“All of my big connections today have stemmed back to one or two relationships early on. It’s trickled down from working with this one person, then get introduced to this person and working with them for three years, and so on.” Brandon Buttner
Being a producer and engineer requires many hats to wear. For Brandon, his journey through education and eventual move to LA has been a huge endeavor filled with networking, multiple roles, and persistence to succeed. The result is a freelance position and being on call lists for studios, record labels, calls from managers, and ultimately working directly with the artists themselves for gigs. But it wasn’t easy getting to this smorgasbord of work as you’ll read below.
The LA Way
His decision to move to LA meant a larger pool of studios and a much larger ocean of people looking for internships. Having now a college degree, plus experience at multiple studios in Minnesota and Nashville, Brandon had built up a full resume. He started sending out resumes to every studio in town. In just over 100 resumes that were mailed out, he heard back from just 3 studios. This lead to two interviews, one of them at The Boom Boom Room. Mesmerized by the gold records hanging on the wall and the names on the client list, he choose The Boom Boom Room.
The studio was more urban and did 95% hip hop music with the rest composed of pop music. Fortunate to have a lot of interning under his belt at this point, he knew how to work the game and stand apart from the others as an intern. In just after six weeks of working for free, Brandon made the first step in breaking through and landed a paid position as a runner. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?
What is a Runner?
Here in the Minneapolis studio scene, the position of a runner doesn’t exist. In LA, it means a minimum wage job at a studio doing some essential daily activities. This could include going to pick up food, getting alcohol, going to pickup weed, cigarettes, and possibly even someone’s dry cleaning. Imagine spending years getting a degree, interning for free, and finally being paid minimum wage to run errands for people. Needless to say, the system is designed to narrow down the field and see who really wants it.
Brandon was a runner for about 4 months before an opportunity popped up. One of the upcoming sessions needed an assistant engineer and everyone else was busy. He jumped in and slowly started becoming a trusted assistant engineer, getting smaller sessions to work on.
This lead to another huge opportunity and falls in the more “classic way” of breaking through. There was a session where they didn’t reserve an engineer and everyone else was booked. Brandon stepped in and ran a smooth, easy session for the client. As a runner you have to be prepared at anytime to re-engage your skills and education. Brandon transformed these opportunities into clients requesting his name when they booked future sessions.
From the moment he started at The Boom Boom Room to securing an engineering position was close to six months. That is a really quick advancement and extremely rare in the music industry. There are tales of people being runners for 3-4 years before finally getting an opportunity to jump into a session.
This process of advancement has been the classic model for decades. In a profession with so few positions and such large quantities of people, it’s a torturous gauntlet that tests your commitment and motivation. Your sleep schedule is all over the place, diet is affected, and personal life is built around the studio. It’s certainly not glamorous.
The Most Important Skill
“If you ask any artists in LA why they like their engineer or what makes a good engineer, the first thing everyone is going to say is that they’re fast,” Brandon shares.
Coming from a recording school that teaches you to try out three different vocal microphones and hear the differences between preamps and compressors, the real world is anything like this. It’s a terrible thing because we’re taught to care about the sound quality of what you’re recording. But the expectation in large studios is being able to run the software and equipment like a machine; fast and efficient.
Being fast and getting a great vocal sound should be instantaneous. Brandon now records mainly vocals and being prepared for the artist to walk in and hit record is key. He builds a template, chooses the best microphone and equipment based on knowledge, and can start doing takes within moments of the start.
The second largest skill that Brandon focuses on is the vibe. Being able to make artists feel comfortable when going into a very unnatural setting, like a vocal booth with headphones, is crucial. Even professionals struggle with that environment and how intimidating it can be to sing into a microphone for everyone to hear. A studio may be private, but your voice is the most vulnerable public thing you’re sharing.
Brandon generates a vibe where people can perform and work and have conversations. He strives to not just be a hired person, but someone that is interested in the best outcome of the record and helping the artist achieve the best possible result. These skills have lead to many strong relationships and work over the years.
The recording industry is one of the toughest professions due to the hours, variable pay, and lack of benefits. Next week we’ll hear what keeps Brandon motivated to keep going in an industry that typically chews people up and spits them out. We’ll also discuss Brandon’s influences as a vocal producer.
For Part One of this series, click here.