"Without the foundation, you can't think outside of the box."
Written by Jennifer Tatum-Cotamagana, Nonfiction MFA
Photography by Jacob Boll
Ronald Gresham’s love for audio began at the age of 12, when he asked his father for a PA system for Christmas. His father bought him a Sheer Vocal Master PA and Gresham began recording local bands and providing the sound for family reunions and church gatherings, making fifty dollars a session, showing his entrepenuerial spirit from a very young age.
He got his first big break in the business playing a game of baseball. An avid baseball player in college, his father told him that there probably wasn’t a career in baseball and that he should go to a company picnic for a local recording studio, where his father was trying to line a job up for Gresham. Gresham was picked last for the team and he was put in right field. When the first ball went flying through the air, Gresham went flying through the field, catching the ball at second and getting the out at first base. His teammates took notice. Every ball that flew into the air, whether it was headed to right field or not, Gresham was running after it. He was soon moved to the shortstop position and at the end of the game, he was offered a job.
This is Ronald Gresham’s story. He is persistent and determined and no job is too small or insignificant for him. He knew very little about recording studios when he was given his first job, his boss asked him if he knew how to plug in a mic and he said "No." His boss said, “In this business, people will pretend that they know. It’s a good thing you said you didn’t know.” This same boss made him thread a tape 60 times with both hands. Then 60 times with his right hand. Then 60 times with his left hand.
As the gopher in another studio, he cleaned and organized his boss’ desk and “Q-tipped the consoles” of the studio equipment. About this, he laughs, “If you can clean good, you’re gonna’ lay clean tracks.”
He also brought food to people in the studio, but he didn’t just bring the food. He draped a white t-shirt over his arm, tied a bow to the t-shirt and addressed clients and staff by name. He played the part of caterer. These experiences have stayed with him and have influenced how he views the audio recording profession and how he teaches what he knows to his students.
“When I teach kids something new, we do everything at least ten times. Every time you come back in [to the classroom], we do it again,” says Gresham. “A lot of things about this business are repetitive. You can’t forget it.” He recognizes the “doers from the dabblers,” the students who are very interested and engaged in the classroom, the students who are always wanting to learn more and are willing to put in the time to learn about the equipment and the inner-workings of the studio.
“I don’t treat my students as students. I treat them as student engineers,” he says, and “I like to give them responsibility,” and say to them, “Okay, so now you know. You’re going to be doing this.”
And for Gresham, it is about knowing the basics, about knowing how to plug in a microphone. “Everyone wants to be sitting at the desk. But recording isn’t about sitting at the desk. It’s about how you set everything up. Anybody can push a button, but not everyone can set everything up.” He encourages his students to be hands on and to learn everything there is to know about a recording studio, so that when they go into any space, they know what they’re doing. “This business is about detail,” and he tell his students, “If you don’t get good, guess who’s gonna’ take your job?” and he laughs and points to his chest and says, “Me.”
Gresham has a one on one, face to face, person to person relationship with his students. “I treat them like people.” He doesn’t look down on his students or assume that he is smarter, but he knows that he has the ability to teach them the skills that they will need to be successful in the business.
“When my students leave here, I want them to know how to plug up with something, know how to plug in a mic.”
This is Gresham's fifth year at Columbia, and he is consistently learning new things from his students, being surprised by them and says that, that, “Is the whole ball of wax. That’s the beauty of it [teaching]. It’s give and take.” He believes that if you aren’t learning anything then there’s no reason to be teaching. His mother told him when he was young that he would be a teacher and he never believed her and spent much of his early career working with large TV Stations like WGN Chicago and with corporations like McDonalds and Coke. He also spent a long time working from remote trucks recording sporting events for The Magic and The Chicago Bulls. About his first interview at Columbia, he recalls that he only had a marker and a bulletin board, no PowerPoint, no fancy images to share. He didn’t know at the time that Columbia College was building their remote truck and he did his entire presentation on his recent experience with The Orlando Magic and working from a remote truck. He got the job.
Originally from Chicago, but at the time, living in Orlando, he had no intention of returning to the cold Chicago weather, but decided that it was a great opportunity and he says that the ultimate reason for staying was his students. “When you know these cats have retained knowledge, I think that’s really cool.”
To his students he says you need three things: to listen, to be humble and a foundation. “Without the foundation, you can’t think outside of the box.”