Just as it is for life in general, when it comes to music, NewYork City is one big university. It's hard to not get schooled insomething here on a daily basis, whether the topic is human nature orpatch bays. While lessons on the latter are purely optional forresidents, New York City offers an impressive range of choices when itcomes to classes dedicated to the art and science of audioengineering.
From the biggest colleges to underemployed engineers advertisingadvice-by-the-hour on the walls of rehearsal studios, it's easy to findways to advance your knowledge when you live in and around the fiveboroughs, in part because music recording and audio post-production arestill integral to the local economy. “This is, as you know, thehub of commercial production and corporate headquarters for Fortune 500companies, broadcast and, of course, it's still a music hub,”says Noel Smith, dean of faculty for the Institute of Audio Research(www.audioschool.com). “The music demands thatthe engineering skill be of a really high level, acoustically andsonically; however, there's a fair amount of, ‘If we don't nailit the first time, let's do another take.’ But to do commercialsand corporate, you can throw that out the window; it's got to be donenow. That puts a different emphasis on engineering skills.”
“New York City is the heartbeat of so much in the musicindustry,” agrees Mark Martin, VP of marketing for SAE Institute(www.sae.edu), whichis opening an expanded, 11-control room facility in the heart of HeraldSquare. “That's true for creative media arts, digital media, filmand, of course, audio.”
“The nature of this city is that it's this huge cosmopolitanplace, and that, with the exception of country, every vital music stylein America has made more than a footprint here,” adds FredWinston, who oversees audio engineering education at the New SchoolUniversity as the director of Guitar Studies Center, part of the Schoolof Jazz and Contemporary Music (www.newschool.edu). “We have a universitythat welcomes adult learners — people who may already have afoothold in one career and are interested in pursuing another —looking to further their skills in the musical arena.”
A flexible mind-set and the ability to instantly change thecurriculum are considered a must at these varied campuses. “Ourgoal is to train engineering talent for entry-level positions in theindustry,” Smith says. “As the industry changes, itsoperating paradigms and personnel requirements likewise have to change.Our curriculum has changed to acknowledge the fact that most people areusing DAWs somewhere in their production chain, and we have addedmachine language understanding and operation of computers, in general.We have, however, recognized that people are still using analog for itssound, so we still keep our Studer multitracks operating and are in thecurriculum. But the theoretical classroom approach can almost instantlychange. Now, it's a loose thing that changes with the demands of theindustry, practically on a daily basis.”
This semester, SAE expects to see about 150 students working in its32 studios and workspaces equipped with everything from an SSL 4000 G+to a Mackie Digital 8 Bus and, of course, Pro Tools. The faculty keepsan eye on what the students like and don't like, as well as what theyare already capable of doing. “They enjoy working withsound-to-picture the most, no question,” Martin says. “Theylike authoring to DVDs, creating soundbeds, sound effects, doing Foley,as well as taking information from sound libraries. They're lessenthusiastic about digital theory, but it's necessary: A student has tofully understand bit depth. They're not interested in it because of themath, and the reason they're there is that they don't want to go to auniversity and learn those topics. We do a high concentration oninterfacing A/D and vice versa. There are so many consumer-basedprograms out there now, plus free versions of Pro Tools, students comein knowing how concepts like digital editing work, so I've found we'vehad to step up the intensity of our teaching to embrace those who arelearning on their own. They may not have an SSL 4000 at home, but theywill have Pro Tools.”
While SAE and IAR both mainly attract students looking to make audioengineering their full-time occupation following a 900-hour minimumcourse schedule, the New School sees a different demographic at theirnight classes, which can be taken individually or as part of acertificate program. “It's hard to say semester to semester, butI don't think the majority of my classes are destined for working at arecording studio,” notes Scott Noll, an adjunct professor ofaudio engineering at the New School (whose alumni include this author).“Keep in mind this is very different from SAE or IAR: I only have36 hours to cover the entire curriculum, not a nine-month,six-hour-a-day program. Some plan on making a career out of it, but alot of them have a studio at home and are saying, ‘I wish I knewhow to do this better.’ It gives you the basic knowledge to be inthe studio and not be totally ignorant. Every couple of semesters, Iget a wave of A&R people who want to get into production, and I'vehad accountants from record companies come in because studio bills comeacross their desks and they want to know what they mean.”
As DAWs have matured, so have the teaching techniques for thesoftware. At IAR, equipped with 60 Mac G3s and G4s running Pro Toolsand Reason, the key is being project-oriented. “We can't justdevelop a list of how to do these things or what keys to push: Therehas to be a goal in mind,” Smith states. “In our ProTools-based courses, we present the student with pre-recordedmultitrack recordings — a bubblegum thing, a cover of a JamesBrown tune, a soft jazz song, classical string quartet, a dance mix— that need to be processed and mixed. We'll give the studentsthe job of replacing a crashed ending by cutting and pasting the lasteight bars and fading out, cleaning up background vocalists' mumblingand headphone leakage with gates, etc. With Reason in our MIDI course,we have them use Subtractor or another of the application's virtualsound modules to create some music lines, and we move gradually fromthere to full-blown mixes. We also use a hardware sound module inconjunction with Reason, so the students can get all kinds of voicesand layers going in it.”
With the breakneck release rate of new DAW updates, soft synths andplug-ins, the schools have to keep close tabs on what emerges as anindustry standard and act accordingly. “We ask, ‘Is it usedon a large scale in the industry? Not just at Ocean Way, but by Leroyin Arkansas?’” explains Martin. “This is definitely anonexclusive school: We have MOTU next to Pro Tools. We want ourstudents to walk out with as many tools as they can get. So, forexample, we may have three projects with Pro Tools, but then we maypull something off of that and put it on Nuendo. We also have theability to affect our curriculum locally. In Miami it's veryMIDI-based, while New York City has no local flavor: It's everything.If the U.S. is the melting pot, New York City is the burner!”
As one of the professions where a no-frills apprenticeship is stillconsidered an entry-level rite of passage, many prospective audioengineers today are wondering why formal schooling in the field wouldbe necessary. “Everyone knows that you can get a GigaStudio orsome other type of sampler, cut and paste some loops, and then do arhyme into a Shure SM58. There's no mystery in that, so what do youneed an education for?” IAR's Noel Smith posits. “Becauseafter you buy all of that stuff, and it still doesn't sound like arecord, that's where education can help. Learning to be a criticallistener, ear training, understanding dynamics, the ability to heardistortion and know what or what not to do with it, these are thefundamentals of audio that have not changed over the years, and this isthe value of educational programs like ours.”
“To have it laid out in a formal curriculum, with 2.5 milliondollars' worth of equipment and apply it in theory courses — thatcan't be replaced,” SAE's Martin adds. “If you go to workat a major studio as an intern, how long will you be in the room doingstuff vs. having a good foundation to grow upon once you get out ofschool?”
No matter how many degrees you have and how many studio hours youlog, Scott Noll of the New School points out that the big audio quiz isreally just one question, and after a lifetime of study you either knowthe answer or you don't. “On the pro side, you're learning fromothers, working with other engineers, seeing what they do, how theyjuggle their craft, see what you like and dislike, and youexperiment,” he says. “Regardless of the school, it stillcomes down to how do you make something sound good?”
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