You are here


Interview | Company By Debbie Poyser & Derek Johnson
Published September 1996

The School Of Audio Engineering celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Debbie Poyser & Derek Johnson talk to SAE founder Tom Misner and European General Manager Rudi Grieme about the school's development into a worldwide concern, the courses SAE offer today, and the changing business of teaching music engineering and production.

"I still have the tape recorder — a Sony 4‑track — and I made the console myself. It was a 12‑channel console — well, 11 actually, because the 12th channel never really worked — with my own little VU meters. I remember engraving SAE with Letraset on every VU meter to make it look like an SAE console."

So speaks Tom Misner, founder of the School of Audio Engineering, of the basic studio which hosted his first recording courses 20 years ago in Sydney, Australia. These days SAE, the world's only international recording and music technology school, with 22 colleges in 13 countries, has a multi‑million pound annual turnover. Back in 1976, the sum total of its assets were the AS$400 which was Misner's only capital, and the charismatic Misner himself. "Everything that I earned had to go back into the school, as it did for the first 10 years." Money was so tight, in fact, that Misner disguised the lack of certain equipment by telling students that the gear was on order, but that his Australian supplier was waiting for shipments from Europe. "Students would say 'Where's the compressor?'. And I would say, 'Well, I've ordered it, but the distributor hasn't got it in yet'. The thing was, he had it — I just didn't have the cash to buy it!"

Fees from new students were re‑deployed to make the putative equipment orders a reality, and slowly the first SAE school grew. Such is SAE's size now that some equipment manufacturers, keen to have future audio professionals trained with their products, offer to provide the school's growing number of studios with equipment. Misner: "The biggest change in the school over the past couple of years is that manufacturers have started to recognise us, and that means that we get equipment given to us. The manufacturers can see the value of people being trained with their equipment".

There are many people being trained with that equipment: in addition to established colleges in Australia, Britain, Germany, Austria, France, Holland, Singapore, Malaysia and Sweden, colleges are planned or in progress for Milan, Bangkok, Dublin, and Barcelona. There are currently 7000 students attending SAE courses worldwide. Isn't there a danger that courses might become slanted towards equipment supplied by sponsors? Misner demurs: "First off, the equipment has to sell me. I don't really care whether it's Digidesign, or SADiE, or whatever it is, it has to sell me. We have to teach the stuff, so it has to convince me that it is a product that has value. And we don't have exclusive sponsorships, because a school that only has one brand of microphones, for example, wouldn't work. There has to be a balance. We can't afford to be one‑sided".

SAE are in a position where they can choose which gear they take, and have the resources to purchase the latest equipment. This puts the school at an advantage, contends Misner, compared to small schools and even some universities offering audio training; according to him, universities "often have a budget problem. They may get the studio one year, but they probably won't be able to upgrade it every two years. What I'm finding, as we found in Australia, is that they start to work with us — we'll be the practical trainer and universities will offer the academic side. That's the ideal direction".

Happy Birthday To You

The German city of Munich recently saw a huge gathering of the SAE clans. Three hundred staff of its schools from all over the world, plus other guests, were flown in and accommodated, at Misner's expense, for 20th anniversary celebrations. It's an expansively generous way to mark the school's birthday, reflecting Misner's paternal relationship with his schools. Despite the fact that he owns successful publishing businesses which some might consider more profitable outlets for his talents (in 1979 he launched Australia's first professional audio magazine, Australian Sound & Broadcast) he maintains a close involvement with his favourite child, SAE: "It is my small business. I own a number of magazines in Australia, but I'm not attached to that business like the school. It ended up being my baby, in a way".

The passion for music and recording which resulted in Misner's producing and engineering background (with credits including Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, Tina Turner, Earth, Wind & Fire, David Bowie and Midnight Oil) drives the expansion of SAE and explains his hands‑on role: he still formulates course syllabi personally, even having written the school's Apple Mac exam compilation system. This allows SAE staff to tailor written tests from a database of over 1400 questions on different audio subjects. And it was Misner's own early interest in multimedia which prompted the popular Multimedia Producer course: "I've wanted to teach multimedia for quite a while — virtually since the early '90s. But it took me two years to decide how to teach it." Until just a few years ago, Misner still taught some courses himself.

Course content has been refined continuously over the years, from fairly hit‑and‑miss beginnings: "The interesting thing about the first course was that I was an engineer, and I knew how to do albums. Nobody taught me how to teach, but I thought, 'if I know it, I can teach it'. I used to sit at home and think 'next week we'll teach recording drums.' The following week I'd decide to teach how compressors and gates worked. Everything was fine, except that after 16 or 17 weeks, I had taught everything I knew. Then I realised that I had to put some structure in, which took four or five years. And that structure has stayed the same, other than that we threw out subjects. We used to cover disc mastering, disc cutting, and so on, and that's all gone now. Every year I update all the subjects".

