Audio School: Boutique Recording Programs and Workshops

Back when I entered the audio program at SUNY Purchase around the turn of the millennium, a bachelor’s degree in “Studio Production” still seemed like something of a novel concept. Since then, enrollments for both 4-year and short-term programs in this once-niche market appear to have exploded nationwide.

Occasionally, engineers will gripe about the numbers of graduates some of these schools pump out. Those criticisms aren’t completely unwarranted, as it often seems there are far more fresh grads than there are paying jobs. I’ve even heard dismayed accounts from instructors at some of the less reputable private schools, who say they’ve been pressured into giving failing students passing grades in order to collect tuition dollars.

But even if all of that is true, there’s a flip side to this story: Despite a rapidly-shrinking paid market for recorded music, the number of audio engineers working in the field grew by more than 50% between 1999 and 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although that growth has since slowed (it’s been a brisk 25% if you look at just the past 5 years, and that growth is expected to freeze in place near 1% going forward) it’s clear that this increase in admissions didn’t come out of thin air. Even in the face of well-publicized stories about big rooms shutting down, there are in fact more studios in the world than ever before, and much more audio as well.

Still, as the audio boom of the past decade begins to taper off and expectations continue to rise, getting the best education possible could prove key for students keen on entering the field, and for working professionals looking to keep their edge. In light of this, we’ve decided to take a look at a few boutique workshops and audio schools that may help students of sound separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

The Blackbird Academy

“There are two ways to teach students,” says Mark Rubel of the new Blackbird Academy in Nashville Tennessee. “There’s the assembly line method, and then there’s the boutique hand-wired, hand-crafted method. We’re doing the latter. I like to think we’re hand-wiring the next generation of engineers.”

Rubel is probably best known as the longtime owner of Pogo Studio, which he personally ran in Champaign Illinois for 33 years. Since 1985, he has also continuously taught the techniques of recording, both at his own facility (in conjunction with Parkland Community College) and at nearby schools including Eastern Illinois University, where he was the director of audio programs.

Blackbird Academy student

Blackbird Academy student

Now Rubel has left his studio in good hands and moved to Nashville to make teaching a full-time pursuit. He’s landed at Blackbird, one of the most uncompromising studios in a city that’s filled with them.

Its 9 production rooms have been graced by everyone from Jack White to Taylor Swift; Beck to Bruce Springsteen; Ke$ha to Neil Young. They have 27 vintage U47s, and consoles by Neve, API, SSL and Avid.

Their new program will be an intensive one: 6 months, 5 days a week. 50% of the students’ time will be spent in a classroom setting with Rubel leading the instruction, and 50% will be devoted to hands-on in-the-studio workshops under the guidance of Mix Magazine‘s technical editor, Kevin Becka.

Guest instructors like Joe Chiccarelli [U2, White Stripes, Elton John, Frank Zappa], Vance Powell [White Stripes, Willie Nelson, Kings of Leon] and Niko Bolas [Neil Young, Warren Zevon, My Morning Jacket] are slated to teach masterclasses as well.

In addition to the staff and the gear, Rubel believes that size and selectivity will help set Blackbird apart:

“Some of the big schools have to accept everyone, whether or not they have an aptitude, or even the interest. They just take people who can pay. It’s by design that our program is small. We’re going to be turning people down.

“Unlike some of the schools, which are actively talking students into going, we’re only taking those people who can’t be talked out of it!” he says with a laugh. “We want the ones who, like ourselves, are driven to do it.

“I mean, if a person can do something else for a job, then there are certainly much easier ways to make a living. We’re looking for people who are hard-working, driven, curious. And that’s how our school is going to be successful: The people who we graduate. They will be our best advertising.”

To that effect, enrollment at Blackbird will be fairly limited. During each 6-month semester, there will be a cap of 60 students, split into groups of 30 per class during the lecture portion, and 5 to a class for the hands-on studio work.

Kevin Becka with Blackbird Academy class

Kevin Becka with Blackbird Academy class

120 students per year may be large compared to a state school, where admissions are even more tightly controlled. (SUNY Fredonia limits its famed bachelor’s program in recording to 10-15 new students per year, while SUNY Purchase accepted just 5 applicants into the studio production program during the semester I was admitted.) But compared to some of the larger audio-diploma mills, it’s an intimate little group for sure.

Blackbird is launching with an intensive summer session for high school students in July. Its first 6-month studio engineering program will begin this Fall, and by Winter 2014, the school will add a 6-month live sound program.

The cost of a semester is comparable to what you might expect at an elite private university, and the education is meant to be on par with that.

“We’re imparting a deep understanding of the fundamentals of acoustics and signal flow,” says Rubel. “Both the technology and the techniques.”

“But too often people stop there: They think recording is just about the technology. Too many graduates are prepared to deal with the technology but not the interpersonal aspects of a session. So we also prepare them for how to behave, how to act, how to express themselves without scuttling a session. To understand the larger context of creativity in a collaborative environment.

“And then there are the critical listening skills. It’s typical to think that a profession is all about ‘doing’: Twiddling knobs, setting up microphones. But all that ‘doing’ stems from hearing. You have to be attuned – To hear the differences between things, to understand what the possibilities are.”

