New York Metro

Nov 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By David Weiss

Polls


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Just as it is for life in general, when it comes to music, New York City is one big university. It's hard to not get schooled in something here on a daily basis, whether the topic is human nature or patch bays. While lessons on the latter are purely optional for residents, New York City offers an impressive range of choices when it comes to classes dedicated to the art and science of audio engineering.

From the biggest colleges to underemployed engineers advertising advice-by-the-hour on the walls of rehearsal studios, it's easy to find ways to advance your knowledge when you live in and around the five boroughs, in part because music recording and audio post-production are still integral to the local economy. “This is, as you know, the hub of commercial production and corporate headquarters for Fortune 500 companies, 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 that the engineering skill be of a really high level, acoustically and sonically; however, there's a fair amount of, ‘If we don't nail it the first time, let's do another take.’ But to do commercials and corporate, you can throw that out the window; it's got to be done now. That puts a different emphasis on engineering skills.”

“New York City is the heartbeat of so much in the music industry,” agrees Mark Martin, VP of marketing for SAE Institute (www.sae.edu), which is opening an expanded, 11-control room facility in the heart of Herald Square. “That's true for creative media arts, digital media, film and, of course, audio.”

“The nature of this city is that it's this huge cosmopolitan place, and that, with the exception of country, every vital music style in America has made more than a footprint here,” adds Fred Winston, who oversees audio engineering education at the New School University as the director of Guitar Studies Center, part of the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music (www.newschool.edu). “We have a university that welcomes adult learners — people who may already have a foothold 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 the curriculum are considered a must at these varied campuses. “Our goal is to train engineering talent for entry-level positions in the industry,” Smith says. “As the industry changes, its operating paradigms and personnel requirements likewise have to change. Our curriculum has changed to acknowledge the fact that most people are using DAWs somewhere in their production chain, and we have added machine language understanding and operation of computers, in general. We have, however, recognized that people are still using analog for its sound, so we still keep our Studer multitracks operating and are in the curriculum. But the theoretical classroom approach can almost instantly change. Now, it's a loose thing that changes with the demands of the industry, practically on a daily basis.”

This semester, SAE expects to see about 150 students working in its 32 studios and workspaces equipped with everything from an SSL 4000 G+ to a Mackie Digital 8 Bus and, of course, Pro Tools. The faculty keeps an eye on what the students like and don't like, as well as what they are already capable of doing. “They enjoy working with sound-to-picture the most, no question,” Martin says. “They like authoring to DVDs, creating soundbeds, sound effects, doing Foley, as well as taking information from sound libraries. They're less enthusiastic about digital theory, but it's necessary: A student has to fully understand bit depth. They're not interested in it because of the math, and the reason they're there is that they don't want to go to a university and learn those topics. We do a high concentration on interfacing A/D and vice versa. There are so many consumer-based programs out there now, plus free versions of Pro Tools, students come in knowing how concepts like digital editing work, so I've found we've had to step up the intensity of our teaching to embrace those who are learning on their own. They may not have an SSL 4000 at home, but they will have Pro Tools.”

While SAE and IAR both mainly attract students looking to make audio engineering their full-time occupation following a 900-hour minimum course schedule, the New School sees a different demographic at their night classes, which can be taken individually or as part of a certificate program. “It's hard to say semester to semester, but I don't think the majority of my classes are destined for working at a recording studio,” notes Scott Noll, an adjunct professor of audio engineering at the New School (whose alumni include this author). “Keep in mind this is very different from SAE or IAR: I only have 36 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 a lot of them have a studio at home and are saying, ‘I wish I knew how to do this better.’ It gives you the basic knowledge to be in the studio and not be totally ignorant. Every couple of semesters, I get a wave of A&R people who want to get into production, and I've had accountants from record companies come in because studio bills come across their desks and they want to know what they mean.”

As DAWs have matured, so have the teaching techniques for the software. At IAR, equipped with 60 Mac G3s and G4s running Pro Tools and Reason, the key is being project-oriented. “We can't just develop a list of how to do these things or what keys to push: There has to be a goal in mind,” Smith states. “In our Pro Tools-based courses, we present the student with pre-recorded multitrack recordings — a bubblegum thing, a cover of a James Brown tune, a soft jazz song, classical string quartet, a dance mix — that need to be processed and mixed. We'll give the students the job of replacing a crashed ending by cutting and pasting the last eight bars and fading out, cleaning up background vocalists' mumbling and headphone leakage with gates, etc. With Reason in our MIDI course, we have them use Subtractor or another of the application's virtual sound modules to create some music lines, and we move gradually from there to full-blown mixes. We also use a hardware sound module in conjunction with Reason, so the students can get all kinds of voices and layers going in it.”

With the breakneck release rate of new DAW updates, soft synths and plug-ins, the schools have to keep close tabs on what emerges as an industry standard and act accordingly. “We ask, ‘Is it used on a large scale in the industry? Not just at Ocean Way, but by Leroy in Arkansas?’” explains Martin. “This is definitely a nonexclusive school: We have MOTU next to Pro Tools. We want our students to walk out with as many tools as they can get. So, for example, we may have three projects with Pro Tools, but then we may pull something off of that and put it on Nuendo. We also have the ability to affect our curriculum locally. In Miami it's very MIDI-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 still considered an entry-level rite of passage, many prospective audio engineers today are wondering why formal schooling in the field would be necessary. “Everyone knows that you can get a GigaStudio or some other type of sampler, cut and paste some loops, and then do a rhyme into a Shure SM58. There's no mystery in that, so what do you need an education for?” IAR's Noel Smith posits. “Because after you buy all of that stuff, and it still doesn't sound like a record, that's where education can help. Learning to be a critical listener, ear training, understanding dynamics, the ability to hear distortion and know what or what not to do with it, these are the fundamentals of audio that have not changed over the years, and this is the value of educational programs like ours.”

“To have it laid out in a formal curriculum, with 2.5 million dollars' worth of equipment and apply it in theory courses — that can't be replaced,” SAE's Martin adds. “If you go to work at a major studio as an intern, how long will you be in the room doing stuff vs. having a good foundation to grow upon once you get out of school?”

No matter how many degrees you have and how many studio hours you log, Scott Noll of the New School points out that the big audio quiz is really just one question, and after a lifetime of study you either know the answer or you don't. “On the pro side, you're learning from others, working with other engineers, seeing what they do, how they juggle their craft, see what you like and dislike, and you experiment,” he says. “Regardless of the school, it still comes down to how do you make something sound good?”


Send your Metro news to david@dwords.com.






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