Study Hall

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Pay It Forward, Pay It Back

The importance of a guild system approach now and for the future.

Many of us working in professional audio have heard of legendary recording engineer Bruce Swedien. After all, he’s worked with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, The Chicago Symphony… wait, what?

Yes, that’s correct – when Mr. Swedien was just starting his career in the late 1950s, he did some assisting work with Lewis Layton of RCA on some of the now famous “Shaded Dog” early stereo recordings. Fans of classic vinyl know how great a well preserved RCA LP from this era can sound.

Which brings me to my point: Bruce learned from the best, including Layton, along with Bill Putnam at Universal Studios, among others. Ideas for his “Aucsonic Recording Process” likely came from his experiences in real halls, with acoustic instruments being recorded in stereo during those early days.

Are We Not Artisanal?

Most “guild” type work systems revolve around some combination of art and craftsmanship, such as the IATSE union, sound reinforcement companies, and recording studios. In a basic sense, the idea is that if you can’t be trusted to clean bathrooms, make cables, park trucks, and generally avoid being a jerk, then you’re probably not worthy when an assistant engineer is needed. But there’s more to it than that.

For one, doing a job that involves true craftsmanship requires that we learn how to do the subtle things that the masters have developed over generations. It may seem simple to solder an XLR cable, but until we’ve done hundreds of them, some of that knowledge remains elusive.

For instance, knowing just how much to strip back each type of wire, knowing that some jackets will shrink more than others, knowing the right temperature for the iron for a given job, etc. Then there’s the debate about whether or not to twist the tiny copper strands (but I digress).

In any organization that’s been around for a while, there’s an institutional knowledge, and if you’ve worked there for a while, like it or not, you become part of it. In many ways, how you “fit” into a company depends on whether or not you can positively interface with this important element of a company’s culture.

Something From Nothing?

I still remember an early important lesson from one of my first audio jobs in Los Angeles. It wasn’t going particularly well, and I was talking with one of my former instructors about it. He said, “There is something to learn from each situation, and the important part is figuring out what it is you’re supposed to learn from this one.”

Indeed, many of the things that happened there made me realize that I didn’t want to be in that particular situation ever again! So he was right – even if things are terrible, we need to figure out what we’re learning from it.

Institutional knowledge can be a valuable asset, and thus is one reason many companies pride themselves on low employee turnover. When you lose a key members of the team, a lot of their collected knowledge goes out the door with them.

This is why it’s important for managers to foster an environment where the best people want to stick around. And for newer employees, it’s a target area of improvement: you may start out green, but if you learn things the right way and produce consistently positive results, you become an important asset to the company or organization.

From Master To Student

So, for green employees – where to start? First, it’s important to learn how things are done, right and/or wrong. We all have ideas, even when we’re neophytes, but we may not know the larger context of something until we’ve lived and learned the status quo. From there, we might be able to identify ways to improve processes or products.

Next is figuring out who the old masters are, the ones really controlling things, and to start learning from them in an apprentice-like manner. This is the phase where we can begin to explore and appreciate the subtle arts (and perhaps sciences) of our jobs, and gain a career edge by raising our potential trajectory. Book and class learning is great, but repetitive practice at the craft is something we can’t do any other way.

During this sometimes long, sometimes painful process, care must be taken to keep our egos in check, and often, that’s certainly not easy. “Why do these old curmudgeons do it this way? It would be much easier and quicker if…” But don’t forget: that isn’t the point!

Japanese culture provides further inspiration. Basically, every job, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is done with care – from sweeping the gutters to the flower arrangements in the hotel lobby to the most spotless construction and renovation sites you’ve ever seen. It’s as if everything they do is artisanal in every meaning of the word, every day, dawn to dusk.

Where It’s All Going

So yes, it’s important to learn the fine art of doing our jobs, perhaps even beyond the scope of what we had originally envisioned. After all, nearly anyone can mix, but how many can mix really well?

But even more than the technical side of all this, one thing we must learn from the masters is how to deal with people, from clients to management to local crew. Particularly for those who’ve been doing this a while, there’s no doubt that we’ve observed plenty of good and bad examples. It’s up to each of us to decide how we wish to interact with others by following the best examples.

Speaking of which, what about the less experienced up-and-comers who are eager for knowledge and information? They may not yet have much of a clue about the real scope of their jobs, so it’s up to the veterans to help them learn.

After all, what kind of people do we want to send out in the world to represent professional audio? Probably the ones that we’d rather have stick around and make our company, our work and our interactions better day by day. It’s definitely the way things should go – by grooming the next generation to replace us, we end up improving the industry as a whole.

That’s not so bad, is it?

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