Making the Grade - EMusician

Making the Grade

In the United States alone, there are several hundred vocational schools specializing in or offering courses about recording engineering, as well as degree and extension programs at hundreds of state, local, and private colleges and universities. How do you choose the one that's right for you?
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Remember the first time you knew for certain you wanted to work in a studio? For me, it was when my band went in to do our first demo. I remember the whoosh of air as I pulled open the heavy door to the control room; as I gazed over a miniature city of multicolored lights, my ears rang with the deafening quiet of that space. Never mind that the mixing console made about as much sense to me as the cockpit of a 747 — I knew I'd be flying it some day. Standing in the vocal booth before a huge vintage Neumann that could practically hear the dates of the dimes in my pockets, I knew it was my destiny and that this was where I belonged.

So assume you've had a similar epiphany, and you feel certain that a life as a studio rat is for you. Or maybe your own personal revelation involves working in post-production or touring the world mixing front of house for major concerts. Whatever your motivation, may I extend you both congratulations and condolences on your life-shaping career decision. Working as an audio professional can be one of the most creative, fascinating, exhilarating, totally cool lifestyles anyone could ever wish for. It can also be 40 flights of mind-numbing, body-abusing hell, the likes of which have probably been outlawed in a hundred Geneva Conventions. A lot of it depends on you and what you make it. By committing yourself to a goal, you've taken the first step toward becoming a professional. Keeping that goal in sight will require perseverance, self-discipline, and a never-ending desire to learn.

As with most careers in the music biz, there are as many different paths into audio as there are people working in it. But they all have one thing in common: the professionals you see before you have all put in the time, educating themselves and perfecting their craft. Most have come up through the ranks, starting out as interns or gofers, receptionists or solder jockeys. They got a foot in the door any way they could, and then they stayed, listened, and learned.

WHY GO TO SCHOOL?

Though legends abound about many older, more established studio pros earning their stripes through years of sweeping, splicing, and aligning the 2-inch machines, the business has changed dramatically since then. It's a different industry now, run by large, diversified media conglomerates with an eye on their profit margins. The good news is that there's still plenty of career opportunity for those who want it — this media beast has a constant appetite for content, and its care and feeding requires more than just a few good men and women.

Of course, the studio business has changed, too. Learning the basics of recording is no longer enough to place you ahead of the pack. Those coming up through the ranks now face a bewildering array of technologies evolving into new life forms almost hourly (though it still doesn't hurt to know how to align those 2-inch machines). To that cold, hard reality, add the heightened competition for jobs caused by the glamorization of the music business, and it's easy to see why many among this new generation of studio neophytes have opted to get a head start with a more formal education.

SO WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS?

In the United States alone, there are several hundred vocational schools specializing in or offering courses about recording engineering, as well as degree and extension programs at hundreds of state, local, and private colleges and universities. Their offerings range from general theory and hands-on courses of a few weeks to highly specialized four-year-degree studies.

As technologies have evolved, the range of careers in audio has expanded well beyond studio engineering. There are myriad possibilities in post-production, manufacturing, systems design, tour production, education, computer gaming, and Internet-related media, to name just a few. Many of those are lucrative fields with plenty of room for advancement. Forget that romantic notion of the struggling engineer living on ramen noodles awaiting The Session That Changed My Life — the current careers in the audio industry mean business.

I surveyed a number of schools to find out how their curricula compare. I also spoke with a cross section of industry professionals responsible for doing the hiring at their companies to find out how well prepared the recent grads they interviewed were. The results were varied but hardly surprising.

WHAT DO YOU WANNA BE?

How in-depth do you want to go, and how much time are you willing to invest? The more technical careers require at least a four-year commitment to a university, including generous amounts of math and science. Many manufacturers, for instance, want to see an engineering degree from an accredited university from anyone applying for a position in product design or software development. A career in studio design requires an academic background that includes acoustics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, architecture, interior design, and structural engineering. Most people who land such highly specialized gigs attended audio-based programs at a more traditional college or university; check out schools from your own state-university system, many of which offer a broad range of specialized studies.

