"Which is the best university course for music production/music technology/audio engineering?” It's a question that gets asked often enough on the SOS Forum — and almost every time it's met with the same response, which is along the lines of "Tonmeister's the bollocks: all courses except Tonmeister are rubbish”, or "way back when I were a lad, there were no courses — we just had to hang around the studios and be grateful for making the tea”, or simply "it's bad enough for the rest of us, we don't need any more engineers!”
There are people who always come out with the same lines about formal education in this field being no good, and I couldn't agree less. Perhaps there are loads of people trying to make a living in this area already, but a bit of fresh blood never did any industry any harm. Telling the young hopefuls they don't have any hope feels a bit like people climbing up the ladder before pulling it up after themselves.
The fact is that today's fresh blood doesn't have the same opportunities outside education as it did a decade or two ago. In most towns in most countries, you'd be lucky enough to find a decent-sized recording studio with more than a few employees these days, never mind one willing to let you mop the floors and observe. In other words, the 'tea boy' entry point is no more. So, industry or no industry, where are the talents of the future to develop now? If we listen to the nay-sayers, they'll be neglected seedlings that will wither and die.
Much of what remains of the music production 'industry' is now done on a freelance basis, just as it is in so many other creative walks of life. If you operate in that kind of environment, there's little room for learning — or at least little room for the earliest stages of the learning curve. Unless you happen to learn from some experienced and talented engineers by virtue of working with them on your band's recording project or some other fortuitous route, there's sod‑all chance of tapping into the wealth of knowledge of others — unless, that is, you decide to educate yourself.
To an extent, you can do this by devouring books, magazines like SOS and web sites. If you're selective about the advice you read, you can benefit from on-line discussion forums too. And, of course, the tools of the trade are cheap as chips now, so when you read something, you've no excuse for not putting it into practice again and again until it becomes second nature: it's no good knowing all the theory in the world if you're not able to turn your hand to it in the real world.
But there's still no substitute for engaging with and learning directly from people with talent, experience and a track record. Yes, a university course may be good or bad, and there are certainly no guarantees of a job at the end of it. But a good course should open doors: it should bring in 'practitioners' (to use an academic buzz‑word) as guest lecturers, giving students access to people who make a living making music. It should introduce you to all the other people you may need to talk to and understand — accountants, lawyers, film‑makers and more.
In other words, the problem with formal education isn't that it doesn't work. It's that there are some poor standards out there on some courses, and pretty low expectations for the results that students are supposed to achieve. A course should offer at least some of the rewards that a bit of hard graft in a studio did for the present generation of engineers. Go to the right university, with the right attitude, put in enough hours, ask enough questions and get enough experience under your belt, and a degree in music production could be the most useful and fulfilling thing you could choose to do.
So, nay-sayers, if you think that academic institutions are churning out mediocre talents, remember that the CVs you see might not be from the best students — and that students today don't exactly have the best start in life, between student loans, high housing costs, lack of industry opportunities and much more. Perhaps, if business is so bad, you could get actively involved in some of these courses. They'll be glad of your participation, you'll be glad of the visiting lecturer fee — and we might just have a viable option for training the next generation and keeping the music industry alive.
Matt Houghton is a product of the higher education system and was as surprised as anyone when he ditched Whitehall under Labour for a life of hard labour at SOS Towers.