IPR graduate Neil Whitlock has been a long time music fan. He spent most of his youth as a musician, and he didn’t decide until after high school to make music his career pursuit. Even so, it took him a year at community college before he committed to an IPR education. He worked hard at IPR, and he was able to land a gig with the Indianapolis 500. He now runs the board at the speedway during weekday events and assists on weekends. According to Whitlock,” The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest and highest capacity sporting facility in the world.” IPR is excited to share his story and be a part of it. I present to you the Graduate Success Story of Neil Whitlock.
My interest in audio started when I was in the 5th grade. I really wanted to get a guitar, so my parents bought me a Squire Stratocaster for my birthday. I took some lessons and played in some “bands” for the next couple of years. I had already been playing the trumpet in grade school band, but I wanted to quit. I believe that playing the guitar truly sparked my musical interest and I decided to keep playing the trumpet despite the geek status that came along with it.
Throughout middle school and high school I would jam with my friends in garages and bedrooms. I also played the trumpet in my high school marching band. After high school I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I wanted to pursue as a career. I knew I loved music, so my first idea was music education. I went to a local community college for a year while I was deciding on what I wanted to do. My friend since the fourth grade, Tyler Gottschalk, was attending IPR. I was sitting at a computer at my community college and was chatting with Tyler on Facebook. I asked him how things were going in Minnesota and how he liked IPR. He had nothing but great things to say about it, so I decided to look into it a little more. I was a little hesitant at first. Being from central Illinois, Minneapolis is quite a ways away from home, but I decided to visit the school.
During my first visit I was completely amazed. Spending the last eight years of my life in a small town in the middle of a cornfield, where instead of music, farming is the predominant way of life, I felt like I was in heaven. I knew immediately that this place was for me. I originally went to IPR with the hopes of working as an audio engineer in a recording studio. Music was everything to me, so my heart was set on it. After one or two quarters at IPR, I started to think otherwise. Once I started learning about post production I felt like it suited me more than music, which was a real surprise to me. My favorite part about post production was the freedom of creativity in sound design. I’ve always loved art and considered myself an artist, but I can hardly draw a stick figure. Sound design was my new medium to express my artistic creativity.
While I was going to school, my girlfriend was working in Minneapolis for a company that makes apparel and merchandise for various sports teams and organizations. Just a few weeks prior to my graduation she was offered a job at their headquarters in Indianapolis. She moved to Indianapolis three weeks before I finished school so that she could start her job. I immediately started looking at employment opportunities in the area for my career field. I felt like jobs would be scarce because Indianapolis isn’t quite the music and media hub that Minneapolis is. One of my main focuses was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I knew that the Indianapolis 500 is a huge event that is broadcasted internationally, so I figured that they would have some sort of job in my career field.
Soon after moving to Indianapolis in March of 2010, via a coworker of my girlfriend, I was put into contact with Dave Dusick, who works with live audio at the Speedway. Through exchanging emails I told him what I went to school for and expressed an interest in anything he may need help with. It wasn’t until winter that I received a phone call from him for my first job. I worked a couple smaller events, setting up speakers and microphones, before being offered the job at the Indianapolis 500. Around February of this year we started to talk about the Indianapolis 500 and was officially offered the job in April. The Indianapolis 500 is a huge deal in the area to say the least. There are festivities going on at the track nearly every day starting early in May, lasting through race day on Memorial Day. The drivers have about two weeks of practice at the track, all of which is open to the public, so this was the bulk of my work prior to the race. I’m the main board operator on the weekdays and the assistant on the weekends. Most of my time spent at the track I was working alone in the audio booth, forcing me to quickly learn the system and build confidence in myself. Most of the audio I control is the track announcers, music, interview audio, and general audio broadcasted over the whole track. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest and highest capacity sporting facility in the world, so there was also a lot of prep work to make sure that the speakers and sound system worked efficiently and sounded good throughout the track. Race day is obviously the busiest day for audio for the month. In the booth we control the audio for all of the pre-race ceremonies, including interviews, driver introduction, the National Anthem, and many other pre-race ceremonies, as well as all of the post-race audio. Teamwork and communication between everyone involved is crucial to ensure everything runs flawlessly.
I had no idea that my career would lead me to this point when I started school at IPR in October of 2008. I went to school with a specific career in mind, only to fall in love with another audio career field that I had never even considered before. Upon graduating I was introduced to yet another career field that I have enjoyed every minute of. Though it is very hard work, I have never once considered what I do to be “work” in the sense of what most people consider work to be. I’m looking forward to doing more live audio in the upcoming NASCAR race, the Brickyard 400. IPR has prepared me in more ways than I can even describe to be successful in what I do.
What would IPR students and instructors say they remember about you?
I think that they would say I am very driven and I take everything I do seriously whether it’s scoring music to a commercial or designing sound for spaceship doors for “Wall-E” in my capstone.
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?
In my capstone our final project was a group effort to re-create the audio for a segment of the movie “Wall-E.” Though this isn’t live audio like I’m doing now, many aspects of this project helped me with what I do now. Since the project was a group effort we each had our own main focus. My main job was to create the sound for the doors on the spaceship. While at first this seemed like a pretty simple task, I quickly realized that there are many different parts to one sound in a movie. For one door I may have 6-8 different sounds just for it to open. Once I had all of the sounds I wanted my job was only half way over. I then had to mix the audio at the right level so that the final outcome was believable and pleasant to listen to. I can relate this to what I do in live audio at the Speedway. While I may not have as many tracks of audio during an event as I do in a post-production session, I still have many factors to consider while doing my job. For example, I may be working during an Indianapolis 500 practice session. The track announcers will be commentating on the event and giving live updates on speeds, times, etc. throughout the whole event while the cars are on the track. I can only control the audio level of the announcers, but I still have to take the sound of the cars going by and the number of people at the event into consideration just as if they are a part of my mix so that I may achieve a desirable sound for the announcers. Also, when controlling the audio for interviews, no one speaks at the same level or with the same tone, so I am constantly adjusting my levels based on who is talking into the microphone, while considering track noise.
Out of all your instructors who would you say worked most closely with you and had a special interest in your success?
I worked most closely with Bob Jenkins and Mike Brown. I had both of them in my final capstone, so naturally I spent a lot of time working with them. Besides the time spent, the class size was very small, so I was able to get any one-on-one time that I needed. I was also able to talk to them outside of class about projects.
How do you feel your IPR education prepared you for the industry?
IPR prepared me for the industry in multiple ways. Through my schooling I was exposed to many types of audio work, from studio recording to scoring music to sound design. This put me in the mindset that there is a lot more to audio than the average person may expect. I was prepared to take on any job that was offered to me out of school with the confidence to succeed. Besides the actual school work, I was around faculty who have worked in many areas of the audio world. Going from a class with an instructor who has spent many years producing records to another with an instructor who does audio work at sporting events really provides me with knowledge and advice that I use every time I’m in the audio booth.
What types of things did you have to wait for industry experience to learn?
How to handle a truly live gig. Being in the Post Production capstone, nothing was live and basically everything I did was non-destructive. In post-production, there is a certain amount of room for error as long as you catch it and fix it by the deadline. Coming out of school I had no idea I would be working in a live setting. During events at the Speedway everything is happening really fast and right now. It’s easy to make an honest mistake, but if you do, everyone will hear it; so you have to be very focused on what you are doing, which is multiple things a lot of the time.
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?
My biggest piece of advice would be to keep an open mind and never, ever say no. Again, with post-production being my capstone at IPR, I had no idea that I would be working in live audio; especially at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When I was first offered the job, while I was very excited, I was also nervous. The whole idea was very intimidating. It would have been easy for me to say “Well this isn’t what I went to school for, so I can’t do it.” Despite my nerves I took the job with confidence in myself. I kept an open mind to a new experience and I didn’t say no. I was very honest with my superiors and coworkers, telling them that this is my first experience in live audio, but I showed that I had confidence in what I can do, which I believe made them confident in allowing me to work with them.
What types of engineering work have you done?
I run the live audio at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I am the main board operator during events on the weekdays and the assistant during events on the weekends. My job is to control the audio for track announcers, track interviews, music, Q & A sessions, press conferences, and other various audio related material. I also have to send a feed of specific pieces of audio to the crew that broadcasts over the internet.
Do you have experience with audio and video editing?
All of my audio and video editing experience is from my education as I took classes in both. I haven’t worked in those areas outside of school because my job is in live sound. Live sound isn’t what I thought I would be doing after school, but it just happened to work out that way and I’ve had a great time thus far doing it.
How important do you think attitude is when it comes to success in the audio world?
Attitude is EVERYTHING in the audio world. People who have worked in this field for a long time know how important it is to hire the right person. My boss knows a lot of people who have the skill set to do this job, and have more experience than me, but he told me that they don’t all have the right attitude. He has delt with too many people who believe that they know better than everyone else what should and shouldn’t be done. The important thing is to know your roll. If someone asks you to do something a certain way, then they have a good reason for it. You will get a lot further and make more people happy in this world by doing things the way they are asked to be done. The occasional suggestion to the right person won’t do any harm, but again, know your roll.
What one trait/ability/skill do you feel has helped you more than any other to be successful in this industry so far?
My confidence has helped me to be successful more than anything. It is crucial to be confident in yourself without being cocky. I was a bit intimidated by the whole idea of this job since the events are so large, but I knew that even though I had never worked in live audio, I would be able to successfully do the job. In live audio everything happens so fast that if you don’t have confidence in yourself you will be left behind, and if you are slower than the action happening at the event then crucial pieces of audio will be unheard.