Advice from Superstar Producer/Engineer Elliot Scheiner
Elliot Scheiner is one of the top producers/engineers in the world, with 24 Grammy nominations, 7 Grammy awards, 4 Emmy nominations, 1 Emmy award, 3 TEC Awards nominations, etc…. The list goes on! Even if you don’t know his name, you have most certainly heard his work.
Yesterday I had to chance to meet Elliot and hear him speak at the Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Studio Summit 2012. In addition to having some very entertaining stories to tell us, he had some great advice for those trying to get started in the production & engineering side of the recording business.
Today I want to discuss one piece of advice from Elliot that echoes and affirms what I have often told others trying to get started in this business. In a nutshell, it is simply that you need to make your own way. Putting it another way, you need to create your own opportunities.
Part of this relates to those audio engineering and production schools that claim to be able to find employment for a high percentage of their students. Frankly, there simply aren’t that many industry jobs available for the number of students being pumped out of these institutions, and the percentages they claim are highly questionable, at best. I would be willing to bet that there are almost no jobs available any more in a traditional music recording studio.
As I’ve been saying for years, many studios are struggling and shutting down, or downsizing in a big way. There simply are no jobs available in those types of studios any more, even for recording engineers with many years of professional experience and major label credits.
Elliot strongly suggested that young people trying to get into this business stop thinking of landing a job at a big studio as the end goal, and instead figure out their own way into the business.
From my own personal experience, and from what Elliot shared, working on staff at a major studio isn’t the dream job that many think it is, especially if being able to support a family is important to you. Elliot shared his own experience that after several years working at a major studio, he realized that the only way he was going to make more money was to go independent. I also realized that same thing very early on in my own career. It didn’t take long to figure out that as a staff recording engineer at a major studio in the Seattle area, about the most I was going to be able to make was around $25,000 per year (mid 1990s dollars). While I was able to somehow get by on that small amount when I was young and single, it wasn’t anywhere close to what I was making previously in the “real world”, and certainly wouldn’t be enough to support a family.
The cold hard facts are that as a staff engineer, you usually get paid some hourly rate based on the number of billable hours you work with studio clients. If the studio isn’t very busy, or if there are more staff engineers than there are working rooms in the studio, you are going to be very limited in how much money you can make. Even if you’re one of the only engineers on staff, and the studio is very busy, there is still a fixed, and fairly small, upper limit to how much you can make, since engineers don’t get points or percentages on projects.
Of course, this is all based on the assumption that there are any paid positions to be had at recording studios, and you have somehow fought your way up the ladder into one of those paid positions. It used to be that you started out as an unpaid intern, and if you worked really hard and stood out amongst all the rest of the interns, and somehow there was a job opening, you could someday move up to a very low paid assistant, and perhaps eventually into a paid staff engineer position. You usually spent several years scrubbing toilets and fetching coffee for free before you even got close to any type of paid position.
At the studio I used to work at, we would regularly rotate interns through every few months, just to help out the Seattle area schools. It was extremely rare that any of these interns were invited to hang around longer than their internship time. Even if they were invited to stick around, they were not put on any kind of salary, and would only get paid if they were able to round up some business for the studio by bringing in bands and artists that they found on their own. Occasionally they might get some other paid gigs if none of us regular staff engineers were available, but that was extremely rare since we had only two studios and 4 staff engineers.
Elliot related that when he got started, back in 1967, there were no schools for this, and the only way you got into a big studio was by knowing someone. Elliot’s had a connection, and he landed a job working with none other than Phil Ramone at A&R Recording in New York. He quickly moved up to an engineer position there. However, in 1973 he went independent and was the first engineer to ever work as a freelance engineer for other artists. It was a bold move for the time, but he had built up clients that were devoted to working with him, and the studios didn’t have a choice but to negotiate terms with him as an independent so he could get paid better. The move certainly paid off as he became (and still is) one of the most sought after producer/engineers in the business.
