November 2000
SCHOOL'S IN!
A Guide to Choosing a Recording Education

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN

 
ILLUSTRATION: DAVE EMBER

Does anyone know the best recording school west of the Mississippi? I'm only interested in the best!"

"I'm looking at going to school A, but now I hear school B has newer gear. Should I go there instead?"

"My parents want me to go to college, and it's okay with them if I study audio engineering, but really all I want to do is mix live bands. Can't I just take a six-month course and get on with my career?"

These are the kinds of questions that the writers and editors at Mix and other magazines get daily. Young people entering the recording business are convinced that a good education will give them a leg up on the competition, but they are confused by the many options available and want us to steer them to that one right program.

They're correct that education is important for a career in recording, but they're wrong if they think there is only one "best" way to get it.

Just a few years ago, there were a couple of ways to go about finding that entry-level job. You could have spent your first year or so cleaning ashtrays and getting coffee, while you looked over the shoulders of the engineers at the local 24-track studio. Or you could have signed up for a course at a private recording school--more often than not a commercial studio with time on its hands--or enrolled in one of the handful of college programs usually associated with music conservatories then available.

But today there are more than a hundred institutions that offer courses in music recording and production, live sound, studio and equipment design, studio management and music business. They encompass six-week quickies, six-month certificate courses, two-year associate's degrees, four-year colleges and even graduate programs. Recording schools are now often dedicated, stand-alone facilities, some with multiple room

s that would do a commercial facility proud. Recording programs in colleges operate within engineering, business, art and communications departments, as well as music curricula and can be found at rural community colleges, large urban commuter schools and Ivy League universities.

Why the boom? A number of reasons: Audio has become a high-profile, glamorous, big-bucks industry, and lots of young people who want to get into it are looking for an edge. Baby-boom parents, who grew up loving music but were warned that it was a tough field to enter, now see that music (or at least the tech side) isn't the risky business it was when they were choosing a career, and they are encouraging their children to try it. The industry itself has matured enough to produce a generation of veterans who are interested in teaching, perhaps to supplement their income, or to allow them saner work schedules or simply because they enjoy imparting their wisdom to the next generation. And finally, the old, self-teachable skill sets that used to qualify someone for a job in the audio business--a good set of ears, knowledge of basic electronics, resourcefulness and the right attitude--just aren't enough any more. Thanks to computers, DSP chips, new delivery systems and a host of other technological developments, the bar has been raised too high for most people to negotiate solo.

So how do you decide which school is right for you? The good news is that there are likely to be many good choices. The bad news is there are no quick answers. So rather than ask me or some other self-appointed sage, you need to start the process by asking yourself: What do I want to do? What training do I need in order to do it? What can I afford to spend to get that training?

Is your dream to mix heavy metal? Do you want to score television shows? Do you want to design sound systems for clubs, make house records, go on the road with bands, produce radio spots or record symphony orchestras? If you can define what your goals are, then it will help you find the right place. If your love is sound reinforcement, then don't go to a conservatory with a four-year music-theory sequence. If you want to produce classical music, you don't need a course that's heavy in DSP design. Even if you don't know exactly where you'd like to end up, if you can identify what you don't want in a school, then that will eliminate a lot of choices.

Also keep in mind that your goals may very well change. You may decide halfway through your schooling that doing field recordings of indigenous folk music or spec'ing sound systems for football stadiums is exactly what you want to spend the next 10 years doing. So you need a school that will be flexible enough to help you no matter where your interests take you. At the very least, you want one that won't lock you into an expensive contract or make it impossible for you to transfer credits should you decide to go elsewhere.

Do you need a college degree? If you've just graduated from high school, then, if you ask my opinion, the answer is yes. College programs are more comprehensive and will give you much more background--technical, artistic, historical--than you'll find in a short commercial program. In an industry that's changing as fast as ours, knowing where the tools come from and how they got to be the way they are is as important as knowing how to use them. The well-rounded education that colleges demand of all students--where you are taught not just specific skills, but also how to learn new skills--will stand you in good stead should you ever change careers. Which you will probably do several times during your lifetime, according to many studies. A solid background in music, engineering principles, business and computers, not to mention writing and presentation skills, is going to prove valuable no matter where you end up, five years from now or 20.

I'm surprised how many people say to me, "Well, I've got my college degree, but I don't think I'm really ready to go out there and find a job. Should I get a graduate degree?" Generally speaking, in the audio production community, a graduate degree isn't what employers are looking for. For many specialized careers, like company management, facility design, software or hardware development, an advanced degree in business, architecture or engineering can be useful. If you want to teach at any level from grade-school music to college courses in multimedia, a master's degree in an appropriate field is fast becoming a requirement. But if you've graduated from college and still don't know what you want, you're probably better off getting out into the real world for a while and seeing what turns you on. Perhaps you can identify a specific lack in your education that you want to overcome and find a short commercial course that can help you do that.