If you have your eye on getting into film scoring or arranging, you'll need a considerable amount of musical background as well as some study in MIDI and sampling technology. A school such as Boston's Berklee College of Music, which offers courses with heavy emphasis on music theory and musicianship, might be a good bet (see the sidebar “Making Contact” for a list of Web addresses). Work in film and video post-production requires a school that offers training and lab time in post work. Perhaps your interests lie more with new-media technologies. Then you'll want a course that includes studies in multimedia, audio compression, and streaming technologies.

Today's audio schools have, by and large, kept up with the times, with many offering a full range of courses. According to Paul Mylod, admissions representative at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida, “We offer six different degrees: recording arts, film, digital media, game design, computer animation, and show production/touring. The courses range from 12 to 15 weeks.” Berklee and University of California at Los Angeles both offer several dozen possible course studies with emphasis ranging from composition, film scoring, and arranging to live-sound mixing, music management, and publishing.

Ultimately, no matter what you choose to specialize in, make sure your studies include as many facets of audio as possible, as well as peripheral courses on business-related matters. Even a basic understanding of the economics of studio and artist management and how publishing royalties work will be advantageous; a general knowledge of electronics and how to perform minor repairs could save your bacon one day. The more you know, the more indispensable you become.

DOING THE BASICS

Theory matters. Most schools take you through at least a bit (hopefully more than just a bit) of recording theory and signal flow before heading for the faders. Though you may be eager to get your hands on the equipment, having at least a basic understanding of what you're doing will save you lots of time and prevent mistakes later. Ideally, the school should offer at least an initial few weeks of classroom-based theoretical training. That should be followed by some additional in-depth book and lecture courses given concurrently with hands-on lab time.

The schools I queried varied only slightly in their ratios of classroom to lab time. In all but a few, the first 35 to 40 percent of the overall course time is dedicated to basic theory. Most of the schools provide the more theoretical training aspects in a traditional lecture format, using textbooks, technical journals, and audiovisual materials. Generally speaking, this classroom time is the least complicated to administer, and most schools do a pretty good job of conveying this information.

Another important consideration is actual class size. Though a class of 20 to 25 students can be considered almost intimate in a lecture setting, a class that size in a studio means you'll spend far more time craning your neck to see the mixing board than actually working on it. The schools I surveyed usually reported relatively larger classroom sizes, but lab sizes normally were held to 12 or fewer students. Some, such as Nashville's School of Audio Engineering (SAE), state that the maximum number of students in the studio is two, with 75 to 80 percent of labs undertaken alone. Miriam Friedman, president of New York's Institute of Audio Research, states, “Lectures are limited to 30 students and labs to 20 students, and studio sessions are held to 12; our labs offer each student individual state-of-the-art workstations” (see Fig. 2). Full Sail's Mylod says: “Here the first three months are composed of lecture classes of 50 to 100 people. Once students begin the hands-on phase, we guarantee our lab classes contain no more than nine students.”

ON SITE

The schools I examined varied considerably in the actual facilities they offer for hands-on training. Most do offer actual recording facilities ranging from modest one-room studios to elaborate, multiroom facilities with one or more live-recording areas and several lab stations for mixing and editing.

An important consideration is how the live setups are used in the course study (see Fig. 3). Is the school just setting up a previously recorded session for teaching signal flow, or is it bringing in live bands for full sessions covering mic setup, recording, overdubbing, and mixing? Of course, it's difficult for any school to fully emulate a real-world environment, because musicians recording in a school situation tend to pay lower rates and are far more tolerant than in the real world of paying clients. Still, working with talent in a live situation provides indispensable exposure to many scenarios you will encounter.

