Life Lessons and Audio Education

Having a degree in audio can be a double-edged sword. This was a lesson I learned after one of my earliest interviews, not long after completing my Master’s Degree (in Sound Recording). I was new to Los Angeles and interviewing for part-time tech work. It seemed to be going well until the interviewer said, “I don’t even have friends with Master’s Degrees… why would I hire someone with one?” I had just been discriminated against for having a formal education.
There’s a lot of lessons about working in entertainment (like that one) that you hear about and prepare for, but you can’t really process until you experience it yourself. Another example is being out of work. Even if you’re financially prepared, nothing can prepare you for the mental game that happens when you’re going through it the first time.

Given that our field is very experience-driven, one might ask, what’s the point of formal audio education? As someone with two audio degrees (and ten years in the field), I can confidently say that there is value in some audio education; students can practice, experiment and fail in ways that you can’t do in a job. There’s skills that can be learned faster through focused learning or practice (like technical ear training, acoustics, or electronics). My concern with audio programs is that they tend to be too focused on teaching niche vocational skills (like large format consoles and microphones), or too short for a well-rounded audio education.

The importance of variety

I (like many audio school graduates) came to LA to work in music – to be a scoring engineer. For the number of people who want to pursue that job (or other niche jobs, like Foley walker or engineer), it’s amazing how the information isn’t out there that 1. there are very few places that do that work, and 2. there are very, very few people who actually do the job full-time. I talked with a scoring engineer to ask how to break in, and he gave me some of the best advice of my career: “Go get a job at a post studio and learn how to do everything. Then, come back and do scoring if you can find the gigs.” I did just that – I spent a couple years learning how to shoot ADR and Foley, edit dialog and sound design, and shadowed many re-recording mixers. It was like being paid to be in school.

Looking back, the real value in that advice wasn’t necessarily to work in post, but to find where there are market opportunities and learn skills that are in demand. Then, if you still want to pursue another career direction, do it with a backup plan.

The reason I bring this up is that audio education isn’t just about learning a vocation, like how to operate Pro Tools. The reality is that sound and audio (as a career path) is a lot wider than just working on feature films, video games, or scripted television shows. The majority of us in the field are not sustaining on those kinds of gigs, either. You do not have to be a sound designer 40 hours a week to hold the title or be skilled at what you do. The way I sustained through my first years freelance was by doing Quality Assurance testing for audio manufacturers. That’s a fancy way of saying I had a desk job where I tried to break plug-ins on the days I couldn’t find mix gigs.

There is something to learn in any job, and chances are you can find a way to apply it in some other way to your desired line of work. As an assistant, I watched dozens of other professionals work, learned their tricks and shortcuts, and saw how they communicated with clients in difficult situations. In QA, I learned how to spot bugs, so now I navigate around DAWs and plugins more efficiently. As an assistant scheduler, I learned that freelancers need to have a good relationship with the scheduler, because that’s who may determine who gets called for work. As a music editor, I learned that not all re-recording mixers develop enough of a relationship with their clients to get their next project. I’ve learned more about how to tell a story with audio by mixing promos than mixing episodic tv or film. I don’t know many people who have Quality Control Inspector, Audio Book Editor, or Promo Mixer on their list of potential jobs, yet these can be relevant and stable jobs (or side jobs) where one uses the same fundamental skills on a daily basis, and a lot of opportunities to learn something new.

A matter of perspective

I recently was on a gig (a scoring session/mix) with two colleagues who I knew in college. I asked them, “what’s the difference between us doing this gig today, and back when we were in school?” The fundamentals of the job were essentially the same skills we knew how to do back then. The major difference, we decided, was the knowledge gained through experience. The engineer knew where to place the main array of microphones (and what height) just by hearing his own voice on stage. I made decisions about the music mix just by looking at the picture – I knew what the sound designer would be adding or roughly how loud the dialog would be mixed without even having those elements. We each had developed an instinct through thousands of hours of experience, and that allowed us to zero in on solutions faster.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to learn or try, because every project can be an education. We’re taking what we know, trying it in a new way, evaluating the results, and using that information to decide what to do next time. Education is a very fluid and on-going process.

Unfortunately, some students come out of school and think that their education is complete. There’s an intern I will never forget – he was a recent graduate of a short-term audio program. A few days after he started, he had clearly lost his enthusiasm for being at the studio. I asked what was wrong, and he asked, “When will I get to mix?” He thought that part of his unpaid internship was going to be mixing with clients. The reason this experience was so memorable, though, is because he didn’t even know what a firewire cable was. He quit shortly after, which was a shame because it would have been a great learning opportunity, if his expectations hadn’t been so far out of balance from his skill level.

Big Business

As a freelancer, I saw a number of studio owners who really just wanted to be doing sound, but were bogged down by the struggles of managing a business. I started taking business classes thinking it would help prepare me for down the road, but what I learned was that I was already a business. The natural inclination for people who don’t know business is that you can just hire someone else to take care of it, but that’s the equivalent of buying a house without knowing how much money is in your bank account. The one person who needs to understand the financial details of your business (even as a sole-proprietor) is you. It would be beneficial to anyone operating a business to take classes in accounting, entrepreneurship, sales and management. While we don’t think about it as education, it is a learning curve to figure out how to set rates and budgets, make financial decisions about when to buy gear or sound libraries, contact potential clients, send an invoice, or do taxes. Those business classes were just as valuable to me as any audio course or on-the-job training.

It’s not just about the job

Audio education (whether on the job or at a school) isn’t just about learning skills, but determining if a skill is right for you. Not all skills (or lines of work) are a good fit for our lifestyle, interests, and abilities. Education can also be about learning what we don’t like. When we learn something new, we might ask ourselves: Do I enjoy this? Could I do this every day? Do I like working at this pace, or would I prefer something faster or slower?

We are lucky to be in a field that allows for lifelong learning. Education might start with a degree, but we have opportunities every day to expand on our skills, knowledge, and to share that with others.