So, Misner still has a major input into the formulation of SAE's courses, which are similar from country to country. He estimates that 80% is the same in different countries, though there is a 20% variation for local preferences. The DJ course, for example (of which more in a moment), is limited to London, Singapore and Sydney, because there's no significant demand elsewhere. Video synchronising courses are offered in Germany and will be offered in France, but there's no appeal for this course at all in England, as it produces staff for dubbing of foreign (often English language) movies into German and French. In addition, the German courses are more technical, as the German industry demands more technical knowledge than, for example, the UK.

What characterises all the courses, however, is their attention to practical, hands‑on experience. Misner: "At the end of a course, you will be expected to walk into a job and they will say, 'here's the console, here's the tape machine, align the tape machine and mix this' — you have to be able to operate the equipment properly. If you can't do that, it doesn't matter if you've been to one of my schools, John Smith's school, or Oxford University. When a student finishes SAE, he or she has to be able to operate a multitrack studio, do digital editing, MIDI sequencing, live sound mixing, all these kind of things".

No Guarantees

SAE courses are far from being an easy time for people who think audio training will be less rigorous than traditional higher education. For a start, there's a selection procedure — SAE don't take everyone who applies. "If we find the person has no aptitude at interview, we don't take them. We also ask questions about equipment and brand names. And as soon as somebody says 'well I'm here to learn that, I don't know what an SSL is', that shows you that they have no real interest. I'm interested in cars, so I know all about brands of cars. If somebody pretends to have this great interest in audio engineering, they must know equipment, brand names, terms that you pick up from magazines. If you're not reading any of the magazines before doing the course, it doesn't show great interest."

I predicted there would be less people looking for audio training, but in fact there are more and more.

Once on the course, students are in an educational atmosphere, with seminars and lectures conducted in classrooms, as well as sessions of hands‑on studio time. Misner: "We first teach the theory — of how compression works, say. Then a student has to go to a unit that has compressors, gates and expanders, and a CD player, where they learn how to use these processors. They go from that very basic box to 8‑track mixing, then a 16‑track studio, then a larger 16‑track, then to MIDI, with hard disk and so on. We have an arrangement with Digidesign, and we have Pro Tools systems in most schools — at least three or four systems in each".

Students are not simply allowed to record whatever they like, either: they're expected to engineer and produce different types of material, in keeping with what they'll encounter in the real world when they land a job. Though students are permitted to record their own bands for their final exam project, they're also obliged to turn their hands to a brass band or orchestral ensemble, say, and non‑musical recording, such as voice‑over work, is also covered. As Rudi Grieme, European General Manager, explains, the final exams are pretty demanding too: in addition to a constantly‑changing written test, covering everything from microphones to live sound, students are put into a pro studio situation where they must act as 'engineer' to a tutor's 'producer'. They're judged not only on the quality of the final recording, but on how they handle the situation as a whole.

Neither is acceptance on an SAE course a guarantee of a final qualification, though Grieme admits that sometimes students assume that payment of course fees entitles them to an exam pass. Misner: "Unfortunately, quite a few will fail our exams. If you were to take 100 of our students, 50 will fail the exam, because our exams are quite hard. If they fail, they have an option to repeat the exam, which consists of theory and practical, once. I would challenge almost every one of the experts working to actually pass. It's a serious exam."

Opportunity Knocks

For those who do pass, an SAE qualification can be helpful in establishing a career — although Misner makes no bones about the fact that even this can't promise employment. "Out of those 50 students [of each 100] who pass the exam, 25 are actually employable, and the other 25 are not — which is little to do with their education or what they know, it's just what they expect from the music business: you have to expect to start from nothing and work your way to something, and a lot of them expect too much." However, for those with the right outlook, Misner says the employment prospects are good. Multimedia, especially, is a growth area: "That's what many students are now studying, because there aren't the jobs in recording studios. It would be mad to train 7000 people a year for recording studios when the jobs are not there". However, despite the dearth of pure recording jobs, SAE's audio‑only courses are still in demand: "I predicted there would be less people looking for audio training, but in fact there are more and more. There are lots of people who are not really doing the course for a job. They have a home studio and they want to know what to do."

For those willing to look outside the confines of traditional studios, jobs are available: "There are television and radio stations opening up, and shortages of people. We've just trained 80 operators for Radio Free Europe, and Club Med, the French holiday chain, take over 100 audio engineers from us. There are avenues which you might not even think of. The good students will always end up in a job."

To help students identify job opportunities, SAE began publishing a trilingual newsletter in 1991; it now has a circulation of 100,000 copies worldwide.

