The Graduate
Aaron Kasdorf’s Accelerated Education
By Greg Thomas

   

For many aspiring engineers, the road to a steady, paying job at a reputable studio is a long one. Not so for Aaron Kasdorf, who managed to go from no engineering experience to a job as an assistant engineer at Nashville’s Starstruck Studios in less than two years. How did he do it? Kasdorf paid some serious dues, and in the end, it was his audio education and his professionalism that helped him land the gig.

Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Aaron Kasdorf caught the music recording bug in high school, when his punk band made its first recording. Kasdorf was playing guitar in the band, but he realized that his true calling was on the other side of the studio glass. “From that point on, I knew that engineering was what I wanted to do.” A family connection helped to bolster his interest. Kasdorf’s uncle is Dave Dillbeck — a Nashville engineer who’s worked on several high-profile records, including albums by the Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men, Amy Grant, and a range of Christian artists.

The Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences
After graduating from high school, Kasdorf went to work for a graphics company in Phoenix. But with a drive to pursue music, he soon began to investigate the nearby Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences (www.cras.org), which has locations in Tempe and Gilbert, Arizona. The Conservatory integrates Pro Tools certification into a comprehensive audio program that Kasdorf knew would prepare him quickly for engineering in the real world.

“I liked the fact that they offered Pro Tools certification and that they provided internship placement as part of the curriculum,” says Kasdorf. “I visited the campus and met some of the instructors — I got to know their background. The school just seemed like a great experience. It also seemed like a good bargain. It just wasn’t as expensive as some of the other places.”

Kasdorf enrolled in the Conservatory’s comprehensive 37-week (900-hour) program, called Master Recording Program II. The curriculum includes 30 weeks of courses in analog recording, digital recording, music business, live sound, computer system maintenance, and more, followed by a seven-week internship. “This is a full-time, concentrated program,” says Kevin Becka, the Conservatory’s Director of Education on the Gilbert campus. Becka, who has engineered albums for Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Aretha Franklin, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, and many others, is also the Technical Editor for Mix magazine. “At the Conservatory, you get five four-hour classes per week. And then you can put in as much time as you want or need after class. You can get tutoring if you need it, you can put together study groups, hear guest lectures — we have all those things available.”

Kasdorf’s program began with analog classes. “We learned basic signal flow theory from the mic all the way to the speakers,” says Kasdorf. “We worked on 24-track analog tape machines and three different types of consoles...We learned all about the mics, from the components to all the electrical stuff. They teach you the basic theory on three different consoles so when you come out in the real world, if a studio doesn’t have what you learned on, you at least understand what’s going on behind the knobs and faders. The whole signal flow process was a huge part of the curriculum.”

And the digital classes? “Seventy-five percent of that was Pro Tools training,” says Kasdorf. “We learned everything from buying the rig at the store and setting it up at your home, all the way up to 48-track multi-track recording, overdubbing, and mixing. There’s also a 5.1 surround sound room where we utilized Pro Tools for surround sound and learned about the whole film and post production process — using Pro Tools with film. We definitely had many alleys to go down after graduating.”



   
With small class sizes, Kasdorf and the other students were able to clock a fair amount of hours on individual workstations. “Having your own computer and your own Pro Tools system — virtually your own studio — is huge,” says Kasdorf. The Conservatory has 26 Pro Tools rigs in all, eight Pro Tools LE rigs and the rest TDM setups. In Pro Tools classes, there are never more than two students per station. After class, students can use those stations or additional rigs on each campus, anytime of the day or night, to work on projects.

Small classes also meant a lot of personal attention from instructors. “The instructors were awesome,” says Kasdorf. “After class was over, if you were struggling, they stuck around and helped you understand what you wanted to understand. They’re all well qualified. The instructors are definitely top notch. The one-on-one with the instructors was just priceless.” The Conservatory’s instructors are seasoned engineers and musicians who have worked on prominent projects. Many instructors also bring deep equipment expertise from having worked closely with product manufacturers.

