My First Mentor

If you're lucky, a person will come into your life and change it forever in a good way. I was lucky.
August 27, 2023
Psc In Heaven

My First Mentor

I'll never forget the first person who took me under their wing when I started college.

Making the long trek from New Jersey, I found myself in a situation I was entirely inexperienced in—the traffic chaos of Long Island. Hours after the college had closed - I was trying to enroll and didn't realize the school had different hours before the semester started - I arrived to find a janitor standing outside the main entrance, accordion in hand. This seemingly random encounter was the starting point of a mentorship that would shape my career in the audio industry.

Frank, the janitor, led me into the main recording studio of the college. There was a guy in his early thirties behind a huge SSL 4000 console, working on a mix. He heard me walk in but he barely turned around to look at me. He said, “You wanna come here? Be an audio student? What’s your name?” I said Dan, and he said, "...Dan – hand me one of those patch cables over there." I did. Then he gestured at a chair near his. I sat. This was my introduction to... The Professor.

After intensely focusing on the mix for a few moments, the Professor stood, went to the patch bay and started replugging patch cables like an octopus. He glanced at me: “Turn down the master fader.”

I had a home studio. I knew something about consoles. This wasn't my first rodeo. But I got up and stared blankly at the SSL because I had no idea where the master fader was. He saw I was struggling so he pointed and said, "It's in the center of the console. Nope, not there. Over, down, left, right. Yes, right there. Pull that fader down." Once he was done patching gear he pointed to the seat again and said, "Sit."

At this point I noticed that he had a little dog with him. Cute little thing. The dog climbed out from under the console, walked over next to me, sniffed... and took a shit on the floor. The professor looked at the dog, then looked at me and said, "Are you gonna clean that up or what?" So I grabbed a tissue and picked up the turd. And then I went to find the janitor to get some cleaning supplies.

After the floor was done, the professor asked me if I knew what a Sony DASH was, which I didn't. He pointed to the tape machine in the corner and said, "It's that big thing right there, and this is the remote for it. Every time I stick my finger in the air, I want you to rewind to the beginning and hit play." So I did.

The first semester of school started about a week after that. And I wasn't more than 20 minutes into my first class of the day, when that audio Professor popped his head into the class, looked at me and gestured me out to the hallway. He said, "Dan! Let's go to the studio. We have a session." And that was it.

That was the beginning of a mentorship that taught me some of the most valuable information I know about audio recording. Although my initial encounter with my mentor was far from conventional, I was thrust into situations where I had to adapt and learn on the spot. This experience taught me humility and the value of being open to unexpected opportunities, no matter how unusual they may seem.

Over the next couple years, we spent a lot of time together working on his sessions at the school and at outside studios. The guy was busy. He showed me the ins and outs of working on a session from the ground up. He told me what to do, how to do it and why we did it. And this was everything from how to coil a cable to the appropriate way to label a DAT tape to dealing with musicians. And he wouldn't be shy about telling me what I did wrong... for hours and hours. I think he enjoyed it. And it wasn't without reason. He wanted to make sure that I didn't repeat any of those mistakes in the future, or repeat his mistakes.

One thing I really appreciated about The Professor was his ability to relate technically advanced concepts using normal, everyday examples. For instance, when he was explaining what RMS meant, he used a light switch as an analogy. He said the RMS value of the signal can be thought of as the voltage that would produce the same average brightness of a flickering light. So if you'd adjust the voltage to match the brightness produced by the flickering, you'd have an equivalent representation of the steady voltage. It was analogies like that that really helped me grasp these complex ideas.

Another aspect of his wisdom, that I held in high regard, was his consistent emphasis on the idea that music and recording is a form of art. You're creating art with sound. It's not always 100% technical. There's feeling and mood and all sorts of things that have nothing to do with compressors or equalizers.

During one session, he informed me he was going to be a little bit late and I should start without him. So we were recording two acoustic guitars and a vocal, and I had thought that it was a good idea to have them separated for bleed purposes; they were pretty far away from each other. I wanted complete isolation on their microphones, as far as vocals and guitars go, as well as between the two players. So they were set kind of far apart with headphones on. Everything was going smoothly as far as I could tell.

The Professor finally made it to the session and he sat back and listened to what we had. He then commented that there was no vibe—these players couldn't connect with each other very well. They weren't playing off of each other and it was affecting the performance. “Forget about the isolation, forget about keeping things separate and neat and perfect. Put these two guys together and let them play together. Fuck the bleed.”

And he was right on the money. Being able to interact with each other in a comfortable manner affected their mood and the physical closeness allowed them to play off of each other, creating an intimate and special performance. This experience exemplified his belief that, while technical aspects are vital, they are mere tools; the soul of music is crafted through emotions, mood, and ambiance. His insistence on focusing on the feel, not just the gear and technical aspects, taught me that exceptional audio recordings capture emotions and stories on a profound level.

After a couple of years in school, it dawned on The Professor that I had to start my own career. He set me up with an internship at Water Music, this massive commercial studio in Hoboken, NJ. That recommendation was like getting a backstage pass to a music wonderland.

My schedule during this phase of my life was a total circus act: classes hauling on till 3:00 PM, then hopping onto a train that zipped me to Jersey in an hour and a half. From there, it was straight into the studio grind till the crack of dawn. Rinse, repeat. That was my life for a full year. Sleep was nowhere to be found. This gig was no joke. The initiation? A chunky manual on being an Assistant Engineer. Seriously, it could've doubled as a doorstop. I tackled that monster in just two weeks though, and guess what? I got the golden ticket to the control room.

But let's get real here, it wasn't all rainbows and mixing boards. The initiation didn't involve heroic knob-twisting or epic audio stunts. It was more about plunging toilets, scrubbing dishes, and mopping. These jobs might sound like bottom-tier stuff, but looking back, they were a ticket to character development. They taught me to stay humble, own up to responsibilities, and showed me the ropes – even the less glamorous ones. The Water Music internship was my gateway to a wild, enlightening ride. But let's face it, I wouldn't have nailed it without my mentor's guidance.

He was a treasure trove of sound wisdom, and he didn't hold back in passing on the building blocks of my creative process. But let's save those mind-blowing tips and tricks—like using a gated sine wave generator to pump up the sub-bass, jazzing up snares with a gated white noise generator, and his golden rule of not recording transient material near the time code track—for another blog post, shall we?

In hindsight, this isn't just about my first mentor—it's a tribute to the power of mentorship itself. It's a testament to the unexpected beginnings that lead to profound growth, to the mentors who help us sculpt our paths, and to the value of embracing challenges and learning from them. My journey started with an accordion-playing janitor who let me into a college after hours, and a generous, masterful engineer who immediately put me to work. It took me to where I am today.

Finding the right mentor will completely change the trajectory of your career and life. And who knows, maybe one day you'll start a plug-in company with them.