You’ve probably been told that everything you need to know about audio and music production is available on YouTube. With enough watching, you could become an audio expert within a few months. It’s also said that real-world experience beats academic learning. Is it true? I take a look back at my time as an adult learner at Spirit Studios (formerly School of Sound Recording), in Manchester and ask, was it all worth it?
I didn’t do well in university the first time around. In 2000 I studied music, which was still a new subject (and analogue-based!). The lure of student life and undiagnosed ADHD meant I spent more time at the pub than in class. After a year, I moved back home and re-applied to the local university. Six months later, I was in a band, I was a DJ, I was a live sound technician part-time, and I had completely lost interest in academic learning. I was on the job now, so surely I didn’t need it?
Life took over and it all fell by the wayside. Decades-old habits started to show their age. So, in 2015, at the ripe young age of 33, I went back to college. I arrogantly believed that there wasn’t much I could learn. I assumed the reason my mixes were bad was because of a lack of gear and plugins. It wasn’t because I was baking reverbs in during recording, or not using compression, or had no clue how to mix…
I was very, very wrong. Here’s a couple of key takeaways I got from going to college, from the perspective of an adult learner who had some time in the real world – and was paying for each lesson out of pocket!
Here’s how I felt the academic study was of benefit to me.
I was given a structured learning path
The problem with learning from Youtube videos is that it’s impossible to really know where to begin logically. You don’t know what you don’t know. There might be tools and techniques that, unless you’re already aware of them, you’d never know to learn them, or how to apply them to your own work.
One of the things I really enjoyed about going back to college was that I was given a timetable and a logical path of learning. From early recording lessons to producing audio for TV and film, just having a guide on what to do, what techniques were covered, and how to apply them, was really helpful.
I liked to say that if anything, I’ve learned how to learn – I now know how to effectively train myself in new skills, because of the academic soft skills I gained.
Access to great gear (and how to use it)
I knew about Neumann mics and Neve desks before I went to college. These were the sorts of things massive studios had. I was a bedroom producer with a cheap interface.
Suddenly I was in a professional studio environment, with all of the opportunities and pitfalls involved. I could record anything I wanted in a wide variety of studios. It’s an experience that I simply wouldn’t have had elsewhere. It’s also an experience you don’t get from online courses – the school has done the expenditure for you, and will advise you on the best equipment to buy for your home recording/producing studio.
Does it mean I’ve sunk tens of thousands into similar gear? No, but I’ve heard first-hand what different mics, preamps, desks, and environments sound like, and what would work for me and my recordings.
Setting Goals and Time Discipline
Nobody likes a deadline, but if the computer and the guitar are in the corner of your living room, what’s to stop you from playing Xbox, or binge-watching Netflix? Equally, as there’s no set date you need to finish that song, what does it matter if you’re working on it for another three months?
Before I went to college I would honestly excuse myself from any production if I had less than two hours free. I’d game for four hours instead. College assignments are different. They have deadlines. You can only book studios for certain amounts of time. On top of a full-time job (and partway through college, a new child), time was rigid. I got used to having a good idea of how long specific jobs would take and would factor that time in accordingly.
When I moved my studio back home, that lapsed. Now, my studio is external to the house, and I have client deadlines, so I’ve learned to be really methodical with my time.
Professional Feedback and Support
This is a big one. You can post your mix to your mates to ask them if they like it, but unless they’re producers themselves, they’re only going to judge it based on how it sounds. Do they like the tune? Is it the sort of thing they like? Compliments are nice, but that feedback isn’t helpful if you’re developing your skills.
Equally, posting online to self-titled ‘producers’ on social media gets you a pool of people who may or may not have a clue what they’re talking about. The teachers at my college were all working professionals, producers and engineers who were teaching on the side. They organised regular one-to-one meetings to discuss progress on projects.
Having that sort of mentorship is invaluable and you develop faster as a result. If you read this blog and decide I’m full of crap and you absolutely don’t see the value of academic study, please, at least look at finding a professional mentor. You’ll thank me later.
I’m still in touch with my college friends and peers. If I need their skills, or they need mine, those connections are already established. An element that I didn’t take advantage of, and absolutely wish I had, is cross-school networking. Working with student filmmakers, musicians, or game developers who could have used my skills. My first indie film was a Manchester director with who I’m still in touch, and he was really involved in the post-production process. Talking to people face to face and working together is a skill you will absolutely need.
It was fun!
Yes! It’s important. Going back to college, being in that environment of learning, having access to the kit, having free reign to learn and create, while being guided positively – it was fun! I made friends, had a laugh, and soaked in the atmosphere of the studios. Being around like-minded people was a massive positive for me. I’m pretty sure I bored the on-site engineers with long conversations more than once!
Of course, there are reasons why you might choose not to go study music or audio:
- “How much money can you earn?” Well, it’s creative arts. I can’t speak for every school but in my experience, there wasn’t a team of headhunters waiting to snap us all up as we left our graduation. I also did a couple of open days as well and it was a question from some sceptical parents who wanted their kids to have ‘real jobs. If you want a job that makes decent money, go and get that job. Or, do what I did – work a full-time job with your music on the side. When you can afford to, switch to part-time. Find part-time or supplementary work, that is relevant to your lifestyle and passions. The balance is determined entirely by how much you tie money to happiness.
- It’s expensive. Facilities, equipment and people’s time all need to be paid for. See my above point: there’s no guarantee of a financial return on that investment if you don’t exercise patience and persistence.
- Quality needs to be assessed. Remember, you’re assessing the school against just learning from online videos, some of which are posted by seasoned pros. Do these teachers work in their spare time, or have they not released any of their own work since 1975? Can they answer the question, ‘what do I do after I leave?’ They should be supporting the next steps. Equally, they should be teaching you industry-standard techniques. If they’re using cheap, obscure equipment, poor microphones, and software that’s years out of date, walk away.
- It’s a Time Commitment. It’s not like you can jump in and out as life dictates, you have to dedicate yourself to the course for its duration.
- There is no guarantee that going to studying music production, audio engineering or voice acting will get you work. I’ve stated this a few times already, but what you’re doing is investing in yourself, and gaining the skills you need to work efficiently and to a professional standard. You’re still going to have to network. You’re still going to have to market yourself. If you don’t do these things, you will have wasted your time and money learning the skills.
So there it is. My experience of college was really positive. I enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and it gave me a mindset that I’ve retained. Before that, my own self-training was poor, just because I didn’t really know how to learn or research. I was arrogant in believing that modern bullshit quote “anyone can do audio these days.” You can, but to be truly good at it, a good teacher is a must.
Here’s a picture of me at the end of my time at Spirit Studios in July 2017, in front of their flagship Neve VRP48 Spirit desk. Just before recording a 22-piece brass band for one of my final year projects. I was probably running on 4 hours’ sleep. It doesn’t really capture how happy I am in this photo.
You won’t get this feeling from subscribing to a Youtube channel 😉
Got any questions about my experience, or about learning audio in general? Feel free to leave a comment with your own experiences or questions below!