What should you be teaching your students in a music recording program?
It really is an interesting question for all of us who love the world of professional music recording to consider. Music recording programs in specialized schools and in colleges and universities are actually a recent phenomenon. For example, when I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000, it was after having worked in the professional music recording industry and even then, the university did not have a true music recording program. Now, it has not escaped my notice that recording studio facilities, like Blackbird Recording Studios, Abbey Road and others have developed their own educational programs. A number of recording studio facilities are actually now owned by universities or noted schools of music such as Ocean Way Nashville and The Power Station in New York City. The reason for this development is because of the rise of home recording studios or small-scale recording studio ventures, both of which are becoming dominant forces within the industry. Whether or not that is a positive development for the professional music recording industry, time will tell, but, in the meantime there seems to be another important development that is directly related to this trend— there are more avenues for a young person to obtain an education to prepare them for the world of professional music recording, but less jobs in the sector that will enable them to gain the invaluable experience of working with master engineers to be able to hone their craft.
Even in the 1990s, recording schools, as we can refer to them, were few and far between. At that time, only a select few colleges and universities had what we might consider to be pure music recording programs to offer to their students. Most of the truly great engineers of the past, if they went to a college or a university, had a wide variety of educational backgrounds in music, business, engineering and communications. Many of them simply went to work in a large-scale recording studio where they actually learned their craft on the job. In fact, most of the time, there was a real breaking-in period whereby in let’s say the 1970s, if you were an assistant engineer you spent the vast majority of your time setting-up for tracking or mixing sessions, operating the tape machine and for all intents and purposes— listening. In today’s world of professional music recording, almost each of those components no longer exist (at least in the same form and on the same scale).
Therefore, it just doesn’t make sense that we would continue to teach students as if they are going to work in a major recording studio environment, at all, but in some circles, it seems as if that is what is happening. Let me explain. If the vast majority of music that is being professionally recorded and the vast majority of the people who work in the profession are employed in that capacity, then it makes more sense to prepare students for that world, but for the most part, it is that world that is slowly disappearing. While I would personally abhor the thought of such staples of the music recording process such as analog consoles, outboard gear and tube condenser microphones disappearing from it entirely, it is safe to say that the business of music recording is in a state of rapid transformation with digital audio workstations, software plugins, digital microphones and much smaller recording enterprises and home studios for recording becoming much more important than ever before. Though even most smaller and home recording studio facilities are going to be hybrid enterprises with a mix of the aforementioned digital gear and older analog staples, there is no doubt in my mind that the students of the future in this field are going to be stepping into a very different working environment, particularly from a business perspective and will need to be prepared for it, as well. But, this development also portends another major issue— if students are going to have to graduate with a high-level of technical expertise, plus, be quasi-entrepreneurs from the start, then this will also mean that an important component of their education is going to also have to revolve around acquiring consummate people skills. Having great people-skills, such as relationship building, has always been the hallmark of the legendary recording studio engineers of the past. However, they often learned those skills from master engineers who they assisted for years or working in a major recording studio environment before having the opportunity to even begin the process of using them at all.
In comparison to the great engineers of the past, the engineers of tomorrow are going to have to be well-grounded in aspects of the profession that had once been learned on the job. Now, if one wants to become an engineer, the traditional pathway for doing so is disappearing— most start working either with a company in the corporate world (in advertising or marketing), with a musical group or by creating their own studio as a small business venture. Quite simply, university programs that are building studios with 48-channel analog consoles may be doing their students a disservice. Even quite a few of the major recording studio facilities around the world are in a trend of downsizing and rarely still work at that scale. If an educational program is spending more than $250,000 on a console, this doesn’t seem to be a judicious or wise use of what is quite often tax-payer funds at this point in time. In fact, part of the reason for my creation of this guide is this very issue. If the great recording studio facilities around the world are not continuing to operate on the same scale as they would have during the 1980s and 1990s, then there is absolutely no reason for educational institutions— which should have the future in mind with the operation of their programs— to continue to do so either.
So, what should an educational program at a high school, trade school or college or university level program entail and more specifically, what should students be learning in them? The students of tomorrow should be learning the following: music production (recording techniques and music theory), entrepreneurship skills and through mentorship programs— history, leadership and fundamental people skills. Also, what should be available to students in these facilities? Perhaps, instead of having a single control room with a 48-channel analog console, maybe having three smaller facilities would be a better use of funds, space and equipment for teaching students how to work in the recording studio environment of the future.
