Making the Most of Audio 101: AN ADDRESS TO THE INCOMING CLASS OF 2003

First of all, don't worry about the sunscreen. For the next four years, where you're going to be spending all your time, you're not going to need it.Worry
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First of all, don't worry about the sunscreen. For the next four years, where you're going to be spending all your time, you're not going to need it.Worry

First of all, don't worry about the sunscreen. For the next four years, where you're going to be spending all your time, you're not going to need it.

Worry instead about this: If you ever-well, more than once-ask yourself, "What am I doing here?" then you probably don't belong here. Pursuing a career in professional audio is no fun. It's not linear, it's not predictable, the hourly wage usually sucks, and the working conditions are often less than ideal. You'll have to deal with all sorts of jerks, from marketing jackasses to egotistical clients to wretched guitar heroes and worse. You'll be wrestling with user-hostile equipment, hopeless tech support lines and the constant threat of obsolescence of both you and your gear, while working the type of hours that make it impossible to even dream of having a personal life.

So if you don't love this, if you can't imagine yourself spending the rest of your life anywhere else except in front of or surrounded by a bunch of speakers, devoting all your energy and creativity to perfecting in one way or another the sounds you hear, then you're in the wrong place. This is not a business for the faint of heart or for those who just figure, "Hey, it's a cool way to get through college." If you can't say to yourself, at least most of the time, as you slog through classes, homework, exams, studio exercises and term projects, "This is exactly what I want to do," then you should be doing something else.

At the same time, realize this: You are not likely to come out of this program with the same goals and passions that you had when you started. Some of you today are completely convinced that you want to produce records or score films or mix live bands, and a few of you will indeed end up doing those things. But in the time you're here, both you and the industry will change. You'll discover that there are a lot more opportunities in audio than just the obvious ones, and many of you will fall in love with things you never knew existed before you came here. Some of you will end up wanting to be dialog editors or sound designers for low-bandwidth video games or Web sites. Some will be interested in designing and installing sound systems for theaters or for airports. Some will get into radio or producing talking books or doing audio for educational CD-ROMs. Some of you will decide that you want to be on the manufacturing side and go for jobs with speaker designers, signal processing hardware makers, chip designers or software publishers, finding your niche in product development or testing or marketing or customer support. And some of you will go out and do stuff that your teachers never heard of, because it didn't exist when we were teaching you. And we'll be very proud of you.

And speaking of change, get used to the idea that most of the equipment you'll be getting trained on here will be obsolete in five years. But that doesn't mean it's stupid to learn it. Being expert on a particular piece of gear is, by itself, not much use in an industry where product cycles can be counted in months. But learning how to become an expert is a skill that never goes out of date. And this is where you can learn that. This is where you'll develop the habits and attitudes that will let you learn things well-where you'll learn to learn. I spent two years of college getting really good at playing the bassoon, and after I graduated I barely touched it again. But I don't regret those years one iota: I learned how to focus, how to practice, how to set goals, how to break down a seemingly impossible task (the Alvin Etler sonata, for any bassoonists out there) into manageable chunks, and how to pace myself. On every new task I've been confronted with since, I have benefited from those skills.

Don't just learn what equipment does; learn why it does what it does. If you memorize every function on some piece of equipment by rote, when you are confronted with the next generation of hardware or software, what you know won't apply anymore and you'll have to start from scratch. But if you know the principles behind the equipment, you can carry that knowledge over to every other system you encounter.

How do you do that? Well, besides getting a good theoretical grounding in electronics, acoustics and digital logic, you should, if you have the choice, get as much training and hands-on time as you can with open-ended systems. They reflect the real world better than closed, self-contained systems. Don't just learn how to use a workstation-learn how to make it cooperate with and talk to other workstations and devices. Don't just learn one digital audio editor, learn several of them, so you get the broadest possible understanding of what digital audio editing is all about. When the next one comes along, you'll take what you know and be able to jump right on it. Don't just learn how to get SMPTE into your system-learn how it's generated, what the bits mean, what other purpose it has in the world besides linking your computer to a video deck, and why it's such a pain in the butt.

