The Turkey Plot thickens...

How best to teach sound engineering

Hi again, everybody. Thanks for your input to the post I made recently about the “supremacy” of WAVES software. Your responses will be helpful to me in trying to straighen out some stuff here. I particularly appreciated the suggestion that students could be asked to set up blind tests to see if their ears can hear what their minds have been conditioned to think. Great idea.

But now I have another question, as I continue to get drawn more deeply into some interesting educational/cultural debates and issues here. That question is…

What is a reasonable program for “teaching” sound engineering to university-level students?

Here’s some of the background:

In Turkey, lots of universities have actual four-year undergraduate-level programs where the student majors in “Music Technology”. Unfortunately, what this usually ends up meaning is that students are majoring in “Rock” and/or “Loud Guitar” for four years, and very little else. I don’t know how else to describe the situation in a few words. It’s amazing the extent to which American pop culture seems to have invaded this country. Ech!!

So… back to the question.

Given four full academic years of about six hours of class a week, can recording/mixing/mastering be taught fruitfully for seven four-month-long semesters? Or is it overkill? Or overindulgence?

And if a course of instruction could be stretched out over seven semesters, how could such instruction be structured?

My own feelings about this, just to put them on the table, are that anybody who can’t learn a lot about sound engineering by themselves probably isn’t worth much of anything anyway. It’s so easy these days to get into it via the internet, and with available, often free, software. And nothing beats hours and hours of trying things and using one’s head and ears.

But that’s just my biased feeling, and maybe I’m selling the concept of “formal university training” in sound engineering short, and that’s why I’m asking for some input from the community here.

Any responses, pro or con, emotional or not, will be very much appreciated, and hopefully used for the public good here.

Thanks again in advance,

Gary Berlind
Istanbul

It depends on how detailed you want to get, how demanding you want the program to be. Two things are needed for students: the relevant information, and time/opportunity to assimilate it. The more info you give them, the more time needed to assimilate it. Determining how much time is needed is an empirical matter - experience will tell you after a couple of semesters if you have too much info and not enough time, etc.

When it comes to higher ed, I always say: aim high. Put the best course or program out there you can. It is very hard to build a reputation, and easy to lose one, and a reputation for excellence pays off. Students rise to the challenge more often than not, and better students will be attracted to the program. You don’t want to end up with the “rock and roll school” label, I would guess.

At this point it sounds like you need to to a serious review of your “peer” institutions. If you want to look at an example of an exemplary sound engineering program, look at the one at Peabody at Johns Hopkins. they don’t get better (or more ambitious). The other thing you should do is post over at tapeop.com - there are folks there who teach in some excellent programs, with decades of experience. I can also put you in touch with one of my colleagues who teaches at a rock and roll college.

When I went to Berklee College in Boston, there was a lot of emphasis put on the whole Rock thing…

[I thought it was out of place… I learned to play Rock n’ Roll by skipping high-school classes and keeping “Physical Graffiti” running in the 8-track player… then I joined a band with good guitar players, and we all discovered Terry Ried!]

…While I was at Berklee learning about upper-structure triads, there were kids honing their rock guitar chops- for $20+ Grand a year. So I can relate to your recoil about the rock culture becoming DeRigeur Academia.

I know nothing. But if you’re going to do this, a big part of this kind of thing ought to be a major project- something that these kids have to finish! Nothing says ‘Worthy" like a finished, well-executed project, employing the tools learned in the class (and nothing says "Rock n’ Roll Rebel Slacker" like no work evident!). There’s your hands-on aspect. All the problems you run into in a complex project are the things you get your ‘Gold’ from. Now you become almost a coach, teaching them how to teach themselves. And this could take a while to get through- opening all kinds of opportunity to formally address (and re-address) operational concepts.

There are more qualified people to break it down, but as soon as you make it ‘real’, things start to happen. All of a sudden, you’re out of time!

My .002 cents.

EDIT: Allright, nothing is wrong with rock guitar! My point is that most of us have done it pretty successfully on our own time. Of course theory and harmony relate to any type of music- but ‘Hair Chops’ don’t! And I always thought Rock music was supposed to be an informal, rebellious thing. But now Dad pays for it!! :laugh:

There is a huge amount to learn about music technology if you take a large view. Just think about the different environments: live sound (fixed install and touring), musical instrument technology, Midi, microphone selection and use, recording, mixing, equipment maintainence, debugging, an introduction to lighting (send them to the theater department) theatrical sound, house of worship sound, etc. You can find specialists in all these fields which basically proves that there is knowlege unique to these areas.

