Jeffrey Costello, United States Marine and veteran of Afghanistan/Iraq, is the technical support engineer for Focusrite & Novation, which specializes in audio equipment hardware and software. Jeffrey also works as an Ableton mentor and has previous experience in several positions within the music industry.
Jeffrey shares his journey with us from NCAA DII basketball to military service, followed by his experience within the music industry, all while providing great insights and FREE resources for those wanting to learn more about the field. If you’d like to get in touch with Jeffrey, he’s also provided his Instagram & Facebook accounts.
Can you give us a look into your background?
Came from a family of Marines, probably three generations’ worth. Born and raised in New Jersey, Elizabeth. I went to high school in Central Jersey in Monmouth County and basketball was my passion before music. Music was always a big part of that.
A one. Two guard in high school, one in college, division two ball at Pfeiffer. I was a walk-on. Played JV there for one year and then I walked on varsity the sophomore year, but I just decided that at that time in my life there was definitely a need for change. So came back, coached at my high school for a year, decided that Jersey was just not the place I wanted to be.
And the Marine Corps was introduced to me a lot, especially from a father who had served in Vietnam and a brother who had graduated from the naval academy, but being a free spirit was not. I just didn’t realize until I was 23, where something just hit me. My aunt, she’s the one who made sense out of it all: “He’s Irish, he’s a Costello, and it’s in their blood.” That was pretty honorable because you just knew it was the right thing to do. It defines it a little bit better.
So when I went into the military, because of my college, I got my choice of duty stations. I had already gone to school in North Carolina, but I knew that I would rather serve somewhere else. Hawaii was another choice as well as California. I figured, why not go out to the sun, go to a place I haven’t been before? And I was exposed to music from the moment I got out here. Like all of those hidden passions that I had in music were completely – like the shell was broken in two instantly.
And I was around Marines who were all the same, so that was kind of our brotherhood within the brotherhood. We were brothers as Marines. Our groups, if you will, the friendships that were built, the more closely-related groups that we built, the cliques that we had, were all music lovers, like myself.
What years were this?
’99 to 2004, five years.
Was there a specific reason that the Marines spoke to you?
You know that commercial, “The Few, The Proud?” You’ve seen that a thousand times. Coming from a Marine Corps family and you’re bartending and you’re drinking a lot and you just realize that your life isn’t going anywhere. So I think part I wanted change, and two, this was something that was instilled in me, which I didn’t know. It’s just at that moment I just knew. And I had all the fears in the world, but no reservations about the decision. I’d do it all over again, if I had to.
Any takeaways or lessons learned from your time serving?
Oh, I’ll be honest with you, not a very good student in high school, not even in college. Basketball was the passion. Just school itself, there was really nothing that interested me. Getting into the Marine Corps, it taught me how to study: Reading manuals, being technically proficient at your job.
When I got out, I started going to x-ray tech school and my grades were – I mean I was averaging, literally the first, and since then, a 3.4 GPA. One, because I knew how to study. Two, I’m a very disciplined individual. Even when it came to basketball, I had to master my craft to feel competent in what I was doing. And Marine Corps and then the music.
You know I work in a technical position because it takes a lot of discipline. My enjoyment out of that for music is obviously getting other people on the creative path and figuring things out that are too difficult or they don’t have the discipline to commit themselves to learning. It basically gave me a structured discipline on approaching and processing information in a way that I could use that practically, to sum it up.
When you look back, what are your thoughts about serving now?
Looking back? I mean it’s a dangerous time, but there’s very few men and women who decide to do it. And the ones that do, do it well. Of course, you’ve got your sour apples here and there. We’ve served with people that came in for a number of different reasons. Looking back on it, the good always outweighed the bad.
Also, the family, the brotherhood. That’s something nobody can ever take away from you. It’s a title that you earned and it’s a tough earning, but when you get it, nobody can ever take that away from you. I think that capitalizes everything.
What was your path after exiting military service to your current position at Focusrite and Novation?