London Calling

SAE's London school, established in 1985, was Misner's first foray into Europe, following his 1984 visit to the capital on a fact‑finding mission. "I didn't come to London to open a school at all! I had five schools in Australia and I came to London to see how the big schools did it — what their brochures looked like, how they handled their students, what the studios were like. But then I turned up and there was just one place, called Gateway [see feature in SOS June 1995]. That's what started London."

Misner is not prepared to see SAE's position eroded by the recent increase in UK courses, and this, coupled with the fact that London is still regarded by overseas students as a desirable location in which to learn, has prompted ambitious expansion plans for the London school. "It will be larger than anything else we have, with seven studios and 40 workstations, plus a full multimedia programme."

The current London school has well‑equipped studios, from 8‑ to 24‑track, plus training areas for novices, and Pro Tools workstations. General Manager Rudi Grieme is our guide for a tour of the premises, which are usually inhabited by around 250 students, at different times. Rudi himself was trained by SAE: "I took the diploma course, 10 years ago. Then I moved on to Australia and did a Tonmeister course, for another year." While studying, he also worked in the industry proper. "I started with live sound in Switzerland, and while I did the Tonmeister course in Australia, I worked in different studios, including EMI Studios. That's actually where I met Tom Misner. Then I became involved in the school's operation in Vienna, working part‑time there and in various studios." Some SAE staff are ex‑students, although, as Rudi comments, "we force them to do something outside also. Usually, we take staff part‑time, and they have to do something outside too". This helps to ensure that staff teach with an eye to what's required in the real world.

Gear is industry‑standard stuff, including Yamaha ProMix 01 mixers, Alesis ADAT XTs, Apple Macs, Akai samplers, Tascam 688 8‑track MIDIStudios, and Korg and Emu sound modules neatly racked with CD and cassette decks and patchbays, for the training areas. Equipment for the 24‑track studio moves up a few notches, with pride of place going to the Neve VR Legend 32‑channel desk. Rudi: "We had our problems in the beginning with the Neve, when we thought it was a step too far ahead — it's like learning to drive in a Porsche — but it has huge advantages too. If a student is really looking after himself, and he wants to gain something out of it, when he goes out into the industry, he won't find any function in the mixer which he hasn't seen before". Outboard racks feature Drawmer compressors, and Lexicon, TC Electronic, Yamaha, Ensoniq, and Digitech effects, plus extras such as Opcode Mac MIDI interfaces and Francinstien stereo enhancers. Monitoring is taken care of by JBL main and nearfield monitors.

Diploma student Bruce Pearce, who's working in the 24‑track studio while we check it out, seems happy to talk to the SOS posse, despite the fact that our photo session is eating into his prized studio time, and as we chat, he reveals that he's just weeks away from his final exam. He's positive about the course, which he chose partly because of the part‑time option: "I've learnt a lot, but it's hard work — I didn't expect the theory to be so mathematical". To finance the course, Bruce has a part‑time job with a PA company, and hopes to own his own studio eventually, though he knows he needs commercial studio experience first. Bruce feels he's relatively unusual in that he has some studio gear at home already, and plans to get more, while many of his colleagues seem more interested in working exclusively for commercial studios: "A lot of the people on the course are looking to go into the engineering side." He's already an SOS fan: "Last week I met Keanu Reeves when we did the PA for him; now I can tell people I'm going to be in Sound On Sound too!".

As previously mentioned, the London SAE is one of only three which offer a DJ course. According to Rudi Grieme, it's going very well, though sceptics might wonder how on earth you could teach something like DJing, or even whether there's any point. But the student response so far has been good. Rudi: "We have good contacts — we work with the Leisure Lounge and the DJs there give lectures here — DJ Kofi, for example. We also work with Choice FM, and different manufacturers and suppliers. We put one or two advertisements in DJ magazines, and the response was massive. The curriculum was worked out with professional DJs. In the beginning, they cover audio matters, to give a basic idea about wiring, connectors, troubleshooting, and sound systems. Later on, the course goes into detail about beat mixing and other specialised techniques. We have a two‑part exam. For one part, students submit a recording of themselves which is time‑restricted, and goes through different styles of music. They are given the styles and the beats per minute they have to keep to. Then the final exam is in the Leisure Lounge, in front of the public and judges". No 'cheating', by way of editing, is allowed in the making of the exam recording: students have "three turntables, a CD player, a mixer — a typical DJ setup", with which they have to mix a live recording to tape.

The Right Stuff

SAE's come a long way: in addition to the schools currently being set up, Tom Misner plans three new facilities, or expansions of existing ones, per year, and is looking to Japan as his next frontier. With 20 years of training experience, plus much professional engineering and production behind him, he's in a good position to know what makes for success in professional audio. So, what's the most important thing for someone wanting a career in the audio industry to have?

