Education versus making the tea: which one is the path to enlightenment?
It happens in studios all over the country: the daily post brings a standard bunch of letters from young, naive teenagers who would like to devote their lives to the sacred craft of working with music on a 24/7 basis. Yep, they want to be a studio engineer. As we all know, though, the job they might be offered will be nothing as impressive. A teapot and loo‑brush is often all that awaits our eager applicants.
Some bright spark somewhere must have thought, "right, there are loads of people who will quite happily sacrifice much of their young adult lives to play with mixing desks; maybe they'll sacrifice some money as well." As a business idea it has worked out splendidly. There are now hundreds of courses around the country that offer to turn you into a complete sound engineer — for a fairly weighty price. Some of these courses are very good and, unfortunately, some are not. How do you tell the difference? Well, it's difficult. How many people out there have signed up and paid their money for a course in "industry standard" studios, only to find that the aforementioned studios consist of an old version of Cubase and a damaged O2R which, incidentally, you can only book out for half an hour at a time? Then, of course, there are the MIDI suites with 15 PC MIDI workstations that look nice but end up not being stable enough to run music software reliably. And, quite aside from this issue, there's the question of whether it's a good idea to go on a course at all.
In my experience, music industry people — and especially those who run recordingstudios — are often suspicious of qualifications, mainly because of a lack of understanding of what it actually takes to get one. To many people, a degree, BTEC or GNVQ is just a piece of paper that tells them the person holding it thinks they know what they're doing. Most major studios will have a story about a new recruit fresh out of college who spent their first week explaining to people with years of experience how best to do their job. The problem is that most courses teach you tons about the theory but can never really teach you how to be a professional. That's down to experience — a lesson I learnt the hard way.
I was lucky; after my (not particularly good) BTEC course I managed to pick up a job at a large, busy studio in Brighton, as Teapot and Toilet‑brush Technician. The studio was bigger than what I was used to from college, but in my youthful naivety I thought that I'd just scale up my ideas a bit and I'd be flying. Unfortunately, nothing they taught me at college prepared me for working in a large commercial studio with a bizarre parade of clients to deal with on a daily basis. I was lucky enough to have an understanding, patient studio manager who devised a system to compensate for my regular cock‑ups. Every time I was an arse in the studio I bought him a pint of lager. Needless to say, I was a poor man for most of my time there and he was often completely legless.
The problem is that the best way to learn the craft seems to be a combination of the education and industry methods. If it was important to know your technical stuff 15 years ago, in the studio world we live in now it's essential. While you can learn an awful lot with your ears and an SOS article, there will always be times, especially with computers, when you need expert tuition that many studios just can't provide beyond "well, it sounds alright if you do this." On the flip side, college courses that provide this kind of expert tuition can never prepare you for the 16‑hour sessions slogging it out trying to get a good drum sound with a moody drummer and a manic‑depressive producer. Dealing with that can only be learnt through the industry‑standard tea and toilet brush/climb your way up the ranks method.
The future, surely, lies in each camp being more open and understanding about the other. If studios were willing to give more students work‑experience placements, they might be surprised at the calibre of willing pupil they receive. I can also guarantee that giving any student four weeks in the real world will teach them more about the job than countless lectures ever could, and allow that student to get infinitely more out of their course thereafter. In return, the educational side of the industry must ensure more scrutiny of all these new courses that are popping up. Until the industry is able to distinguish between courses that train students to be all‑round professionals and ones that are just out there to earn someone a quick buck, no qualification — no matter how fancy the certificate — will be taken seriously.
Andy Searle‑Barnes is now working on a sound‑related degree course in Liverpool. He thinks that one day he might stop being a student and get a proper job.
If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB3 8SQ, UK. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address.