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Industry Insider: Dave Hampton

July 1, 2009
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Dave Hampton has worked in a variety of audio engineering positions for a host of major artists.

Dave Hampton has worked in a variety of audio engineering positions for a host of major artists.

Dave Hampton has been an audio engineer for more than 20 years, working in a variety of capacities, both in the studio and on the road. His clients have included Prince, Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, RZA, M.I.A. and many others. Hampton also writes about the music business, and in his second book, The Business of Audio Engineering (Hal Leonard, 2008), he talks about how to build a career as an audio engineer. EM spoke to him about that subject in a recent interview.

With today's emphasis on home studios and the diminished size of the commercial studio scene, there's got to be a lot less work out there than there used to be for engineers.

Yes, there's a lot less traditional recording going on, but if you look at a lot of the top albums on Billboard, many of them used, at some point in time, a traditional large-format studio. That's not dead. My wife and I work a lot at The Village here in Los Angeles. We go there because the facility has a history of hit-making activity. Their staff is focused on service and we are treated well. I'm telling you this so you can see that even though the recording “scene,” as you call it, might be changing, there still is a desired need for large-format commercial studios.

I would guess that it's the middle-level commercial studios that mainly have gone under.

I think many who did not adjust to the changing landscape of our industry went out of business, both large and small. I also believe that anyone who is blessed to be working is never measuring the size of his or her situation. That middle level just gets referred to as “independent.” You've got to look at this fact, too: All over in every city now, there are pockets of people who are doing recordings of all different types. Churches, individuals, barbers, et cetera; and everybody's got a CD because the tools are that prevalent.

You can't talk about the state of the industry without discussing the state of education. We have many schools now offering audio recording arts education. That one fact has given us many more entry-level engineers than jobs to fill. Add to that the experienced engineers who say, “I only mix,” and you have the perfect environment for total professional job displacement. New younger models willing to take low pay for a shot versus old-guard pro that costs what they cost. I wrote my books so that people can learn the skills that you need to prosper in a business that asks for you to provide service. I truly know the resources in my book are helping many monetize themselves, both in front of and away from the console. That's so important in the present economy we are in. When I started out, many engineers waited for a call to work on a session; they were not motivated to create on their own. Then we went through a time when many said, “All I do is mix.” Specialization is great, but unless you are printing your own money, you have to diversify your business, just like the rest of us.

In the book, you talk about the kinds of audio engineering jobs available that are not studio related. What are some of them?

You could be on a cruise ship as audio support. You'd probably work about two to three stages. You'd probably have three or four shows a week, maybe more or maybe less. But you'd make a really good living and have some great benefits. You could work in the forensic audio profession. You'd have real good work with good benefits. You're not going to get a Grammy that way, but you will get a check. You can work at your local church or synagogue, or any place that has audio. Audio ministries is a paid position in many churches that have over 250 people.

And those churches often have huge sound systems.

And all the same principles apply. It's a viable area to work in, and again you have a great chance to make a consistent paycheck being an audio engineer. You can work at theme parks. I know a guy right now; he's an Emmy-winning engineer. Where did he start? He left school and started at Disneyland. Mixed at two or three stages live, and then later on he ended up working on Ellen [the TV show] mixing sound effects. He now also does mixing for The Price Is Right.

These days, it's much more common for a musician to also have engineering chops.

I think that musician-to-engineer is a natural progression. Many engineers are musicians or started out as musicians. You can't be involved with music without learning about music.

But there are a lot of us who don't necessarily want to spend the money to go into the studio right away. We work on producing tracks at home using decent gear, and then maybe bring someone in to mix it or bring the mixes to a mastering engineer.

I think that's where the settling point for moving forward is. I think it's about using both small- and large-format studios. Every situation is different, and many times budget drives the production choices. Get your music to a point where you say, “Hey, let me give this to someone who does this for a living, and then let me see what it's like after they mix it. In fact, let me go to a big studio to mix.” While you might not have the budget to do your entire project in a large studio, you can include that extra edge of creativity in your production to actually engage people who are good at specific things to take your project to a higher level. It's a guaranteed result because they're coming from a different sonic perspective and have another experienced creative outlook.

Hampton's latest book focuses on how to be successful as an engineer in today's music business.

Hampton's latest book focuses on how to be successful as an engineer in today's music business.

You mention in the book some Websites that people can visit to find out where there is engineering work.

Entertainmentcareers.net is the biggest one; it's a site that comes out daily. It lists entertainment jobs, internships and just general career information. If you want to focus on being engaged in the entertainment world, you can go by location: Chicago listings, New York listings, Northern/Southern California. You can browse by company. If you want to work for a major label, they've got management, graphics, broadcasting, broadcast sound, music, engineering, film festivals — any kind of application. It's not just for engineers, but for anything entertainment related. It's a very good, consistent database that has helped a lot of people kind of home in on what they need. Another one I like is ProductionHub.com. This is a great site with plenty of tools that help you find great work opportunities. This is one of the best sites to create your own profile, too.

So there's definitely info available online.

Yes, that one development in technology has really opened it up so that if anybody were to say, “Hey, I really can't find any work,” they might not be looking hard enough. I would also suggest that making good use of social networks would greatly increase your chances of finding a work opportunity just for you. Online resources are something you have to use, but don't forget to make relationships in the real world. This is a business of friends. They are the ones that bring referrals — so go make some friends!

In the book, you mention that one way for engineers to create a market for themselves is to have some really good gear that they can bring to the table.

Have some gear that you have command of that you really know how to work well. I think it helps if you have a system of capturing audio that you are familiar with. Craftsmen need their tools.

Part of what all engineers now have over those of the past is that there was never portability in the game back in the day. Laptops are a great starting place for building a mobile solution. The ability to go to where the work is will oftentimes get you the job. Before the abundance of laptops, we had to walk into any studio, identify any console or automation system, and start the session. We had to get with it or go broke. So get yourself a quality setup where you know that, without a doubt, you can get your work done. As an engineer, the ability to know signal flow and provide solutions will make you extremely useful in any audio situation. One last thing I would say is that you cannot expect to find work and have a flourishing career unless you begin to develop your personal skills. Respect everyone, be solution oriented, pay attention to detail and do good work every chance you get.


Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer.

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