Yoko Ono in front of the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus
Photos: Courtesy of John Lennon Educational Tour Bus
It is unquestionably one of the most demanding jobs in audio, requiring a skill set that spans songwriting, musicianship, studio production, live sound, video production/post, IT and distribution. Ten months on the road, each day a new town, each day a new project from start to finish. It might be songwriting, it might be recording a band, it might be a documentary video. You never really know. The talent might be 13 years old and never have touched a musical instrument, or they might be in high school and in a band. They might just be in for a tour to learn about careers. Whatever the case, to be an engineer on the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus requires a ridiculously wide technical skill set, but perhaps more importantly a flexible interpersonal dynamic that can move fluidly between wide-eyed teenagers, high-level recording artists, corporate sponsors and a middle school principal who is knocking on the door at 7 a.m. ready for the meet and greet.
While it may be the most demanding job a young recording school graduate can take on, it may also be the most rewarding.
“I can’t say enough about the engineers we have on the bus,” says JLETB executive director Brian Rothschild, who founded the concept back in 1998 with Yoko Ono. “The spirit of the bus lives in the engineers onboard, and it’s sometimes difficult to find the right people. You can be a great audio engineer or a great songwriter/musician, but if you don’t have the ability to work with kids each day, if you’re not a flexible personality…”
“When the bus rolls up, everyone is impressed by the technology, by the bus itself,” adds chief engineer Jeff Sobel, who started a three-year run aboard the original vehicle in January 2002 and continues leading the engineering team to this day. “But by the time we leave a location, all we hear about is how great the crew was. When you find the right people, you hold onto them.”
This month at NAMM, the JLETB kicks off its 15th year of continuous operation, and its mission of bringing practical arts and technology-based curriculum to often-underserved communities has evolved considerably. Originally, the idea put forth by Rothschild and artist manager David Sonenberg was simply a songwriting contest with Lennon’s name attached. The bus was meant to be a five- to six-month promotional vehicle; it soon became something more.
“We were coming up with ideas of how to market the songwriting contest,” Rothschild recalls. “Someone suggested advertising on the sides of buses, and it got me thinking, ‘Well, what’s inside the bus?’ I thought it might be cool to have a studio on wheels to travel the country and support young songwriters. Of course, once it pulled up to my office here in New York, I think it was 4:30 in the morning, and I jumped on, it just looked amazing to me. And I started to see the possibilities.”
Chief engineer Jeff Sobel (seated second from left) and executive director Brian Rothschild (left of Yoko Ono) with the Lennon Bus crew
Bootsy Collins, in top hat, surrounded by students in Texas
Students at a Camden, N.J. stop
The first real gig turned out to be pretty big. Wyclef Jean and Joan Osborne came onboard for a Good Morning America appearance in New York to write, record and perform an original song in a two-hour window, live. Some high school students were onboard that day, and soon after, calls started flooding in from school districts and organizations around the country asking how they might arrange a visit. It wasn’t lost on Rothschild that the launch of the bus was coinciding with a drop in funding for arts programs nationwide. By year two, he had applied for nonprofit status, added an educational mission to the songwriting push and rewrapped the bus to reflect the change.
In January 2002, Jeff Sobel was graduating from a sound arts program when a placement director tipped him off to an opportunity to travel the country and give back to kids. He went to NAMM, worked the week, met the crew and signed on. He stayed aboard for three years.
At the time, the JLETB was PC-based, with a digital console, DA-88s for recording and space-hogging outboard racks. About 18 months into his tenure, Apple came onboard as a sponsor (“That was huge,” says Rothschild) and Avid donated Pro Tools systems, so Sobel was given the opportunity to do a “soft” remodel/retrofit to reflect the new workflow. The outboard racks were taken out, workstations rearranged and the configuration revamped to allow for more of a recording space in the rear, with more isolation; he was assisted by Tay Hoyle of Taytrix.
For 2008, Sobel and Rothschild got the opportunity to rebuild from the wheels up with a brand-new 45-foot vehicle, along with a few additional sponsors that took the bus to the next level: video, specifically HD robotic and XDCAM EX cameras provided by Sony, along with the Reflecmedia Chromatte system for green-screen production, and Litepanels’ professional lighting. The team had dabbled in video previously, but now it became part of the storytelling process. “I’m a big fan and proponent of having kids use technology to express themselves, to tell a story,” Rothschild says. “When I was a kid, audio and video were separate disciplines, but young people today don’t have that separation. Increasingly, to be able to compete today, you have to have lots of skills, and it’s innate in the kids we see today. Many of the kids who walk on the bus know things that they don’t even know they know!”
Then at NAMM 2010, Avid boosted its sponsorship in a huge way, offering audio and video editing systems and interfaces. Other major sponsors include Montblanc, Neutrik, Gibson, Audio-Technica, SAE Institute, Roland, Apogee, Mackie and Disc Makers. New for 2012 is Newtek, which is providing the Tricaster for Web streaming, with satellite-uplink technology contributed by Todocast. “Our sponsors have been fantastic,” says Rothschild. “Yes, they benefit from the marketing, but we seem to attract companies that completely buy into the mission. They go all-in.”
The bus has also attracted its share of celebrities who want to give back, including the Black Eyed Peas and Fergie, who each have done portions of their albums on the bus; they began, Rothschild is quick to point out, long before they hit it big, working with kids whenever the bus came through L.A. The bus has hosted John Legend, Natasha Bedingfield and, most recently, Bootsy Collins for five stops in Texas. He will headline a special concert this year at NAMM. It also makes stops at Bonnaroo, Coachella, NAB, CMJ, the Warped Tour and countless universities and schools across the country. While the exposure is nice and it leads to press opportunities, all involved seem to get a bigger kick out of pulling into a middle school in Birmingham or Camden.
“We try to do our best over the course of any year to serve all kinds of demographics, across all areas of the country,” concludes Rothschild. “In the broadest stroke, we are providing opportunities to young people, and some of the things we’ve done that I’m most proud of are sessions in severely underserved communities, where the kids walk on with no experience and no exposure to music or technology. By the end of the day, they’ve tapped into their own creativity and worked together to produce something original, something they can be proud of.”
For the engineers, who Rothschild has dubbed “rock stars and roadies, all in one,” each day brings a new opportunity, a new group, a new project, start to finish. They speak the language of collaboration and they teach kids what can be done when they put their minds to telling a good story. It’s a mission that drives Sobel, who says, “I like the idea that we get these kids into an environment where they succeed because there is no time to fail.”