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Former intern now owns Las Vegas recording studio

He was an intern with but two jobs: 1) Keep quiet. 2) Keep an eye on Jimmy Kimmel’s microphone.

The year was 2002, and Mike Lavin, then a studio neophyte, was working during a tracking session for prank-call TV show “Crank Yankers” at Vegas’ Digital Insight Recording.

“I was sitting at the edge of the console and there was Jimmy Kimmel’s talk-back mic,” Lavin recalls. “My only job was to un-mute it when we weren’t recording. The whole day. I’m sitting there just not saying a word. David Alan Grier’s car rolls up. He walks up behind me, grabs my shoulders, shakes me and goes, ‘Awful quiet today, aren’t we son?’ ”

After Lavin’s laughter ends, the story continues.

“That same day Jimmy ordered $200 worth of Farm Basket,” he adds. “It was in the front lobby. A whole table just stacked with Farm Basket. I think that was the session where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I had so much fun watching these people work.”

A decade and a half later, Lavin remains a fixture at Digital Insight.

Only now he owns the joint.

Twenty years ago, Digital Insight opened as one of Vegas’ first high-end recording studios, luring big names like Barry Manilow, Kenny Chesney and Kanye West, whose time here is commemorated by the framed platinum plaques mounted on an office wall.

Lavin started here on the lowest rung of the studio ladder, but along with his business partner Tiger Stylz, a fellow longtime engineer here who’s one of Vegas’ go-to-guy hip-hop producers, he’d eventually assume full control of the facilities.

Along the way, the clientele has changed: Sure, rap stars like Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz have dropped by in recent years, Kobe Bryant and Ahmad Rashad just recorded voice-overs here and Mike Tyson tracks all his lines for the animated “Mike Tyson Mysteries” show at the studio.

But Digital Insight’s focus has shifted to Vegas acts, with recent and forthcoming albums by notables like Big Friendly Corporation, Illicitor, Franks & Deans, The Rhyolite Sound and many others having been worked on here.

We caught up with Lavin recently at Digital Insight to hear how it all came to be:

It’s pretty remarkable to start here as an intern and now you own the place.

It’s been a journey. I never thought I’d own my own recording studio. It was always so far out of reach, especially on a studio engineer’s budget. When I came back here (after completing audio training school in Los Angeles), I went straight to the B room and started doing entry level sessions, which was like opera duos over two-track and tons of mixtape hip-hop and tape transfers. Then you start moving into the A room and doing sessions. The chief engineer quit and it was like, “You’re the chief engineer now.” OK. I went to Oregon for a little bit, came back and started managing the place. Then the offer to buy out (the previous owner) came.

You’ve made a point of reaching out to Vegas bands, making this place accessible to unsigned acts who might not have traditionally gone to bigger studios like this in the past. Local bands don’t normally get to record in the same facilities that platinum acts have.

Now that we have control of the pricing, if I feel a band is really awesome and really hardworking, I’ve been able to adjust the rates to give people enough time to make a quality record. A lot of people have the idea that if they saved up a lot of money and came in here and did one day in this studio, they were going to have a quality record. That doesn’t work. All the technology, a great room and years of engineering experience don’t make a good record. Time makes a good record. So, I’ve been able to do pricing with bands that gives me more time in the studio with them while still maintaining a rate that will keep the lights on.

What defines a great studio engineer?

I think you have to have three things. One, you have to have technical proficiency with your tools, whatever they may be. Two, you have to listen. Three, and the most important part, is the ability to interact with people. Eight-five percent of my job is psychology. The rest is the knobs and buttons. I can teach anybody how to engineer. I can sit down with any person and say, “Here’s how you get signal flow.” The basic job of getting sound to tape is not very difficult. What I can’t teach people is how not to be a (jerk). Everybody is here to accomplish something. Everybody here has a goal. Some peoples’ goals are in perspective, some people want to come in here for 15 minutes and come out sounding like Mariah Carey. Impossible. It’s identifying where this artist is at and driving the boat.

When did you know that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

I always liked being behind the scenes. Even in high school, I did lights and sound in the theater and built sets, just enjoyed working in the technical aspects of entertainment. Then once I was 16 and in a punk rock band, that was it. Originally, my whole thing was to be a pilot, because I love knobs and buttons and gadgets and physics and stuff like that. But then I found rock and roll and my grades plummeted. They don’t let you in the Air Force Academy unless you’ve got good grades. I was more interested in playing punk rock songs. It really started in the garage.

It seems this like has become as much a lifestyle as an occupation for you.

It’s what I do. Someone once said, “There’s no failures in the music business, just quitting.” We all attain whatever level we’re going to get by just keeping going. Some people get lucky and they get an elevator straight up to the top. I remember when I was in school, RZA’s cousin was trying to drag me back to New York to work. I was petrified. This guy’s got bullet holes all over him and he’s talking about me going to New York. What would have happened? You never know. The tortoise and the hare — I’m definitely the tortoise. I just keep clumping along one day at a time down that road. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. What it’s lacked in riches has made for an interesting life.

Getting to know: Mike Lavin

Current obsession?

Tacos.

Do you have a favorite place to get them?

Just my own.

You like to cook?

I do. My father was an electrician and my uncle, who lived with our family, just retired as a professional chef for 51 years. Whenever I wasn’t on a job site or in the studio I’d be working in a kitchen. I dream more about owning my own taco cart than what I’m going to do in the studio today.

Pets?

We have cats: Bronx and Judas Priest.

Currently reading?

“Mastering Audio,” by Bob Katz.

Favorite movie?

It’s pretty much a toss-up between “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles.”

Phobia?

I hate clowns.

You’re not going to “It” this fall?

No, I’m too scared.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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