I had taught myself the last couple years with all the time on ship studying as a leader and being a squad leader from an MCO in Afghanistan to a squad leader in Iraq, but also giving myself a little bit of a break and then studying music. I had gotten big into deejaying and that was something I wanted to do when I got out. So as much as I possibly could, when I was on liberty overseas, I’d go to as many record stores or I’d go to as many shows as possible and I would just talk to people.
Now, the engineers were always the people that just fascinated me the most. The artists are great, I wanted to be an artist, but the production side of it all, just to see how everything came together, acoustics and just the sonic nature of a club or a show and a live performance. You appreciate what the artists do, but I was so fascinated with the 24, 32, 64-channel boards and how it all came together.
Getting into deejaying, I was exposed to that a little bit. I had my five years of moderate success as a deejay, but always working with the engineers at the bigger shows when I would open up. That’s when I got into audio engineering school thereafter. So that was from 2004 through about 2011, deejaying and working with a lot of engineers and deejays, but guys who really were not as competent when the speaker was blown. The decision was, “Let’s just get a new one.” And I was the guy, “Well, let’s figure out what’s wrong with it.” Swap out a cable. It’s the first time you swap out a cable and it works, you realize, “Okay, why?”
Then you start questioning and you save a nightclub or you save a – I can’t tell you how many times I just ran onstage with a new cable. The artists are wondering what’s going on, you plug in and you get their monitors back. It’s an intense feeling when an artist in front of 300 people thanks you for getting the show back on the road. That was when I realized, okay, I need to learn this and master this.
And leaving San Diego was tough because you have this big following as an artist, but you realize being an artist and coming from any background as an artist, you gotta be really, really good at it nowadays or you find a different path to go into to make sure that you can find yourself in the industry. That’s really why I wanted to find my place in the industry within audio engineering, which, of course, allows me now to work on my craft as an artist more productively.
Take me to what your school experience was like for that. That was a four-year degree, I presume?
It was. It was San Diego City College for a couple years. I met Dr. Stephanie Robinson, just an incredible professor. And having no concept of what synthesis was on a digital platform, coming from working from a house and working with PA’s to actually understanding song structure on the digital platform. It was easier for me because I was very computer savvy and I worked with a lot of digital gear. That was the first step into understanding synthesis and sonic development for writing music.
But also, her teaching us signal flow, which is a very daunting science when you first get into it, unless you really, really understand source to destination and everything that happens in-between. Either you figure it out for yourself or you have really good mentors to show you. Dr. Robinson and Aaron Hern were the two people at the brink of my development who made it a little bit easier to understand.
And even when I got to Cal State Dominguez Hills, you’re surrounded by guys who were working at a much higher level, whether they worked in houses of worship or they were brought on by production crews at a young age. Being born and raised in California, they were exposed to it and I wasn’t in Jersey. We didn’t really have that. Nobody in my family was ever musically immersed, so this is something that I had to do all on my own. So San Diego City College and those two professors were the ones that launched my career on the academic platform, if you will.
Most people want acceptance from their peers, especially family members. Being a creative, was that something that was difficult to come across or did you just have to keep pushing through?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. My dad was a cop. So the first time I got into deejaying –
So it wasn’t practical, what are you wasting your time for?
Oh, man. Well, the question was, “What’s the pension plan in that?”
And that was like, well, it’s one of those questions you don’t have the answer to, but you decide, okay, that’s somebody telling ya it’s probably not the right path. You know it’s the right path; you find a way. Ten years later he’s shaking his head, “I had no idea.” And finally when my brothers came to my first performance in L.A., getting paid $300 for an hour and a half of work and realizing I did that five nights a week, he couldn’t believe it. But also doing all of these side jobs, the production side and the audio engineering. Plus, there was no established income; it was being hungry and looking for the next opportunity.
