Is audio engineering school really worth it?
If you’re trying to decide whether going to audio engineering school is worth it or not, let me share my personal experience and break down some of the pros and cons to help you make your decision…
I studied audio engineering. Was it worth it? Well, maybe…
If you’re trying to decide whether to go or not, I want to share my personal experience with you and also lay out some of the pros and cons of going to audio engineering school so that you can decide whether it’ll be worth it for you or not.
Many people go to audio school for the wrong reasons – or, they simply expect something very different. Within the first 2 weeks, about 30% of my class dropped out. Out of all my classmates who completed the course, many went on to pursue careers totally unrelated to the audio industry.
Top reasons people decide to go to sound school:
- They love making music and think it’ll be a fun career.
- They can’t explain to their parents that they want to be a musician and play in a band full-time (one of my personal reasons for going!)
- They want to be a famous “producer”.
- They think it’ll be an easy gap year.
- They think it’ll get them a good job in the industry.
- They think they’ll be able to use the studios and gear to record their own music – free studio time baby!
Some of these reasons are good, some are a little misguided, and others are just a recipe for wasted time and money.
Whatever your reasons are, I want you to at least understand what you’re getting yourself into. I think studying audio engineering can be great – for the right person in the right situation. It can also be a big waste of your time and money. So, to help you make your decision, let’s start by looking at some of the pros on cons of going to sound school…
Pros – The upside of going to audio engineering school
1. Meet new people, make friends
Meeting people and making new friends is always an advantage of going to study at some type of institution. You’ll probably get to meet some cool like-minded people who also love making music… and who knows, you may even find the members of your next band.
2. You get to work on great equipment (hopefully)
Having access to some really great equipment is one of the best perks of attending a big audio school. This kind of experience can be hard to come by as big expensive sound desks and gear become less and less common.
One thing working on great equipment does for you is finally banish all those excuses you had before about how your gear just wasn’t good enough. You quickly learn that, yes, great gear does make life easier, but it doesn’t produce great sounding music all by itself!
“You quickly learn that, yes, great gear does make life easier, but it doesn’t produce great sounding music all by itself!”
Now, as tempting as that pristine audio gear may be, there are a few caveats I want you to be aware of…
Firstly, the standard of equipment varies enormously. Some places are so outdated, when you walk into the studio it feels like you’re walking back into the 70’s. One college I looked at was still using DAT machines as their primary recording device, seriously?! The reality is, the really good gear is typically only found at the big name brand schools – with the big name brand fees. Make sure that you check out the studios of any potential colleges before signing up.
Secondly, you’ll be sharing the equipment with all the other students. How much studio time you get depends on how much gear there is to go around, and how many students you’re sharing the facilities with. If the courses are crowded you may be lucky to only get a few hours a week. Before handing over any cash, ask how much studio time per student is typical so that you know exactly what you’re getting.
3. You get a solid grounding in audio
I must say, one thing that studying audio engineering did was give me a sense of confidence that I had at least covered all the essentials. Because the courses are well structured and laid out, you know that you’re learning all the basics.
Yes, learning the fundamentals of sound and signal flow may not be super exciting, but it does help give you a good grounding and understanding of all things audio.
Browsing blogs and YouTube can be a bit disorientating when it comes to learning something – because you’re just jumping from one random video or post to the next. There’s no sense of order or completion. That said, if you don’t want to go the college route, there are online courses (mostly paid) that can bring structure to learning about audio and music production.
4. You get to be a “qualified” audio engineer!
One of the main reasons people study at a major institution is to receive that little piece of paper that says, ‘you know how to do this thing’. It feels good to know that you can do something and you have the paper to prove it!
Being qualified is a benefit, but not as much as some people may think…
Firstly, as nice as it may be, that little piece of paper doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any good in the real world. Sure, you may be able to define impedance and phantom power, but can you produce a great sounding song?
The reality is, the majority of people in my audio engineering class became ‘qualified’ and got their certificate, but were not very good. Not only did they not know what was going on most of the time, they weren’t even interested. They saw the course as an easy gap year and did the bare minimum to scrape by.
“I can tell you from personal experience that no one has ever asked to see my sound engineering certificate…”
Now, to be totally honest, even though I worked really hard, when I got my certificate I wasn’t that good either! The course gave be a good grounding, but it took real-world practice to actually become any good.
The reason I put “qualified” in inverted commas is because it’s somewhat of a meaningless term when it comes to something like audio engineering. If you’re talking about doctors, pilots, or lawyers – yes, being qualified is essential to doing the job. But audio engineering… not so much.
I can tell you from personal experience that no one has ever asked to see my sound engineering certificate… in fact, now that I mention it, I haven’t seen it myself in about 10 years!
So, is an audio engineering certificate totally useless then?
No, there are some cases it can be helpful, or essential, to have some accreditation to your name. If you want to get a job with some big corporation working as a sound engineer, they’ll probably ask to see some credentials before they let you lose on their million dollar sound desk!
Note: The kind of jobs that would require accreditation as a typical audio engineer are almost certainly not to do with producing music, they’re typically more technical careers. For example, working in a broadcast truck at a sporting event.
5. You learn a broad range of skills
This could be viewed as a ‘pro’ or a ‘con’ depending on what you want to do. If you’re not sure what you want to do yet, then being exposed to various aspects of audio engineering can be a great thing. For example, apart from the basics of recording and music production, most courses will cover things like live sound, sound for film, surround sound production, and radio ads. You may find that you really love one of these things and didn’t even realize it before.
