How did I get here? I blame Thrasher Magazine. Back when I was 10, I was obsessed with skating. Thrasher was the leading skate magazine at the time. It was the one with the coolest motto, anyway: “Skate and destroy” (anarchy had a strong appeal for a 10-year-old). In the back of the magazine, there were music articles and reviews of bands that fit with the magazine’s aesthetic. I bought every tape mentioned: Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Negative Approach, TSOL, Black Flag, Misfits, 7 Seconds, Circle Jerks, Minutemen, Operation Ivy... Punk Rock! I was hooked. The moment I heard “Sailing On,” it was over.
Music would now be my life.
As my friends and I versed ourselves in everything punk, we felt compelled to start a band, and we each chose an instrument. I leaned toward drums, but my parents played the veto card. So, I landed on guitar (the parent-approved instrument with a volume knob) and quickly became consumed. I wanted to understand not only theory and techniques, but also the subtle nuances that created unique styles. I needed to analyze my playing. I needed to record on a multitrack. So, I scrimped and saved until I was able to by a TASCAM 424. God, I loved that machine. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I might have loved it more than the guitar.
My addiction to finding the holy grail of guitar tone, combined with equipment limitations (I only had a Fender Squier Strat and a practice amp) led me to experiment with recording and mixing techniques. I started bringing my TASCAM with me to band practice to record our sessions, after which I’d run home and tinker with the mix until my ears rang and everything sounded terrible. Though the band was happy with the outcome, we strove to record in a professional studio, saving and borrowing money until we ended up in front of an eight-channel console and speakers — a distinct step up from my headphone set-up at home. I was in awe. What 14-year-old wouldn’t be?
In high school, my bandmates and I spent time handling the sound for a punk venue in Baltimore, where I discovered that not all mixing is the same. Live sound was not my cup of tea. Around this same time, I began to question the likelihood of a legitimate career as a guitarist and I enrolled at George Washington University as a pre-med student. But I couldn’t abandon music. I made Electronic Music Composition one of my classes, studying 20th-century avant-garde composers and music technology, and spent every second I could in the university’s small, electronic music studio. It was there that I was first introduced to Pro Tools. I followed the rabbit hole to Kurten, Germany, to attend German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s summer seminars, expanding my knowledge to include the production and implementation of sound synthesis. That’s where I truly began to learn the relationship between composition and sound design and, most importantly, it’s where I decided I wanted to pursue music.
I graduated from GW and moved to New York to attend NYU’s Graduate Program in Music, concentrating on music technology. The exhaustive and highly educational coursework included digital audio processing, software synthesis, advanced music acoustics, computer music composition, audio for video, and music theory and history. As the end of my studies grew near, I needed to figure out career options. My classmates were getting assistant engineering jobs at major studios around the city for minimum wage, but as far as I was concerned, that really wasn’t an option.
A close college friend who worked at an advertising agency informed me of their in-house audio facility. The head of the division had been an audio engineer, so my friend suggested I meet with him to gain insight into career options. Much to my surprise, I was offered a position as an assistant engineer after what was only my initial meeting. It caught me completely off guard. Not only had I had no idea that I was interviewing, I also had no intention of working in advertising! After much deliberation, I concluded that the agency’s offer was slightly — just slightly — better than the major studios’ around the city and I accepted.
Eleven years later, I’m still mixing commercials. And yes, I still love walking into the studio every morning. Even if it no longer has a console. But I probably should have been a doctor.
Chris Afzal is a 36-year-old sound mixer at NYC’s Sound Lounge. He has mixed commercials for some of America’s biggest brands, including Gillette, Coca-Cola, Verizon and Cadillac.