Jesse O’Brien got his start in audio engineering a few years ago as an intern at Colorado Sound, one of the most in-demand recording studios in Denver, CO. Through hard work and diligence, he worked his way up to staff engineer at the studio, where he has had the opportunity to work with such names as Natasha Bedingfield, Matisyahu, TV on the Radio, Norah Jones, Dierks Bentley and numerous others. Jesse took few minutes with Music Is My Oxygen to talk about how he got into audio engineering, the role of mentors along his career path, as well as advice for others who might consider recording engineering as a career.
MIMO: Let me start with a personal question. What first drew you to audio engineering as a career choice?
Jesse: Well, I think for the same [reason] that a lot of people get into this industry. I was in a punk band growing up, and I quickly realized that that’s probably not the most secure avenue of a career. Not to say it’s not possible, but the odds are probably against you. So at the time that our band went into a fairly professional studio, I started talking with the engineer there, and he kind of reassured me and told me it’s definitely a career and a lot of people are in it. So I was hooked and fell in love with it. I pushed for it, went to school, and started interning a whole bunch, and here I am. So it was the music that got me into it.
MIMO: So, just to clarify, how did you learn to record and mix? Did you attend school for it? Did you learn in the studio, or maybe a combination of both?
Jesse: I think a combination of both. The thing that I think all schools, pretty equally across the board – they show you kind of the technical part of the gear and what the gear actually does and how it alters the sound. I think the experience part of it and just doing it in interning kind of gets you more versed in when to do things and when to use a certain piece of gear even when you know what it does. I guess, the metaphor I always like to use is, it’s kind of like a carpenter. Anybody in school, they’ll teach you how to use the drill press and use the saw. But the experience is going to teach you how to build a really nice, beautiful-looking cabin. That’s kind of the same sort of deal. So school is very necessary, for sure–it teaches you the basics of all the gear. But the experience is where you’re going to really excel and perfect using that gear with each other, that sort of thing.
MIMO: What would you consider to be your specialty as an audio engineer? Do you consider yourself to have a niche?
Jesse: Ooh, that is a good question. I would like to think I am decent at pretty much all styles, but I will say that I think hip-hop and pop are probably my forte. I seem to get better results in those genres than others. Not to say that the others aren’t – I think just personally, I feel the engineering is better represented with pop and hip-hop type stuff.
MIMO: Colorado Sound also has a mobile arm as well. Aren’t you part of that as well? Do you go out and do live recordings?
Jesse: Yes, I do. The mobile truck, it’s essentially a studio on wheels. It’s a full-blown control room/recording room on a truck. So we go out when a band wants to be recorded live so, simply put, we hook up and hit record for them.
MIMO: I imagine that would be quite a different dynamic from being in the control room in the studio.
Jesse: It is. It’s completely different. It’s very on your toes and it’s hurry-up-and set-up. If the thing is live, you only get one take, so you can’t be quite as lax, saying, “Oh if it doesn’t sound good, I’ll just go back and redo it.” You have to get it right the first time. There’s really no room for error as far as routing things and getting signal and getting decent time. So it’s a bit more intense, but I love it. I think it’s a great change of pace from the studio.
MIMO: What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve done over the past couple of years? Does anything stand out?
Jesse: I think for live shows, this last summer was one of the better summers. We did, just a couple of names I’ll throw out, we did Dave Matthews Band, we did Tedeschi Trucks Band, and we did the Global Dance Festival. We’ve done Randy Travis. We’ve done Norah Jones. We’ve done Yellowcard. Jackson Brown. So this last summer was actually a great summer for the live gigs.
As far as the studio goes, I think, one of the standouts the past few years is, Modest Yahoo, was probably one of the better standouts. Great session, great vibes, just overall good band and good people, too. A lot of fun with that one. We also did Natasha Bedingfield. She was in the studio and did a performance there. It was a pre-recording for the VMA Awards. Kind of an interesting thing, they pre-record their performance at the VMAs, and then when they sing at VMAs, the band just is just pretty much actors at that point, and they play the track that they’ve recorded and she sings on top of it. So we tracked all the band and tracked the scratch vocals for her.
MIMO: Giving away the secrets, aren’t we?
Jesse: Oh, I don’t know if I should go down that road or not. [laughter] But I can completely see, it makes sense why they do it because if you’ve ever watched the VMAs, those are huge full productions one after the other after the other. In reality, there’s just no way they could switch over a mic for a 50-input show that quickly from act to act to act.
