Recording Engineer: Mark Ralston, Independent, Franklin, Tennessee

Below is the results of an interview between Jason Bowers, an Entertainment Management student at Missouri State University and Mark Ralston, independent recording engineer in Franklin, Tennessee. The interview was conducted in the fall of 2001.


[Speakerphone produces an annoying screeching noise…]
Q: Are you familiar with feedback as a recording engineer?
A: Oh, feedback, yeah! [laughs] that’s all right.

Q: What would you say is the job responsibilities of a recording engineer? Like if you had to make up a definition for your job? What is a “day in the life” of an engineer? A: A day in the life? Well, it just depends on what mode you happen to be in. Like if you’re tracking, your job would be to get the microphone setup in the proper miking position for each instrument and get your mic pre’s and your E.Q.s all set up, make sure your signal path is good, and, of course, make everything sound good. Whereas, if you were mixing you just have to, you know, show up, start up at square one, push up your kick drum, and just start mixing!

Q: So, it’s really important that you know your stuff, then? A: Oh yeah, gear knowledge is a must. You’ve got to know which piece of gear goes with what instrument, you know, certain E.Q. types go with certain styles of guitars and certain types of E.Q.s and compression work better with drums and especially with vocals: the mic pre’s and the compression can make it or kill it. It’s like if you have the opportunity to go through an A/B with a bunch of separate pre’s it’s always good, but usually you don’t have that luxury [both laugh] unless you’re doing a real record, you know? But then, there is certain days when you’ll just be overdubbing and you’ll just show up, and the guitarist is there or the singer, and you just do one instrument all day and that is the least favorite item to do.

Q: [laughs] You know, I heard that you don’t really like doing vocals. A: [laughs several times] True statement! It’s funny because when I was in L.A. working with Scott [Ralston, professional producer and Mark’s older brother] he’s the same way so he made me do all the vocals! He’s like “I hate doing vocals, you’re doing the vocals,” and I was like “oh, I hate doing vocals!” So he’s like, “I’m the producer and you’re the engineer so YOU get to do the vocals!”

Q: So, who were you guys working with in L.A.? A: The name of the band is Lucky Seven. They’re sort of like Blink 182, Lit, Sum 41, you know?

Q: Yeah. You were kind of hinting at how it’s important for you as a sound engineer to be able to work with the producer. Would you say that that is another qualification: that you have to be able to work with people? A: ABSOLUTELY, you have to be. An engineer requires part equipment skills and part psychology major ’cause you’re the engineer and then there’s the producer and then the artist in the ranking of the three, you’re number three on the totem pole! You kind of have to be middle man in-between it, too. If the artist has their vision and the producer has their vision and their kind of spatting, you have to be the middle-man-psychologist and feel it, you know, make sure everything flows good and make sure everything’s calm and relaxed. You definitely have to know who’s on the edge of being pissed off and make sure they’re calm at the moment, because definitely the artist and producer will have two different visions of what they want and hopefully it’s the engineer’s job to make them both happy.

Q: What would you say was your career path to get to where you’re? I know that know you have some good experience as a professional mixing engineer, but what would you say, briefly, was your path up to that? A: Well, I started out at a recording school. I went to Middle Tennessee State University and they had a program and I just took all their audio classes and all their production classes, and then once I got out I just… [pauses] some people think that when they get out of school it?’ like “well I went to recording school so now I’m an engineer, yeah” but that’s typically not the case. I went straight to work as a runner at Music Grinder in Hollywood and my job was to get the morning doughnuts and make the coffee, get the candles and the incense, and bring them all into the studio. Basically, anything that was NOT audio-related, I did. From there, you know, once you’ve been around awhile then somebody that’s an assistant [engineer] will be ready to move up to the engineering rank, so they’ll like put you in there with him so he can teach you the patch bay and some of the nuisances of the room, and you kind of learn the room that way. So then, they just kind of threw me in a session one day. It was like, “Suicidal Tendencies is in today and knock yourself out!” Then it’s you all by yourself, you just get in there and you either sink or you swim. It’s like you hope you’re prepared enough because when you weren’t getting doughnuts you were reading the manuals to the console and the tape machine, and while you’re setting around answering the phone you’re learning all the gear so when you get thrown in there and somebody says “hey, I need you to do this” [makes a rocket sound], you’re on it, and you’ve done it.

Q: So you kind of worked your way up from getting the jelly doughnuts A: Oh yeah, I worked my way up from coffee boy to assistant, and eventually you get tired of being an assistant and you just go away and engineer.

