October marks my eighth year as an audio educator, an experience that has been more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. It’s not just the flow of information to receptive minds, but how each student’s unique interpretation reflects back that has helped me fine-tune each of my classes. Throw in a dash of eye-opening, a pinch of frustration and lots of repetition, and you have plenty of food for thought, or at least time for reflection.
When I told my friend Steve Marcantonio about what it is like to teach recording techniques, he was emphatic that mixing cannot be taught. At first I was taken aback by his certainty, but the point was driven home when two exceptional students were mixing a class project as an extracurricular assignment. When the initial results did not meet my expectations, each student got eight hours of “guidance.”
Grading a mixing assignment to see what students will do—and providing them with real feedback—is much different than “playing producer” and expecting very specific results. Mixing skills take more time to perfect than a two-year—or even a four-year—program allows. It’s a lifelong process. Recording projects begin with musicianship, and the biggest initial challenge for young mixers is to lay off the signal processing just a bit and learn to take advantage of automation. But when production decisions rely on solving performance issues–click, one-track-at-a-time, grid editing, vocal tuning–well, it can and does get better with experience.
As professionals, we often take our hard-earned skills for granted, skills that have taken years to polish. From the start of a project to its completion, we may not all take the same path or have the same technical skills, but the resulting sonic diversity makes listening more fun! That said, it’s no small task to convert years worth of information into digestible nuggets.
Traditional educator responsibilities include the need to create and modify the syllabus, provide a punch list of class goals, establish rules and expectations. Then there’s the testing and grading that provides essential, first-level feedback. If the goal is DAW Certification or technical details, multiple-choice tests are easy to grade. But the larger artistic goal can only be evaluated and guided in the traditional, time-honored way: by listening, providing feedback and trying again and again to get closer to the goal. In the classroom, meanwhile, what might seem unique to me, an approach that worked with one group, might not work as well with another. I have learned to pace for each specific group and allow room for students to drive the class.
EDUCATION IS BIDIRECTIONAL
The recording and mixing process is both art and science. The art of the process is each engineer’s unique vision, while the science is more like the Pirate Code, guidelines to keep things from getting out of hand. An experienced mixing engineer brings a fine-tuned ear, a musical sense and a keen awareness of playback system limitations. It is important for students to realize the investment that must be made to achieve the goal.
Recording and mixing is a bi-directional process—a servo loop if you will—one that requires constant comparison, feedback analysis and considerable trial and error. It’s what I like to call the practice of “successive approximation.” Repetition not only helps students achieve knowledge, it also improves an instructor’s fluency. I’m continually surprised that I learn something about recording and electronics in nearly every session. I use math more regularly in class than I previously did in the shop. Now I do more “in-shop math,” and it improves my problem-solving efficiency.
More important than what we learn is how we learn—and how we continue to learn. Each of us begins life as a gem in the rough, with each facet representing our talents and gifts. At least one of these facets will reveal itself early, our easy gift, while repetition polishes the facets that are outside our normal comfort zone.
Within electronics are many disciplines that reveal both strengths and weaknesses. Those with artistic/aesthetic inclinations draw the best schematics. The visual/photographic brains can recall astonishing details. And then there are math and verbal brains. Some students have the fine motor skills required for building and taking stuff apart. Others are bold and courageous, which is essential for letting me know when they are struggling (and taking stuff apart). We all learn differently. I’ve sure learned that.
My analog recording classes emphasize musicianship and teamwork. The old-school hierarchy of Producer, engineer and assistant is still valid because each person can focus on their specific task. Communication skills are essential, so that when the musicians want to know how the take was, the person responsible for listening can respond in an appropriate, hopefully supportive fashion. Students are encouraged to build their own teams when working outside of class.
BANG FOR THE BUCK
If you want to know if education is worth the price, the answer lies primarily with the students. I once calculated that 1-in-60 had the drive, determination, aptitude and attitude required for success. Those 1.66667 percenters will succeed no matter what their career path. I don’t really need to worry about them. But I can nudge and reward people who try, who communicate, who push me to do better, who let me know when they are struggling and take advantage when I can give them extra time.
My friend and fellow educator Steve Alm teaches guitar and music theory. His ratio was more extreme, but he emphasized that even those who choose a non-musical career benefit from studying music. They gain useful skills like self-discipline, self-confidence, perseverance and aesthetic appreciation.
My 1-in-60 list has grown over the past eight years. There are dozens of names I can easily recall, and everyone on that list demonstrated raw talent, drive and the tenacity to stick out the tough times to emerge stronger and more determined. They never asked how much they had to do or write; they just made themselves available and kept asking for something to keep them busy. These young people—and so many more, for many different reasons—stand out and have made me proud. They are proof of my favorite expressions: Luck favors the over-prepared, and luck is when preparation meets destiny. See, I’ve learned a few things from my students.
Coda: Creative Blues
Almost as if to prove the point, this column got sent back by my editor ‘for clarification’ after several of my own rewrites. Feedback is good. I had simply tried to cover too many angles. It’s not possible to distill every facet of teaching into 1,200 words. I’d love to talk about “education” in a more global sense, because K-12 shapes the students we all get.
And then there is the cost of education in the U.S. of A. Consider just one facet—that while Made in China allows us to have more stuff, it also clouds the bigger issue—that our dollar buys less and that makes amenities that can’t be out-sourced, like health care and education, seem prohibitively expensive.