I chose to interview John Whitker, an old friend of my dad’s and the head engineer of his own recording studio in North Dakota, over Skype. The first thing I asked him outside of the average niceties was how long he had been recording music, whether it be his own or someone else’s. He told me at least 25 years when he started out on reel-to-reel machines in the late 80’s. I then asked him if he had a favorite kind of music to record or produce.
“Rock and metal,” he replied. “We don’t get much around here being in the paradise state of North Dakota, but when we do it’s always extremely fun to work with. I just love the energy, y’know?”
I laughed in agreement as that is what I expected him to say, seeing as though he is and old friend of my dad’s, and because we share that interest in common. I then asked him what got him interested in the first place; what made him want to become and audio engineer. He told me when he was younger, no one around there knew what an “audio engineer” was; you were just called a “record producer.” But nonetheless, he simply loved music and every aspect of it. Whether it was playing on stage, at home or just listening to it, it was his favorite past-time.
He told me one day he was interested in seeing how all of his favorite music came to be a reality. So he took a trip to Fargo with his bandmates, their instruments and a setlist of 3 original rock songs to the only recording studio (at the time) for about a 200-300 mile radius. After about 2 hours, they finally arrived at the studio and were a bit dumbfounded at how small and run-down the place seemed.
“We all stepped inside very slowly and quietly,” John told me. “All of us mouths agape.”
“Was it super impressive or something?” I asked.
“No, the place looked like it jumped right out of the 1960’s, y’know?” he said, laughing as he recollected.
But, nonetheless, they stepped passed the small “lobby” area and found their way to the control room. John knocked on the door and they could hear crashing sounds on the other side.
“He clearly wasn’t expecting company! But the front door was unlocked, it was still a business, y’know!” John laughed hard.
A man opened the door, surprised and a bit flustered, and asked them if they had made an appointment he had forgotten about. They told him that that wasn’t the case and that they were there to make an appointment. They made their appointment for the following day, as the man was cleaning and redecorating that day. So, the band got a couple motel rooms, came in the next day and got started.
“And it was basically from that moment on,” John said, “that I knew recording was what I wanted to do.”
They all recorded their parts together, except for the singer which is relatively common practice to get as much clarity out of the vocals as possible. As they recorded their singer, John and the band sat in the control room. The other members were watching their singer do his takes, but John was fixated on the recording equipment itself.
“It was the first time I had seen anything like it!” he said. “Nowadays you can go to a pawn shop or a secondhand music shop and pick up a lot of this stuff for relatively cheap, but back then it was a very rare to see!”
He told me that, since then he knew that he wanted to be an audio engineer. Seeing how his favorite thing was made ultimately decided it and he’s been doing it ever since. He studied under Michael Abbing, the engineer from that studio, for a few years when he could afford to make the trip. Eventually he moved out to Fargo and worked in his studio for about 8 years before finally starting his own business.
“And here I am, y’know?” he said, calming down from his story. “I wouldn’t call myself a huge success, but I’m comfortable. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. As long as I can help a musician make their musical dreams come to life, I have a purpose. Otherwise, I don’t know what I’d be doing, y’know? But there’s always a demand for music, meaning there’s always a demand for an audio engineer and producer; and that’s what I’m here to do.”
I had a few more questions for John, but after such an interesting story (that I actually had to cut quite a bit out of) I figured that would be good and entertaining enough. We talked for a bit longer about unrelated things, made some jokes and talked about the differences in Oregon and North Dakota and I thanked him for his time.
“Today is a different age,” he said, just before ending the call. “But the rules still apply. Work hard and stay very determined and there’s no way you can fail in this field. It’s all about making your own path without running through someone else’s, y’know?”
-by Ryan Scott