Don't think you can afford a four-year college? Don't give up just yet. When I started teaching, the number of recording programs at public colleges could be counted on one hand, but today there are dozens. The tuition at any public college--even for out-of-state students--is much lower than at private schools. In some parts of the country, agreements are in place that allow you--if you live in one state whose public college system doesn't offer a specialized program but a neighboring state's does--to go to the other state's school and pay the residents tuition of that state. There are also two-year associate's degree programs at many private and public colleges that are very worthwhile. And in most cases, should you then decide to continue with a four-year program, the credits you earn are transferable.

At colleges today, people realize that more students than ever are on their own financially and need to make money while they are in school. At the last school where I taught, almost every student had a job that occupied him or her from 20 to 40 hours a week--frankly, I don't know how some of them did it. This means that many schools have become flexible about scheduling classes or letting students stretch their degree program out for more than four years, giving them time to handle outside jobs in addition to their studies.

Don't forget to look for financial aid. Although there aren't as many "free rides" as there were 20 years ago, colleges are still willing to work hard to attract good students, and scholarships, low-interest loans, work-study programs and paid internships are some of the ingredients that they can throw into the mix to help a prospective student. Tax credits, known as Hope and Lifetime Learning credits, are available to students (or their parents) who are attending accredited institutions, and they can help offset some of the costs. (Many noncollege programs also offer attractive financial aid packages.)

All right--let's say you've figured out what kind of program you want and how you're going to pay for it. You've got a list of potential schools you've gleaned from the "Mix Audio Education Directory" in this issue or from www.mixonline.com. Now how do you choose the right one? A good place to start, as you consider each school, is to prepare a set of questions, just as you would for a job interview. I've prepared a few examples.

How prepared am I for this course of study?

Do you need to get a solid background in electronics, math, physics and audio theory, or do you already have that, and what you really need is to get right into the recording and production courses? If you need to improve your basics, it might be less expensive to take those at a local community college or adult education program before you enroll in a pricey commercial school. (If a school assures you they can put you right into advanced courses without any background at all, you might want to think twice about it.)

What do I want to get out of it?

Are you looking for a broad education that will allow you the most flexibility in the future? In that case, you want to make sure you get electronics theory, musicianship, basic recording techniques, some history of the medium and exposure to a wide variety of applications that you might consider as a career. Or do you have a narrow, immediate goal? Maybe you only need a little refresher on mic technique, or you know all about recording but want to learn about Web audio, film mixing, synchronization or how to get the most out of that new, all-in-one, digital workstation you just picked up. If that's really the case, don't lock yourself into a long program where the stuff you really want only comes at the end.

Does the school offer opportunities to learn different areas of the field?

As I mentioned earlier, you may think going into a program that all you want to do is make records, but the audio business is much more than that, and you may well find as you progress that your interests will change. You may want to try your hand at theme-park sound design, or music editing for TV, or producing Web sites or running live sound systems. Make sure classes in those areas are available--and not just to those who intend to concentrate in one of those areas.

Is the equipment the right stuff?

Having the very latest equipment is not a guarantee that the school is any good. It just might be that they have connections with certain manufacturers who are eager to get their equipment in front of as many students as possible, or they may have someone with deep pockets financing their equipment purchases. What's more important is that the equipment be reliable, that it not break down under heavy use by inexperienced hands and that the instructors know it really well. If you're learning to mix music, working on an 8-year-old Amek board isn't really all that different from learning on a brand-new SSL; and if the teacher isn't familiar with all the many layers of functions on some fancy new board, then it's actually a lot less valuable to you as a student. Similarly, if the school has a bunch of hot, new workstations, but they're always down because of upgrading or interfacing problems, they're of less use to you than an old WaveFrame or 4-channel Pro Tools system that's clunky but works.

Is there enough gear to go around? Is it well-distributed, and does it cover a variety of platforms?

There needs to be sufficient workstations and studios so that students can get all the hands-on time they need. Again, a fancy new room with tons o' gear isn't much good if 80 students are all competing for time to use it every day. While a 128-input console looks great on a brochure, a bunch of different rooms with 24-track boards and a small but intelligent collection of gear makes a lot more sense for a learning situation. For teaching theory and critical listening, classrooms are invaluable (especially if they're equipped with good audio-visual presentation systems). But most of us learn best by doing, and if there's not enough hands-on time, much of what gets copied from a blackboard or read in a text will not be retained. Having different types of equipment on hand is always a good idea, because it means you can practice applying the principles you're learning on different platforms. Because it's almost guaranteed that whatever gear you learn on in school will be different from what you'll find at your first job, the ability to move easily between platforms is crucial.

Are the faculty members genuine, working professionals? And do they also know how to communicate with students?