If we were looking at the recording studio engineers of the 1950s, 1960s and even in the early 1970s, many of them actually produced some of the very gear and even the consoles that they would have used in their recording sessions. By the 1980s, as the professional audio companies arose to become the titans which dominate today’s music recording business landscape, engineers also began leaving recording studios to become freelance entrepreneurs in their own right for the first time. So, in the beginning, while technical skills could get someone a foot in the door, engineers began to have to focus on their people skills and business acumen because the pathway to success meant scoring clients and connections— which came as the result of building credits as producers started to also become more mobile and to work on their projects in more than one recording studio venue. By the early 2000s, as producers began to do more of their work in home recording studios this has led to another important shift. While it has always been an asset to have a passion for music (at the least) or to have a background in it, now as more work is done in home studios or smaller recording venues, being grounded more in music theory, even on a basic level is probably going to become more important than ever.
Though it has always been an asset to be a musician or to have been a member of a musical group, it is rare that a major component of the education of recording studio engineers is actually grounded in music theory. Even those who have a background in music, are proficient as a musician or are just music lovers who wish to become engineers would benefit tremendously to be grounded in basic music theory as a major component of their educational experience. Beyond the grounding in music theory, I think that it would be truly beneficial for engineering students to learn as much as possible about the instruments that they may well be recording in their future projects. Learning everything that is possible about these instruments, for example, how to put a drum kit together and how each drum and cymbal sounds and is constructed can help you in your quest to be able to record them proficiently. Being able to listen to and understand the inner workings of how the amps that are essential to obtaining great electric guitar sounds is another example of a skill or trait that would be valuable to acquire. These are just a few examples of what should be taught— music and how it is made must be a key component of the curriculum.
Another key component to the curriculum for teaching young engineers should be obvious. Provide them with the ability to work with local bands, so that there is a live component to work with in the studio and that your students have the ability to learn through doing as many recordings as possible. Also, it should be fun. If it isn’t then either you do not need to be teaching the subject, or recording music is just not for you. However, if you are able to bring in live bands on a regular basis for your students, it will provide them with the opportunity to learn the technical aspects of engineering which are so crucial to understand in much the same way in which the legendary engineers of the past acquired them—by doing the work. Though the theories behind equalization, compression and reverb are important to understand, it is even more important to be able to gain the actual knowledge of how to use them in practice. I believe it is important for every student to understand how every component of the recording process actually works and how each of the parts of the recording studio environment are interconnected. Having live musicians— perhaps even working with the music, band, choir or theater department on your campus should be an important component of a cross-curriculum program. It will also give your students— not just the opportunity to work with the gear, but to learn how to appropriately use microphones and the different but critically important techniques for being able to do so. The intermarriage between the music department and the recording school should be seamless, as it benefits both parties equally and in the long-term would be a much more effective use of both funding and personnel than the two working in isolation. The students in both programs will benefit more than ever from such an arrangement and that is so important.
There should be no student who completes a program of study at a recording school who does not have an understanding of how the professional music or entertainment industry works. It is my belief that having a sense of business acumen is perhaps more important than ever for aspiring recording studio engineers. With more and more producers and engineers working in home recording studio environments, one has to be able to draw customers or clients continually so that they can generate enough income to have a viable standard of living. It has not escaped my notice that major recording studio facilities have more than ever been on the hunt to generate or find new streams of revenue through such vehicles as launching podcasts, selling t-shirts or in some cases, even resorting to giving tours of their facilities. Students should graduate with the idea that they are an entrepreneur from the start and that ultimately, they either will want to work for a company, a producer or out of their own home studio. It is becoming less likely than ever that someone who graduates from a recording school— no matter how prestigious it may be— will find work in a large-scale recording studio facility to begin their career. Therefore, I believe that any serious recording school should also teach the fundamentals of accounting, tax law (as it pertains to entertainment), copyright and trademark issues (publishing), and how to run a small business effectively.
