For some people, “it’s all about the bells and whistles, the best microphone or the coolest compressor,” says Austin Thompson, a 23-year-old Recording Arts grad who’s now an engineer at Chicago Recording Company. “What I’ve found is that the best engineers I’ve worked with – the ones whose rough mixes make you question your whole life – are pretty lax about that kind of stuff. If something isn’t working, patch something in that works – I don’t care what it is. You’re trying to capture a vibe and an experience, and the last thing these guys are going to do is hold up a group of inspired musicians so they can get this tube mic to stop crackling.”
Austin joined CRC in November 2009, and has since worked on some 300 projects, including recording and post-production for the likes of the Black-Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams, and Mavis Staples. He’s also worked on a number of the studio’s overhauls and upgrades, acting as a tech assistant during construction, wiring, studio installation, and room tuning.
As soon as he graduated, Austin knew that landing a gig at CRC – the biggest studio in his hometown – was the goal, not just because of its proximity to family (he grew up in the Windy City’s southern suburbs), but also because of CRC’s partnership with a company called American Mobile Studio, which does live recording and broadcast audio for myriad music festivals, including Coachella and Bonnaroo. But as these things go, his journey to CRC wasn’t linear.
Immediately out of Full Sail, Austin took a job at a high-profile private studio in Chicago, but “it was a pretty lousy experience as a whole,” he says. “The money was good and it was close to home so it allowed me to save up the money I needed to move to the city and take an internship that I knew would likely be unpaid.” When Full Sail’s Career Development department notified him that CRC was looking for interns, he jumped at the chance.
“Getting the internship was huge, but landing a real position here was a whole different kind of feat,” Austin says. “I think when you’re at Full Sail you have this strange feeling that everyone out there is going to be worlds ahead of you, and I think you have to ignore that notion and just do your thing. Landing a job at a studio is all about evaluating the territory and finding a need that isn’t currently being met. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard our studio manager say ‘Give me a reason to remember your name!’ ”
In his case, he noticed that the head tech needed an assistant, so Austin flung himself into that role, getting him coffee, following him around, chatting him up for hours at a time. Eventually, the tech took a liking to him, and recommended him to the studio manager. This led to opportunities to make money running cabling, fixing broken gear, organizing and maintaining backup servers, and so on.
“I think to be valuable to a studio, you have to be interested in its forward progress, and you have to look around and say, ‘How can we do this better?’” Austin says. “The answer isn’t always about new gear or the ultimate kick drum chain. It’s like working on a car. You care about it and spend countless hours tuning and wrenching and cleaning and fixing.”
As for what the future holds, Austin says, while Chicago has afforded him a great experience, in time he may want to scope out a new scene – Austin, perhaps, or maybe Nashville. “We’ll see what happens,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to fall into a position where I spend half of the year in the studio, and the other half on the road recording bands all over the country. Variety is the spice of life.”