Recording Connection mentor Mike Johnson on What He Looks for in an Apprentice
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Mike Johnson is the founder and head engineer of Clear Track Recording Studios in Clearwater, FL. With more than two decades in the music business, he’s an industry veteran who’s worked with the likes of Chick Corea, John Legend, Save the Radio and DJ Ravi Drums. We sat down with Mike to ask him how he selects an apprentice, how he approaches his role as a mentor, and what it takes to make it in music today.
Why he Mentors.
“People are constantly trying to break into this industry, and most of them need to be steered in the right direction. I look at it like passing the torch. That’s something that’s important to me.”
When it comes to picking an Apprentice, Personality counts—lots.
Mike says, “They need to be friendly. I realized at one point that it’s not just about skills, y’know? A big part of being in this industry is, the client still needs to feel like you’re delivering a service [and] that comes across, all the way down to getting coffee for them. So they [apprentices] just have to have that confidence of, “Hey, I’m here to help.”… The client needs to feel the the apprentice or the engineer is interested in doing that, not just doing it because they have to, you know, not faking it. I think the new guys just need to get it to a point that they’re comfortable to be friendly.”
In order to really understand what working in a professional recording studio entails, you must have experience in a real recording studio. Mike says, “You really can’t skip learning in the right environment, because then people don’t actually get what it is they are going to be doing professionally. Without the environment, they just imagine what they think it should be like. But when they’re there, in the studio, they see it happen, they experience it, hear it, they get to observe what a professional studio session is like, [learn] the standards, and hear how good it really sounds.”
Not Lecturing, Teaching.
As a mentor, Mike makes it a priority to ensure his apprentices fully understand everything he shows them about the craft, enabling them to develop a broader skillset and deeper understanding of audio. In order to do this, a fuller understanding of analog and the patch bay is essential:
“With analog you have to know signal flow, if you don’t know it, it doesn’t work. Whereas with digital you technically just have to plug one thing in and the signal flow is automatically behind the scenes essentially. [Without analog training] I think they’d be missing out and I think that that is the kind of stuff that strengthened us from the last generation of guys. This is a big part of why they’re learning in an analog studio, along with using Pro Tools. Having them in the room, I can physically show them ‘Here are the cables’ and, ‘Here are the mic panels.’ Cables are going through the walls, under the floors, I show them wiring diagrams sometimes. I want them to fully understand everything.”
How you Treat People is of Paramount Importance.
Think amazing ears and stellar chops are enough to get you where you want to go? Well, Mike Johnson and a great majority of the pros will tell you that’s secondary to the Golden Rule–Treating people right! “All the people in the industry aren’t going to want to work with an A-hole. They’re going to want to work with somebody who can get the session going, gives them solutions… So, I think that skill has to be there, and the people skills, and the problem solving skills.”
On Quality Control.
Second to being the kind of person artists feel respected by and want to work with, is the ability to be able to step back and know what you’ve got, to accurately assess one’s own work to a high-caliber, professional standard. For Mike, good, professional recording professionals “have to be able to recognize when something truly does sound commercial or industry standard and not just get excited because they’re having fun being in the room. That is not what you’re getting paid for. You’re not getting paid just to have a smile and [be in] a studio, you’re getting paid, ultimately, to make a finished record. So quality control is so important to that.” The pro should ask the right questions to keep them on track during the process, asking things like: “All right, well what are our references? How good does a real commercial record actually sound in a control room? What do I have to do to get it there?”