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The Right Balance: Exploring The Value Of A Formal Audio Education

As an audio educator, one might expect the author to weigh in strongly on the “pro” side of the equation – but as with many things in life, it’s not quite that simple…

“You think you know everything, but you don’t know nothing. I don’t care what they taught you in college. This job, if you can cut it, will be your real school.”

Twenty-five years ago, I graduated from a college music recording program. I landed in Los Angeles, where one of my professors hooked me up with an entry-level job at a recording studio. Starting at the bottom as a “runner,” I was to make food runs, clean the studios, sharpen pencils, and complete other unglamorous tasks that had little to do with the recording techniques I had practiced in school. I was a typical early-20s college grad – excited, arrogant, impatient, and hungry to prove my mettle.

During the first day of my new gig, the boss took me aside and read me the riot act. Loosely quoted above, he told me I was nothing, knew nothing, and would probably amount to nothing in the famously competitive recording industry. Most memorable, he expressed his dislike for formal audio education, and shared his belief that the school of hard knocks was a better method for training young engineers.

The speech set the tone for my tenure at the studio. The job was tough, I was demeaned regularly, and I almost quit several times. I faced the challenge and persevered, and despite the fact that other runners had spent years working at the studio, I was promoted to assistant engineer in short order. The knowledge I had gained in college, including console operation, signal flow, and understanding of expectations, made me more valuable to the company. Audio school proved to be a good investment.

Roots Of Skepticism

Since those early years, I’ve been lucky to work in both the studio and in live sound. For the past decade, I’ve taught audio engineering at a university. My school has a vibrant Live Sound Production program, and I spend much of my time preparing young people for careers in live audio.

In this role, I talk to many employers and other audio professionals. It’s interesting to hear their thoughts regarding the employability of graduates from various audio schools, including my own. It’s now the norm to study recording in college, and a growing number of institutions are offering sound reinforcement programs. While this trend toward formal live sound education will probably be a good thing for our increasingly technical industry, there are many live audio professionals that continue to distrust college graduates.

Why do so many in our industry dismiss audio education, especially at a time when technology is getting more complicated? Perhaps the answer lies in the industry’s origins. Live sound has always had an informal “cowboy” culture. Like the music world, it tends to attract individuals disinterested in the nine-to-five jobs of “normal” society.

Connected to this, an advanced degree has never been required for a successful audio career. Much of the business is vocational, with a long tradition of newbies learning the craft through trial by fire. It’s only natural that seasoned pros, many of whom did not study audio in college, would be apprehensive of young, educated audio engineers. This is certainly how my boss at the recording studio felt all those years ago.

While the perspectives of old-timer sound engineers may influence the narrative, I suspect the real reason many in our industry distrust college graduates is due to their poor reputations. Almost everyone has a story of working with a college educated soundperson, who despite their expensive training, was unable to adequately wrap a cable, effectively communicate with a client, or make safe choices on a job site.

Even worse are stories of arrogant fresh-out-of-school “engineers” who believe their education has earned them the right to mix on a console, despite having not yet proven their ability to hump gear, build cables, and complete other sound company rites of passage.

Setting Expectations

As an audio educator, stories of ill-prepared and/or arrogant audio grads are disturbing. This is a small industry, and one incompetent graduate can, at least in the eyes of a single employer, bestow an educational program, or audio education in general, with a poor reputation. With this in mind, I’d like to share some insights gathered across a decade of teaching regarding what should and should not be expected from graduates.

First, it’s best to avoid making generalizations after a negative experience with a single individual. College graduates vary dramatically in their talents and personalities. Many of my students are impressively intelligent, capable, and mature, and will make excellent contributions to our industry. Unfortunately, it seems an equal number of students face challenges, including laziness, lack of focus, or immaturity.

Most students are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, sporting both room to improve and promise of success. As an educator, I do my best to encourage excellence, and use grades as a tool to assess quality of work.

Unfortunately, not all students meet expectations, and some inevitably drop out. Others squeak by and graduate, despite poor marks. Thus, a wide spectrum of college educated sound people exist in the workforce, ranging from exceptional to incompetent. When employers post a job, they must interview carefully, check transcripts, and call references to determine if the applicant is hirable. In this manner the system is much like it was before there was audio education, except now, in general, sound people possess more audio knowledge when they enter the workforce.

I also recommend that employers be reasonable in their expectations. Despite having taken classes on advanced topics, many graduates will only possess entry level knowledge and skills. There are multiple causes for this contradiction, beginning with individual aptitude and effort.

Lifestyle and personal scheduling also play a role. Whereas a full-time employee might have many hours each week to improve at their job, college students have limited class and lab time in their schedules. Put simply, the college years are busy. Students hold jobs, take non-audio courses, get involved in romantic entanglements, party, travel, and learn to live on their own. Studying audio is only a small part of what they do.

The lack of preparedness of some college grads can sometimes surprise employers. Over the years, professionals have asked me, “What do you teach? How come your graduates don’t know this or that?”

Behind The Effort

When designing curriculum, educators must first focus on the general knowledge and skills that prepare students for a wide spectrum of audio careers. With the essentials covered, programs then pick and choose content relevant to particular sub-industries.

While educators would love to provide focused preparation for a broad range of audio fields, it’s difficult to simultaneously prepare students for careers as diverse as broadcast, live sound, recording, post production, and game audio in a period of one to four years. This challenge is especially daunting for programs of shorter duration or for schools that concentrate solely on a specific field.

Many audio programs are music recording focused, and graduates will learn little about specialized, non-studio careers such as monitor engineering and wireless coordination. This is not to say a recording grad cannot work in live sound, as a well-designed audio program should provide a foundation for graduates to learn new and different skills.

But recording-oriented schools usually don’t provide expertise in live audio. Employers expecting specific knowledge of topics such as [Rational Acoustics] Smaart, system optimization, audio networking, array theory, and QLab should probably seek out grads from live sound-oriented programs.

That said, just because a topic is taught in college, it cannot be assumed that graduates have fully absorbed the information or mastered related skills. Deep learning is a long and effortful process. For an experienced professional, learning a new console, computer program, or mixing workflow is not that difficult, as the professional has years of context to attach the new information to.

However, for newbie college students, many of whom enter school without ever having touched a console, much has to be learned before higher ordered activities such as troubleshooting, system designing, and show advancing can be understood and practiced. In education, we call the process of building upon earlier knowledge “scaffolding,” and a well-designed audio curriculum will repeatedly review and expand on important topics.

A Lot To Process

In my program, essential subjects such as critical listening, signal flow, and console operation are scaffolded across many courses. This repetition helps ensure students of all abilities learn the fundamentals.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, other topics are not touched as many times across the curriculum. Advanced subjects such as electronics, system optimization, arena rigging, and audio networking may only be explored in one or two courses. There’s just not enough time, and thus while students will be exposed to a variety of topics, they shouldn’t be expected to have mastery of all that was covered in school.

With limited class time to work with, curriculum design becomes a game of compromise. In conversations with professionals, I often hear critical comments such as “You should teach more Dante,” or “Your students need greater understanding of power and grounding.” Suggestions like these make total sense, but their implementation often requires removal of other, more fundamental course content.

Related to this, employers sometimes say: “Why do you teach so much mixing? Entry level employees don’t mix and when audio schools focus on mixing, it encourages students to believe there will be a mixing gig waiting for them after graduation.”

This statement resonates with me, as I too agree audio schools often focus on the fun topics of mixing, microphone selection, and plugin choices while avoiding the less glamorous subjects such as cable management, professionalism, and safety. This curriculum imbalance can lead some employers to believe that audio schools don’t train graduates for the actual entry-level jobs that exist in the industry.

To address this concern, many programs have diversified their offerings beyond traditional recording courses. My school offers separate concentrations in live sound and audio post production, in addition to traditional music recording.

Oddly, the majority of students still choose music production despite it being a challenging sector to find employment in. Thus, I still teach a disproportionate amount of mixing. Higher education is a business, and the customers – my students – desire mixing instruction.

More To It

With all that said, should employers even bother querying potential employees regarding what they learned in school? Absolutely, as these conversations might indicate an applicant’s abilities and may even reveal how invested the graduate was in their learning.

A resume should expose other topics to discuss as well. Even more important than an applicant’s college efforts is their professional experience. Did the individual work during school, even if the job was not audio related? Did they intern or work in audio?

I regularly push my students to find outside of school gigs, as it bolsters experience and fortifies their resumes. Churches, local sound companies, and college performing arts centers need entry level help, and finding these items on a resume is a good indication that the applicant is familiar with professional expectations and is serious about a career in the industry.

Returning to the merits of college itself, it’s important to remember that an education provides many benefits beyond increased technical abilities and knowledge. Literacy skills, such as reading, writing, research, and presentation, are typically practiced and improved across many courses. In the long run, increased literacy is perhaps more beneficial to professional success than technical training, which can quickly become out of date in today’s rapidly changing world.

A college education can also improve a young person’s cultural understanding. Art, foreign language, music, literature, science, and other “general education” courses can expand appreciation of the world and help students be better citizens.

Ultimately, while education might prepare an individual for a career, it doesn’t guarantee success. A factor far more significant is an individual’s personality. Is an employee dependable? Are they collaborative and respectful of others? Do they show follow through? Are they flexible? Do they demonstrate proper hygiene? These and other “soft skills” are far more crucial to success than knowledge of a particular audio technology.

Professional Pursuits

Can college-level audio schools teach soft skills? Yes, but it’s more challenging than conveying technical knowledge. At my school, clear expectations, strict attendance and due date policies, and evaluation of professionalism combines with other efforts to encourage students to conduct themselves in a professional manner.

I know the process works because I regularly see immature freshman enter college, learn from their mistakes, and grow to be mature, hirable graduates. Sure, there are always dunderheads that can’t get with the program, but they typically find little success in the competitive audio work world.

While I’m certainly biased, I believe wholeheartedly that a formal education can successfully prepare motivated and mature individuals for careers in audio. Yes, much learning will happen later during professional efforts, but college can convey and reinforce both the soft and hard skills that make an employee valuable to their employer on day one.

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