If you then include some of the “softer” arts like studio management, production, tour logistics, contracts, legal issues and artist relations there is a lot to cover and 4 years starts looking fairly skimpy.

Of course the real challenge is to prepare a curriculum that will be teachable and can be kept up-to-date. This is particularly a problem in fields where technology is changing rapidly as it is in some of these areas.

I would also argue that the only real way to teach “practical arts” is by doing as well as talking so “hands-on” (and “ears-on”) is essential. I “knew” a lot about recording before I started but recording and mixing a few CDs has been really informative and is necessary to put the knowlege into perspective.

Do I think there is enough material for a major? Yes, but ultimately experience is more important than the “academic” aspect, especially since most of these activities have a substantial “real-time” component that is difficult to acquire in a classroom.

Good Luck,
Jim

Jimbob, where have you been? Glasd to see you back…

Anywho, what JimBob said. You could spend a quarter just on live sound… Crossovers (biamped, triamped, quad amped systems, …), 70 volt lines, how power amps really work, speaker arrays, ringing out rooms, bussing, monitor mixing, etc. would easily fill those weeks. For a full program think way past the local club and think real pro sound… Touring shows and the like are much more than just a mixer and a few speakers.

The same is true with so many other in music technology. How about acoustics? Room nodes? Sound treatment? Compoenents? (FET vs tube and how they work) There is a lot more to music tech than tweaking some knobs. It will be a whole mix of math, physics and hands on.

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Of course the real challenge is to prepare a curriculum that will be teachable and can be kept up-to-date. This is particularly a problem in fields where technology is changing rapidly as it is in some of these areas.


I don’t see that as such a problem really. There is plenty to cover that never changes. Class A amps and disreet electronics or whatever will never change. If you get too deep into a current version of ProTools, well, you might screw yourself in a curriculum that dates itself quickly. But I think if one understands mixing and bussing etc, they can apply those skills to any DAW or other piece of technology as those concepts don’t change. PErsoanlly I woul dfocus not so much on specific gear, but on concepts and how to apply those concepts reasonably well to a wide array of gear. Yeah, compressor X may have a built in exciter… but that is completely secondary to every compressor on the planet having attack, release, ratio, and threshold controls. SO I would focus more on the general and the theory that will trsnlate to the practical and then throw plenty of practical in there.

I know as an employer, it makes me nuts to get an employee who came out of a school essentially a technician on a piece of gear and knows nothing of the theory behind it. Those are the folks who have a hard time adapting.
Quote (jimbob @ Mar. 03 2006,19:35)
I would also argue that the only real way to teach "practical arts" is by doing as well as talking so "hands-on" (and "ears-on") is essential. I "knew" a lot about recording before I started but recording and mixing a few CDs has been really informative and is necessary to put the knowlege into perspective.

Do I think there is enough material for a major? Yes, but ultimately experience is more important than the "academic" aspect, especially since most of these activities have a substantial "real-time" component that is difficult to acquire in a classroom.

Good Luck,
Jim

Just to be controversial (although I never have understood why this would be controversial) - I know you don't mean this jimbob, but someone might read what you are saying as amounting to the claim that "academic" study is not helpful. Of course, what you say about academics is true of every single degree out there. Reflection and praxis go hand in hand. One goes to law school to learn to be a lawyer, but then one gets out in practice, and the first year or two or three of practice is what makes someone a lawyer. Should we do away with law school? Well, no, since the basic knowledge one needs is acquired in about 1/4th the time in a formal "academic" setting in most cases (there are always exceptions), as compared to trying to do it on one's own. BOTH the formal study and the experience together provide the most efficient and more effective method of knowledge acquisition. This is true of EVERY area of human knowledge (I know that's a big claim, but I'm pretty certain it is true).

I only bring this up because sometimes people in music and creative jobs more generally say surprising things about formal education. But all forms of art have technical aspects that need to be mastered if one is to reach full potential, and in most cases one gets the most information most efficiently from experts who are professional teachers.