This is my first exposure to Gabe Masterson. He seemed almost humbled when I asked him to participate in his own IPR graduate success story, and, when you read this post, you’ll discover an Audio Engineer that you too would want to work with. Gabe is a genuine guy, a hard worker, and another graduate that IPR is behind 100%. He also offers some great industry advice to those still pushing the limits of their IPR education; pay especially close attention to Gabe’s message on persistence and his emphasis on the importance of Pro Tools certifications. There is a lesson to be learned here. Enjoy…
To begin with, my name is Gabe Masterson. I’m a full-time recording engineer living & working in Nashville, TN. I graduated from the Institute of Production & Recording & now I own & operate Block-Out Studio, my brand new labor of love. I work with bands and artists from all over the country, who are involved in a variety of musical genres. We handle tracking, editing, mixing, HD video production, mobile recording, live sound, DJ, & karaoke services.
Long story short- I was born & raised in Lexington, KY, and was exposed to several different types of music very early on in life. My parents loved music as well & begin playing music for me at an early age. They’ve got awesome pictures of me wearing a sparkly glove & dancing to Michael Jackson in my crib at age 2. I had a Fischer-Price toy record player I called my “Beat It”. My father played guitar & was known for serenading our barbecues & family get-togethers with Cat Stevens & Beatles tunes. I played sports through college &, by nature, was immersed in the beautiful art of hip-hop. Being from the south, I also grew to love & appreciate bluegrass & country music. Later on in life, I found myself as the lead singer in a hard rock band out in southern California.
Being in the U.S. Coast Guard at the time, my band-mates & I went to a studio in Hollywood to record our first EP. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a big, professional studio. I can honestly say it changed my life. I think I spent more time with the house engineer there the following week than he would’ve liked, but my incessant questions & fascination with the recording process were just the beginning. My best friend & guitar player at the time was from Forest Lake, MN & he’s the one who turned me on to IPR.
Rather than finishing my career as a Health Services Technician in the military, I made a bold choice to pursue what I found to be my true passion- recording music.
Once that fire was lit, there was no turning back. The beautiful thing about the production & recording process is that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. I was a sponge. I didn’t miss a single day of school. I was fortunate enough to graduate Valedictorian of my class & receive the school’s prestigious ICON award for the student showing the most resolve and determination. I took on as many recording opportunities as time would allow while I was still in school. I served as the assistant engineer for Blue Worm Records recording artist All The Way Rider on their sophomore release entitled, “The Eagle’s Revenge,” worked as a Pro Tools Editor for Epic/Red Ink recording artist Quietdrive during the making of their sophomore album entitled, “Deliverance,” produced, engineered, and mixed the album, “Share,” for a local Minneapolis band known as Junebug, and various other roles on several other projects.
Working with so many talented producers & engineers showed me that there is never just one way to do something. These days you can make a great record anywhere. Literally. What all that really boils down to is- I didn’t learn how to record in one studio, on one type of format, with one type of artist. People ask me if I also play music, & inside my head I’m always thinking, “I play the studio”. Now that I’ve been producing/engineering full time in several different places, with several different artists who have several different budgets- I can start every project with one thing in mind- the artists’ needs. Every artist & every type of music requires different approaches, different techniques, & different mindsets. I will always strive to be an invisible force, sitting unobtrusively in the background, letting their music & their artistic vision take the forefront.
Since graduating, we’ve moved to Nashville, Tennessee where I’ve had the incredible opportunity to start out with nothing & turn that into what you see today. Upon my arrival, I was soon in contact with composer, & owner of ForJam Media Productions , John Forbes (Bobby Brown, Rick James, Leona Lewis, Ne-Yo) who offered me a gig engineering & mixing his material for several major label recording artists. John has since moved to Atlanta & continues to crank out hits for Universal South, BMI, 615 Music, Megatrax, Lionsgate Films, & Lakeshore Entertainment among others. He continues to serve as a mentor & great friend to me. I’ve learned a lot from him.
