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Choosing a Recording School

March 14, 2012
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SUNY-Purchase recently converted several practice rooms into recording studios.
HAVE YOU seen those amusing flow charts where you answer a series of questions, and each one leads you a certain direction down a path, and you find out, for example, which instrument you’re cut out to play? If you don’t want to cut your hair and you don’t care about making money, play cello. If you cut your hair and you want to meet women (or men): bass guitar. . . . No one should actually choose their vocation based on a chart (or a joke), but there are certain common questions to ask yourself before traveling down a new career path. Consider this a sort of guide through the maze of choosing a recording school.

Are you a musician dreaming of a big career shift to the other side of the glass, as it were? Do you simply want to track better demos? Are you a composer who needs to learn more about integrating sound and picture? A project studio owner who wants to drill deeper into Logic? There are dozens of audio education programs all around the U.S., and beyond, to help just about any prospective student, but it’s important to define what you want before you can narrow the field of seemingly endless possibilities.

To start: Anyone who’s done a really difficult maze knows it sometimes help to look at the page upside down. Let’s start at the end.

Endgame Before you start applying to schools, define for yourself, as best you can, your goals for the outcome. Do you see recording school as a path toward an engineering career? If so, which field interests you most? Music recording and mixing? Post-production for film? Do you see yourself working in a commercial recording studio, or as an owner/ operator? The school you choose obviously needs to offer the information and experience needed for your chosen career. Also find out where the school’s graduates have found work, and what kinds of career-placement services a school offers.

On the other hand, if you’re continuing an already-decent audio education—always a great idea—or want to learn one new technique or piece of gear, you may simply want to choose an online class (of which there are many) or a hands-on seminar close to home. Your ultimate career goal is the biggest factor in determining which school will serve best, but it’s certainly not the only one.

Bricks and Mortar vs. the Virtual School A class full of like-minded students, a knowledgeable professor, well-maintained equipment, hands-on learning . . . a brick-andmortar audio engineering school can be an amazing training ground, but not everyone is at liberty to take a BREAK from earning a living to dedicate two years or more to recording school exclusively. For those students, there are scores of online audio education courses, many of which are less expensive than in-person classes. A lot of longestablished brick-and-mortar schools now offer a virtual component, too, so real-life learning can be combined with online classes.

 
A studio/classroom at Miracosta Community College.
“I was skeptical about online courses in music production until I started designing and teaching online courses,” says Stephen Webber, a professor at Berklee College of Music (berklee.edu). “Now I can say that the classes I teach online are every bit as rigorous and applicable as the classes I teach in person—probably more rigorous. Berklee Music’s technology delivery system has gotten seriously good, and the content is top-notch as well. Don Was recorded exclusive interviews just for the course, and it turned out stunning. How often does Don come to class? In the online version of Music Production Analysis, he makes an appearance and shares wisdom a few times every single semester.”

Any audio engineering job will require at least some personal interaction, however, and an all-online education might not give you needed people skills. It’s all about balance.

BA, BS, AA A traditional four-year university degree can offer a well-rounded approach to education. A targeted vocational school, on the other hand, might not teach music history or economics, but it’ll get you plugged in faster. Is it meaningful to you to obtain a Bachelor’s degree? Can you learn all you need to by taking a Pro Tools certification program? Try to determine what will matter to you in the long term.

$$$ The price of audio education may, but does not necessarily, relate to the time spent. A two-year course at a top-end, for-profit school with high-class facilities may cost more than four years at a good public college. However, that shiny school may provide equally shiny, new, mint equipment and big-name faculty that others can’t afford. Do you get what you pay for? The Federal government has actually been taking a hard look at the relationship between vocational school tuitions and graduates’ corresponding earning potential.

 
 Studio A at SUNY-Purchase
At southern California’s Miracosta Community College (miracosta.edu), where classes cost about $30 per unit, students can earn an Associates degree in Recording Arts, or certificates in Recording Arts, Sound Reinforcement, Digital Audio, Computerized Audio Production, Business of Music, Songwriting and Guitar, and Music Technology.

“The State of California funds community college education for California residents, and we recently received grants that allowed us to expand and improve our music technology facilities,” says faculty member Christy Coobatis. “We don’t offer a Master’s degree, but all of our instructors possess a minimum of a Master’s degree in addition to a wide variety of industry experience. For example, keyboardist Dan Siegel is a full-time Music Technology instructor at Miracosta. He has 19 albums out on CBS Records, performing with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Abe Laboriel, Nathan East, Vinnie Coliuta, etc.”

Coobatis himself has been a composer and songwriter for NBC Movies of the Week, ESPN, Cinemax, HBO, and more.