Q: So I assume that now you’re getting to do a lot more direct engineering? A: Yeah, sure and it’s almost harder to go from assistant engineer than from coffee boy to assistant because from coffee boy to assistant they just kind of work you up the ranks sort of like a normal job, you know, you’re there all the time and you work your way up, but you walk a fine line when you go from assistant to main engineer because you can either go cold turkey and say “I’m never assisting again” or you can say “I’ll just do some assisting to pay the bills and just do engineering when everybody calls me.” So it’s kind of hard, ’cause sometimes you’ll go back to your clients that you worked for when you were an assistant, but now you’re the engineer for them, and they kind of look at you like maybe you’re still the assistant and you have to kind of knock ’em on the head and say, “by the way. I’m not the assistant anymore, I’m the engineer.”

Q: Do the assistants get paid per-job like the engineers, or how do they get paid? A: It depends, you know? In Nashville it’s kind of different than like in L.A. In L.A. the studios have like staff assistant engineers who are being paid a salary from the studio, so it’s like a normal job–they get a paycheck every week and they get insurance and all that. Whereas, here [Nashville, TN] when I was an assistant I was self-employed. I didn’t work for any of the studios–I would just bill the labels directly. I wasn’t really working for any one studio. I had like one engineer who really liked to use me as an assistant so I just went wherever he went. There are a lot of staff engineers in town, but a lot of it is just freelancing.

Q: So would you say that was a plus, a pro of your job, that you had flexibility? A: Yeah, I’ve done both. When I first started I was on staff so whether I was in a session or not I had to be there, and I didn’t get paid much. Whereas, when I was freelancing I worked less but I actually made more money, and when I wasn’t in the studio I was actually off work and could do whatever I wanted, but I would still make a lot more money just freelancing. So I can work less and actually have some days off instead of working all the time and getting paid less.

Q: Would you say that that is a typical career path for a professional engineer, how you went to school and then worked your way up? A: Yes, I would say it is that way now, because there are so many recording schools, but before I did it the career path was that if there weren’t recording schools, you were free labor at the studio and just hoped that one day when nobody was there you just ran in and learned all the gear and stuff. Like a couple guys I worked for never went to school or anything like that–they just learned on the fly. But I’d say it’s changed now, I’d say pretty much they would prefer that you were from a recording school. Because now, a lot of the studios will call the schools and ask them if they have any people interested in internships.

Q: So now you’d say that it’s a key thing. So if someone wanted for sure to be a recording engineer, then they would need to go to school for that. A: Yeah, I mean it’s not necessary, but it would sure help, because the studios will call looking for an intern and the schools will know you’re a hard worker and they go “yeah, we’ve got the perfect guy for you.” If you’re not in school, you may not know that there is an internship open; you;d have a lot more paper pounding that you’d have to do.

Q: I’ve only got a couple more quick questions for you. What would you say is the range of salaries that engineers make? I mean obviously there’s from the grassroots level all the way up to huge. A: Well, yeah. I’d say it is the widest variation of a pay scale on the planet. I’ve done demos where I was getting paid $15 an hour, but then you do a real project and you get paid a couple thousand dollars a day. It just depends what size the project is and what you’re willing to work for. You know, if you want to find a band and grassroot ’em up, you can engineer for $100 a day, and then you start getting you’re resume built up, you know. Like Tom Lord Algae: they pay him $3000 just to mix one song.

Q: Is there any key professional affiliations for recording engineers to designate themselves above the rest? A: Well, not really. There’s a couple of organizations you can belong to like AES, the Audio Engineering Society, and all that, but I don’t know that there’s anything that would make you stand out above anybody else other than having something you worked on like winning a Grammy or something. If you work on something and it wins a Grammy then people are like, “Oooh, Grammy-award-winning engineer!” So, awards would add esteem, like if you got a Tech award from Mix magazine or something like that. But other than that, there’s not much of anything.

Q: You told me a lot of things that you like about your job, is there any one or two things that you really don’t like about being an engineer as opposed to any other job you could have had? A: Yeah, that’s pretty easy: the hours. The hours an engineer puts in are ridiculous. I don’t know who ever determined our hourly thing, but it’s like you work from 9 to 9, which is a 12-hour day, but that to me is like a half-days work! People just expect you to work all day. I don’t know how they determined that, but that’s really the amount of work you have to put in. Most normal people don’t understand. I’ve worked on projects that start at 10 am and you don’t get home until 2 am and I’ve done that for weeks at a time. It makes it hard to have a life.

Q: Thanks a lot for all your time for the interview. Is it all right if I publish this for my project? A: Certainly. Publish away!