The last 15 years, my job now with Focusrite and Novation is a product of every single gig I took, every mentor that I listened to as a seminar attendant. And there’s hundreds and hundreds of different group sessions I would go to, meet-up seminars, just to be around the people that were doing it as a career and finding out how to get there, what needs to be done.
But yeah, it does. To get the family onboard, I mean I’m 3000 miles away, but now they finally realize, “Okay, he deserved it, he worked on it, he did it.” And I’m the first in the family and that’s a pretty honorable thing as well.
Very much so. What’s your current position at Focusrite Novation and how do you describe your job to a layman?
Well, the position is “technical support engineer” and that is a broad title. What I do is I help people figure out what they don’t know about the gear that they’ve purchased from our company in efforts to get them established in a workflow that allows them to stay on the creative path. Get those ideas that they want on the creative side, get them to a point with the technology that allows them to do that.
How has the military helped or hindered you in the job market?
A lot of people are liberal here, so that was tough at first. But with production and audio engineering, loading in/loading out big shows, Marines they loved because they knew we worked. A lot of production companies loved us.
But to get in working with artists and things like that, it was tough. You know Sony Records or maybe Red Bull Studios, I guess you don’t have this past of working in the industry for so long, so I really didn’t have anything on paper or I didn’t work with anybody in a hierarchy, if you will, that could help me get into those positions.
So people were very judgmental, I think, of the military, but at the same time people are also very welcoming to that. I think it’s 50/50, but I never really let that bother me, because I think when you have your mind set on something, if somebody does deny you for whatever reason, it’s just like hitting a brick wall that you move laterally and you find a way around it.
And again, calling back to finding a way through from mission to mission accomplished.
As I’ve been doing these transition interviews, a lot of what I hear from veterans is the struggle being surrounded by others who aren’t as focused on the mission at their place of employment. I suspect your viewpoint may be a bit different since you are a creative and creatives tend to be quite driven. What’s been your experience?
There are people that get very complacent. And working in the creative world, you surround yourself by people who want to help you grow and develop. At the same time, whom you take interest in as well. There’s a lot of collaborations that were started and never finished because it starts out on one idea and there’s just a hundred different ideas that three or four people have, and it’s really tough to, as a group, get to an understanding.
So what you do is you just find your tribe. You know in the civilian world, basically I find people that I could build a platoon with, and I was lucky to find that. I stayed away from people who were arrogant, that’s for sure, just because these are individuals that did reach a very high level of success very fast, but weren’t gonna go anywhere over time. And I kind of knew that, I’ve seen that, and I was with people that were helping me identify that.
So I did have a little bit of guidance in that, but I’ve just been lucky. I think I have a very good judge of character and to this day I look back with a lot of the people who I worked with, who I didn’t get along with too well, and I look back on what they’re doing now. They’re not in the music industry or they are and they’re struggling and they’re coming to me for questions.
But yeah, to answer your question, especially when you’re getting paid. I think it’s different when you have a paycheck. If you have a project and you’re getting paid for it, you have a client, you have a deadline, you gotta do what you gotta do to get it done. You make sacrifices and try your best to make that working environment as cohesive as possible. I think what the military allowed me to do was develop a much thicker skin and allowed not people to really walk over me, but give them a little bit of breathing space and maybe sometimes just enough rope to hang themselves at certain times.
Any moments that come to mind where your position or career significantly changed?
Professionally as an audio engineer, working at Yost Theater. I worked around a lot of different musicians there. And realizing that all of this knowledge that I had accumulated, it started making sense and I was able to do things on a more professional level, meaning, I was reliable. The lead engineers could leave me alone for a night and I could run a show all by myself and then set it back up for the corporate events the next day. That was a big opportunity and that gave me enough confidence to move onto the next gig.
Looking at ProSound and Stage Lighting, they are an online retailer. Working in retail is tough because everything you want to do, you’re limited to because you work in a certain domain. I supported the sales division. I was brought on to help with sales in hopes of getting this technical support job, but they never opened up with that. That was a job that you had to make money, you had to sell, and you had to support the sales division. And you’re working with a lot of people that aren’t as passionate about what you’re passionate about.
