When it comes to learning from top music industry pros, you don’t get much better than Recording Connection
mentor Mark Christensen.
His many years in the music industry have given him experience on both sides of the aisle, so to speak—both on the studio side of music production and as a recording and touring label artist. In 1996, Mark established Engine Room Audio
in New York City from the ground up. Today, Engine Room is one of the best and busiest recording and mastering studios in the world, servicing such clients as Trey Songz, 50 Cent, Kylie Minogue, The Killers, A$AP Rocky, The Ting Tings, Sia
and a host of others. Even so, as busy as the Engine Room gets, Mark still takes a personal interest in passing his knowledge along, and personally mentors all the students we send to his studio.
Under Mark’s mentoring, Recording Connection apprentices get plenty of opportunities to grow and connect to the industry while learning from the best, which is why the Engine Room is understandably one of our most in-demand mentor studios. In a recent conversation with RRFC, Mark talked about the advantages that apprentices have by learning on-the-job, and provided key insights into how students can make the most of those advantages.
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RRFC: What do you like about this program as compared to a traditional audio engineering school?
I think the fact that the way the course is constructed, the students are actually in a working commercial studio. We meet one-on-one with them, so we get a chance to really figure out what stuff they’re understanding clearly, and what stuff they’re not understanding clearly. I think if you’re just in a classroom setting, sometimes it can be pretty easy to get lost in the shuffle. With these students, we’re working one-on-one with them. They get to attend sessions that are real commercial sessions. I’ve had students attend sessions of mine that have gone on to be nominated for Grammys and gone onto gold and platinum records. The students are part of a real-world environment where they get to be in the studio and not just sitting in a class.
RRFC: What sorts of things do you have your students doing when they first come in?
We have a pretty aggressive session schedule here. [The students] come here and they’re definitely attending sessions right away. We also obviously are starting in on their class work. Because we have such a nice mic collection for example, we’re able to let them work with some of our assistants here and get hands-on experience, actually working with the microphones, looking at the different types of microphones. They’re interacting with the actual workings of the studio.
RRFC: Do you ever run across audio engineers who aren’t sure they want to “pass the torch” because they’re afraid there will be too much competition out there? Engineers who are worried about the younger generation taking over their jobs?
I guess I don’t find that to be true so much in my own life. My situation is maybe a little different than some other mentors, because we’ve got a really big facility here. We’ve got eleven studios, we’re an A-list mastering lab. To be truthful, we are constantly looking for engineers. One of the benefits I’ve found of being a Recording Connection mentor, quite honestly, is that I can actually sort of fish in my own pond, so to speak. There’s definitely a number of students that have gone on to actually work here. One student in particular, this guy named Nacor Zuluaga, ended up being my mastering assistant for a couple of years, getting a couple of plaques as an assistant on a couple of big albums that we did. He’s actually now started working himself as a mastering engineer, and has become one of the junior members of our staff here. [So] I actually have the opposite impression. Rather than be afraid of creating my own competition, I’m actually looking forward to creating competent engineers that I might actually be able to hire at some point.
RRFC: What was it about Nacor as a student? What did he do that made you say, “I want to hire this guy when he’s done with the program”?
He just really spent a lot of time soaking up all of the material. He’s very self-motivated, spent a lot of time researching the various topics. We would study a particular topic in the class, then he would go off on his own and do a lot more internet research, do a lot of reading. It was clear that he was learning really quickly, and he had a really good command of all of the material…He was a responsible guy, really knew what he was talking about. He was just one of those kids that really was able to get a grasp on the reality of how to work on sessions.
RRFC: Any other standout students? What made them stand out?
Christian Albrizio is [also] good…He’s just another dedicated kid who was definitely willing to attend almost anything I suggested. He would just soak up whatever information he could. That’s a common trait [of successful students]. We send out these emails to the whole student list. We’ll be like, “Hey, there’s a tracking session on Saturday that you are welcome to attend if you want to.” It tends to be the kids who show up to almost everything you invite them to. They have that attitude of wanting to learn anything they can learn.
Audio engineering started out as an apprenticeship model, right? You learn to be an audio engineer almost the same way you learn to be a blacksmith. You have to hang out with the blacksmith and figure out how he does stuff. That’s how you become a good audio engineer, too. You have to be willing to put in the time.