We’ve All Got The Dream
Donny Baker is the studio manager, lead tech, and mix engineer for ES Audio Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Under his guidance, the studio has garnered multiple gold and platinum records, an Emmy (2009), and recently, a Grammy (2022). Additionally, he has been a mentor for Recording Connection for over 18 years! I sat down with Donny to talk life, music, his studio, and the program.
Tell us a bit about how your studio got started.
We’ve been in our [Burbank location] for 18 years. We started in another spot in North Hollywood for 2 years. I guess that means we’ve been in business for 20 years. We started as a laptop on my dining room table in 2002.
I understand that your technical title is that of “studio manager.” What exactly does a studio manager do?
Woooo. Everything. I clean the toilet. I take care of the schedules. I hire the engineers as we need them. I’m also the tech guy—as things break I fix them. I’m married to the actual business owner, [Jo Ann Bush]. She’s the businessperson, and I’m the technical person.
That’s really cute! How did you guys decide to collaborate on this business venture?
My wife’s always been an entrepreneur. She’s an actor and a model and always had a production company. We kind of fell into the studio. I thought I wanted to teach so I went back to school. Then I didn’t really like it, and then I got the opportunity to go work in a studio as an engineer. I kind of made myself at home and took over. About six years in, the guy running it bankrupted himself and we bought him out.
Do you make music yourself?
I am not a musician at all. Very clean hands. I have been an engineer my entire career.
Are there any clients or projects you’re particularly proud of?
For live, where I started, I got to work with some of my favorite bands and artists from when I was a teenager. Aerosmith was one of my favorite bands growing up, [and I found myself] in the green room with Steven Tyler drinking beers ‘cause I worked for them for a year and a half. I’ve been able to meet a lot of my heroes.
Do you ever get star-struck?
It’s not really a thing. Otis Williams got me fan-girled-out. I kept calling him “Mister Williams.” He was my grandmother’s favorite artist. And I don’t know, I just couldn’t disrespect my grandmother’s memory by calling him “Otis.” That was probably the only time I was “star-struck” by someone who was here. I try not to get that way.
I saw that you guys won a Grammy this year?! What was it for?
(It was for Best Musical Theater Album). It wasn’t a category I’d ever thought I’d ever work with. I’m the opposite of a theater kid if there’s such a thing.
The project was The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical. It was pretty much made famous from TikTok. The two girls, Barlow and Bear were the artists, and they did a TikTok live on every session here. All we did was record and mix everything. We didn’t really have anything to do with content or the creative part of it.
How’d you get started in Recording Connection?
I had gone back to school to get my degree in recording arts. I thought I wanted to be a professor at like UCLA. I ended up working at the Musicians Institute for one semester and I hated it! Right about the same time, we started doing some recording with clients. Around then I found Recording Connection while sitting around doing a search for other schools to work for. Honestly, I wish I had known about Recording Connection when I had been in school—it would have been a better way for me to go. I wouldn’t have had to spend a year as an intern, working for free, to learn how to work in a studio.
What Recording Connection programs do you offer?
Almost all of them. Hip Hop Production, Hip Hop Production with Logic, Pro Tools, electronic music with Ableton. We teach ‘em all.
How many students do you think you’ve had?
Wooo! Over 18 years?! That’s a great question, I really don’t know. I have to have had more than a thousand. Easy. I consistently have at least 15 students all the time.
How long does your program last?
Most programs last 6 months.
Do you maintain relationships with your students?
I’m still in touch with my very first student from 18 years ago. As a student/mentee, we develop relationships. Some of those relationships have gone on to grow and become a thing where we are still hanging out.
Are some of those ongoing relationships professional or creatively collaborative?
Oh yeah, I work with past students every day. Two guys work for me full time who [were my] students. Many of my students have worked for me and then grown; gone on to start their own studio or on to bigger and better things.
Do you ever link engineering students with artists to collaborate with?
Absolutely. All the time. If I have an artist come in who’s looking for some production help, I’ll call in one of my students who’s really good at producing music. That happened yesterday, actually. One of [my old students] is a really good hip-hop and R&B producer. Our client was an R&B singer, so they’ve been working together a lot.
Is it particularly satisfying to hear a really good track that you set up in this way, but didn’t actually engineer?
It’s funny that you say that, I’ve been in the grocery store and had that happen. It stops me in my tracks, like, “Hey, that’s my song!” Pretty funny. In movies, on the radio.
Are there any students you want to shout out for their success?
Oh, [definitely] Morning Estrada. That kid, I mean, everybody talks about Morning. He’s been so popular. I saw his potential early on. When he came to Recording Connection he didn’t know anything. In the interview process I asked him, “Why do you want to do this?” He said, “Oh, I like music.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but WHY?” He said, “I want to know exactly how to do it, how to put it together.” That was the key, he wanted to know HOW it was made. From there I saw his potential. I sat him down and said, “Man, you need to quit your day job. You need to do this full time. You need to go hard!” And he did! He was young, still living with his parents. He went to them and asked them to support him for a bit, to get his business in order. They did. There’s a video of him on YouTube where he presented his first gold record to his mom. Everybody was crying, it was awesome. He had arrived at that moment and his parents really backed him up. The moral of this story is having a great support system while you’re growing and learning. If you’ve got a support system that’s there for you, it’s really helpful.
Do you think, as a mentor, you can provide a bit of that?
I do give extra, beyond what’s [specifically] in the program. We share our experience, share our knowledge. Show what we know… Public schools don’t teach these kids life skills. These younger kids coming into the program have never written an invoice, they don’t understand having a client base, managing clients, self-promotion. There’s so much to it. Let’s say your email address is [email protected], that doesn’t look good while trying to get a Disney gig. These are the things I have to talk to my students about. Setting yourself up as an LLC. There’s so much to the business side of things.
The music industry is pretty cutthroat, any warnings for potential students?
Some students are meant to be engineers and some students are meant to work at Starbucks. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m not trying to be a dick. It’s just the reality of the thing. It is a difficult choice. Especially for older guys who come through. They might have a wife. They might have a family. They are trying to change their life. It’s difficult to give up the security of a 9-to-5. It’s a difficult choice. That’s the beauty of Recording Connection. They’re putting students in a position where they can see that. They can decide, “Oh this is for me! I’m going to go hard! I’m gonna get my clients and get my money!” And then the other person can go, “This is too hard, I’m going to go back to my job at Walmart.” It takes a special kind of person. This job is lonely. Very lonely. It’s very rewarding at the same time.
Why do you think music, as an artform, draws so many people looking to change their lives?
Music is all around us all the time. There’s certain sounds and frequencies that motivate humans. That can tear down a human. A song that reminds you of someone who passed away. A song or sound that every time you hear it reminds you of when you graduated from high school. We’re overwhelmed with it.
Do you really think that this tactile emotional response to music is at the root of people going for it to change their lives, or is it also the fantasy? The rockstar dream? The mind’s eye image of Dr. Dre sitting atop his throne?
I’m guilty of that. That’s how I ended up coming to Los Angeles. I thought I was gonna be a rockstar, you know. I got here and reality struck. I was like, “Oh shit, I’m living in my car. What am I gonna do?” That [led me to] decide to go to the technical side of things.
That’s the thing, man, we’ve all got the dream. That’s what I love about Recording Connection, it provides you an avenue to reach your dreams. But as a student, YOU have to go there. YOU have to do it.