The turning points were, again, being able to help people. I think when I got a lot of the side gigs out of PSSL, being able to help people that didn’t understand how to set up, say, boards at houses of worship. I worked a lot of houses of worship, did a lot of installs. It’s all these little, small events that I did. Just more and more when I went to go set something up or a show that I had put together and see that successfully take off and continue, moments like that.
But I’ll be honest, the job at Focusrite, after applying there for a couple years and getting that, that was the turning point, six months ago. Because since then, I’ve been able to get back to my own creative outlet, build collaborations with people. It’s kind of like getting the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor again. This is an established position that nobody who I’ve worked with over the last 15 years is even close to attaining.
A lot of the deejays I worked with became mobile deejays and they started their own production companies and they’re still grinding for a very low, low income per year, struggling. I got to the point now, over the next 10 to 20 years, it’s going to allow me to do just about everything I’ve ever wanted to in music. And work with not only the digital side of music, but work with musicians as well.
So that was the biggest turning point was Focusrite, but continuing over the last five years, building knowledge, and not stopping. That’s what allowed me to get there. That was the biggest turn point, but the initial was getting the job at Yost Theater and being able to finally, for the first time, do it on my own and prove my competence.
We always hear about burnout in certain positions and obviously creatives can really struggle with this. Is it plausible to have work/life balance in your field? And if so, how do you manage it?
I’ll tell you what, I’m a little bit different than the commoner. I put relationships and social living on the side for a very long time: Stopped dating, stopped going out, and just really started working in my own studio. Took a bit of a different path. If I had been married with kids, there’s a lot of stressors that I was able to avoid, but I did it so that I wouldn’t have to deal with that, so I could get myself to where I want to be and then worry about all of that extra life, all of the extracurricular life necessities. This was what I was driven on so much, so I literally planned it accordingly. I basically took myself out of the equation to bringing any of those stressors on.
Military.com has a lot of active duty and veterans readers that may want to someday work in your field. To get to where you’re at today, what do you feel is the optimum path to travel?
Well, I’ll be honest, the first and foremost is take advantage of all the free resources out there right now. Free magazines, “Live Sound,” “Front of House Magazine.” People are sharing the stories, the technology that they’re utilizing. These are month to month resources. Whether or not you know what you’re reading, after about a year, you will. That’s one.
Two, defining every term that doesn’t make sense to you and figuring out how does that apply to where you want to be. What are audio engineers doing?
I think it also starts even before that. Let’s just take a step back and find out, okay, what is it they really want to do? Are they artists, are they audio engineers, do they want to work in production, corporate? Are they married, what are their limitations? Kind of get a balance for it. It’s budgeting your budget or balancing your budget and then working in the means that you can, but then taking advantage of all the free resources out there.
YouTube is good, but YouTube is limiting. Somebody will provide a tutorial, but how do you know what they’re working with? In these trade magazines, you get a list of all the gear, resources where to buy, and I’m learning how other people are using those. That was Dr. Robinson, again, going back to San Diego City College. Once she told me that, I literally subscribed to three magazines and they’re all free: “Live Sound,” “Tape Op,” and “Front of House.”
A lot of that, for the first year, I didn’t know wireless microphones and what squelch was and passive/active DI boxes. But after a year, okay, now this all makes sense. This is why you use a DI box, this is what an interface is, this is what an ADAT is and how they’re all integrated together. It all comes from just piling knowledge on and observing all that you can, but taking advantage of what’s available to you with a very, very motivated and disciplined approach. Learn something new every day: One term, one idea, listen to one song.
Let’s take it a little bit more micro then. Any advice for people just starting out that want to get into electronic music?
Electronic music? So producing or just working in production? There are different areas.
For the dreamer-type that want to make their own music, creating something and producing it.
