Back To School
Breaking into the audio industry has always been difficult, but attending a training course may well help you on your way. We report on one scheme offered by Manchester's School Of Sound Recording.
Exposure to low-cost home recording equipment over the past few years has led to an increase in the number of people looking to 'break in' to the audio business. And in an effort to give themselves an edge over their competitors in the job market, more and more would-be engineers are taking advantage of training schemes like that run by the Manchester-based School Of Sound Recording, who offer a one year course in sound recording and related arts, which is designed to fulfil the need for trained operators in the pro-audio world.
Sound engineering, as we all know, is a demanding occupation. A good engineer has to be a methodical scientist, a creative artist and a diplomat all rolled into one.
Although many students attend the course for private reasons, the majority enrol with a view to gaining, eventually, permanent employment. Opportunities exist in many fields, eg. in-house studio engineer, producer, broadcast engineer, TV sound recordist etc. Understandably, the school cannot promise every student a career in the music industry on completion of the course. Not everybody is going to walk off the course and into secure employment. However, the school does have very close ties with the industry and is therefore aware of vacancies that arise not only in recording studios, but also TV companies and radio stations. Every effort is made to provide placements during the latter part of the course for the students to gain firsthand experience in whichever area they'd prefer to specialise.
The curriculum begins assuming the student has absolutely no experience whatsoever. There are two classes daily. These are limited to 25 students each, and run concurrently so that students may interchange if they come across problems with their time schedule. Practical time can be booked by the students, whenever it suits them, in one of the two in-house studios owned by the school.
The first subject covered, naturally enough, is sound. In the school's words, "it is important to quantize the medium we are dealing with, from a physical point of view, in order to impress a greater subjective understanding of pitch and volume, harmonics and timbre, or why sounds are what they are."
Principles of monophony, sterophony, quadrophony and multitrack are studied. The idea of signal flow is introduced, how sound is transferred from the studio to your home hi-fi by methodical progression through the many production stages. Pupils are taught how to edit, both music and speech, to familiarise them with the handling of tape and sound equipment with confidence.
The school's 4-track studio is permanently set up as a practical working example to explain, in detail, the working of mixing console and multitrack in harmony. Here, and wherever possible, the theory runs concurrently with practical work. Mixing desk exercises begin with the help of a drum machine, the initial objective being to route a signal through the desk successfully. The teaching approach to the mixing desk is angled at dividing the signal path into its separate sections then bringing it together as a whole to show its progression. This helps to make the vast expanse of knobs seem smaller and more manageable.
The multitrack follows, with lectures covering the machine itself, and the methods and procedure for getting a signal onto the tape and back again. Practical exercises continue with mixdowns, so that the student gets used to handling the multitrack, and continues to improve their fluency on the desk by mixing down pre-recorded tapes. All results are kept on a cassette tape, which the student is encouraged to compile throughout the course, in order to build up a portfolio of their work.
Once students have reached a certain standard, a formal mixdown test exercise is set, and a short 'on the spot' test is completed and marked by the course tutors. The marks go towards the final assessment, along with the entire editing exercise and later exercises.
For those prospective students who, for one reason or another, can't afford to attend a course lasting 48 weeks because of other commitments, the school offers an attractive alternative...
A five-day 'modular' course runs from Mondays to Fridays, throughout the year on a continuous basis. The five days are treated as independent modules and students may subscribe to certain modules only, if they wish to specialise, or alternatively attend a full five-day course. As with the full-time course, all modules are structured so that no previous experience is necessary. According to course leader, John Breakell, the modules have been tailored to give a basic, but thorough, understanding of the topics taught. The following is an attempt to explain in general terms the content of each respective module:
Day 1: Basic multitrack recording/microphone techniques.
This first module is designed to cover the complete studio set-up introducing modern recording techniques on multitrack format. It should prove useful for musicians and prospective engineers, giving an insight into the recording and overdubbing of acoustic instruments. This includes: microphone characteristics and placement, track-bouncing, drop-ins, equalisation, multitrack machines etc.