After John moved, I spent the next couple of years freelancing here in Nashville. I hooked up with a fellow IPR graduate, Sean Giovanni, who owns a terrific studio in Hermitage, TN called The Record Shop. Sean & I have turned into a multi-faceted production team, branching out into mobile recording, video production , & artist development in addition to making records.
In the summer of 2010, I was blessed with another huge opportunity, & proceeded to design & build my recording studio from the ground up. Taking the knowledge I gained from school & additional research; my wife & I drew up the design for the studio in AutoCAD. From there, my good friend Matt Stanzel (another IPR grad.) & I spent the next six months constructing what is now Block-Out Studio. From the floating floors on up, we installed splayed walls, double-layer drywall hung on resilient channel, an expansion ceiling, soffit mounted monitors, all of the audio & electrical wiring, acoustic treatment & even the control room desk.
My studio is truly a labor of love that I’ll always be proud of. Of all the “A-List Studios” I’ve mixed at, I can honestly say that we’ve built something special.
I’m just enjoying the ride & trying to make sure it doesn’t come to an end anytime soon…that’s me in a nutshell. Thanks for listening…
What would IPR students and instructors say they remember about you?
I think the instructors at IPR would probably say they just remember me being there. Always, & in more ways than one, I tried to be there. First & foremost, just showing up in life (& to class) is half the battle. I hope they know how much I care about each & every one of them & how much I appreciate the way they impacted my life. I think they’d remember me as being excited & passionate about going into the music business. I tried to keep a positive attitude & always help others out while I was there. Lot of group assignments, lot of late night sessions- just learning the ropes, sharing music with lots of good people. Hopefully the students would remember me as fondly as I remember them. As being someone they could always come to & talk about what we’d learned that day. That’s probably because I was often the one coming up to them doing the same thing. Just throwing ideas into the pot & stirring. IPR is a place of synergetic energy. It’s a birthing house of creativity that should be absorbed & expelled onto the rest of the world by us, the alumni. I rep IPR all the time, because I know IPR will always rep me. It’s a really special program that I never took for granted. I hope they all remember that…
Were there any big projects you undertook in your production or engineering capstone that laid the groundwork for some of the things you’re doing now?
Honestly, I’m a hands-on type of learner. I kept hearing about this technique & learning about that technique but for me, if I didn’t go try that stuff than nothing would’ve ever sunk in. There’s a lot of information to grasp in a short amount of time at IPR & everyone learns differently. Tom Garneau’s engineering capstone really turned me loose because it tied everything I had learned in all of my other classes into one seamless recording process. Through opportunities that came up during our capstone quarters, I was able to take on as many recording opportunities as I could while I was still in school. I served as the assistant engineer for Blue Worm Records recording artist All The Way Rider on their sophomore release entitled, “The Eagle’s Revenge,” worked as a Pro Tools Editor for Epic/Red Ink recording artist Quietdrive during the making of their sophomore album entitled, “Deliverance,” & I was fortunate enough to find a local band called Junebug, with tons of material that wanted to do an album with me at the same time I’d started at IPR. (I’m sure you all know & love Mr. Tony Kollman by now. He’s the drummer in that band & now a fellow IPR alum.) I would attend class during the day &, in my free time at night, go work on this record. I pretty much lived at IPR & most of my capstone & raw demo reel material stemmed from doing that record. I highly recommend this method of learning to current & future students because you’re learning all these things about signal flow, editing techniques, session management, producing, & the overall process of making a great record- you’ve got all these studios at your disposal that are open 24/7 – & it’s a great way to track things out & get immediate feedback of your work from some of the best of the best in the business. So, yeah, in a way everything I did for my engineering capstone laid the groundwork for things I do everyday now.
Out of all your instructors who would you say worked most closely with you and had a special interest in your success?
