I’m frequently asked by people interested in becoming audio engineers about the viability of attending a school to study audio. Now, let me preface this by saying that there are a ton of great audio-specific schools out there as well as a lot of universities and community colleges who offer degrees in audio recording or music technology. Many of these programs even offer students a look at many different career avenues inside the world of audio – not just the single-minded recording studio route. I, myself went through the program at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences (CRAS) and learned a lot while having a very good time, so I have no personal affront against the idea of going to audio school. However, my decision to attend a school strictly for audio could have been a little better informed, and I’d like to share what I now know with prospective audio students.
- The diploma means nothing when it comes time to find a gig. A lot of young people are still indoctrinated into thinking that they need a college education to be successful. While yes, a degree from a prestigious university will only help your employment chances in certain fields, it will not be of much help to you in the audio world. The benefit of attending an audio school is the experiential nature of your education – not receiving a piece of paper at the end of your studies. Apply for an internship or an entry-level audio gig anywhere, and the person hiring will simply try to get a feel whether you can hang, be sociable, get along with everyone, and not piss anyone off. They will not be scouring your resume and schooling history, as would be done in other professions. What matters most when it comes to getting your foot in the audio door are your intangibles. Can you hang? Can you be a fly on the wall? Can you take direction? Do you typically make people feel comfortable when you’re around? Do you know what a microphone is? Do you know basic signal flow? Can you learn stuff in a reasonable amount of time? These are the things I’m going to be looking for when hiring a potential intern, runner, or even assistant engineer.
- Many audio programs are expensive and an entry-level gig will not pay back hefty loans very quickly. Say you’re dead set on becoming a studio-based recording engineer (like I was), and you want to have the opportunity to intern and eventually work for a well-known and prestigious recording studio (like I did). That gig at a famous recording studio is going to pay you peanuts compared to the many thousands of dollars you may have to shell out of pocket and in loans for your audio education. It cost me about $25,000 to attend CRAS, between tuition, living expenses, and the cross-country move from Connecticut to Arizona. Do remember that most audio internships are unpaid, and in my case, I went another four months after the end of my on-site schooling before I had parlayed my internship into a paid assistant engineer gig. Making less than $8/hour doing sporadic and unpredictable assistant work isn’t the most efficient way to pay off substantial student debt, and I absolutely lucked out by having a large portion of my education paid for up front by a very generous extended family member. The point is that for some people who have financial assistance, an audio school may make perfectly good fiscal sense – but it’s not for everyone. If you crunch the numbers and determine that attending an audio-specific school is going to leave you in many thousands of debt, I would highly recommend looking at different learning options. Obviously, you can always hold down a part time job while you attend school or while you work an internship/entry-level gig. But if your goal is to be working solely in the field that you love in the shortest amount of time possible, working another job is only going to cut into the time you can dedicate to learning your craft in the world of audio.
- Audio school is only as good an experience as you make it. It was unbelievable to me how many of my peers would decline the opportunity to stay late at the school studios, hang around other kids’ sessions, ask questions of any instructor who’d listen, and take full advantage of the facilities available to us. I figured, “we’re paying for the privilege of being around awesome audio gear and experienced instructors – might as well get every last drop out of this.” You’re not going to be simply handed the tools to survive in the audio industry. The “keys to the Lambo” aren’t doled out to anyone who can pay to get in the door to an audio education institution. Enjoying your time and making the most of your experience in an audio program is directly tied to how hard you work to better understand the craft you are learning.
- School is not the only way to learn an audio trade. While getting an audio education at an institution is a convenient way to learn the building blocks of sound in a supportive environment, it is not the only way to get a foot in the door. Many recording studios (including Studio Wormwood) offer internship opportunities to people who have a strong desire to learn about recording music from the ground up. Many studios also offer mini-courses, like a Home Recording 101, to equip young musicians, hobbyists, and people who’d like to eventually become professionals acquire a backbone of knowledge to continue making better recordings with their home rig. Club venues and freelance live sound engineers can be open to letting an ambitious young person shadow during local gigs, watching, learning, and helping the front-of-house engineer directly. Forming these relationships as someone interested in audio really comes down to networking and connecting with the audio professionals in your area. In order to get the most out direct-learning experiences like these, it’s helpful to at least have a basic understanding of DAW software and how a simple mixing board works. The point is with some leg-work, motivation, and a self-starter attitude, it’s certainly possible to drum up some prospects for hands-on experience and practical audio knowledge outside of attending an educational institution.
- Trade schools are a business, and you (the student/customer) are their product. It’s important to remember that audio trade schools need to make a profit to survive, and there isn’t much profit without having a steady flow of tuition-paying students. This fact isn’t necessarily negative or positive in nature, but I feel knowing this provides a little fuller of a picture of the kind of experience many audio-specific institutions provide. It is in an audio school’s best interest to turn out the most consistently excellent product (graduates) of any institution anywhere; that’s how good reputations are formed. In working to create a consistent and exemplary graduate output, many audio institutions have pretty strict protocols for how their grads leave school and enter the industry via internships – and understandably so. But for someone like me who always wants to learn by doing myself, I had to break a few rules in order to secure what I felt like were the best opportunities for me post-graduation. The school/student relationship shouldn’t have to sway you one way or another when deciding whether an audio education at an actual institution is best for you, but it’s just something worth keeping in the back of your mind.
Depending on your financial and life situation and your goals, attending an audio school such as CRAS can be a great way to jumpstart your career in audio, learning to utilize the building blocks of sound in practical applications. For some people like me, it was a convenient foot in the door while for some peers of mine, it may not have been the right choice. I encourage young people interested in an audio career to do a lot of asking around and information-gathering on whether committing to a structured audio education will align with their career goals and desires for the future. There is never just one answer in the music industry, and the “right” thing for you may not be abundantly clear. Hopefully this post offers a slightly different perspective on the role of an audio-specific schooling, and please contact me directly if you’d like to discuss in more detail anything I’ve written about here!