Mentors Kick Your Ass with Love and Other Thoughts

If you’re lucky, you’ll have mentors at all stages of your life. If you’re really lucky, they’ll give you exactly what you need at exactly the right time. I was, and continue to be, very very lucky.
September 3, 2023
Psc In Heaven

Mentors Kick Your Ass with Love and Other Thoughts

I’ve had great mentors throughout my life. They’ve all been different and they’ve always fitted perfectly with the lessons I needed to learn or the help that I required. I’ve been truly lucky.

Getting My Ass Kicked

I was a very cocky kid with a voracious ability to read and learn from books, a tremendous memory, great hearing, a big wise ass talkative mouth, and not quite smart enough to know when I was being stupid.

Joel Fink: He was my freshman acting teacher at Purdue University. Toward the end of my first semester, everyone in the class met with Joel in his office to receive our grade and get some guidance on what to do next. I was expecting an A. Joel gave me a B. I remember the conversation really well:

Luke: A B??!! Why a B?

Joel: Because you’re an asshole. You’re always being so funny and clever and making jokes and talking all the time in class. You’re a disruptive pain in the ass. Think about growing up.

Welcome to college in 1982!

Joel totally got his point across. I got an A the next semester and all of them after that. I started to better control my mouth. Joel and I are still friends.

Rick Thomas: Rick is still the head of the Theatre Sound Design program at Purdue. Rick basically invented teaching sound design for theatre, and I was, I suppose, one of his earliest students. He found me my sophomore year and let me loose in recording studios, gave me responsibility, put me in charge of people to force me to develop leadership skills, and a plethora of other gifts that really shaped me. Rick too, kicked my ass. Worse than Joel.

In a nutshell, he caught me and another student lying. We were writing and recording music for a play, and were exhausted and couldn’t complete something that was due the next day - we would be a day late. For some dumb “We’re 21 and our brains aren’t fully formed” reason we told the director a tape deck had broken. I can't stress enough that THERE WAS NO REASON FOR THIS LIE. She wouldn’t have been mad at all.

Of course, Rick ran into her in the hall one morning and small talk turned into “Is the tape deck fixed yet?”

Uh oh...

Later that afternoon I bounced into Rick’s office to say hi to him, because we really were good friends (and still are). And he expressed deep, deep disappointment in me. I can’t remember much of this conversation because the room started spinning, but there were a few key phrases like, “I thought you were honest and better than that.” The killing blow was when he ended his monologue with, “Now get out of my sight you make me sick."

I walked home crying. This remains the worst day of my life. And of course, the show must go on, so I had to apologize to the director (more tears) and see Rick in the theatre and in the recording studio complex and... my dudes, it was fucking torture. But the lesson was really clear: Your integrity is EVERYTHING.

And then, Rick taught me yet another lesson: He let the incident pass. It never came up again. He never reminded me of it. Our friendship remained intact, he remained my mentor.

Saying, “Get out of my sight you make me sick,” is something you should never say. That said, I survived it and grew from it. And I’m glad Rick said it.

Mentor as Cheerleader

I met another very important mentor in my early 20’s. He wasn’t much older than me. We had been in a band together for a brief time when I was fifteen. He was a fantastic songwriter and singer, and was in college! Impressive stuff for a kid.

We reconnected years later. Richard was now a music business attorney. More than that, he became perhaps my biggest supporter. He got me gigs, he introduced me to people. He gave me a 1957 Fender Bandmaster 3x10 combo that his dad found at a garage sale. Most importantly, he was endlessly positive about my abilities and potential. We traveled all over the place, from mixing concerts in Moscow to clubs all over NYC. We missed the first New York appearance of the Smashing Pumpkins because I was bored waiting for them to go on stage and... well, we went to get Chinese food. All my fault. My career went up, and then it went way down, when tinnitus hit me. Sometimes I feel like I let Richard down.

Richard is STILL in my corner, ever endlessly positive, ever endlessly supportive, endlessly my older brother from another mother. And I support him back, because mentorship is a friendship, and as you get older, mentoring flows both ways. Richard still writes and sings, in addition to being a fabulous photographer, and I support him with endless positivity and ideas on how to record things better, gear and plugin recommendations (he does have a fondness for all things Korneff).

It helps also to have a lawyer as a cheerleader. It’s important to seek out people smarter than yourself, with knowledge that complements yours. You don’t need redundancy.

