Christopher Fenton ’19 wrapped up his years in Shenandoah Conservatory’s Music Production & Recording Technology (MPRT) program with an internship at Chicago’s Electrical Audio, founded by famed recording engineer Steve Albini, known for his engineering/production work on more than 1,000 records, including ones by artists like The Pixies, Joanna Newsom, PJ Harvey, Helmet, Cheap Trick, The Jesus Lizard, Bush and Nirvana.
Becoming a fan
Fenton said he first learned about Albini in high school as a fan of one of Albini’s bands, Big Black. “Soon after, I started hearing about him all the time – especially about how outspoken he was about the music industry. A few years down the line my buddies and I were listening to a lot of Om and Joanna Newsom, and I realized he was an engineer on both of their records. He was the first engineer who caught my attention at all, really.”
Albini’s web seminars on recording also piqued Fenton’s interest, because Albini seemed different than other producers/engineers. “Steve’s approach was both more realistic, bound in more reasoning, and better sounding than most of the engineers of his acclaim,” Fenton said. “He’s an audio engineer who just wants to record the records [that] his clients want to create.”
Snagging the internship
So, when it was time for Fenton to seek out the internship required by MPRT, he decided to see if he could work at Albini’s studio. He first called, and then sent in his resume. “I went through my application process pretty comfortably. I had a nice phone interview with the building manager/internship coordinator Jon San Paolo. It was fairly casual, but entirely serious – which is kind of true about everything Electrical Audio, I suppose. I felt pretty prepared because they have an active forum on their website, where you can find plenty of information on their internships.”
During the June-through-August internship, Fenton handled a number of daily chores around the studio. Once those were out of the way, he said the remainder of his day was what he made of it. “I sat in on sessions with all the house engineers (Steve, Greg Norman, Taylor Hales, Jon San Paolo, Gregoire Yeche), shadowed, and had plenty of opportunities to ask questions. I helped with tear downs and setups where I was needed, ran mics between studios, and helped keep the spaces organized. I watched and heard the creation of great music through an amazing process. It was normal fare there to witness a record laid out in a weekend. The entire staff was really cool, helpful and insightful.”
“All those dudes seriously know how to make records, and I am so stoked to have been able to intern for all of them,” Fenton said. “It was such a blast, and everything I gained from it is absolutely priceless.”
Growing creatively & starting a career
He also gained a new perspective on studio work. “Steve works all-analog, and the other house engineers all work within some kind of hybrid or analog setup, so everyone was always talking about committing to decisions – and that was a big lesson for me. The mindset mainly stems from hardware limitations, but I think there’s a lot to that on both sides of the glass, regardless of technology.”
Right now, Fenton, who is also an electric bass player, is developing his career. He and a good friend and fellow 2019 MPRT graduate Talen Hartman are working on Mezz Magazine, a quarterly arts anthology featuring in-depth interviews with artists about their creative processes; he’s engineering his band’s demos and working on a recording for the band’s keyboardist; and, an extended play record he engineered is also ready for release. Additionally, he’s seeking out jobs in the field he fell in love with back in high school. At that time, he just wanted to capture the music he and his friends made.
“Now I guess it’s still the same, but I have a completely different understanding of it,” said Fenton, who placed fourth out of 60 worldwide entries in the Audio Engineering Society’s 2017 student recording competition while studying at Shenandoah. “When you’re trusted with the position directly between what the artist has in their head and what gets put onto tape, or the computer, or whatever we’ll be using decades from now, you have the responsibility of capturing their voice on something that will be around forever. I care immensely about expression – it’s something that’s manipulated and taken away from us all too much. . . . We should just be creating because it’s natural, fun and therapeutic. Now that I’m becoming older, and I’m doing more things and meeting more people, I’m honored that I’m beginning to be trusted to be between them and their art.”
He gained expertise in being that artistic intermediary through Shenandoah’s MPRT program. “Four years after beginning my studies at SU, I feel confident that I am equipped with an education and background that really does put me ahead of most of my peers,” he said.