Well, assuming that they have their genre and they want to get into creating, studying synthesis. What is sound synthesis? What makes sound? A synthesizer versus a MIDI controller. At the minimum, understanding that everything in digital music production and electronics starts with the computer. From the computer, it branches out to the interface, to the preamp, then to the source.
So having just the basic most fundamental understanding that it all starts with the computer, if that’s where you want to start, and branching out from there. And compatibility, and for whatever you do want to use, whether it be Ableton, Pro Tools, Logic, or some other elaborate digital audio workstation like Nuendo, do you meet the system requirements for that software? And having fun. That’s the thing. You have to have fun with this at first. Not getting wrapped up in producing hit records.
Another thing with electronic music too, there’s a lot of preproduced sound packs out there. And this comes over time, but taking an interest in recreating what somebody else has already done to teach yourself the process that goes into that. Is that too broad?
No, I think that’s great, actually. I was hoping for something that detailed, so that’s excellent.
I mean I’ll give you an example. Marco Carola is one of my favorite producers from Germany, Richie Hawtin, all of these guys, John Acquaviva. I would take their songs and I would put those audio files into Ableton and I would set up markers. Okay, here’s the intro, here’s the verse, here’s the second verse, here’s the chorus, here’s the breakdown. Now I have my sound structure. Taking the file out and now I’ve got a blank slate, but all my markers are there. I’ve literally got a diagram of their song structure. And in electronic music, song structure is pretty basic four-to-the-floor. You’ve got your intro, you’ve got your verse, your verses, your chorus, sometimes there’s a bridge, there’s always a breakdown.
But if you’re getting into, as an acoustic musician as well, wanting to learn the digital construct, same thing. Understanding what compression is, expansion, what a limiter really does. All the modules in that digital audio workstation, if you don’t know what they are, go to Sweetwater’s glossary, all the terms are there.
Song structure is probably the best way. That’s how I teach Ableton. I’m an Ableton mentor and I teach classes all over southern California. When people want to know what goes into finishing a project, take a finished project and break it down from inside. It’s called the deconstruction process. You’re basically reverse engineering songs so you can give yourself an understanding of what parts come where and why, and why they sound good.
Would this be the equivalent to music transcription, where people are trying to find out what notes are played on a violin retroactively?
That’s part of it. That’s music theory. And there are plugins you can use to do that. Again, I’m gonna go back to Dr. Robinson a lot because some of the tools she gave me were the best. The hunt-and-peck method is one of the most valuable things you could learn. As you’re listening to a song, get behind a keyboard and just move up an octave with the major keys, the white keys. If it sounds dissonant, that’s not the note. When it sounds nice and it sounds consonant and on, you’re probably within range of that key. So you could teach yourself just by listening.
And again, it’s another major point, using your ear, not the gear. Going to Quiztones. And Quiztones is a free application that gives you frequency tones, so you can start identifying what a 40 Hz sine wave sounds versus, say, a 440 Hz, or like a 13K. So just little stuff like that.
But to answer your question, I mean that’s more of a music theory question that you asked. I was putting it on a very academic and visual basis because I think for some people that don’t come from a sonic background, that method of finding notes, that’s very difficult for people to grasp. Everything is visual now. I mean the Launchpad that we have, the community of people, the teens who purchase it between the ages of 12 and 16, they don’t want to make music, they want to make lightshows.
But also, too, I would want to know more about my client first. And then to answer that question, who is this person, what’s their musical background, and then delivering avenues of approach that way. But somebody who doesn’t come from any musical background and wants to get into it, it’s all about listening and getting a little bit acquainted with the digital background.
Any books, podcasts, or mentors that helped you along the way, that you’d like to recommend?
Yeah, let me – I mean I’ve got a library over here. I tell you what, as an engineer, where’s my favorite book? “Modern Recording Techniques,” just grab this guy. This is probably one of the – honestly, I dabbled into this book my first two years at San Diego City and a little bit more before I graduated Cal Tech Dominguez Hills. Then I read it cover to cover when I graduated and I realized, if I had just read this book four years ago, it would have been a lot easier for me. “Modern Recording Techniques,” seventh edition [link above is to 9th Edition], David Miles Huber.