Day 2: Effects-technique/application.
Expanding on the previous day, module two covers the use and application of effects, both digital and analogue, in recording and mixdown situations, leading to a fuller understanding of the basic recording process including: time delay effects, dynamic controllers, acoustics and studio design.
Day 3: MIDI - sequencer/drum machine programming.
Module three moves into the area of hi-tech and computerised musical instruments and covers most aspects of programming and synchronisation. The different MIDI messages are discussed to enable the student to fully understand the various interface communications.
Day 4: Sampling/DX programming/editing.
This module attempts to cover the most significant advance in the musical arena - that of sampling. The art of good sampling, and the limitations of different samplers are covered in detail.
Day 5: Multitrack recording/mixing/production techniques.
Rounding off the alternative five-day course, this module covers advanced recording techniques and the integration of MIDI and synchronisation within the modern multitrack studio.
All in all, I think you'll agree, an impressive, if not necessary course for the musician who requires a fuller knowledge of their chosen profession or hobby, or for the amateur home recordist wishing to expand and further their understanding of modern recording techniques and equipment.
The school, which is officially recognised and approved by The Association of Sound and Communication Engineers, has many satisfied students both past and present. Here are a few testimonials to its success:
Stuart Jungerious: "Before I attended the course I was a home recording enthusiast with very little gear. Little did I know that, within a year, I'd be recording and mixing in a 16-track studio. The school taught me from scratch. The lectures were well structured and easy to understand. Most important to me was the practical time, where I finally got my hands on all the lovely equipment! We started in the 4-track studio and graduated to the brand new 16-track with the latest in digital technology, including samplers and effects units. The year-long course built my confidence for handling any studio equipment, and to work it efficiently and to the greatest effect! "
Sharon Lynch: "I attended The School Of Sound Recording's five-day course and found it to be extremely helpful. I had a limited knowledge of recording, but craved more. The course concentrated on recording and effects units for the first two days in an easy to understand way. The lecturer didn't go into much detail, but preferred to concentrate on how everything operated.
The third and fourth days concentrated on MIDI-controlled equipment and how to link it all together. I also covered sampling and DX programming in detail which I found very useful. On the final day we learned about mixing and production.
I found the whole course to be very well thought out and easy to understand, and would certainly recommend it."
Max Johnson: "The course is hard work, considering it's only part-time, but that sorts out the men from the boys. Usually, in big studios, the apprentice sound engineer is no more than the coffee boy. He spends three or four years running around brewing up or going on errands and even at the end of it he still doesn't really know what's going on. With this course there's plenty of room for experimentation because you're made aware of which knob or slider does what, so you can be left to experiment yourself. I also think it's important for an aspiring sound engineer to have a working knowledge of an instrument, although not vital, in order to give him a better understanding of his future clientele.
They even take you right through the building of a studio on the course, in fact one of the tests is to design a studio, given a fixed sum of money, right down to the last nut and bolt. It's very comprehensive. We are also taught how to tune a drum kit properly; I know some drummers who can't do that!
"Finally, Mike Capper. "Well it's given me a new sense of creative outlet other than the music. I wouldn't like to think I'll just be stuck in my back room knowing what I've learnt. I'd like to apply the knowledge practically and maybe even get paid for it.
It's made me a lot more aware of what can be achieved too. The course is diverse and I think they've got their priorities right. At first I thought, 'why do we have to go over this in such detail', or 'what will I ever need to know that for?' but now I think they've got the curriculum spot-on. I've been experimenting on my own too and I've discovered that engineering is as creative as writing songs and playing. The way you can shape the musicians' sound is equally important, it's creatively stimulating."
Kind words indeed. There is about a 10% failure rate on the main course but how many schools or apprenticeships can boast a failure rate that low?