The Graduate  
Bret Johnson: Premium People Skills
By Dustin Driver


Want to land a gig with a national recording studio? Work in a restaurant first. Musician, songwriter, and recording engineer Bret Johnson waited tables for nearly three years while studying audio engineering at the New England School of Communications (NESCOM) in Bangor, ME. Wrangling hungry, picky, and sometimes rude customers gave him the resilience he needed to deal with tough studio clients — and the people skills he needed to land a job as a sound re-recordist at Soundtrack NY, a large commercial recording and production facility with branches in New York and Boston. Soundtrack NY mixes, remixes, masters, and dubs audio for film, TV, and musicians. The shop’s client list includes 20th Century Fox, HBO Productions, Miramax, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, Aerosmith, Frank Sinatra, Sheryl Crow, Beastie Boys, and Ozzy Osbourne.

“Working in restaurants really prepared me for this job,” says Johnson. “Restaurants, by their nature, get chaotic and stressful. Besides juggling a constantly changing task list, you’re dealing with hungry people who have been waiting. When things go wrong, the waiter has to defuse the situation to keep the peace. Studios can also be very stressful places, especially when problems come up. My experience waiting tables has helped me stay calm and think clearly. Being cool is the name of the game.”

Of course, any engineer worth his salt also needs to know Pro Tools — and Johnson is no exception. At NESCOM, he learned the program inside and out, earning Pro Tools 210M certification and honing his studio chops.

From West to East
Johnson’s current career has been cooking for a while. The Portland, OR native grew up with music, playing saxophone for almost 13 years in school bands and professional groups. He also plays guitar, and toured the West Coast with a funk band. Meanwhile he studied electrical engineering and music at Oregon State University. “Looking back on it now, I guess I was always on track to working in a studio,” he says. “It just took me a while to figure it out.”

"The first job of anyone
working in a studio is
to make the client
comfortable — it's

When his band decided to record an album, Johnson jumped at the opportunity to set up his own home recording rig using Pro Tools LE and a Mac. He recorded and mixed the album without any formal training, but he was a long way from being an expert. “There were so many things that I was foggy about,” he says. “I thought I knew a lot about Pro Tools and recording, but I had a lot to learn.”

A grueling tour schedule eventually drove Johnson away from the band scene. He left the West Coast for the East, moving to Maine to be closer to his wife’s family. There Johnson discovered NESCOM, a school that has trained recording engineers, broadcast journalists, advertising and public relations specialists, and radio professionals for more than 30 years. Impressed with NESCOM’s curriculum, Johnson decided to enroll in the school’s four-year audio engineering program.

Back to Basics with Pro Tools
NESCOM’s audio program is a popular one. There’s a waiting list for the courses, according to Dave MacLaughlin, head of the school’s audio program. “About nine or 10 students graduated from the audio program this year,” he says. “There are 350 students total in the school right now, and four years from now about 80 or 90 will graduate.”

There may be limited space in the program, but there’s plenty of opportunity out there for its graduates. “There’s an incredible amount of content being created for TV, the web, and films,” MacLaughlin observes. “There are studios popping up everywhere. The industry continues to reshape itself, but I don’t think there’s any shortage of work.”

Johnson started with the basics. “They put a big emphasis on how stuff really works,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to trace flow charts and diagrams of gear, and basically know which electronic components are doing what in a studio.” And fortunately for Johnson, just as he began his studies the school decided to add Pro Tools certification as a requirement for the audio engineering degree.

"There are so many jobs
in the music and sound
industry where Pro Tools
is a required skill."
“NESCOM is very much industry driven,” MacLaughlin says. “Every year we either talk to or visit people in the industry and ask them what they want to see in new graduates. We visited 15 studios and they all told us the same thing: First and foremost, the kids have to know Pro Tools.” MacLaughlin decided to integrate Pro Tools into the audio engineering program after first taking the Digidesign training courses himself.

“Bret exemplifies everything we look for in a grad,” MacLaughlin says. “He has a phenomenal work ethic and incredible people skills. The first job of anyone working in a studio is to make the client comfortable — it’s everything. Students need the Pro Tools and recording skills, but they also have to understand how important it is to work well with people. Bret has those skills, and that will be part of what makes him a good engineer.”

Ready for the Real World
Johnson was one of the first graduates to complete the Pro Tools training program, which NESCOM extends over the course of several semesters using lecture and lab courses, rather than offering as a compressed crash course. “I was fortunate to go through the program this way,” says Johnson. “You can get a lot more done in a few semesters than you can in nine or ten days.”

Audio engineering students at NESCOM study Pro Tools for six hours a week: three hours of lecture and three hours of lab. “I think it gives them a lot more hands-on time,” says MacLaughlin. “The students go through two sections of the book each week, and then they have three hours to sit down at the computer in the lab. It’s a little bit easier to absorb in the long run. The more you work on the system, the better you get at it.”

In addition to getting quality time with Pro Tools, Johnson was able to work with top-notch recording equipment like the Digidesign ICON integrated console. “Not only did I learn how to use Pro Tools, I also learned the ICON system and its state-of-the-art control surface,” he notes.

“Pro Tools is undeniably the industry standard,” Johnson reflects. “You need to know it if you want to work in this field at all. Even if you’re only in casual contact with it, you still need to know the program. There are so many jobs in the music and sound industry where Pro Tools is a required skill.”

After graduation, Johnson scored an internship at Soundtrack NY. “After I learned about the company, I thought, ‘This looks really fascinating.’ It was a challenge — film and TV post production is a whole different language from music production.” But thanks to his NESCOM training, he fit right in. “Knowing Pro Tools and recording techniques so well gave me the confidence I needed. I wasn’t nervous — I could just sit down and do it.”

His skills and confidence earned Johnson a job. In his current position, he sets up studios for recording sessions, coordinates editors and engineers, and generally ensures that things run smoothly. “I make sure it’s all working correctly behind the scenes and on the stage,” he says. “I’m also responsible for doing transfers, duplications and backups, organization and file management, and making sure things get delivered to the right place.”

That’s not to say it’s all glamorous studio work, he adds. “A lot of paying your dues is accepting that you’ll be doing all the grunt work and you won’t be making any money. I’m still doing the grunt work. At night, I do cleanup. That’s how it goes. You have to understand your role in this business.”

But overall, for Johnson it’s a dream come true. “It blows my mind every day,” he says. “I never really thought that I would be here. I always felt that it was out my reach, that there was a big divider between where I was and where I am now. Now I know it’s possible — it just takes a lot of hard work and dedication.”

Dustin Driver is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California. He is obsessed with good stories, inspirational people, and technology.