Don't forget to learn music. It's a language that's spoken by a lot of the people you'll be working with, no matter what you end up doing. Obviously, if you're working with musicians, you want to be able to understand what they're saying when they talk about taking it from the bridge, or putting in a key change, or doubling the voice at the octave in the middle eight. And you certainly don't want to embarrass yourself by telling a soprano sax player that his clarinet is too loud. But even if your gig is chopping up library music to make industrial video soundtracks, it's going to make your job go a lot faster if you know that splicing from the second beat of one bar in G major to the third beat of another in B-flat minor isn't going to work very well. Even if you're making speakers, you need to be able to talk to your customers and your marketing department not just about transient response, crossover slopes and damping, but about how well the listener can pick the instruments out of an orchestra, and about how accurate the stereo field is-and that often means being able to tell the difference between a trumpet and an oboe, and between a xylophone and a glockenspiel.

Don't be afraid to fail. Once you're in the real world, failure can be costly. But in school, no one's depending on you except you, so failure should be educational. If you suddenly realize that a project you have taken on is too much for you, don't just walk away from it-look hard at it, and see where you've broken down. Learn from the experience so that next time you encounter a similar obstacle, you can get past (or at least around) it. And never be afraid to try new things, even though you think you might fail. School is an opportunity to go in many directions, and to discover areas of the audio industry-and yourself-that you may not have thought of before. You may find yourself attracted to, and succeeding brilliantly at, something completely new. And having the experience of going into a new situation cold and being able to master it is going to stand you in good stead for the rest of your career-because it's going to happen to you a lot.

Now a little bit about basics. Two words: signal flow. No matter what you're doing-mixing, synchronizing, designing or troubleshooting-understanding how signals move through and among components and systems is crucial to getting anything done. Learn to think about signal flow. The first time your studio goes down in the middle of an important project, if you can trace in your head how the analog and digital audio, MIDI, SMPTE, SCSI and other signals are supposed to route and distribute themselves, it will keep your efforts to put things right from degenerating into random switch-throwing and cable- (and hair-) pulling. Why isn't that sample being triggered? Why is that bass track so distorted? Why are the sound and picture drifting and hiccuping? You can't easily figure out why things have stopped moving if you don't know where they were supposed to go in the first place.

Along with that, learn how things break down and why. Because they do, constantly. Even if all the equipment in your school works all the time (fat chance), that's not the way things are in the real world. Inevitably, you'll be the only person in the studio at some crucial, down-to-the-wire session when all technical hell breaks loose, and you're going to have to take care of it.

If I can inject a personal note, my baptism of fire happened this way: I had been on my first job at a radio station for about six months, when my boss decided to take off to Europe for a couple of weeks, leaving me in charge. As I drove home one night after work, I heard the station go off the air in the middle of a record, as if someone had literally just turned the transmitter off. I panicked, turned my car around, and discovered to my horror that all of New York City had gone completely dark. At least I knew it wasn't my fault. And I also knew there wasn't a heck of a lot I could do to fix it.

But I digress-hopefully, that's not the kind of problem you'll face on your first job. What you'll face will, of course, be blamed on you, even if it was caused by an act of God or the bad soldering technique of a maintenance tech who was fired three years ago. So learn what happens when an audio cable develops a short, when a hard drive loses its directory, when a motorized fader loses its motorvation. Learn the workarounds: how to patch around a bad cable or mixer channel, how to get a computer to boot from an emergency external disk, and how to salvage files from a munged drive.

And finally, do take care of yourselves. School can be fun, and for many of you it's the first time you're out of your parents' sphere of influence and you're ready to do some serious partying. You're entitled to have a good time out of-and sometimes even in-class, but please, don't go nuts and do things that you'll kick yourself for in a few years. If you have personal habits that are going to get in the way of doing your work, now is a good time to break them-it's going to be much harder later. Try to get out of the studio once in a while and get some exercise (and yes, I take it back, you may need sunscreen). Eat well: Late-night sessions are a great excuse to lay in mass quantities of junk food, but if that's all you're shoveling into your system, it's all too easy to get sick.

School is going to be hard. If it's easy, if there's no challenge, if you can breeze through everything based on what you learned on your own, then the program you're in is no good for you. Yes, there are some people with enormous amounts of native talent they can apply to an audio career, but even they won't be able to get by for very long without hard study of the basics, and an understanding of how the industry works. On the other hand, school is a much more protective environment than you're going to find anywhere afterward, so it can be a good opportunity to ask yourself questions about who you are and what you want to do. Work things out. Talk to your peers and your teachers. Butt some heads. Stretch some minds. Enjoy the experience. And remember that your education won't really begin until after you leave here.