My own story is a bit different. I was involved with music early in life, playing trumpet and piano for many years. I also loved electronics and computers, and got involved with some of the very first “affordable” computers at my grade school, and then bought my own computer in high school (computers weren’t common in homes back then, like they are today). In college I played synthesizers in a rock band, and then bought a 4-track cassette recorder and starting recording songs with the guitar player from my band. I immediately got hooked on recording, as it seemed to be the perfect combination of music and technology, both of which I loved equally. The Navy was paying me to finish college, and I kept using the money to buy more recording gear and to teach myself the craft of recording. We didn’t have the internet back then, so I bought all the recording magazines and books I could find, and studied and practiced on my own. I continued to refine and expand my recording skills during the five years I spent in the Navy after college.
By the time I got out of the Navy, I was determined to get a job at a major studio one way or another. I just wasn’t sure how to go about it. After about a year of unemployment and doing various small recording projects for people out of my own home studio, as well as some other small Seattle area studios, I stumbled across a pamphlet at the unemployment office. It was describing a program where the government would pay half of my salary to any company that would hire me and train me for a job that was not related to what I did in the military. I asked the veterans affairs officer if recording engineer was a qualified job for this program. He looked it up and told me it was. With that information in hand, along with a demo reel of songs I had produced and recorded with various artists since college, I started hitting up Seattle area recording studios. It didn’t take long before I found a studio that was willing to take me on for a fixed salary of $1800 per month (half of it paid by the government)!
So, I was extremely fortunate that I found a way to bypass the whole unpaid intern program and was getting paid from my first day in this major studio.
Even in 1994, $1800 per month wasn’t very much to live on. After a few months, I created another opportunity for myself to earn more money.
Before I landed the job at the big studio, I had been introduced to the guys at a local company called Spectral Synthesis. They were making a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) similar to Pro Tools, but using a PC instead of a Mac as the host computer. Back then, computers weren’t powerful enough to do all the audio processing themselves, so Pro Tools, and the system from Spectral Synthesis, both relied on add-in processing cards to handle the audio, and the computer was mostly serving as the graphical interface.
At the time that I landed the job at the big studio, they didn’t have their own DAW system. I called up my friends at Spectral Synthesis, and they loaned us a system for a few weeks to try out. Of course, I had already familiarized myself with the system when the guys at Spectral let me hang out and play around with it, so I was the one using it for sessions. However, the studio wasn’t ready to invest in a system yet. So, I broke out the plastic, and negotiated a discount from my friends at Spectral, and bought my own system. I put together a portable system that I could take back and forth between my home studio and the big studio I worked at. Whenever a studio client had a project that would go quicker and easier with the DAW, the studio would rent the system from me (along with me as the operator) and pass the cost onto the studio client.
Eventually we landed a couple of big multimedia companies who needed a place to record dialog, and then needed all that dialog edited into many small files for their software. It would have been too cost prohibitive for them to pay the full studio rate plus my DAW rental fee while I sat there editing thousands of lines of dialog at the big studio. So, I worked out another deal with the clients and the studio. We would record the dialog at the big studio, and then I would do all the editing at my home studio for a much lower hourly rate, and I gave the big studio a percentage as a commission. It was a win-win situation for everyone.
After just three years at the big studio, I had enough clients of my own to go fully independent, although I continued to bring most of my work to the big studio since I knew the rooms and the gear there.
I loved the time I spent at that big studio, and certainly learned a lot along the way that would have taken much longer for me to learn on my own. I would certainly recommend that if you do have a chance to work at a major studio, even as an unpaid intern, that you jump on it! Just don’t think of a job at a major studio as being your end goal as a recording engineer. It’s a great learning experience, and highly recommended if you get the chance, but keep in mind that it’s not something that you can really make a decent living from any more.
Pretty much all superstar producers and recording engineers these days are independent. You need to be out there hustling for work and making a name for yourself. Find your own way into the business, and be open for unexpected opportunities that might present themselves to you. Take some chances when you are starting and offer to work for a band or artist for free if you need to. You need to start somewhere and build up a demo reel of your work any way that you can.
The opportunities that Elliot had in the late 60s, and that I had in the mid 90s, really don’t exist any more. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other opportunities out there. The internet has changed the way the world does business, and people are coming up with creative business ideas every day. Create your own path and make your own opportunities!