Music in Education
Audio Training Courses
Recording courses: what are they, where are they and do they increase your chances of getting the job of your dreams?
Stephanie Sobey-Jones looks at the opportunities, requirements and benefits of training courses in music-related technology and audio engineering.
Getting a start in the recording industry is not easy these days; more people than ever before are looking for careers as recording musicians, engineers and producers. So how do you get that all-important break? Years ago, the established route was to persuade a studio to take you on to make tea and run messages, before slowly moving up through the ranks to the eventual position of Engineer — provided you survived the in-between bits! Today, this can still be the case, but since there are more people chasing fewer jobs, you need some sort of 'edge' in order to survive the competition. Most studios — if they are looking at all — are now looking for people with some measure of experience in music technology and recording, and if you can't get into a studio to gain the actual experience in the first place, how can you then get a job? One avenue is to consider a course of training. It won't guarantee you a job, but it will give you the technical background and hands-on experience which studios, theatres and other potential employers are looking for, so what have you got to lose?
A career in the music or recording industries requires a great deal of commitment. An interest in music and technology is obviously a vital quality for any would-be student but, be warned, if you are looking for a course which will lead to instant success as a rock star, songwriter or record producer, you may not be the material that the training establishments are looking for. Some courses have fairly rigorous entry requirements in the form of academic qualifications; for example, entry to Surrey University's B.Mus. Tonmeister course demands 'A' Levels in Mathematics, Physics and Music, plus a Grade 8 standard of instrumental competence. (There is also a very limited number of places available each year.) Other institutions look for different qualities, and in the case of mature students who may not be able to meet the formal entry requirements, consideration for a place may well depend on previous musical or technical experience and the degree of potential shown at an interview. In general, all training establishments are looking for students who can show concrete evidence of an interest in working within the industry, which does not mean turning up at an interview and offering "I want to be a record producer" if you have never even been inside a recording studio! Similarly, you have to be very single-minded about choosing a career in this industry.
Don't apply for an audio engineering or music technology course as a back-up in case you fail in your bid to become a brain surgeon or atomic physicist! Training establishments can afford to be choosy these days, as courses are frequently oversubscribed. They are also looking for people who want to be involved in the music industry because they are genuinely interested in the work, and can demonstrate the right personal qualities required for survival in a tough, competitive, and sometimes decidedly unglamorous environment!!
Finding out about courses is not as easy as it may seem, for although there is quite a variety of courses — both full and part-time — on offer in various parts of the country, tracking them down, even for the purposes of this article, has proved more difficult than you might imagine. Some institutions make their information readily available, and others (as yet) do not. A good starting place for information could be your local careers office, which may have the facility to do a computer search and print out of available courses, but this is unlikely to be terribly extensive (I only came up with a handful using this method). They may, however, have information on any adult or further education short courses run at local colleges, which can provide a good introduction to different aspects of music technology and recording, especially for those with little previous experience. (Lancaster University's Department of Adult Continuing Education runs such a course to cater for the Lancashire and Cumbria areas, and I'm sure there are similar courses available in other parts of the country.) But if you are looking further afield for course information, some of the major training establishments regularly advertise courses in the music magazines, and we have additionally included a list of institutions currently offering a range of fulltime and short intensive courses. Most places are happy to receive initial telephone enquiries and will send out information to you covering course details, entry requirements and methods of application.
Since finances are usually a basic consideration in every aspect of life, it is a good idea initially to check out whether any course you may apply for will entitle you to some kind of grant or discretionary award, or whether you will have to foot the bill! Your Local Education Authority will have a list of approved courses and it is probably worth contacting the relevant department to check whether your chosen course is on the list. If not, there may be alternative sources of local funding which you can investigate. Either way, it is probably worth checking this out before actually applying for the course.
