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ProTips / Career In Audio

Getting a music technology related education or job

So you have this strong interest and real passion for music and you are considering a career in audio. What should you do?

First I'll tell you what not to do; go enroll yourself on a Music Tech course!

"Music Technology"... this term covers a huge range of topics, all of which (at least on the practical side) you are able to learn on your own. Any course that includes "Creative" in the title or description will almost by definition be something that needs experience and a bit of imagination more than hard core knowledge to learn. I would stay away from any such course unless you are seeking to expand your interest rather than hoping to find a career in the subject. If you are looking to get a job as a sound engineer, there are skills that you may need that some courses do not always teach! This is a fact that I find difficult to write down, just because I find it so hard to believe myself. It is nevertheless true that there are courses which teach music technology which do not even include a short little session on how to solder. Neither do they teach simple acoustics, or basic maths needed for understanding issues in audio. Even less believable but equally true is the fact that some of them don't even give you critical listening skills, one of the few things that can be hard to teach yourself efficiently. Very few arts courses will teach you any sort of management skills, nor give you any vital information on how to run your own business.

In addition to this, there are about 2000-5000 students per available job in today's market, depending on how you look at it.

If you really are serious about what you want to do, it is not a bad idea to take up a small loan and get your own equipment. This way, you can gain experience where it counts - on the job itself. Having a small mobile recording rig you can be on location, recording small concerts and choirs for example. Not as glamorous as what many people imagine the music business to be, but three years of that is much more likely to get you somewhere than a degree in the subject is. You should even have enough time for a second job to pay down that loan while you get good at what you are doing. You will - after some frustration, trial and error - realise that it is not actually that difficult.

As have been iterated over and over before, it's not what you know, but who you know. If you are a self-motivated person and have your own business there is a lot you can do to make yourself seen and heard in the audio world - first of all there are trade shows. These are great networking hubs and will provide you with a chance to get a foot or two in the door of the world of audio. They are likely to be overwhelming at first (for me they always are), and it is hard to relax and enjoy your first visits to these places, but that is exactly what you should do! Getting to know people is about enjoying their company, having fun conversations and learning what goes on behind the scenes. Apart from trade shows, there are conventions, symposiums, synth meets and other gatherings in more niche areas of technology and music, where you should find yourself. The more of these things you go to, the more you will get to know the industry - and it you as well. Media institutions and TV centres some times arrange open days where you can come and visit them and meet people, and all venues need staff. The ways in are many, but you need to work hard without much return often. Be vary of any contracted "apprenticeships" where you get exploited without anything in return but empty promises. If something looks like an easy way in, be extra aware.

As an independent business person you should be able to get word out about yourself - this usually takes time, and a lot of it. Don't be too quick to advertise yourself on every possible occasion, this will some times backfire - at least if you are spamming forums too much. Word of mouth is your most valuable commodity. Consider doing a short course on how to run a small business which includes advertising, basic accounting and other useful information. Knowing how to maintain your own website is key as well. You could rehearse a simple business model by getting a few friends with common interests together and making something, like a game or a short film. Organising things like these will give you lots of insight into the processes involved and could also result in a nice portfolio at the end of it. Many doers who have an interest in music find their expression not through making their own music, but organising gigs, festivals, club nights and founding record labels where others can find channels for their expression. These are often people worth knowing, because a lot of things happen around them, and they often make good friends because of their outgoing and networking abilities.

One of the single most difficult issues about starting out on your own seems to be how to price yourself. Everybody goes through this when they start out, and I won't give you any concrete numbers, but you should get ideas from asking around, maybe in the guise of an interested customer. Needless to say in this line of work there will be days when you make a loss as well as a profit. Prepare yourself for being more on the loss side as you start out. Because of fierce competition and an over-eagerness to please, there seems to be a trend towards cheap and even free work in a lot of areas of media these days - this is especially true for the TV and film industry.

So what skills are required in the field? For example, for you to become a live sound engineer you could benefit from having a truck driver's license, or even a bus driver's license, to drive around a touring band, or share the drive with someone. Being a carpenter will make you able to help build a studio. Good management skills are useful everywhere, something that may not be as widespread as you think! Networking and communication skills, or simply "people skills" are absolutely vital in the field. Consider this carefully if you are a withdrawn person. It does not mean you should give up, but it will restrict your ability to reach above the noise floor and get noticed by people in the real world. On the internet this is a different story, and there are opportunities there too! Whenever you meet someone who is already working in pro audio, ask them how they got there. Their story might surprise you, give you ideas or at least be interesting.

