SEM’s Audio Engineer tutor Neil Bruce is a guitarist, composer, and sound designer, with a PhD in Acoustics and MSc in Signal Processing.
His engineering credits range from Al Green to Led Zeppelin and his compositional work has featured in films, TV and computer games, along with a number of albums over the last 15 years.
We spoke to Neil about his career to date, his activities outside of SEM and his tips for forging a success career in the music industry.
What sparked your interest in a career in audio engineering?
As early as I can remember there was music was the most important thing in my life.
I was fortunate to start playing guitar at an early age and as I moved into my teenage years (and with encouragement from my teachers). I started getting into synths and doing live sound, along with playing guitar in bands, basically anything I could music and audio related. In terms of a ‘moment’, I vividly remember reading about Peter Gabriel and his early experiments with the Fairlight sampler which really excited me and showed a connection between music and sound. This , plus exposure to artists like Steve Reich, Pierre Shaffer, Brian Eno and John Cage who were fusing traditional composition with sound art.
As I got my hands on more on more info, reading about the recording processes and the creativity involved, it made me realise of the possibility of creating music using sound engineering as part of the creative process.
I remember getting my first four-track cassette portastudio and from that point I was full hooked and knew there could be nothing else! The challenge being how to fuse my love of metal, 80’s synth music, funk, blues, sound art and ambient music together (I am still on that quest!)
The music industry is notoriously difficult to succeed in. Did you find it difficult to progress within the industry?
Yes and no (sorry ambiguous answer there!). The reason for saying ‘no’ is that as soon as I realised that I was trying to have a career in the ‘music business’, that the word ‘business’ was just as important as the word music (or recording).
This meant allocating time to learning business skills and treating my work and career as if it were a business, then things became much easier. Working hard and being as professional as possible, as well as being open to opportunities as they came along meant that more opportunities kept coming.
I think we all have the vision of being the artist, engineer or producer who works on their material in a purpose built studio or who works with high paying clients, working in top studios and hanging out drinking cocktails, but this isn’t the reality of the business. These are all possible, but progress in the job is all about being professional, not being an egotist, turning up and doing a job that clients want to rebook you and recommend you. It was just a case of making sure that these things happened and then progression simply follows.
To me having a clear definition of what ‘success’ means to an individual is really important, we are all different and we all have different ideas of what success means.
There is a great exercise to do, where you sit down and write a list of criteria which you visualise of what success means to you. It could be working in the biggest studios with the biggest artists or it could be making a living doing what you love, each is achievable.
To me ‘success’ was firstly making sure that I never ended up in a job which was simply passing time until I retired, a job that I hated, i.e in the rat race. Success was earning enough from music and audio activities so that I can have a reasonable life, be picky on the projects I work on, have time to make my own art and most of all be content. After detailing what this meant, it was much more easier to achieve. (Oh and keep buying guitars and gear!)
What’s been your highlight to date?
That is a really tough questions, working with big names and playing big shows is probably the obvious answer, but honestly (and hopefully not sounding too hippish!) I have been very fortunately to work on a number of music and recording projects with people from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as people in prison, and young offenders .
What these projects have shown me is the sheer power that music has to change and help people, to take them away from whatever the bad things that are happening in their life, or conversely make those who believe that there is no hope and that they ‘can’t’ do anything, realise that they can contribute. Even if it is simply banging a drum in time.
It has changed my outlook on life and also given me another realisation of the magic that music can bring.Seeing those who thought they could not do anything put on a concert of songs they have written and have them recorded to my is my highlight.
What advice would you give to anyone aiming to progress into this area of the music industry?
Firstly, believe in yourself and believe that you can make it, Secondly, as mentioned above, sit down and define what success means and looks like to you (all options are valid). Then whatever you are striving for, you have to realise that it is a work, you are a business, you are a brand.
Learn basic business skills, such as marketing from the start and spend time developing your skills in these areas. Talk to everyone, but more importantly than anything FINISH things and get them out into the world.
You need a track record, 10,000 unfinished 8 bar loops on a hard drive will not get you a job, 52 unfinished mixes will not get noticed.
Do good work, get it out into the world and then move on to the next project and learn from your previous works and develop. Make sure you keep asking questions and keep being excited by the work you are doing. Finally, be professional, yes it’s supposed to be Rock and Roll, but the reality is a little different. Work hard, be the first to arrive and the last to leave, keep pushing yourself, keep trying new things, pay attention to the small details and once the work is done, then you sit back and enjoy.