TO THEIR CREDIT

To be fair, accreditation is not necessarily an indicator of a school's reputability nor of its academic standards. That said, it can have a bearing on your ability to obtain financial assistance, so it's a good idea to find out what type of accreditation an institute has. More than likely, the programs associated with more traditional colleges and universities will be accredited by a state or federal department of education. Many of the others I checked on are accredited by the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools (NATTS), the National Trade School Congress (NATC), or the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM).

Of course, accreditation plays a more important role if your goal is to transfer credits either from or to another institution. For example, Institute of Audio Research's Friedman says, “Our program is recognized by select colleges and universities as about one year toward a four-year bachelor's degree.” SAE offers a similar transfer of credits, but only to Middlesex University in London. Generally speaking, only those courses offered by traditional colleges and universities are accepted as credits toward conventional degrees.

Along the same lines, does the school you're considering offer tuition-assistance programs? Can you obtain a grant or scholarship or qualify for a federally approved student loan? That is an important consideration, especially if you're looking at a few years of low-paying entry-level work once you emerge from your studies. Most of the schools I spoke with offer some form of financial assistance, primarily low-interest student loans.

IN GOOD STANDING

For the most part, the studios and other companies I spoke with stated that students they hire tend to come from a few select schools. Though those most often mentioned were traditional college and university programs (including Berklee), a number of employers mentioned schools such as Full Sail, Phoenix's Conservatory of Recording Arts (CRAS), and New York's Institute of Audio Research. Most mentions were of institutions whose alumni are already employed in considerable numbers, making a significant mark in the industry (see Fig. 4). It's a good idea when researching schools to ask for a list of working graduates. That's the best place to get honest feedback about the school and about how well prepared those students feel they were when they emerged.

As I mentioned earlier, the more technical disciplines demand an education leaning toward the traditional academic. Russ Berger, president of Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG), a well-known facility-design firm, illustrates that point: “We are looking for a mixture of college and practical industry experience, with degrees in the areas of acoustics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, architecture, interior design, or structural engineering.” Susan Wolf, vice president of Human Resources at Line 6, echoes that sentiment: “For our engineers and sound designers, a formal audio background is prevalent.”

INTERNSHIPS AND AFTER

Though some graduating students are fortunate enough to find a paying job right out of school, the majority start with an internship. Those usually involve no pay (except, perhaps, to cover your expenses) but are so valuable in terms of experience that some schools require them as part of the course study itself. In fact, many schools I spoke with have ongoing arrangements with local studios to provide internships for their students. Robert Brock, director of Digital Recording at CRAS, says, “At our school, students are required to complete an internship in order to graduate. This usually serves to get them in the door. We have an internship department whose sole job is to place students at an internship. Students submit a list of facilities they'd like to go to, and the internship department procures that. The internship department has a huge list of relationships with facilities all over [and outside] the country.”

Some students argue that, with the availability of low-priced equipment these days, it makes more sense to focus on a small home- or project-studio setup. They figure that a few months of producing demos for friends and local bands will hone their engineering chops faster than weeks of watching over someone's shoulder will. It's certainly true that you'll get more time behind the mixing desk that way, and it's not a bad idea in any case to outfit yourself with whatever gear you can afford.

But there are far more valuable skills to be learned through an internship, and they can't be taught in your spare bedroom. An internship is where you'll learn firsthand the realities of having to work and socialize in close quarters with a wide array of personalities and artistic egos. It's a time to discover how to keep cool under pressure, how to stay cheerful even when your stomach's grumbling and your head's pounding, and how to turn stressful situations from potential artistic nightmares into memorable performances.

It's also a time to develop your networking skills. Even more than some other professions, this business is built upon relationships. The people you meet now could very likely play a role in your future, and their recollections of you can make a big difference in what that role might be. When that Joe Nobody engineer-producer you worked with last year is nominated for a Grammy, your phone is more likely to ring if he remembers you as helpful, easy to get along with, and nearly invisible until needed rather than as someone with more opinions than sense.

After graduation, will your school offer assistance with finding an entry-level position in the industry? What about with basic skills such as résumé building? Though there's much to be said for developing job-hunting chops by knocking on doors, a referral from your alma mater will do more than simply help get you in the door. It will assure a much better match than cold calling, affording both you and your potential employer a more mutually beneficial situation. Again, most schools I spoke with offer some degree of placement assistance. Some, such as CRAS, report that the majority of their unpaid interns parlay those relationships into paid positions after graduation.

TRACK RECORD

Generally speaking, most of the studio owners I spoke with are satisfied with the level of technical knowledge of the students they interview. That was not always the case with the more technically oriented positions, but for the most part, those employers are understandably adamant about their needs for full academic degrees from accredited university programs. As Berger puts it, “We find potential applicants with the skill sets we require only from universities and from within the industry.” For the most part, though, the schools seem to be doing a good job imparting theoretical knowledge and technique.

Sadly, one of the most common criticisms cited by those doing the hiring concerned the lack of people skills and professionalism in grads applying for jobs. Clearly, these are skills more difficult to quantify and certainly harder to teach. As Jody Stephens, studio manager at Ardent Studios in Memphis, says, “I'm sure it's hard to teach basic communication skills and good manners, but some applicants who come to us, while well trained in audio theory, are deficient in those areas.”

In fact, the one mistake made most frequently by new studio employees is forgetting to leave their egos outside on the coatrack. The most important lesson you probably won't learn in school is about dealing with people. As an engineer, you're there to capture the best performance from an artist, and that goes much deeper than simply having all the mics in the right place and hitting the red button. It's about learning to relate to the person or people in front of you, getting inside their creative psyche, and understanding their artistic vision. Those are things not easily taught in school.

Similar observations were made by those in other areas of the pro-audio community, who also cite a lack of professionalism as the issue they most often encounter with new hires. Deborah Parmenter, Roland's Human Resources director, puts it gently: “Sometimes we find that students and musicians aren't used to the rigidity of a corporate environment, and it takes some transitioning.” Others, such as Line 6's Wolf, cite a lack of even basic skills: “It's surprising, but I frequently see a lack of computer skills in candidates from schools. Obviously, this is more relevant for administration-level positions, but even in more technical positions, it is a must to have basic computer knowledge.”

Certainly, Wolf makes an important point: computer skills in general are an area no aspiring audio professional should overlook. That is true not only when learning the basics but also when keeping up-to-date. In fact, that can be said of most aspects of a career in professional audio — the people who get and stay ahead in this business do it by keeping their skill sets current. And they do it not so much out of a sense of obligation, but with enthusiasm and a dedication to excellence. It's a rare school that can teach this to anyone without his or her own motivation.

DO THEY DELIVER?

So is a pro-audio course of study right for you? Which school is the best choice? How good a job do these schools do in preparing you for the real world? As you might expect, the answer is, “It depends.” Most of the larger, more reputable institutions can teach you the basics; for the more important and intangible stuff, it's largely up to you. Though the schools I spoke with all acknowledged the importance of professionalism, the majority agreed that it's a difficult concept to teach.

As with most things in life, it comes down to the individual and what you make of it. If you're dedicated to your goals, you'll certainly benefit from the training these schools offer. If you're not, the most highly acclaimed faculty and killer gear won't help. As RBDG's Berger says, “Attitude is everything. Find something you love, determine what skills are required in your field of choice that will allow you to make a difference to an employer, passionately pursue those skills, overcome all obstacles, and make learning and continual self-improvement your lifestyle.” That advice should take you a long way.

Daniel Kelleris a writer and independent producer and engineer based in Southern California. His projects include a real-time compression algorithm allowing for 32-hour days.

MAKING CONTACT

Ardent Studios
www.ardentstudios.com

Berklee College of Music
www.berklee.edu

Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences (CRAS)
www.cras.org

Full Sail Real World Education
www.fullsail.com

Institute of Audio Research
www.audioschool.com

Line 6
www.line6.com

Roland
www.rolandus.com

Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG)
www.rbdg.com

School of Audio Engineering (SAE)
www.sae.edu