Kasdorf complete all of his coursework in just eight months. Perhaps what is most impressive is that he completed that coursework while also working a part-time job. “My whole career has been like that — very compressed,” says Kasdorf. “I’d work in the morning and afternoon at my job, then start school at 3. Class was out by 7, but after-class projects would go till midnight, or 1, 2, 3 in the morning. And then I had to get up at 7 and be at work the next day. I definitely didn’t have a life for eight months....But I have a life now, so it was worth it.”

The Conservatory is open around the clock so students can put in plenty of time on the all of the systems. “We encourage students to stay here after hours,” says Becka. “You can hang out in the studio at night or at the labs — we’re open 24/7. The real strength of the program is that for 30 weeks, you can have as much experience on any amount of gear as you want.”

Starstruck Internship
To complement the program’s coursework, the Conservatory requires students to complete an internship at a real-world studio. “They help you get placed in a studio or record company — and that’s part of the curriculum. You get graded on it,” explains Kasdorf. “You choose a city, and they help you make connections. I chose Nashville because my uncle works there and because the cost of living is more reasonable than New York or LA.”

The Conservatory’s four full-time internship coordinators make contact with students early in the program to help them assemble a resume, define areas of interest, and pick target cities. When coursework is complete, the coordinators arrange internship interviews with well-known studios. “The Conservatory has built relationships over the years with a wide range of studios — from Electric Lady in New York to Ocean Way in LA,” says Becka. “And those studios look forward to taking on our people for internships.” In many cases, internships have led directly to jobs, but even when studios can’t hire the Conservatory interns, they can often help students find jobs nearby. “It’s a tight community, even in big cities,” says Becka.

For Kasdorf, finding his way in a new city was not easy. “Once I got here, I was pretty much blind,” says Kasdorf. “I had been in Phoenix all my life and here I am in Nashville, Tennessee. I was like, ‘What do I do now?’”

Within a few weeks, the Conservatory’s internship coordinator called him about a possibility at Starstruck Studios — a state-of-the-art Nashville recording and broadcast complex owned by Reba McEntire. Starstruck has catered to an impressive list of recording artists, from Allison Krauss, Brooks & Dunn, LeAnn Rimes, and Vanessa Williams to Barry Manilow, Faith Hill, George Strait, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, and many more.

The Conservatory set up the initial interview, and Kasdorf ultimately got the position. Yet despite Starstruck’s glamorous list of clientele, Kasdorf’s internship was anything but cushy. “You get there in the morning, you make coffee, you get doughnuts and bagels, you clean, you make sure everything’s nice and tidy, you answer phones,” says Kasdorf. “You go from being in school, where you’re in the studio every day, to a real-world situation, where you’re getting doughnuts and making coffee...You definitely pay your dues.”

Professionalism Rewarded
   

After a few months of fetching breakfast, a position opened up for an assistant engineer at Starstruck. Kasdorf was competing with a few other interns, but he got the job. What got him the gig? “That’s the crazy thing,” says Kasdorf. “The other interns might have even known more than me, but the studio really cared about how I treat clients and how I handle myself as a professional. They knew I had a degree from the Conservatory, so they knew that I knew my stuff. And then they saw that I had a professional side that could handle clients.”

Today Kasdorf is an assistant engineer at Starstruck. He’s already worked on some important projects, including the new Reba McEntire Number Ones album, as well as the recently released album by American Idol Bo Bice, The Real Thing. “I did that for three months, start to finish. I was the assistant engineer on that, and I did some basic track engineering on that as well.”

What’s next in this fast-rising career? “I love where I’m at,” says Kasdorf. “I love the people I work with, and I love my situation. I couldn’t ask for anything better. My long-term goal is to be a mix engineer. But I want to be here for a while and learn all I can learn, and meet everyone I can meet to make the most of my opportunity here.”

In trying to explain his accelerated career, Kasdorf ascribes an key role to his audio training. “A lot of my training matched with the equipment Starstruck had. I definitely owe a lot to the Pro Tools Certification, the audio training in general, and the instructors at the Conservatory.”