Being Your Own Mentor

I was really unlucky after college in that I didn’t start working in a big studio. I was in bands and I did a lot of home recording, and gradually I started producing records, and since I wasn’t usually at very good studios at this point, I sort of moved the engineer over out of his seat and played with the knobs myself.

This is a lovely turn of events for a 20 something with ambition and a big ego, but there was so, so, so much I had to either teach myself or figure out on my own because no one was really there to show me anything. I spent a lot of time being my own mentor.

I picked up tricks and tips in studios from other engineers, and I stole ideas from everyone, and I experimented and read books and magazines and listened to records for endless hours.

Hopefully, you’ll find this helpful: I bought a big notebook and started writing down everything I learned from books, all my settings from recording sessions, any ideas I saw, my notes on songs I listened to. I wrote in that book (eventually there were 5 of them, I think) and referred back to ideas often. I stamped that info deeply into my head. This became my standard approach to learning anything, and I still do it whenever I want to get good at something new: I buy a notebook and start reading and writing.

Perhaps the smartest thing I did early on in my production career: A friend loaned me a copy of The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewishon. This is a detailed account of literally every recording session The Beatles had from 1962 to 1969: every song, every track recorded, every idea, every session player involved, track sheets, lyric sheets pictures... It’s an amazing book.

I bought every Beatles CD and laid on the floor in front of my speakers, one to the left, one to the right, and I read that book from cover to cover and listened. At this time, Beatles CDs were in stereo, the individual tracks were generally spread hard left and right. I listened to a song until I could hear EVERYTHING mentioned in the book, until I could hear George vs John in the harmonies. I sucked in idea after idea after idea, and when I was done, I had a library in my head. Multiply this by all the other albums I listened to and tore apart. Bowie. Aerosmith. Steely Dan. Nirvana. Alice In Chains. Lou Reed. Elvis Costello. Everything.

I can’t emphasize enough that you can’t make records without HEARING them in a very deep way. Listening to the Beatles so purposefully was about the best education I could have gotten.

Get the Beatles Book Here.

While I’m recommending books:  Bobby Owsinksi's stuff is great.

There’s an interview with Dan in this one: The Mixing Engineers Handbook.


In 2019 three big things happened to me.

First thing: I retired from teaching the gifted and talented multidisciplinary arts program that had been my main gig for fifteen years. It was a great gig, but you have to know when it’s time to go. Retirement is like finishing college or moving to a new city. I left looking for a new adventure, not to sit my fat ass in a lawn chair.

Second thing: My mom died in my arms, throwing up in my face. It was a scene from a zombie movie, and I have PTSD from it. The PTSD brought my tinnitus screaming back. I have had tinnitus for nearly 30 years and I learned to live with it and even forget it for the most part but PTSD decided retirement wasn’t adventure enough, and that now I needed a chronic health condition.

“Oh my God,” I think very often, “I am totally out of my mind.” Retirement, thus far, has been the hardest stage of my life.

Third thing: Dan Korneff showed up at my mom’s funeral. I spotted him and his quiet smile while I was delivering the eulogy. I hadn’t seen him in probably five years, and there he was.

A few weeks later Dan and I had breakfast at Thomas’ Ham and Eggery and a few months after that we delivered the baby, the Pawn Shop Comp, into the plug-in world. And here we all are.

25 years before, I gave Dan a push to get him on his way, and my repayment was him pulling me along and lifting me up. Dan is my latest mentor. Heck, Dan reset my friggin’ life.

I’ve heard him say on occasion, “Luke taught me all I know,” which is TOTAL bullshit. I taught him all I know. He knows more than I’ll ever know about audio. And more than that. Dan’s as smart as he is nice, and he’s incredibly nice.

And patient. He’s been nothing but patient with me. When weird shit happens at Korneff — like e-mail screw-ups, etc. — that's usually me. And he’s been patient with me when my tinnitus has the upper hand.

But at our age, mentorship has become partnership. We both look for the best in the other. We both cover the other’s ass. We each respect the other’s skills and strengths, and we let each other have our individual flaws without judgment. And most importantly, we nudge each other towards being better people. That might be the most important thing of all.

So, those are my thoughts. Find someone to help you address your faults (kick your ass) and someone to be your cheerleader. Learn to be your own mentor and teacher because you’ll be stuck with yourself forever. Find people who focus on what’s great about you, not what is problematic about you. Find people that forgive you.

Find great people. Find people who know more than you. If you’re the smartest person you know then you don’t know enough people.

Find people you can talk to and you can listen to.

Give of yourself. Share what you know. You’ll be paid back when you least expect it but when you most need it.

Never stop learning.