Man, all of the instructors at IPR had a vested interest in my success. If you’re willing to put it all out there on the line, be a dry sponge, sit back & attempt to soak it all in- that effort will be reciprocated, I promise you. Like I said, Tom Garneau’s engineering capstone was really special to me in a lot of ways. Tom is just such a great person & engineer to begin with, after a while I couldn’t help but put him on that role model pedestal. You can definitely tell that Tom’s father was a teacher, as well as a healer of sorts. I think the only thing more extraordinary than having a skill-set like Tom’s is the ability to openly share that skill-set with others. Eric Olsen’s got that special thing too. Always smiling. Always self-less. People like Tom & Eric change the world. I didn’t have any music theory background at all, so Mary Jane Alm’s music theory classes were priceless. Mary Ann O’Dougherty’s overwhelming passion for life still lives in my heart & reaches out to me at all the right times whenever I need it the most. Steve Hodge’s advanced mixing classes were invaluable. Eric Olsen, Jay Fleming, Justin DeLeon, & Jeff DesLaurier’s Pro Tools classes still probably hold the most weight as a true transferable skill that I apply on a daily basis. I think that applies to a lot of people who get out of IPR & immediately find work… Don’t sleep on the Pro Tools classes!!! They will help pay your bills when you get outta there… No one else in particular really…Lucas, Pamela, Chancellor, J.P. , Colt Leeb, Scott Legere (& anyone else I’ve forgotten) were all amazing.
How do you feel your IPR education prepared you for the industry?
Your education at IPR, & any education for that matter, is ultimately what you make of it. I feel like I pushed myself to the brink of my mental capacity (& probably drove others crazy in the process) while at IPR. Ha-ha. Seriously though, I came into IPR when I was 25. I was married & had a newborn daughter. I’d been working as a courier at FedEx for the last two & a half years & had a number of pretty crappy jobs before that. It was time to get down to business. IPR throws a lot at you in a short amount of time. If I had to accurately describe that, I’d say IPR prepared me for how to prepare myself in the industry. By that I mean, they can’t, won’t, & don’t have the ability to teach you every single thing you need to know to be successful out there. They showed me how to find answers & troubleshoot. Laying the groundwork & the realization that if you don’t know the answer to something, there are a handful of former teachers & peers that are always a phone call away & only have your best interest at heart. Your education, even after school, is on nobody else but you. That’s how IPR prepared me.
What types of things did you have to wait for industry experience to learn?
Once you graduate & move on to the competitive, seemingly smaller everyday, real world scenario of being a full-time professional engineer, it truly becomes a trial by fire. My first few professional jobs in Nashville were a testament to that. I ran a freelance session at a big studio when I first got down here that went horribly wrong. It was just a vocal/piano demo that we cut & mixed in less than two hours. However, unbeknownst to me, ha-ha, the bounce from that session ended up in a time critical meeting with some really important folks at BMI…with a long fade on the master that started about 30 seconds into the song & gradually faded out till the end. Don’t know how it got on there &…oops…never worked there again. Live & learn. Be on your game 24/7, slow down, breathe, see the big picture. Know your role- you don’t have to run every session all the time wearing every hat imaginable. Sometimes you’re just the engineer. You are there to do one thing, & you better do it well because, in this town (Nashville), there’s 10 guys lined up behind you that want that paycheck. I’m still neck deep in it right now, so I’m trying to take my own advice, one day at a time. Most of the time though, things really aren’t that extreme. I’ve learned that networking is the absolute most important thing you can do as a working engineer. Developing a good name for yourself within a reputable music community is everything. That whole “who ya know” line is written in stone…
What do you think it means to be successful in this industry? What advice would you offer to students who are either just getting ready to graduate or who are wondering how to find their place in this industry?
I think there are several types of success & several different ways to gauge each type. I enjoy a deep, personal satisfaction knowing how fortunate I am to truly love what I’m doing day in & day out. I think that’s the most powerful type of success. I’m just getting started & from time to time I’ve definitely had short droughts in between projects where I’ve been forced to subsidize my income by working two & three other jobs. It’s hard & sometimes it’s really frustrating. A freelance engineer is definitely comparable to a musician or a “starving artist”. I think having the perseverance to keep making records no matter what happens is a beautiful success in & of itself. I’ve always tried to keep the mentality that if I’m putting my name on something for the whole world to hear- no matter what it is- it’s going to be my best effort for that particular moment in time. I think that’s how you continue to grow as an engineer, producer, writer, & human being in general. So, in that regard, my best advice for students who are nearing graduation literally is spend your time doing meaningful things. If mixing is your profession & mixing is also your hobby- why not spend a few extra hours on a tune & really spit-shine it? Better than playing video games or blowing money at the bar…
What types of engineering work have you done?
