Class Dismissed: Are Recording Schools Worth It?
by Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)
It doesn't seem so long ago when I was the one striking a posture-crippling pose in the seats of the Music Industry Arts program at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. With a roll of Ampex 456 under my arm I often braved the Canada cold at 3:00am-trudging through several feet of snow across the vast campus grounds with hopes of staking a claim to some unused studio time inside. I have to say, after sufficiently thawing out, it was during those solo morning sessions of trial and error, indiscriminate button pushing, and concert-level feedback loops, that I indirectly got the most from my formal recording education. So why is the school environment continually cited as least conducive to learning the art of recording and to understanding the inner workings of the music business?
School and the Real World
While many recording schools have the best intentions, their shortcomings always seem to lie in bridging the disconnection between the student and a viable career path. In some of these courses a bunch of equipment, a couple of textbooks, and some outdated industry experience is supposed to miraculously transform you into a full-fl edged recording engineer or record producer. The reality is that many instructors have a hard time admitting that they cannot teach you everything needed in order to prepare you for what's really out there. In all likelihood, they probably don't fully understand the current state of the music business because they simply aren't a part of it. Don't get me wrong, most recording programs excel in providing a great foundation for practical techniques and, as always, it's up to the individual students to make the most out of their own education. It just strikes me that many teachers have difficulty conveying the right information when it comes to how to make your initial entry into the music recording business.
You may prance out of one of these schools with a nice piece of paper that says you're an engineer or a producer- might as well file that alongside your kindergarten finger paintings because they're just about as useful for getting you into this industry. It's natural for instructors to play up their school's ability to graduate you as a professional, but the fact is, the minute you leave that institution is quite possibly the minute your real education begins.
The Art of Making Coffee
Though there are countless ways to accomplish this, one of the most direct paths to becoming a successful recording engineer is to first become a great assistant engineer. So many programs tend to get ahead of themselves by tackling daunting topics like 5.1 mixing techniques or advanced music production when they would better serve their students by teaching "The Art of Making a Great Pot of Coffee" and " Urinal Puck Distribution 101." The odds are that you'll be thrown into this industry at the bottom of the food chain where nobody cares what audio software you've mastered or what your diploma says on it.
That's not to say that there shouldn't be courses and programs teaching advanced techniques, but for those who are serious about their career, this needs to be balanced with an emphasis on how to be an effective assistant. When you've yet to acquire the complete audio skill set, the best way to learn is to be in the proximity of the best possible professional actively performing those skills. Even then, at times this can provide great lessons in what not to do...but regardless, as an assistant engineer you' re positioning yourself on the frontline where real records are being made for major record companies. Since no school can duplicate that kind of education, they should at least prepare you for it.
Acknowledging these inherent flaws in the system, most recording schools will arrange for industry pros to give guest lectures or in-studio workshops to supplement what they teach in their classes. In my opinion, these should be occurring as frequently as possible, covering a wide spectrum of musical genres from every corner of the business. Schools would become a little more like the music industry itself by having to actually participate in the schmooze-fest in order to secure A-list guests. This process not only lends credibility to the curriculum, but also keeps schools in closer contact to the real world of recording. Is it hard for your small school to justify the additional effort and expense to do this? The truth is that besides providing a more realistic education , l believe it's becoming essential for schools to be more competitive, given the number of recording programs cropping up everywhere. The more people I see gravitating toward these institutions as their instant gateway to a promising music career, the more I become a proponent of self-admjnistered education.
If you' re as skeptical as I am of the spoon-fed, cookie-cutter education model, then you may be up for bypassing recording school entirely. I mean, if you don't need your hand
held through the learning process, I'd suggest re-directing your tuition check into a studio rental, have the house guy show you how to use everything and record some garage band that won't mind being your guinea pig. When you're ready, you can literally hire your favorite engineer to give you some more advanced, one-on-one instruction-and some real insight into the business.
Whether you decide to fast track your learning curve like this or not, it's always important to read as much as you can independently and listen to... no, study all kinds of recorded music. Develop an opinion of what sounds good to you.
If You Want it Badly Enough
It's really not my imention to single-handedly undermine formal recording education. I just think that we all must guard against apathy - in both students and teachers alike.
Students shouldn't assume that simply attending a recording program is enough, and teachers need to find new ways to bring the industry into the halls of their schools. I have a lot of respect for those actually pursuing their dreams and, as much as I try to discourage most people from this spirit-depleting business, I believe that there is room for you here if you want it badly enough.
I donated my first platinum record award to the walls of my former recording school, with the intent that it may provide a little hope and clarity to the blurry·eyed kid at 3:00 am who stumbles in from the cold with a FireWire drive in his pocket and the desire to one day do something great. You' ll get there. Just remember that learning is ongoing and class is never dismissed.