If you are getting into this industry and you don’t own or have never opened this book, you’re prolonging your timeline to get anywhere successfully. And David Miles Huber is one of the best authors. He’s an amazing engineer and his publications are five-star. They will always teach you something about what you need to know. Electronic music, acoustic, engineering, the basic understanding of the entire recording process, which falls right into making music as well.
What problems do you see that need to be overcome in the audio/music industry?
The ease of accessibility gives people the wrong idea. People, because of accessibility, they think I don’t have to learn anything, I can just push this button, take this sample, and I’m gonna go to zero to hero overnight. As I quote Pete Tong, the zero to hero epidemic, it’s people utilizing as much of somebody else’s elements to get a step further ahead without any concepts of their own. If I can just motivate somebody to take a little bit of knowledge and maybe commitment to learning how to do it on their own. If you change one person, you could change a million. So that’s the goal, is to bring it back to before it got all convoluted.
Again, I quote another author, I forget his name, but there’s just an ejaculation of mediocrity right now. You know to find really good music, you have to sift for hours. If you don’t have a long background, somebody who has only been in the scene for a couple years really doesn’t have this whole discography to go back to.
And the MTV thing, if you had been listening to pop music your whole life, that’s all you know. There’s a lot of good stuff there, but you don’t really see what the independent artist is doing. So getting people to look at different artists and have an appreciation for how hard it really is.
Anything else you want to add?
Yes, patience. And I think a lot of the veterans understand this: We deal and have dealt with the whole “hurry up and wait,” aspect, you know? Let me tell ya, hurry up, get all the knowledge you possibly can as you’re waiting, do it again. Read it over again because learning and being able to communicate and converse about it and have a discussion about it, that’s one thing. Being able to get onstage and in the heat of the moment when a speaker goes down or a microphone goes out, the question is whether or not you can get that show back on the road. That’s when you get complacent and you jeopardize that moment.
So hurry up, get as much knowledge as you possibly can. You’re gonna be waiting for that opportunity, but be ready, be ready when it pops up because it’ll pass you by in a heartbeat, unless during that waiting time you’ve done what you needed to do to make sure that you know what’s needed to be exercised at the time that you’re given that opportunity.
What’s next for you?
Ableton mentor, just getting that started. If I retire with Focusrite Novation, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Getting my first album out there. I have enough integrity that I’ve never – and that’s a thing, there’s the difference between me and the civilian. I’ve got a lot of integrity, so you’ll never see me put “producer” on my title. I’ve actually dropped “deejay” from my title as well just because that title, which I earned, has been tainted by anybody who can get their hands on a laptop and a pushbutton controller. I have neglected putting “producer” on my title until I’ve actually finished a project of my own. So that’s the first, is earning my position among music producers. And then, of course, helping somebody else finish something. I think that it’s two-fold for me, so I have enough integrity that I won’t do that.
That and getting to England, training with the guys out in the UK office. Studying techno in Germany because I’m a big techno guy and a minimal guy. I want to go to where it started and find out, what’s the buzz about? You know actually going and listening to it in a very organic nature, around the people that really helped develop it over the last five decades.
But yeah, I mean the sky is the limit right now. But it’s working on music, it’s helping other artists. Really, I’d like to get my own professional studio over the next ten years built. Another thing I really want to do is traveling gigs: So seminar by day, recording or live sound production at night. I can teach and then bring, say, even military guys transitioning out, hiring them to help me with the load in and loadout for both that seminar that I do during the day and giving them that foot in the door that I didn’t have. That’s really the biggest thing. I want to present something that was not offered to me in the past.
(This interview with Focusrite & Novation’s Technical Support Engineer, Jeffrey Costello, was originally published over at Military.com, but it is also above for posterity).