I’ve been truly blessed in that regard. In my short career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with The Nappy Roots, Juvenile, Donnie Klang, Ne-Yo, Leona Lewis & a handful of other really talented artists. I do a lot of production & engineering work for a composer named John Forbes down in Atlanta. Together we’ve done tracks for 615 Music, Megatrax, Lionsgate Films, Universal South, & a few other music libraries, labels, & production companies. Along with being pressure-packed & nerve-racking, the freelance label stuff has been pretty cool. However, my most fun, personally satisfying engineering projects have stemmed from independent/freelance opportunities that I sought out on my own. If you hear a band that you love, go talk to them… See where they’re at in their career… Are they touring? Writing? Preparing a new EP/LP? I guarantee you they’ll want someone recording & mixing their material that loves it as much as they do. No studio? No gear? Make something happen…rent it, borrow it, whatever. The best album I’ve done so far was recorded in a barn with a band called Englishman that I absolutely love. That’s when this truly becomes a “dream job”. On the same tip, if you’re having trouble finding independent musicians who actually have a budget (good luck…haha), I highly recommend finding a producer or engineer who is already established & jump on their back. If you’re good at what you do- you can find a way to keep working…
Do you have experience with audio and video editing?
No video, unfortunately. I’d love to get down with Final Cut or Media Composer one day, but the timing hasn’t been right. I slice & dice audio every day. Elastic audio, beat detective, nudging, lining samples up, checking phase, & the several other powerful editing tools Pro Tools has to offer are often the meat & potatoes of how I make a living… Those skills are still important & definitely needed in professional studios…
How important do you think attitude is when it comes to success in the audio world?
Unfortunately, but honestly, I think attitude often becomes secondary to skill in dealing with the audio business. That’s probably not the textbook answer anyone reading this is looking for but, to an extent, it’s oh so very true. There’s a lot of dudes that have been doing this a long time & are just going to be indecent human beings no matter what, but they’ll keep getting work, because they’re really good at what they do. That doesn’t excuse their behavior, & I’m certainly not condoning it, but that’s the world we live in. I’ve definitely run into some mean, arrogant people in the field but, at the end of the day, they’ve often got the skills to pay the bills. On the flip side of that, having a great attitude never hurts & can sometimes be that final straw of a determining factor that gets you the gig over someone else. Aside from that, I’d say a never quenched, unrivaled sense of perseverance has gotten me as far as I’ve come today. It’s easier to wait tables, bar tend, or work a normal 9 to 5 than it is to put yourself out there, work freelance, & try to maintain a wacky, fluctuating budget. It’s tough but a strong mental fortitude & the ability to go out & make things happen is where your attitude can help you carry on. Don’t let the bitter, jaded, over the hill dudes bring you down. Attitudes are contagious, so share the love… after all, we get to make music all day…
What one trait/ability/skill do you feel has helped you more than any other to be successful in this industry so far?
My short answer is the fact that IPR helped turn me into a really talented Pro Tools operator. I’ve gotten gigs just based on that skill alone. I’ve even had other engineers hire me to come run Pro Tools while they more or less run the sessions & tweak the gear. I’ve been able to make some money on the side teaching private lessons as well. I feel like being a good Pro Tools Op is an encapsulation of a bunch of different skills though. Obviously, technical computer skills are implied; but a good production sense, the ability to communicate with artists & other engineers, & the ability to organize your sessions on the fly all come into play. Don’t ever just sit there bobbing your head while the musicians play. Start getting your volume & panning mixes down, make groups, color code things, notate which takes are the best, comp things, etc. There’s always something you can be doing to save time so that, in the long run, you make more money per hour…