MIMO: Yes. That makes sense.
Jesse: So it’s just physically impossible to pull that off, so that’s kind of the only way they can make it happen.
MIMO: Do you have what you would consider to be a mentor in professional audio? Is there anybody who has taught you more than the next guy?
Jesse: Yes, absolutely. I think my two biggest mentors, in no particular order, are Kevin Clock, the owner at Colorado Sound, and then J.P. Manza, another engineer in town. When I kind of started interning, they were the head engineers that I looked up to and they’re just a wealth of information. Anything they said about a mix, it opened a whole new door for me as I was learning…They were a very, very large influence on me and helped my skill set today and who I am as an engineer for sure.
MIMO: And you’ve began kind of mentoring some others as well, correct? You teach a few students?
Jesse: Yes. Correct.
MIMO: Okay. How have they done, do you keep tabs with them after you’ve finished with them, or do you continue to work with some of them? What are some of them doing today?
Jesse: I do. It kind of depends from student to student…Some students, it’s just a fire under their butt that just ignites them and they take off with it; some, not so much. A couple of my students came into it as DJs, kind of EDM music DJs and dub step type stuff. So they had a fairly decent understanding, at least of the electronics side of it, but they wanted to know more about the recording, mics and stuff like that side of it. I mentored them, and they’ve been doing great. One of my students used to just play in local clubs and had a decent following here, but now he’s opening up for big acts – Skrillex, the Global Dance Festival at Red Rocks. So he’s doing really, really well for himself. It’s always fun to talk to him because it’s just cool to see that he’s making something of the education that he got.
One of the very first students I had, it was probably a little over four or five years ago, he moved out to L.A. right after the course and started interning at a studio. He is now the Head Engineer there. So he’s doing very well.
MIMO: This is a kind of open-ended question, you can answer it any way you want. But, just the first thought that comes to your mind, what is the best part of your job?
Jesse: The creativity, for sure. That’s hands down the best part of the job. It’s a very creative role. I think a lot of people look at it from the outside and they think, oh, man, that looks very scientific, it’s a bunch of buttons and knobs and numbers and meters, and it’s really not at all. It’s very much a creative aspect. It’s music. You’re recording and creating music. I think the reason why I got into it in the first place, and why I’m still into it is, it’s pure creation.
MIMO: How would you advise someone who wants to do what you do for a living? How do you recommend that they learn these skills?
Jesse: The good and bad thing about this industry is that there is no set, paved way to get into it, unlike banking or another profession where you get a degree and you kind of follow the same steps. This field, you can kind of pave your own road…Where I think I succeeded, is [by] perseverance. You’ve got to be willing put in hours, and you can’t think of it like a job, because if you do, you’re not putting enough effort into it. You have to treat it like a hobby, like you’re a recording junkie. You really have to kind of become that. Twelve-hour days should be an average thing. That shouldn’t be something where you’re going, “Oh my, gosh. This is way too much,” you should be going, “Yes, I’m ready for the next twelve-hour day.” So that’s huge because, understand that there are people out there that are like that and want that, so if you’re not there, then you’re going to be replaced very quickly and easily. Perseverance, drive, is huge.
The other thing is, just a good overall business sense and people skills. It seems like kind of a mundane thing to say, but it’s amazing how many people kind of shoot themselves in the foot because of how they treat people or clients…Imagine if you’re an engineer and you have your very own clients that you’re responsible for; they’re the client, and the client’s always first. If they’re getting rubbed the wrong way from you, then they don’t want to work with you, simply put. So you’re not going to keep any of your clients. So people skills and just overall professionalism is a big plus, too.
Then the other thing is being just relentless with the amount of interning you’re going to be doing. Be okay with it, because it’s going to be a lot. It’s going to seem excessive. There are going to be times where it feels like you’re being taken advantage of, but it’s worth it in the end if you stick to it. I interned for two years before I started getting my own sessions. So it’s not something that, once you’re right out of school, “Okay, cool, I’m good to go, I can record a band.” No, no, no, no, no.
The studio owners know that you can use the gear, but they know also that you have never recorded an actual band and dealt with clients. So they want to 100% make sure you can handle that. If you’re 90%, you’re not ready. They want you to be 100%. So get ready for a lot of interning and be okay with it because you’re literally learning. I always kind of thought of it, when I was discouraged or felt like I was taken advantage of, it’s free school, school that I’m not paying for. Because I totally learned as much as I did in school, as I did interning.