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Making It in the Music Biz

This February, an artist named Kanye West was nominated for an unprecedented ten Grammy awards and took home three, including Best Rap Album. The relatively new emcee was a generally unknown name to most music fans earlier last year but was a familiar face to many of the industry’s biggest acts; just not as a performer. West has long had a reputation as a hit-maker from the other side of the mic. His production credentials include tracks for Jay-Z, Alicia Keyes and Mos Def.

Kanye West isn’t the only producer who has gained pop-notoriety for skills in the studio.

A few years ago, a pair of high school friends that went by the collective name of the Neptunes mixed their way onto the popular music scene and became superstars along the way. Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams are the young masterminds behind unique blends of hip-hop, rock and R&B that have attracted a clientele of Billboard Chart mainstays. Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dog and Gwen Stefani have all called on the duo’s studio wizardry for fresh sounds and new ideas.

The pair’s story is an increasingly common occurrence in today’s technology fueled music industry. Kids everywhere, armed only with some cheap software and some fresh ideas, are getting a head start in one of the industry’s fastest growing job fields, the music production.

Getting Started

So how do you get started in the studio and make a name for yourself as an up and coming engineer? Recording professionals Matt Ruckel and Ben Beresh offered several pieces of advice to get you on your way to a career behind the mixing board.

Ben Beresh is a recording engineer at Next Level Recording Studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The studio is a popular spot for area musicians, artists and bands. Beresh’s story starts in a place that may be familiar to some recent college graduates.

“My major was marketing, but I just decided that I didn’t want to work in an office,” Beresh said. Instead of trying to find work at a marketing firm, Beresh made a decision to follow a different calling. “I played music, so I just thought it would be cool to work in a studio.”

Determined to make a career in the music industry, Beresh enrolled in an eight week crash course at the Recording Workshop in Ohio. It was here that he learned the basics of sound production, but most importantly, he learned what he described as how to sell yourself to potential employers.

Now Beresh has climbed the ladder to a job that he enjoys; he advised on the importance of selling more than just your abilities as an engineer. “I take interns every now and then at the studio,” Beresh reflected. “Some of the interns I’ve worked with have had schooling or are music tech majors, but other interns have had no formal training. And really the big difference that I saw in the interns is how hard they are willing to work. It doesn’t matter if they know anything. If they work really hard and go out after clients, they’re going to be more successful than someone who knows something but doesn’t know how to sell themselves.”

The only way to do this, according to freelance producer Matt Ruckel, is to work hard getting a foot in the door at local studios; even if that means serving coffee in the beginning.

“I think networking will always be what drives the industry,” Ruckel explained. “Having connections is what gets you into the industry.”

Ruckel began his career in music production by knocking on doors of local studios and offering any help he could provide. The proactivity paid off. After aiding in smaller projects with local artists in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Ruckel got to travel to Nashville and assist on the latest compellation album for EMI records with recording artist Jason Upton. He is now in his senior year of college as a Music Technologies student but has more experience than many of his post-graduate counterparts.

Four Tips to Get You on Your Way

When asked about the significant factors that are essential to starting a career in music production, Ruckel and Beresh gave several tips.

1. Know your technology.

According to the pair, the program Protools is the industry’s most popular for engineering albums, but there are cheaper ones that can help beginners learn the basics. Software programs like Cakewalk, Cubase, Logic Pro Audio and Apple’s Garage Band offer users a strong foundational basis for recording with a price that’s easy on the wallet.

“The thing about [Protools] that makes it so versatile is the kid who buys an mBox (which is a $500 interface that comes with the program) has the same software that the million dollar studios are using,” Ruckel said.

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2. Establish strong relationships.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or how good you are, it’s going to take years for you to establish a reputation,” Beresh offered. “Anybody that you can hook in with who knows anybody or is doing anything is going to be a plus. Because when that right moment comes when they’re looking for somebody for a job, you could be it. So the more people you know the better; the more people that know you the better.”

Matt Ruckel also recommended taking advantage of the internet for getting your portfolio heard. “The nice thing about technology today is you can have a website where people can go to and listen to your stuff anywhere and connect over something like Purevolume.com or a MySpace.com blog,” Ruckel said. He also added the importance of a good word-of-mouth reputation. “If you’re in a town and people like your stuff, you’re going to start spreading and get more popular.”

3. Stay informed.

With so many genres of popular music producing their own chart topping hits, it can be difficult to stay on top of all of the latest trends. Ruckel advised that the important thing is not to conform to the flavors of the week, but to draw from a variety of influences in your productions.

Ben Beresh also recommended keeping in tune with new industry developments by reading productions magazines like Mix and TapeOp. TapeOp is a free publication that he described as a magazine “by working engineers for working engineers.” Keeping up with the new programs, techniques and genres will help your portfolio to stay versatile and your style to stay fresh.

4. Don’t believe the myths.

Ruckel said that contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be in a “big market” city to get your start in the industry. Many people believe that in order to get a foot in the door you have to live in Nashville, Los Angeles, New York or Miami. Beresh offered different advice.

“I really think it’s a big myth when people say, ‘You’re not going to make it unless you go to a big market,’ because it’s way tougher to make it in the big markets than it is to make it anywhere else,” Beresh said. “I really believe that the best music is happening in the smaller markets. I feel like in the big market everybody’s trying to do the same thing, and in the smaller markets everyone’s trying to do there own thing, which is really where the true creativity exists.”

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