Courses currently exist in a variety of lengths, carrying an equivalent variety of qualifications at the end. You may decide to go the whole hog and opt for one of the very few specialist degree courses, such as Surrey University's B.Mus. Tonmeister — a four-year course where one year is spent on work placement in the industry. Many other universities and colleges are now offering standard degree courses in Music with an optional technology unit, but the degree of specialisation may obviously be very different. However, if the thought of signing your life away for three or four years intensive study, assessment and examination doesn't appeal, several establishments offer one-year courses, such as Media Production Facilities, where three basic modules of Analogue, Digital and Creative Music Recording and Production combine to form the basis of their one-year full-time course (the modules can also be studied separately as 3-month intensive courses). Similarly, the Manchester-based School of Sound Recording's One-Year Certificate Level course and the School of Audio Engineering's 15-month Audio Engineer Diploma combine hands-on experience with a thorough, theoretical background. Alternatively, a short intensive course might give you background in a particular specialist area, such as Campus AV's Dance Mixing or Audio for Video and Film courses, or the Gateway School of Recording's Essentials of PA Engineering. On the other hand, you may just want a good old introduction to the general features of music technology and recording, in which case many of the above establishments also run 5-day courses at various times of the year, which are definitely worth checking out.
Many studios now offer YTS, or other placements which could include day-release training. City of Westminster College offers the City and Guilds 182 Certificate in Sound Engineering, which is available as a three-year day release course, and a number of other establishments also have this type of training provision. Choosing the right type of course to suit your particular interests is very important. For example, if you are heavily into writing and performing material, but also enjoy working with technology in a creative environment, a straight audio engineering course without a performing or composition element may not be the best thing for you. University College Salford offers a B.A. degree in Popular Music and Recording, which is a practical course comprising units in performance, composition and aural training, along with music technology and recording which is taught in the college's three 24-track studios. The emphasis is on performance and the creative use of technology, and students are encouraged to make the most of performing opportunities in the Manchester area. Competition for places is very tough, however — roughly 1500 applicants for just 30 places, and the selection procedure is rigorous, including a written test, plus audition and interview for those surviving the first part!
Jewel and Esk Valley College's HND in Modern Musicianship also offers an opportunity to combine performance and technology interests. No formal musical qualifications are required for entry to this course, but an applicant's degree of natural musicianship and potential is tested in a practical audition. Alternatively you may be more interested ir the inner workings of equipment, rather than its creative application, in which case a maintenance engineering course could be more up your street, such as the one-year day release, and 5-week condensed courses offered by the Institute of Music Technology. On the other hand, you may want to keep your options open and have a broader education in different aspects of music technology with music business skills thrown in, and again certain courses cater for these interests better than others. Gateway School of Recording offers a Higher Education Diploma in Recording Techniques, Music Technology and Music Business Studies which is validated by the University of Kingston. The 12-month course is designed to cater for general entry into the music industry (rather than being exclusively audio engineering based), and much of the teaching is carried out in small groups to give maximum access to equipment. In addition to studying techniques of recording, students consider the creative applications of music technology and related communication skills, whilst also having an opportunity to look at how the actual industry works — its structure, contracts, and other important aspects. This course has three intakes a year, with only 18 students per intake so, again, competition for places is tough. Places are awarded on the strength of an interview, so any previous experience or interests which can be discussed will obviously be an advantage.
New courses are currently appearing all over the country, such as the London College of Music's Diploma in Music Technology, which is due to commence in February 1993. Newcastle College has recently begun a new two-year HND course in Music Technology — in addition to several existing courses — which provides an excellent basis for entry to a number of branches of the industry. In addition to standard units in recording, MIDI programming and sequencing, students also study acoustics, sound synthesis and sampling, analogue and digital electronics, plus applied PA systems, related media applications, business skills and marketing. An alternative Music Technology (Production) course is also available, which has a greater emphasis on the creative aspects of technology and music production.
An interesting (but perhaps not surprising) factor to emerge from this study of training opportunities has been the relatively low numbers of female students to be found on courses. The establishments I spoke to would like to see more women on their courses, and although the numbers have started to improve, there is still some way to go.
Finally, the list of training establishments appearing in this article is, I'm sure, by no means exhaustive. As I stated earlier, finding out what courses are available is still very difficult, so apologies to those who have been left out on this occasion. Many of the courses mentioned are intended for entry at 18 years of age, and quite a few demand 'A' level (or equivalent) qualifications. However, a number of BTec courses in Music Technology are now becoming available at various colleges (and even some schools) for students of 16 and above who have completed GCSE studies. I have received a number of enquiries recently from interested students looking for courses in different parts of the country, and I would be delighted to have details from any establishments offering various full-time, part-time or short courses of training in Music Technology or Audio Engineering at any level.
Any establishments not mentioned in this article are invited to submit details of their courses to Recording Musician. Information will then be kept on file for future articles and for reader enquiries.