What I am trying to say is that there is a real world out there, and it requires you to be there, not locked away in a library somewhere. Sure, you need to know a good few things, but there are a lot of books available, and even more information on the internet. Check out a course in your favourite subject and find out what books they use, then get them for yourself, and read them, twice! Then you need to apply that knowledge, over and over until it becomes second nature for you. Obviously if you are in a place where there are a lot of musicians around who want to be recorded and you have access to a space and the tools for this recording can happen, you are well placed for getting a lot of experience. A university or college is one place where this can happen, but it is not the only one.

I learned how to sound engineer by being the sound man for a christian choir, and also helped make some money for them by renting out the equipment for bands having gigs in the area. I also made some spare cash by providing private tuition to people who had electronic music equipment they wanted to understand better. I had a knack of reading manuals, so I would do a first lesson for free, find out what they wanted to know about their particular box, and read the manual to work out how it could be done. Then I would teach it to them for about the same price per hour as a piano teacher would. It gave me insight into a lot of equipment that I would never have known otherwise.

Don't be tempted to take the easy way out. The kind of education you should be looking for if you are interested in a career in audio technology, is electronic engineering or computer science, where you will learn things that are easily transferrable to audio. The modular and transferrable nature of a physics education can give you a job i a vast array of areas spread across every part of everything that human get up to, more or less. Not many courses can lay claim to that, and here is a fact about physics that you may not know; the amount of things to know and remember in a physics course are less than those in a law degree or history. If you have a problem with maths, you should consider getting personal tuition, and perhaps from a few different individuals, to find the one who is best for your way of learning and thinking. Someone who is "bad" at maths is often a good teacher of it.

If you really must do a music related course, the best possible option would be to look into the so-called "Tonmeister" type of courses offered in a couple of European institutions (not the one provided by the SAE institutes, they are a scam). These are very hard and requires high qualifications just to get in. If you are one of the lucky few, there is an excellent chance that there will be a job waiting for you on the other side. Other less stringent options include one-year courses in various places that are based in music conservatories or institutes. Anywhere where they seem to be more interested in your qualifications and previous experience rather than your money is a good bet. Even if you are incredibly unfocussed and have difficulties in learning a subject on your own, stay away from one-year practical-oriented technology courses in private institutions which cost a lot of money. Use that money to buy equipment instead, and do a more intense short two-week course if you can. You get the idea. There are a lot of options for online tuition as well, but I don't know enough about this to recommend anything in particular.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong in doing a degree in music technology. At least you are in an academic setting which, whether you like it or not, will provide you with a good set of qualifications in itself. Just don't expect it to lead you to a career in music or even to give you the skillset that you actually need to express yourself through music. This is something that will naturally come to you as you wind your way through reality, and may not actually be fulfilled until much later in life. There is absolutely nothing you can do about this but be patient and keep that fire burning.

...which brings me to my final point. Doing something for a job can easily kill your passion for it. Consider that the industry as a whole is not looking for innovation and originality, but the same old things in new packaging. It is a cut-throat business with impossible deadlines and cost-effective solutions, and may appear cynical to the uninitiated. There is a lot more to it of course, but as with all things in life, it is not always the most suited or talented person who gets the job in the end. If you make music because you just can't stop yourself, think about considering it a hobby, an aside that you can do no matter what goes on otherwise in your life. Getting a job that is different from your passion in life can in fact be very fruitful, because you are not forced to do it day in day out without break, without getting a chance to distance yourself from it to gain some perspective. And who knows, maybe some day things will happen for you anyway!

"Your success as an artist, to say something new, ultimately depends on the breadth of your education. My recommendation would be to major in an area other than film, develop a point of view, and then apply that knowledge to film. Because if film is all you know, you cannot help but make derivative work. I found that what I had learned about sound, history, biology, English, physics all goes into the mix." ~ Ben Burtt

Tim Prebble, an eminent sound designer amongst much else, has written two articles on the specific subject of becoming a sound designer. You can read his articles here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Muied Lumens

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