Teaching in a recording school is a specialized art. To be successful, a teacher needs to have real-world experience (i.e., useful wisdom to offer to the students), but he or she also needs to have good communication skills and feel comfortable working with younger, less-experienced people. A producer of 100 Platinum records is worthless in a classroom if he or she mumbles and can't put a complete sentence together, has no lesson plan (or constantly ignores it) or is condescending or arrogant. Conversely, a great classroom teacher, if he or she doesn't have any practical experience to draw on, can only take students so far. So the school you choose should emphasize both qualifications equally in their faculty members.

Is the school accredited?

There are a number of organizations that accredit vocational and trade schools, and it can help your peace of mind if the school you're looking at (assuming it's not a college) is accredited by one of these bodies. (It's also easier to get financial aid and tax credits.) If it's not, it still might be a good school, but you'll have to dig a little deeper to make sure it's on the up-and-up--and that it won't suddenly go out of business while you're midcourse.

How well is the school going to prepare you for the real world and real clients?

Are there courses in running a business, planning project budgets, dealing with banks and loan companies and billing and collecting from clients? Whether you're planning to work for a large facility or opening your own one-person shop, you need some business skills. Is there training in maintenance and troubleshooting of hardware and software? It's rare that a prospective employer asks an applicant, "Can you mix a 12-piece funk band?" More often, they want to know if you can upgrade all of the Pro Tools systems in the house during the next five days. Does the school bring in professional musicians for sessions so you can learn how to communicate with and conduct yourself around the folks who will someday be your clients?

Are there job placement services and internships?

Does the school keep an active file of potential employers looking for new hires, and will they help you contact them, or will they just tell you to look up names in the Mix Master Directory? Internships, which allow you to spend a predetermined amount of time in an entry-level position at a studio or a company, are incredibly helpful in understanding how the business works and how to behave in a real work environment. Sometimes internships are paid, but if they aren't, it makes them no less valuable. Occasionally, internships can even lead to a job with the same company--but if you make that an expectation of your internship, you may well be disappointed, and it could end up backfiring. Often enough, internships will show you what kind of job you don't want--and that's an important part of your education, too.

Is the school in a geographical area where you would like to end up?

With more of the music industry becoming "virtual," this is somewhat less of a concern than it used to be. A studio in Albuquerque looking for new talent may be just as likely to fax a job description to a school in Boston as to one in Santa Fe. As it happens, some of the best schools are in areas where there is little going on, production wise. But going to school in a city where you'd like to live afterward certainly has advantages. You get to know the area and what it's like to live there. The faculty members are generally part of the local scene, and if you make a good impression on them, they can help you make contacts. You'll make friends in school (hopefully), so you'll have a social network to draw on--not to mention a potential roommate pool--which can be really helpful in those first few underpaid months. While you're in school, you can go out and learn about the local studios, clubs and dealers, and they'll know who you are when you come back looking for a gig. Sometimes starting fresh in a new city after school works great, but comfort and familiarity can be important, too.

Just how good is the school, really? Every school will tell you it's the best, the biggest and the most successful and has the latest, greatest and coolest facilities and faculty. There are full-time PR people cranking that message out, which means you have to work hard to find the real story. Unfortunately, there's no Consumer Reports or even U.S. News guide to recording schools, not even in Mix, so there's no easy source of info. For starters, ask about the school's job-placement ratio--and not just how many of their graduates are working (presumably all of them are doing something), but how many are in careers for which the school trained them. Try to find out the dropout rate. If a lot of people leave in the middle of their studies, then it could mean something's wrong. And you also want to know the faculty turnover rate. If there is a whole new crop of teachers every year, then that's also a bad sign.

Your best source of information, and you can't get too much of this, is to talk to people who have already been through the program. Ask the school to give you names of both current students and graduates. But recognize that from those carefully chosen names, you will probably get only good reports, and you will be doing yourself a favor if you find some people who have had negative experiences, as well. Ask the alumni and students you initially talk to for the names of students who didn't make it all the way through, or who ended up leaving the field entirely after graduating, and find out what happened. Did they learn all they needed to know the second semester and hit the road with a major tour? Did they realize the audio industry wasn't for them and figure that day-trading or painting houses was more their style? Or were they turned off by something about the school and decided to go elsewhere for their education? There are a number of Web mailing lists and Usenet groups (not to mention the Education section in Mix Online's Helpfile forum) where people talk about their experiences with audio schools, and you should check them out. Of course, as always, when dealing with the Web, take most of what you read with a grain of salt.

If you've made it this far, I hope you've been able to narrow down your search and feel confident you're making the right decisions. After 25 years in the education business, I know that the purpose of education isn't really to provide you with answers, it's to teach you how to ask the right questions. And I also know that regardless of where you go to school, your real education starts the moment your schooling is finished. Good luck!


Paul D. Lehrman has been teaching music and audio since 1975 in summer arts camps, adult education courses, private recording schools, public universities and most recently at Tufts University. He is the editorial director of Mix Online

These materials copyright ©2000, 2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing