learning that occurs during this phase. Another benefit is that artists, producers and engineers will remember a promising assistant and this established connection leads to future gigs.

After about three years, assistant engineers get the opportunity to engineer sessions when clients come in with no engineers specifically assigned. At this point, assistants have seen what worked well and they have a few ideas of their own on how they would approach a given session. During this time, assistants have to start thinking about creating their own "rolodexes" of future clients.

Once the assistant makes the leap to become independent and join the ranks of the freelance engineer, which is a major deal, one is free to practice their craft pretty much full-time or as much time as they can get gigs to make a living or work with artists they believe in. After doing this for three years, the cumulative hours spent in perfecting one's craft has gone over 10,000 hours.

If you had a choice of using someone who claims to know the craft versus someone who can show you this kind of a track record, which one would you hire? There would be a difference in quality when someone, who had paid his/her dues to get to this level, works on your project. Let me tell you, it is worth it.