Perhaps what’s most important to Rubel are the people involved. “I think the greatest asset will be their fellow students and the instructors. Just to be in an environment of unalloyed excellence, to be around people who are the best in the world at what they do. You can learn so much that way.”

Mix With The Masters

Rubel isn’t the only one who advocates working with people who are among the best in the world at what they do.

In 2010, Victor Lévy-Lasne and Maxime Le Guil, the co-founders of Mix With The Masters, began inviting some of the most renowned engineers on the planet to teach master classes at their 19th century mansion-studio in the Saint-Rémy provence of southern France.  They have since hosted 25 of these week-long seminars.

Mix With The Masters attendees

Mix With The Masters attendees

The instructors have included some of the biggest names in music production: Michael Brauer, Eddie Kramer, Joe Chiccarelli, Tony Maserati, Chris Lord-Alge, Andy Wallace, Al Schmitt, Jimmy Douglass, Tchad Blake, Peter Katis, Jack Joseph Puig.

As opulent as all this sounds, it’s been kept surprisingly affordable so far. Lévy-Lasne says that tuition is under $5,000 USD per person, yet includes accommodation and catering for the entire week – Pretty much everything but the plane fare.

The goal of the program is to bring back the mentorship and the direct transfer of knowledge from one engineer to another that has been steadily eroding as the big-studio system becomes a less dominant force in music.

“What the participants like about MWTM is that we are recreating a community of professionals who can support each other,” says Lévy-Lasne. “We’re living in an era in which big studios have closed and knowledge is mostly shared online, sometimes without control or the possibility of rating the quality of the information. However, a physical interaction – being able to speak face to face and standing in a room watching the best engineers at work – is an amazing opportunity that cannot be replaced by articles, forums, tutorials and videos.”

The weeklong course is broken into 8 hour days, where the guest mixer discusses production techniques, his philosophical approach, and even get hands-on, recording and mixing a live band on the studio’s Neve 88 R.

The courses are designed with working professional in mind, and it’s been particularly popular with engineers in their thirties. It attracts others as well, including younger students and older musicians from all around the world. Visitors have come from 40 countries to date.

Michael Brauer at Mix With The Masters

Michael Brauer at Mix With The Masters

“The fact that this studio is far from where people would expect this kind of event to happen is really important for us,” says Lévy-Lasne “Confining it to an unfamiliar environment allows the attendees and guest speaker to totally disconnect for an entire week and really have an introspective experience.”

It’s hard not to like the idea of getting away for a week to a well-equipped studio in a private villa in the French countryside. But for Lévy-Lasne the selling point remains the teacher, whichever one you choose:

“It is the personality of every mixer, the energy, the attitude and the emotion that he brings to the music that makes the most difference. And that’s exactly what they transmit in our courses.”

Larry Crane’s Weekend Workshops at Jackpot! Recording

For the past few years, Larry Crane has been hosting weekend workshops at his Portland studio, Jackpot! Recording.

Some of us may know Larry best as the founder and editor of Tape Op Magazine, but he’s also a first-rate engineer in his own right. Over the years, he’s worked with artists like Elliott Smith, Jolie Holland, Sleater-Kinney, The Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie.

In Crane’s recurring workshops (which are just a few hundred bucks per person for two 8-hour days) the focus is not on his work, but yours.

It’s a fairly unique method, in which Crane encourages his students to bring two of their own productions — both the completed mixes and the multitrack masters. Then, Crane and the class dig in, working to help you improve both your sound and your approach.

In addition to these hands-on mix rescues, Crane discusses and demonstrates mic techniques, signal flow, gain staging and critical listening. The program is designed for beginners, home recordists, and those who have a feel for the process but are looking to improve their results and hone their craft.

Master Classes at Echo Mountain Studios

Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina (profiled recently in SonicScoop) has just started a workshop of their own. After the success of their trial run in February, Julian Dreyer and his studiomates already have another course planned for the fall.

Drum tracking class at Echo Mountain

Drum tracking class at Echo Mountain

The approach at their weekend workshop is a little different than Crane’s: Instead of putting the spotlight on mixing and evaluating each student’s pre-recorded material, they spend a bulk of the two-day course working through the finer points of mic technique with a roomful of real live musicians.

The course is broken up into two distinctly different session dates: One that focuses on tracking electric rock bands, and another other that zooms in on acoustic instruments commonly found on country and bluegrass recordings.

Once the recording section is complete, the class begins the mixing phase, seamlessly integrating outboard hardware with modern software systems. One day, they’ll be working on a vintage Neve, the next, on an API.

So far, the program has attracted a youngish crowd, ranging mostly from their late teens through their late twenties. They’re generally students who are supplementing their education in sound, or just beginning it, albeit in style.

Commencement

In the world of audio, a degree or a certification does not equal a job. In our field, producers and engineers tend to make their own work more often than not, and none of the educators on this shortlist would try and tell you otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in a good audio education. Learning is not merely about a piece of paper or a qualification. Instead, it’s the things you can learn – the fundamentals, the taste, the tricks, the business savvy, the attitude; And it’s the people you’ll meet – mentors, advocates, collaborators, friends – that make an education worthwhile.

Hopefully yours will last until you reach the end of your reel, many, many years from now.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

  • Will Schillinger

    Excellent article my friend.