Jack Thomason is a graduate of our FdA Music & Audio Technology course who currently works as an assistant engineer in the iconic Metropolis Studios. During our chat we talk about a typical day at Metropolis, working with Elton John and how just asking led to finding a job in the industry.
Tell us a little about your journey into music production…
My first foray into music was with guitar; I wanted to be a session guitarist, so used to practice a lot. After a while I got very interested in music theory and harmony and the natural progression from that was recording and production. I’m a terrible guitarist so it was probably a good career choice.
How did you find out about dBs Music and why did you choose to study with us?
Around this time I was deliberating my path beyond GCSEs, and although I enjoyed school a lot and did well in my exams, I decided that I wanted to pursue music. We had a careers guidance councillor at my school and she recommended dBs as a possible course towards this. After a tour and induction day I decided to do it. My dad was little unhappy, but I didn’t care what he thought, though my comeuppance is that I am totally turning into him at the moment.
You’re currently working as an assistant engineer at Metropolis Studios. Could you tell us a little about the events that led to you getting the job?
It was very simple: I finished my third year at Plymouth University and emailed a few studios in London, enquiring as to whether they ran internship schemes and the possibility of getting a place on them. Metropolis was the first and only studio to respond and they requested that I come up for an interview with the head engineer. Extremely eager to impress, I turned up in a suit and tie, and shiny black shoes, in expectation of the pivotal moment in my career; how bemused I then was to see this scruffy little guy, covered in paint with huge bags under his eyes, slink down the stairs to greet me. He was called Xav and was head engineer at the time. By the end of the interview I had been given a runner position and began working the following week.
During the interview I had asked Xav what the prospects of progressing on to assisting were like. His response was that if I proved myself trustworthy as a runner, then the assistant shifts would likely follow, and true to his word, after 2 months I got my first assisting shift. I became a staff assistant about 9 months later.
What’s a day as an assistant engineer at Metropolis like?
A typical day at Metropolis as an assistant can range from babysitting a film crew doing an interview, to running Pro Tools on a tracking or mixing session. The days can be extremely short (getting cancelled whilst walking in) or very long (not leaving for 40 hours), the appreciation you receive can be loving - hugs and kisses at the end - or humbling, “oh, I didn’t even notice you” after a gruelling 18 hours of running around after them.
Normally, our tasks can be divided into two areas, hospitality and setup. Hospitality involves all client and label liaison; before, during and after a session and will require us to organise food riders and orders, specific room requirements and everything in between. We have a guy called Wiz Kid regularly visit the studio, and we’ve had to buy him Playstations, clothes and TVs before. Sometimes this can be very simple, other times it feels as though you are the client’s PA and have to scour the four corners of the Earth to appease them.
Setup involves all of the technical “engineering” side of the job. As an assistant, you are responsible for facilitating all of the engineer’s requirements, meaning the setup of equipment and rooms, the hiring of all equipment needed, and troubleshooting of problems as they arise. Sessions normally lean towards one of the areas more than the other; when they require both equally it can become hard work.
Metropolis sees its fair share of talent coming through the door. Is there a particular artist or project you’ve worked on that really stands out for you?
My biggest client is Elton John. Whenever he comes in it feels like a school trip because there is a lot of excitement, but also a realisation that you are still at work. His sessions are extremely demanding on both hospitality and setup due to the size of his team and speed at which he works, meaning it’s definitely one of
the sessions where I feel like a PA.
The last time he was in, I had to find a gospel choir and a specific East German double bass at short notice on a bank holiday weekend, which had me sweating a bit. In addition, each person in his team was ordering food from different places, so I had to manage the orders so that all the meals would arrive at the same time and still hot. This was happening simultaneously and was a nightmare for me to deal with, but I somehow fluked my way out of it. At the end of the 10-day session, in a very touching turn, he called me over to where he was sat and gave me a cash tip and a hug, all whilst his team applauded; I cried a little afterwards...
Based on your time in the role, what qualities do you think make a great assistant engineer?
People who don’t do well as assistants typically fail in the same ways: they’re not prepared and organised, they get flustered under pressure, and they complain and/or are unpleasant to be around. Therefore the most important skills are: organisation and task prioritisation, a cool head, and strong personal skills.
The first two can be improved with experience, but the latter is normally a deal-breaker; if an engineer or assistant can’t imagine spending 16 hours every day for two weeks in a room with you, then you’re not going to make it. Obviously, a technical background is important, but this can also be learned on the job, though
it can give you an advantage as a runner.
How did your time at dBs Plymouth help you find work in the audio industry?
During the first year of the FdA, I began volunteering with tech, which was run by Mike Bellis at the time and I continued for 2 years. The tasks that I was trained to manage and the experiences that I gained were invaluable in attaining my runner position I believe. The fact that I could run Pro Tools and knew how to troubleshoot most of the basic issues is something that a lot of people applying to studios don’t have much experience in.
It gave me an advantage over the other runners, especially as I started to get assisting shifts, as I was able quickly to acclimatise myself with the technical idiosyncrasies of each studio. If I were to offer any advice at all, it would be to get tech experience whilst at dBs.
What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I’m starting to get booked to engineer vocal and mix sessions, which will probably occupy most of my near future.
And finally, what advice has proved invaluable to your development in the industry?
Don’t let the grass grow under your feet; appreciate the value of your time off.