It would be wonderful to have an educational program that has access to a stable of bands, musicians and performers which can allow students to be able to do their projects hands-on. (Especially if the campus does not have a music program that is willing to work with the recording program. Believe me, having been a public school teacher and coach for twenty years, I have seen plenty of touchy program directors who were much more concerned about their program winning band or choir contests than they were about the educational experience of EVERY student on the campus.) This should be the first step for the students in the class. Have them go out in the community and become intimately familiar with the music scene and recruit bands to come in and record for free. If handled appropriately, it could be a winning situation, particularly for students who have formed bands and would like to have a rehearsal space. Recording them would be a great experience for the students in the program, plus, it could begin the process of teaching them both the business of making music and the importance of developing connections in the music business. Whether or not these students come from a music program or a club that is on the campus, it also gives both the musicians and the performers a chance not just to be recorded, but to also learn more about the process and the opportunity to improve their craft, as well. It could also give the students a chance to learn about studio etiquette, contracts and how to handle a diverse range of creative projects.
The Importance of a Great Mentoring Program
Each component of a student’s education is incredibly important, but in the world of professional music recording perhaps the most crucial component is one which has all but disappeared from the educational process— mentoring. The greatest recording studio engineers in the history of popular music learned by being assistant engineers under master engineers who had recorded some of the greatest hits of all-time. With large-scale recording studio venues disappearing or becoming the province of high-powered or well-endowed university or music school programs, it is more important than ever for young and aspiring engineers to reach out to make connections with the great engineers of the past who may well have inspired their careers in the first place.
While it is true that we learn by doing, we also learn quite a bit from other people who are respected masters in our field of endeavor and music recording. It is important not just to know how use a piece of gear or a software plugin for example, but how to achieve sounds with it that can make your work better for your clients. Most of the time, the great engineers of the past and the true legends in the field that I have had the opportunity to work with, or to simply get to know seem to be willing to share their knowledge— especially for young people who are aspiring to be the great the engineers and producers of the future. It is also important to understand how having a legendary recording studio engineer as a mentor can open doors for your work and for your career. It is important to note that the great recording studio engineers of the past were often bitter rivals with one another who competed with one another to land work with premium clients in an environment that would seem foreign to the young and aspiring engineers of today. Just keep in mind, that their intense rivalries were in the past and try to approach them with the deep respect that they deserve for their knowledge, wisdom and accomplishments. If you can do so successfully, it may be that you are able to acquire more than just a great mentor from which you can learn a lot, but also a lifelong friend— which is something that each of us, in any profession, truly needs now more than ever before.
Why is this discussion so critically important and where should it truly begin?
Education is important and perhaps at this moment in the history of music recording, the process of how we develop young and aspiring engineers is at a crossroads. It is not at a crossroads because there are not enough colleges and universities with burgeoning programs to teach aspiring engineers. It is at a crossroads because thanks to the growth of digital audio workstations, home recording studios and small commercial recording studio ventures, the very nature and essence of an entire industry has been changing right before our eyes over the course of the past decade at a very rapid rate. I think it is important to realize that just spending enormous amounts of money to develop a program by purchasing equipment is truly problematic considering the shifts that are occurring in the industry. The money that has been spent in building a single studio for a university program could have built that same program three studios which could service more students in a much more meaningful way and have saved enough money perhaps to pay for the additional instructors that could also make the program a much more meaningful experience for each of the students— who could work together, also, in meaningful teams to record bands or performers on the campus of their educational institution.
But, it’s not just about the money and how it is being spent to build educational programs for recording music. It’s also about young people and making certain that they are prepared to be able to record the great popular music of the future. While I believe that mentoring programs are fundamentally important to the successful education of future recording studio engineers, I also think that we should begin to recruit young engineering minds and create more programs at the high school level. This step is fundamentally important because it could bring great young minds into the profession who could take the long arc of experiential education, much in the same vein as the great engineers of the past. One tremendous problem that we have in the profession is that most of the people, even those who know us well on a personal level have always had almost no idea what it takes (or, took) to be a recording studio engineer. The outreach into public high schools could have the positive effect of bringing a broader understanding about the profession and therefore more interest in it and in crucial programs for both music and the arts. I think that it is important for all of us and for the popular music that we have come to love and to cherish to make certain that the educational experience for our young people is one that prepares them to carry the torch of the legendary engineers of the past into creating the music and art of the future.