So, consider all types of institutions, investigate financial aid options, and make a careful choice. Following your passion is important; so are three squares a day, a roof, etc.

 
Graduate Joe Caravalho

Major and Minor Markets If you’re considering attending a brick-and-mortar school (as opposed to enrolling in online courses), location can be meaningful. Schools in southern California may facilitate internships in high-profile L.A. recording studios or film sound companies. Nashville is teeming with A-list musicians, studios and live-performance venues, and Nashville-area schools may have close relationships with those businesses.

However, good internship opportunities aren’t exclusive to schools in music/audio hubs. The Conservatory of Arts and Sciences in Phoenix, AZ, places student interns in facilities from coast to coast. “We find that we have the highest percentage of internships in L.A. and Nashville, as well as many in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco,” says Greg Stefus, CRAS’ Internship Coordinator and Director of Student Services. “We’ve also had great amounts of success in mid-level market cities like New Orleans, Miami, and Atlanta. There’s the most economic infrastructure for our industry in those towns.”

Think about how your school is connected to the market you hope to enter. Also consider where you want to live and make lasting connections. Austin? Seattle? Where do you want to land?

Speaking of Internships Any audio engineering program worth its salt will require students to intern at a professional company or facility. This usually means that each student has to assemble a résumé, and apply for an internship the same way an applicant interviews for a job; schools may have relationships with wonderful studios, equipment developers, etc., but internships aren’t necessarily just doled out. Think of the intern-application process as an essential part of your audio education, and view the internship as one of the most important chances you’ll have to learn, show what you can do, and make connections with pros who may help you on the way to a new career. Paid or unpaid, your internship is your first job.

“We commit 20 hours of the program’s 30- Graduate Joe Caravalho week class time focusing on the soft skills like studio etiquette and communication in the facility,” Stefus says. “We teach how to interview correctly and how to create a résumé that’s for internship purposes as opposed to a job. All students who complete the Conservatory’s program know how to get signal to tape, but equally as important they also have to be able to show that they can conduct themselves in a manner that fits the particular facility.”

The Faculty Some of the high-profile private institutions have very impressive engineers’ and producers’ names on their faculty rosters. Learning from the best can be really helpful and exciting, can open doors, and may look good on your résumé. But, of course, there are plenty of unfamous teachers with loads of information and real-world experience to share as well. Read faculty bios on schools’ websites, and try to get the opportunity to view a few classes in session. A great teacher can change everything.

 
A student at work in one of Berklee’s studios.
The Studios Hands-on studio time is crucial to any audio education. Class sizes make a big difference. The relationship between the number of working studios on campus and the number of audio students may also be an indicator of how much time you can expect to get with the gear you’re learning. Schools may relegate differing amounts or types of hands-on studio time at different stages as well; third-year students may be trusted with a workstation that newbies don’t get to use.

Also, there are as many different types of school studios as there are . . . studios. Do you want to get your hands on analog tape, or will Pro Tools do it for you? Are there vintage ribbon mics in the cabinet? Do you see yourself recording bands live in a large tracking room, or building tracks piece by piece in the control room? Consider the gear, consider the space, consider this a chance to experiment.

Also consider the fact that dedicated audio schools aren’t the only institutions offering engineering courses. Peter Denenberg, a Grammy-nominated engineer/producer and chair of studio production at State University of New York at Purchase (purchase.edu) helped spearhead the addition of recording technology courses to the school’s music program. The university recently converted several musicians’ practice rooms into project studios to facilitate the new emphasis on technology.

“We have many classical, composition, voice, and jazz students requesting to take studio courses at Purchase—more each semester,” Denenberg says. “Whether they want this experience for audition reels or maintaining their own websites, or perhaps recording themselves for web-based collaboration, at this point some level of technical proficiency is required for any modern musician/writer.”

Multimedia That used to be a meaningful word: multimedia. Now we take it for granted that every piece of audio has a video component and every image has a soundtrack, but it’s still worth noting how much integrated media is offered by a given school. Many are the students who go off to audio school with a dream of recording rock ‘n’ roll bands, only to discover their inner post-production editor, or game-score composer. Will your school offer the opportunity to learn different fields of audio work? Are the equipment and the facilities and the classes all there to support that?

Resources To help in your school search, Electronic Musician’s sister magazine, Mix, maintains a directory of U.S. audio engineering schools, broken down by state (mixguides.com/education/directory). You should also talk to students and graduates of programs you’re considering, in addition to conducting your own online search and talking with admissions personnel. There are loads of questions to consider, and many of the answers are quite personal, but there are also lots of helpful people out there to guide you through the maze.

Barbara Schultz is a frequent contributor to Mix and Electronic Musician, as well as a book editor and reviewer, among other things.

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