Recording, Instructing, and Rock and Roll
The genre is bleeding out, evolving into indie rock, new wave, alternative, and goth rock made popular by The Smiths, The Cure, Happy Mondays, and The Stone Roses.
New ways to express music, feeling, thought, social justice, and whatever sounded good in a garage or mixing room emerged.
And so too did Aaron Shannon, like a thundering bass riff.
Most people probably know Shannon as an RCTC music technology instructor.
His time at RCTC actually dates back to 1992 when he began life as a student here, riding high on the sounds of late ‘80s British trends, and maybe a little averse to cracking a book.
“I was one of those students who when I first came here, I just wasn’t a good student at all,” Shannon professed. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I actually found my passion with RCTC Music Instructor Kevin (Dobbe).
“I came here thinking I was going to go into architecture,” Shannon continued. “I took a couple of Kevin’s classes, I think music theory was the first one… and I kept taking more and more music classes.”
It set him down the path of pursuing music and recording.
And back then, he was trying his best to create his own punk-like rock, and even got to play it on RCTC’s radio station.
“So, we’d make music and then bring it up to the radio station, and say, ‘play it in 20 minutes!’” Shannon said, adding that 20 minutes later you’d be able to hear it in the car.
“When I went to Nashville I was basically looking for the biggest (recording) studio I could get into, and I got into Sound Stage as an intern,” Shannon explained.
That’s where his professional life started. But first, much like internships in top-tier industry spots are depicted on TV, Shannon began by fetching people food, taking out the garbage, and whatever odd job he could do before he was allowed into the studio to learn the recording gear.
This hardworking intern is the student that Dobbe said he saw when he first instructed Shannon.
“He was in one of my first classes,” Dobbe recalled, and said he doesn’t remember Shannon being a bad student. “He actually had what I would call the triumvirate of what a good student is… one, a student who is really interested in the area that you teach… two, he has and had a creative mind… and then the third and best quality, I think, is that he worked hard.”
So, for Shannon to go on to Nashville and make contacts with bands like All Star United is only natural. He was a friend of the band, and the singer later became a producer, which allowed for Shannon to work on a record with him, and then many records.
“It all came from that internship,” Shannon said.
These connections were important for work, and also just finding a place to crash while visiting town for the 2017 eclipse many years later (Shannon stayed with an old intern buddy).
Visiting Nashville is like coming home for Shannon. He lived there for many years, and he says the allure of the music hotbed is intoxicating.
“Whatever kind of music you want is there,” Shannon explained.
The plethora of music makes it difficult to earn money because everyone plays for free, but the level that musicians play at is much higher than in your average city.
“I became a lot better musician without even knowing it,” Shannon said. “You’re competing, but it’s more of a friendly competition because you’re trying to one-up everyone with your shows.”
Although Shannon once opened for the Grammy-winning band Duran Duran in front of 25,000 people – even making it onto the Billboard charts – he ultimately went down the path of studio recording.
“I didn’t have that many responsibilities, but you learn the studio,” Shannon said.
He later moved up to the nighttime guy, meeting with clients to ensure they were OK, sometimes tearing down microphones to set up for the next group.
When asked if he ever recorded popular artists, Shannon responded quickly with, “all the time.”
Keith Urban, who Shannon can’t remember being popular yet at that time, was friends with a music tech at the studio, so was around a lot.
“He actually never recorded at Quad,” Shannon recalled with a laugh. “He was always there, just kind of hanging out.”
A lot of popular country artists came through the studio, and Shannon got to work with and get to know country legend Ricky Skaggs.
Eventually the studio was bought out, and clientele changed as equipment was upgraded and prices shot up.
Shannon was in Nashville throughout the change, living there from 1997 to 2006 until he and his wife moved to Rochester, where his wife is from (Shannon is from the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, but went through two years of high school in Rochester).
“We had two grandmas yelling at us,” Shannon said of the move. His family grew when a baby arrived in 2004, and the grandparents wanted to see the family more.
Upon moving back, Shannon found himself commuting to Nashville. Then one day he ran into his former, still current RCTC instructor, Kevin Dobbe, who asked him if he would work at RCTC teaching a class.
“He finally talked me into it,” Shannon said, after explaining that he kind of went back and forth on whether or not he should.
Dobbe said he wanted him at RCTC because the triumvirate that made him a good student also makes a good teacher.
“He has those qualities, and I just thought it would be awesome, especially someone who was in the business for a bunch of years,” he said. “And he works well with students; students like him. What better combination could you ask for.”
It was quite the shift in work, however.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Shannon said.
As a two-year program, it’s easy to put too much into each class, which is what Shannon did his first year.
“I didn’t know how fast people would learn… the first semester I had a lot of scared looks at me,” Shannon recalled with a laugh. “I feel like last semester was the first semester I felt comfortable with the flow, and kind of figuring out how well people learn, and how fast they can.”
He teaches audio production I and II. The first class helps you learn the theory of production, so you know what you’re actually doing. Why something is the optimal level, for example.
“If you learn the tricks, the tricks make more sense,” Shannon said. “I always tell my students I’m teaching them the rules, but there are way more exceptions than there are rules, but you have to know the rules before you can break them.”
Former student J.T. Thompson not only learned all of the rules, but even recorded four songs on campus with Shannon’s help during class.
Thompson is the frontman for JT & the Gunslingers, and recalls how instrumental his education was in helping him record his music.
“He has so much real-world knowledge that it is hard to fit it into the time that he is allotted to teach,” Thompson said. “I found myself taking his Audio Production II class twice just to try to capture the knowledge he has and puts out to his students. I have even toyed with the idea of coming back for a third installment even this long after graduation.
“Working on an album with him has been a top two moment (it juggles back and forth with another huge moment) in my music career,” Thompson added. “The years of high-level recording he has done in Nashville really comes through, and I learned so much outside of the classroom from him. With the technology, these days anyone can put out an album, but putting out a radio quality album that competes with the big label market is an art form. We got that from Aaron, by the truckloads.
“From the classroom to the studio, I have never met a better teacher, mentor, and friend. No matter where my music takes me, as long as Aaron is available, I will pay any price for his time, as he is worth the tuition tenfold.”
While Thompson is going the route of musician, there is plenty people can do in the music industry.
“The music business, it’s still in its infancy, really, on the technical side,” Shannon said. “There’s so many branches, you just find your niche. That’s how I feel. I’m trying to relearn a lot of things to get a wider scope.”
Not bad for someone who describes himself as a bad student.
“I have no clue,” Shannon said when asked why he went for music. “When I started it was… electronic music. But we had a 4-track (at RCTC) when I first started. When there wasn’t anyone there, that’s where I was at. I was always skipping classes to be in that studio. I’d just get lost, and from there on, I just kept getting into it.”
That obsession fuels his teaching ability and style.
“I have a soft spot for RCTC,” Shannon began. “It’s a different kind of student, and I’m hoping that I’ll find the same kind of student that I was and help them find their passion. If it wasn’t for Kevin, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I wasn’t a good student, but as soon as I found that passion I went all in.”