"The right attitude. Forget what you know. Attitude is the key factor to success. And then comes what you know. If you have a bad attitude, people won't even ask you what you know. You also need the technical skills, the demands of being a good engineer. With technical skills and the ears, you have a producer. But attitude is ahead of it all."

What's On The Menu: Courses & Costs

SAE London will offer five courses after its expansion, when the Multimedia Producer course will be added (see the 'Multimedia Story' box). The four current courses are:

  • Sound Studio Certificate (Basic): covering topics suitable for studio assistants, home studio owners, audio salespeople, music teachers and musicians. It lasts for six months part‑time, and costs £1175.
  • Audio Engineer Diploma (Intermediate): an intensive program giving grounding in all aspects of studio work and an understanding of the music business. This lasts nine months full‑time or 18 months part‑time and costs £4570‑£5000.
  • Advanced Music Production Course (Advanced): this is designed as an extension to the Diploma course and is recommended for Diploma graduates wishing to become producers. It also introduces Pro Tools, music/picture sync and management skills, lasts three months part‑time, and costs £780.
  • DJ Certificate: this lasts 12 weeks part‑time, and offers 60 hours of intensive tuition in the creative operation of DJ equipment, plus coverage of copyright, management, and gigging issues. It costs £695.

These courses are not eligible for mandatory LEA (Local Education Authority) grants, which means that finance has to come from elsewhere. Rudi Grieme: "The part‑time courses are especially for those who work, which means they work while they attend courses, and pay in instalments. The full‑time courses are filled by people who either get a Career Development Loan (CDL) or come from overseas and get funding from there, or from their parents"

Multi(Media) Story

When asked what has changed most about SAE's curriculum, Tom Misner's response is unhesitating: "Multimedia. It's about 20% of our intake at the moment, but it's growing. We teach how to get a career in multimedia. For example, some of our students have done multimedia CDs for hotels and resorts, which show pictures of the hotel, with music, what the hotel has in terms of features, and so on — and they want to actually be able to do that kind of job, where they are self‑employed. The Vienna, Cologne, Sydney, and Singapore schools are set up for multimedia — which means a room with 25 Macintosh workstations. There's a daytime class and an evening class. Somebody works on the computer all day, five days a week if they want to, and the other person works all night. That makes it a very hands‑on course. At the end, they produce a project CD.

"I call the course Multimedia Producer. Each person has to co‑ordinate a multimedia project and work with an authoring program. Then there are modules — Sound, Video, Graphics, Presentation — which we teach 'on the surface'. We don't pretend to make a graphic designer; we teach enough to get by. The difference between the European industry and the American industry is that in America one guy sits there, totally into it, and does everything. The Europeans say, 'I'll get someone good at sound, someone good at video, someone good at graphics, and co‑ordinate them'. We teach the core subject, and then enough about the others."

Producers' Choice

Some SAE audio students undoubtedly intend to apply for work in professional studios. Yet there are producers who avoid using people who've been on such courses. Tom Misner is familiar with the situation: "A producer is very much to do with ego. I work as one, so I ought to know! It's also the old‑school attitude — 'I made coffee, so he should make coffee too.' What they forget is this: when I started I was making coffee, but reverb was two buttons that said plus and minus. How much did you have to learn to know that plus is more and minus is less? Now reverb is digital; you have to really know what you're doing before you can operate the thing. These producers are from the old school, but they will die out eventually. If my students have passed the exam, they have the knowledge".

Education Explosion

As SOS's own Education Corner news column shows, there's been an explosion in audio training in the UK over the last few years. A recent SAE ad campaign pointed out that 50% of new courses were started by ex‑SAE students: Tom Misner: "I feel quite good about it. That means we're teaching them the right thing." We won't name names, but Misner does reveal that not all these students actually passed the SAE exam, and, in common with other long‑standing audio trainers, he's concerned at the lack of standards in the audio training area, which SAE would like to see regulated: "I had words years ago with the APRS in England about this. They should have taken control, because this kind of business really lends itself to people being ripped off. Some studio that's not doing too well opens a course, they have 20 students, then they get a big studio booking, and out go the students. I've seen it in the past, and the students then tend to think all audio education is bad because they've had a bad experience."

SOS: Recommended Reading

Do you think magazines like Sound On Sound, which have an educational content, are useful?

Tom Misner: "Oh yes. Sound On Sound is one of the magazines we recommend for students. I don't believe in books that much, because books date very quickly. We have our own little book which we publish, which is just really basic sound — physics doesn't change. But a lot of books will tend to say they explain audio techniques, and two years later they're out of date. Magazines are a better source of information for students."