by Paul D. Lehrman
Once upon a time, it seemed that the only way to embark on a career in audio engineering was to do time answering phones and emptying ash trays at a big-city studio, until someone noticed you, or someone got sick, and you were thrown into a session. If you swam, you were an engineer; if you sank, it was back to driving a cab.
Today there are hundreds of programs offering education in the field of audio engineering, from weekend quickie courses at the local 24-track, to four-year college degrees and even post-graduate studies. A lot of the force behind this growth has been the increasing technical sophistication required of today's audio professionals, which is not easily gleaned by merely peering over an engineer's shoulders. Also contributing has been the increased pressure put on American education in recent years to provide real-world job skills to students, so they can jump into careers with a running start. And let's not forget the coolness factor: audio engineering as a career is far more visible than ever, and the huge number of young people who are attracted to it and are demanding training.
As someone who was denied formal education in audio engineering -- for the simple reason that it didn't exist when I was in school -- and who today is spending a good part of his time providing just that to the 150 or so students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell's highly-regarded degree program in Sound Recording Technology, I take this topic quite seriously. So when I was asked to moderate a discussion called "Educating Tomorrow's Talent" at a seminar last fall, I jumped at the chance. People from all parts of the audio industry were invited to talk about the role of education in preparing young people for careers in audio. The couple of dozen who showed up included studio owners, post-production engineers, audio manufacturers, dealers, system designers, consultants, educators, and students.
The seminar wasn't held at the AES convention, but instead at a remarkable little colloquium put on each September by Parsons Audio, a respected audio dealership just outside of Boston. Now in its fifth year, the Parsons Audio Conference brings together the company's customers and suppliers in a two-day orgy of hands-on demos, product presentations, and discussion groups. Topics of the groups range from broadcasting, to acoustics, to multimedia, to "computer hell". What makes the conference particularly valuable, and a welcome change from the formality of an AES convention, is that participants here are happy to let their hair down, regardless of whether they are lone-wolf freelancers or representatives of multinational conglomerates, and get into substantive, honest, and sometimes downright belligerent interchanges. A lot of food for thought is served at the Parsons conference, and just about everyone who attends comes away with new ideas and understanding, not to mention a lot of product literature and business cards.
This column, and next month's, consists of excerpts (you don't want to read the whole transcript -- it runs to 50 single-spaced pages!) of the resulting discussion. As expected, it generated much to think about, as well as a few surprises.
The participants, in alphabetical order, are:
Carol Bousquet, sales and marketing development director of Ferrofluidics, makers of ferrofluids for speakers, among other applications; chairwoman of the Boston chapter of the AES; chairwoman of the "Women in Audio: Project 2000" kickoff event that was held at AES/New York the next month.
Steev Coco, head of audio at National Video Boston, a major post-production house (and one of my former students).
Robin Coxe-Yeldham, longtime Boston recording engineer, and faculty member at the Berklee College of Music; a founder of Women In Audio.
Bill Crabtree, musician, multimedia producer, and chairman of the Recording Arts program at the Northeast College of Communications, in Boston.
David Moulton, engineer, writer, and former chairman of Music Production and Engineering at Berklee, now on the faculty of UMass Lowell.
Mark Parsons, owner of Parsons Audio.
Martin Polon, writer, faculty member at UMass Lowell, and president of Polon Research, economic consultants to the recording and hi-tech industries.
Daniel Rose, marketing director of Mark of the Unicorn (and a Berklee grad).
Jay Rose, owner of Digital Playroom, a post-production and multimedia studio, and former Berklee faculty member.
Bill Scheniman, chairman of the Music Production and Engineering department at Berklee, and longtime New York studio engineer.
Scott Shapiro, senior in the Sound Recording Technology program at UMass Lowell.
Stephen Webber, producer, engineer, and assistant chairman of Music Production and Engineering at Berklee.
And yours truly, PDL.
PDL: How can schools teaching audio do a better job of preparing students for the real world? I'm thinking now not only in terms of the students' needs, but also what skills the industry needs.
Bill Crabtree: We need to make our students more computer-literate. A lot of students we get are kids who come in the door having never used a computer. I see teaching them that as a bonus for them no matter where they go. It's a necessity to get anywhere in today's society. So we're focussing more on computers first. This may be a reflection of my own training -- where I went to school to study recording engineering, they wouldn't let me minor in computer science. I saw that as really short-sighted at the time.
PDL: Is there anything in particular about computers that is especially valuable for people going into audio to know?
Jay Rose: I think if you start teaching a particular operating system or application, you're going to dead-end the kids, because these things change so fast. What you can teach is a comfort level, the same way that when I was starting out you would get a comfort level with the tubes, with the transistors, not knowing every circuit. If kids today are comfortable with computers, they'll be prepared for whatever operating system comes along in ten years.
PDL: Talking to the people in industry who hire new talent, what is lacking in the students whom you're seeing, that the educational institutions could be doing a better job of giving them?
Jay Rose: One thing I wish was taught better is communications skills, verbal and written. You get kids who have incredible talent, but can't sit down next to a producer and tell him what they want to do. One of the courses that was most valuable to me in college, other than the nuts-and-bolts technical, was a long course in communications theory, everything from modelling -- how a message gets from one brain to another -- to argumentation and oral interpretation. People are coming out of school not realizing there's even a discipline to this. Do they even have a clue as to the concept that what you say is not necessarily what you're communicating? That your job does not end when you've stated your point of view?
PDL: Unless you're a talk show host. [laughter]
Jay Rose: The other thing to teach is general business. What is a client? All industries have to look at their business and decide what they're selling. Record companies are selling one thing, and it might not be what you think. Broadcast outlets are definitely selling something other than what you think they are. This permeates the entire business relationship, and should affect every employee: the knowledge of what business this company is in. Is that being taught?
Daniel Rose: Indiana University has a tremendous music department, turning out very talented classical musicians, and I asked, "Do you have any courses in management, or careers, or how to interview for a symphony?" "Oh, no," they laugh, "none of that stuff here. We train our kids to starve for a living." They admit it, and they understand what the problem is.
Another area I would like to see taught is basic sales skills. For instance, a huge amount of tech support is "sales". You have to convince the caller to calm down so you can lead them to a solution, to actually hear what you say rather than what they emotionally want to do. You are selling them all down the line, and all you are doing is trying to get them to operate the program correctly. But if you're argumentative, or come across bossy, they're going to fight you, even though they want what you have. We interview people all the time where we see the technical skills are there, but we can't put this person on the phones. They're going to cause an emotional train wreck with prospects. If you are looking to get people involved in this technology, there are so many variables like expense and technical complication, if you start stacking emotional variables on top of it, you're going to be in a lot of trouble.
Mark Parsons: Even though we are talking about technical education, there's a case to be made for a liberal arts education. There are other components besides being able to communicate. Knowing how to prioritize, trying to determine what's important and what isn't -- these things matter whether you're working in a sales organization or a studio, or for a manufacturer. Being able to determine what the situation is regarding the people you are relating to: are you a client, or are you my boss, and what should I be doing and why?
We can give them experience, but they have to be taught to understand the experience. Sometimes they have the native intelligence to understand, but beyond that you have to fill them in. It's problem solving, sensitivity, interpersonal skills. That's part of their education if they're going to survive the market.
Daniel Rose: On both the communication and the technical sides, listening is a critical skill. The best audio engineers are the people who can hear what's actually there, and can also hear what people want to know. Same thing on the business side: people who listen the best are the ones considered great communicators. If you can truly listen and understand what people are saying, whether you're in tech support or sales, or you're a producer or an artist, you have a tremendous advantage when you want to communicate to them your opinion.
PDL: How do you teach that?
Daniel Rose: Just to mention it at all would be a big benefit! It's one of the places we find there's a tremendous difference in the people that we interview coming out of schools. The technical side is often well-covered, but when it comes to business skills or social skills, it's actually -- well, "dreadful" would be about the most polite term I can come up with right now. A lot of people think that to communicate well means to talk as loud and as fast and whenever possible, particularly over anyone else whose opinion you don't agree with. And they use as role models any political race.
Mark Parsons: As a consumer of college graduates, if you will, there's something that I'd be happy with that underlies listening skills and selling skills: a measure of politeness and the willingness to listen, and a fascination with the people they'll be dealing with. I find myself again and again taking the time with a new person to portray to them the reality they're facing. If you remember being a young person dealing with older, more knowledgeable, experienced people, you were looking at reality through a fairly narrow viewfinder. It helps to have some old rascal fill them in a little bit.
PDL: Is the large number of audio education programs turning out more students than the industry can handle? If so, what can students do to make themselves more employable?
Bill Scheniman: I think what we're running into here is the inevitable fact, and it is not something I mention around work, that this area of work is not suited for everybody. We used to see the apprenticeship or guild system, where you spent a year just sort of being around the business, and observing it, and plugging yourself in and out wherever appropriate, so that your employers -- the people already in the guild -- could observe your sensitivity and your sense of what was appropriate to the situation. Well, you can't teach that. And people in the business who have succeeded, who have that sense of what is appropriate, don't discuss it. It's like fighter pilots don't talk about how scary it is to land on an aircraft carrier. It's kind of "the right stuff".
I'm not trying to make it too mystical, but to a certain extent, if you don't know how to talk to a tech representative, and an older advertising client, and Mick Jagger's girlfriend, and the guy from UPS, then you're not going to know what a good bass part is, and whether reverb's a good idea, and where to start getting a snare sound. It's a set of perceptions and reactions to changing situations that not everybody is good for. As educators, and as successful adults in this guild, we have to find a way to impart that: to start talking about the right stuff. The Zen koan for education in our department is that the people I can get through to don't need me. The guys who really get this don't need this, and the people who aren't getting it aren't going to get it.
Martin Polon: There are about 220 schools in the US right now that teach audio. We just did a study that found that considerably less than 100% of the graduates of these programs end up, after three years of being out, in audio. These are bright kids, but they are not catching on to one thing: technical skills today are a dime a dozen in any field. We've seen one million technically-trained people laid off in America in the last three years; many are engineers with MEEs and PhDs. They can do audio, they have the skills. What there is a shortage of is people who can think, and have the knowledge of what the gig is about.
If someone is going to work in the record business, maybe they should be reading Variety, Mix, Studio Sound, the New York Times. In my class I'm a bloody shrew -- I keep bitching at them: read this, read that. It's not because I own any shares in Variety. Well, you can bring the horse to water, but some horses will not drink. I'm probably way out to lunch, and they really should be reading Psychic Horror #7, but in my classes I ask how many read Mix, and three hands go up. They should read Billboard, so when they go in for an interview, they know who's doing what session in what studio. People who do the interviewing don't ask, "How do you terminate a 600½ audio transformer?" They ask questions that deal with general knowledge of the studio and studio business.
Bill Scheniman: Because I come from a professional background, it's really weird to be in a recording studio with students who aren't sure whether they like this or not. In 20 years, that was one thing I could count on: you could have a head full of coke, you could be a drooling idiot, but this was your favorite place on Earth or you wouldn't be here. Why would you put up with this unless you loved it? Who would stick around for more than three months unless they had to? Any more than someone would compose classical music unless they had to? It's a horrible job [laughter], but you do it because you have to. I and the people that I know who went through that, making $150 a week and living in Manhattan, didn't choose this as the way to make big bucks. They wanted to make records. They knew something magical went on in that room, and they would do whatever it took to let them in there, to touch the stuff and learn the spells.
But now we're doing this in colleges, and suddenly I meet 80 people a day who say, "This is okay, this is kinda cool, but I'm not sure yet." Their Mom and Dad write them a check, and say okay, you can go there if you want to, and they sit there and go, "I don't know, you wanna mix today? Maybe. No wait, 'The Simpsons' are on, I'll mix later!"
David Moulton: Something which has bothered me for a while is that we've always tried to train people for this industry very much in a trade school or vocational school way, and I have a sense that we're doing it just backwards. What we should be doing is using this industry as a springboard for education, because it's such a wonderful inter-disciplinary kind of industry. If you can master this industry roughly, you can do anything you want.
I've seen research that shows that we're all going to change fields at least once, and that if you start in audio it's reasonable to predict that you're going to end up some place else. Here we're training for a prototypical recording engineer, which is a job role that probably won't even exist in 15 years. We should be using this to train students to be as adaptable as possible, and that's liberal arts education.
I tend to look not at what the industry needs but what the students need. We shouldn't be training them to get their first job. That's not the business of college education -- you go to a vocational school for two months to get an entry-level job skill set. You should go to college to get a job skill set that will allow you to get your 20th job ten years from now.
Stephen Webber: I think we have to put this into a historical perspective. We have something that came from the European university system, which was developed centuries ago to educate people who were already wealthy. They went to learn about poetry and literature, and maybe architecture if they wanted to get their hands dirty. The underlying philosophy behind higher education in this country for years has been to teach a person not how to get a job, but how to use their mind. It's only been in this last generation that we've been asking the university system to educate everybody. Thirty years ago, only the brightest and the best and those who could afford it were expected to go to college. But now we are asking the system to educate everybody who wants to go to college. And that means people who didn't do very well in high school, people who are only going to college because it's the next thing they're supposed to do. So the role of higher education is changing a lot, and you can see it in these fits of flailing around trying to figure out what it's supposed to be doing. Are educators supposed to be training people to get a job? That seems to be what the government and society are asking them to do. Or are they teaching people how to get a set of life skills together, like Dave was talking about, that will guide them and help them get their second, third, fourth, etc., jobs?
Daniel Rose: I'm sure this is true for any industry, but in the audio industry, since we're more clearly aware that we're selling dreams, it affects us more when people have bought into lies, like they can do anything. I'm an early Berklee grad. I prove a lot of the points around here: I'm a bass player, but they let me into college. It's no longer just the cultural elite that's getting into school. It's no longer the competent who are getting degrees [laughter].
Our coming in and talking to students about the real world wherever possible lets us find out if they're really interested in supporting themselves with this, or if it's just a hobby. If you want to support yourself, have you thought about how much money you want in your hand at the end of each month, and what particular jobs will accomplish that? There are plenty of people who for the love of it will say, "I only want $150, but listen to this music!" and other people will say, "Well, I already have a kid, so if I don't see $2000 in my paycheck, I'm stuck." So you say to them, "Sorry, you shouldn't go intern at Power Station right now."
Next month: How can manufacturers help the schools do a better job? Are real-world internships useful? Does education have a role in bringing more women into our industry?
Paul D. Lehrman finished school 20 years ago, and while he doesn't consider his schooling irrelevant, his education since then has been much more interesting.
These materials copyright ©1996 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing