Grammy-nominated producer Mark Knight joins us to discuss the beginnings of Toolroom Academy, how to keep going in producing, and the importance of mentorship.
Can you tell us the backstory about starting Toolroom Academy, and how the idea to start a school and give lessons was formulated?
It’s an idea that’s been there for a long time. We’ve always been close to the producer community – I’d like to think we’re more approachable than a lot of labels, particularly when it comes to the A&R side of things – and so moving into the educational space always felt like a very natural fit for us.
Our first moves were to make online video tutorials from some of our key artists. We partnered up with a brilliant company called Faderpro to film incredibly talented house and techno acts like Umek, D.Ramirez, Josh Butler, Shadow Child, Funkagenda and Harry Romero in the studio. The mantra was one of real artists – real education. Giving behind-the-scenes access to how genuinely successful artists make their music, and hopefully inspiring the new generation to learn from them.
We then took this idea on the road – basically inviting around 100 or so producers to a series of events around the world, where we gave live production seminars, and offered A&R feedback to anyone who brought in a demo. We’ve done these events in the UK, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Canada – and actually signed quite a few records from them. We even signed one producer to a long-term artist contract after meeting him.
What we learned from these events was the importance of A&R feedback in helping producers get to the next level. That’s why we established our mentoring programs – The Toolroom Academy Masterclass – and more recently, the Toolroom Academy Production Certificate.
What is the importance of mentorship in pursuing music? Who were your mentors throughout your career?
Everybody learns differently I guess – you do get lots of producers who are more than happy to work and learn solely by themselves, and do so very successfully. But I think it’s equally true that you can reach a plateau in your own development when you’re totally on your own, and that’s where mentoring can come in.
I was lucky at the start of my career to have a mentor in Dave Lee (aka Joey Negro). I learned a lot from him creatively. Another way I’ve learned is with studio partners – I’ve co-produced quite a few records in my time, which is a great way of sharing production knowledge and complimenting each other’s ideas. On the business side of things, my Dad’s always been a great mentor to me – indeed many of the strategies that have underpinned my and Toolroom’s successes have come from his business acumen.
I think it can be harder, in today’s digital age, for new producers to find help and mentorship. Obviously there’s greater access to knowledge than ever, via production videos and blogs, but the help and guidance you can get from an actual person is so much more valuable. The scene has now gone online, rather than being physically accessible at places like record shops, which means there’s a slight disconnect with people not meeting each other face-to-face and networking. I think that’s a big part of the Toolroom Academy – we offer that mentorship which a lot of people are missing right now.
You began producing after years of DJing. What resources did you have to learn producing? What kinds of tools did you have to educate yourself and to what degree were you self-taught?
Aside from the mentorship I got from other producers, I was basically self-taught. I learned through trial and error. I didn’t have access to the kind of programs and tutorials that exist now; I wish that I did! As you said, I was already DJing a lot, so I had the advantage of knowing exactly what would work in my sets.
For many beginners, getting over the initial hurdle of using a DAW is often the most difficult and intimidating part in the learning process. What advice do you have for producers who are simply overwhelmed by all that you need to learn? What sort of disciplines and practices did you implement to keep going and not give up?
My honest advice would be that Ableton is probably the most user-friendly and intuitive platform for beginners, just because it’s very instant. The bottom line is that the speed of your progress boils down to how badly you want it. It can be overwhelming at first, but there’s no substitute for time and dedication. No matter which one you choose, no DAW is going to write a track for you – you need to apply yourself and be dedicated, and put the hours in!
Can you tell us about this new Production Certificate program and about partnering with Splice?
We’ve spent about a year developing it, so we’re very excited to get it launched. Essentially, it’s an online production course that teaches students how to make the sound Toolroom is known for – cutting edge Tech House. We’ve developed a curriculum that takes students step-by-step through this, combined with a number of assignments which are to be completed every week with feedback by our A&R team.
The lessons themselves are taught by one of the artists on our roster, Ben Remember. He’s a fantastic producer and there’s a lot of experienced guys out there who envy his sound, so he’s a great person to teach this. It’s a three month program and I don’t think there’s anything like it on the market right now. Another great bonus is that thanks to you guys at Splice, all students get three months of free credits on the platform. The first cohort sold out almost instantly, and we’re doing a couple more classes in the summer and winter this year.
Check out the “Toolroom Academy Vol. 1” sample pack, a foundational collection of sounds for the Production Certificate program that focuses on the essential sounds of contemporary Tech House.
April 13, 2018