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Making the grade: Training in studio and broadcast

As the industry grows ever-more competitive, a consensus is emerging on the need for more comprehensive pro-audio education. We cornered audio pros and training providers for their take

Earlier this year, the Labour Party in the UK commented on the “rising tide of insecurity” in the wider British job market, which is seeing temporary and ‘zero-hours’ contracts becoming more widespread. It’s a similar story throughout continental Europe: as Ilan Brat and Giada Zampano, journalists from Madrid and Rome, respectively, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month, “[M]any younger Europeans can hope for little more than poorly paid, short-term contracts […] Employers in many countries are reluctant to hire on permanent contracts because of rigid labour rules and sky-high payroll taxes that go to funding the huge pension bill of their parents.”

Nathan Lively, the US-based sound designer/engineer and founder of the blog Sound Design Live, echoes those sentiments with regards to the current state of the professional audio market: “Training and education in pro audio is extremely important – not just because technology is continually changing, but because contract and freelance labour is the way of the future, requiring a new attitude of business development. Audio professionals need to think and act like entrepreneurs. This is not a meritocracy.”

Lively rebuffs the widely repeated truism that it is harder than ever to break into the industry, instead pointing to a sense of entitlement among the next generation of sound engineers. “My experience is that the industry has not changed much, but people have,” he comments. “The barriers to entry are not any higher now, but people expect that the unique and valuable skills they have been developing should launch their career like a rocket – ignoring networking, marketing and sales until they are burned out, blaming their failure on a lack of opportunity.”

But at a time when much of the Western world has record numbers of graduates and no one to employ them, does everyone working in studio sound need to be educated to such a high level? Mick Olesh, co-founder of Tel Aviv-headquartered plug-in developer Waves Audio, isn’t so sure.

“There are several market segments that have a strong need for education and others that do very well with basic-to-none,” Olesh (pictured right)says. “[For example], we have witnessed the growth of the EDM market – a market segment that is the largest single profit achiever for the last several years [but where] many of the top ‘artists’ create their work with no formal education. The industry provides them with tools that are ‘no-brainers’ – ‘one-knob’ audio enhancers that enable them to use their talent [and make] go/no-go decisions, all within the surrounding of their comfort zone [and] working space.

“On the other hand, you find the top-ranking, inspiring engineers and producers who have thousands of followers [and] need to know every little bit of info in order to present their masterpieces to the audience. So, do we need education? Yes, very much so – however, not everyone needs it!”

Olesh agrees with Lively that pro audio is no harder to break into than the secluded world of “100 [or so] guys walking to the APRS or AES 20+ years ago”. “It’s way more competitive – in a very good sense – than it was before,” he says. “The opportunities today are greater than ever, and they keep on expanding. You don’t need to hold on for years to get a break in the industry – it’s way easier now to wake up to the challenge and do your own thing. There’s no need for the million-dollar control room – although that’s not a bad thing to have…

“Yes, it is way more competitive… although I do not believe it is harder; it’s just very different, in that your exposure nowadays is instant. The rise and fall of a track or performer is within a twitch of a ‘like’!”

Christian Huant, principal of renowned international audio college Alchemea, naturally has an interest in seeing his recent graduates do well – but suggests that experienced studio hands willing to go the extra mile still possess the advantage over the throngs of fresh-faced university alumni. “There are literally thousands of college and university graduates out there – and some with no training at all, actually – falling over themselves to make it in the industry,” he comments, “[which] often means doing work for free to get a foot on the ladder and make contacts. But how can established professionals compete with that? (Alchemea’s post-production and game sound course is pictured.)

“The answer is through the quality of their work. Something done quickly by a beginner with limited access to equipment cannot rival what a seasoned professional will achieve with (hopefully) higher-grade equipment, so, in my opinion, it is all about the quality of the work being done – [something] many clients sadly may not embrace when contemplating the financial implications.”

“I was lucky enough to secure a job straight after my degree,” says Elliott Whyte, applications engineer at Cambridge-based Prism Sound, “but I know many people who have had to do unpaid internships before they even get a look at an interview for a paid job.” The ubiquity of the internship – particularly in the popular creative industries – is another symptom of the oversaturated European jobs market, and 2013 graduate Whyte (pictured right) is keen to stress the importance of making oneself attractive to employers beyond simple qualifications: “There are lots of people who want to [work in pro audio] because it is an interesting and enjoyable area, so the key thing is to make sure you stand out – go above and beyond what is required for your training.”

One area in which the recently graduated may have the edge is in the rise of newer technologies like hybrid systems and IT-based networking. David Ward, executive director of Joint Audio Media Education Support (JAMES), which offers course accreditation for audio recording/music production, music composition and audio post-production for film and TV, suggests that studio and broadcast engineers should be looking outside professional audio as a means of keeping up with the latest developments.

“The keywords here are integration and integrated systems,” he says. “It is vital that people working in our industry have not only up-to-date knowledge of technological developments in our own sector, but also knowledge of other sectors…”

Continued tomorrow.