On the other hand, if you already know that you want to be involved in music production, then assignments like making a mock radio ad for MacDonalds will probably feel like a complete waste of time.
Cons – The downside of going to audio engineering school
1. The cost
The biggest factor in deciding whether to study sound engineering is almost always the cost. The big institutions charge a lot because they have to. They’ve got big buildings, a lot of equipment to maintain, lecturers salaries to pay, big marketing budgets to justify, and they still have to make a profit on top of all that.
Tuition fees vary a lot, depending on where you are in the world and the kind of college it is. Top audio engineering schools can easily set you back tens of thousands of dollars – PER YEAR(!!). And although there are far more affordable options, in general, you do get what you pay for.
Apart from the tuition fees, don’t forget to factor in costs such as food and accommodation, especially if you plan on travelling to a school away from home.
Student loans are an option, but just understand that as soon as you take out a loan your future no longer entirely belongs to you. You’re obligated to pay that loan back in a certain time frame, and that may very well mean taking jobs right out of college that you don’t like.
2. You have to learn a lot of filler content
I’m just going to come out and say it: Big colleges / universities love filler content. They take a subject that could be covered in a few short months, and drag it out over several years by adding unnecessary filler content that has little to do with the main subject you want to study.
So much of what I had to learn was a total waste of time. I’m talking about things like memorizing different types of clock sync methods and compression algorithms – really?! In the modern world where a Google search is just seconds away, memorizing facts – especially facts that you’re not using right now – is a complete waste of time. It’s also been proven that we forget information that we aren’t currently using.
The college that I attended had a simple one year sound engineering course. I see they’ve now extended it to two years – with essentially the same content. It’s simple, if you make a course two years instead of one you instantly double your profits.
3. The time
The result of adding a lot of filler content is that these courses tend to be soooooo drawn out. We’re talking multiple years. Again, in a way they have to be, that’s how they make their money.
For me, the experience was especially frustrating because I had travelled across the country to attend an audio college. When I got there I was told there was only one main lecture per week and the rest of the time would be used for projects. The problem is, we didn’t get any projects for several weeks so I was stuck in a new city, not knowing anyone, waiting around to use the studios (which can take months).
I know, boo hoo, let’s all feel sorry for Rob! :) Seriously though, it wasn’t all that bad, it was just a bit frustrating. It makes sense, they can’t let new students get into the studios until they know you’re not going to blow something up. I just wanted to mention this to give you a better idea of what to expect. Make sure to specifically ask how long it takes to get into the big studios.
Also, the question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to spend all those years in sound school, or if that time could be better spent just getting into the industry and learning as you go.
4. Audio engineering school is not only about producing music
If your main passion is music, realize that most of what you’re going to be studying has very little to do with music. It’s a lot of technical jargon, general audio knowledge, and different forms of media production which you may not have any interest in at all.
A lot of guys drop out very quickly when they find out they have to learn circuit diagrams instead of programming beats.
5. Audio engineering jobs are declining
This isn’t exclusive to the sound industry, there’s plenty of Harvard graduates finding themselves serving burgers through the Macdonalds drive-through window because they can’t land the job they thought would be a guarantee.
“The fact is, a client doesn’t care whether you learnt from YouTube or the best audio school in the world…”
It’s no secret the big studio days are long since over. The technology needed to produce music is so affordable these days that you can just about buy an entire studio for less than the cost of renting out a major studio for the day. Because of this trend, there simply aren’t as many jobs as there used to be.
A lot of the big studio sound engineers who lost their jobs have since opened their own home studios to make a living that way, but every year there’s more and more people willing to do the job for less – kids who didn’t drop $100K on sound school and don’t have a family to support yet. The fact is, a client doesn’t care whether you learnt from YouTube or the best audio school in the world, all they care about is whether you can produce great sounding music. That’s it.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, there’ll always be jobs for sound engineers, there just aren’t nearly as many in the music industry as there used to be. The reality is, in many ways the role of the audio engineer is becoming more technical and less artistic.
Of course, you could always open your own studio…
6. Not as much studio time as you may think
I mentioned this before – yes, you get access to some nice studios but how much time you actually get depends on the school and facilities. So many people attend audio school thinking they’re going to get to spend all their days in plush recording studios, but it just doesn’t work like that.
“The reality is, there’s always more students than studios.”
The reality is, there’s always more students than studios. To try and cater to more students, most schools will have basic ‘workstation’ type studios in little cubicles which you can work on using headphones but you’re probably just as well off working at home.
What you really want is to spend as much time as possible in the main studios, that’s something you don’t have access to at home. Make sure to specifically ask how much studio time you’re likely to get in the main studio/s, and long it takes before you get access to the big studios.
7. Not all the techniques are practical for a ‘home studio’ environment
Not a major disadvantage this, but just something to think about… It’s all very well having access to a 60 channel sound desk, an acoustically treated live room, and cases of top quality mics, but unless you’re going to keep using that gear when you leave it doesn’t help you very much.
In other words, if you’re planning on doing most of your recording in a home studio environment, you’ve got to learn to adapt and make the most of what you’ve got. I’ve met plenty of sound engineering graduates who came out of sound school spoilt by all the gear, and couldn’t produce the results without it.
How to choose a good audio
If you decide you want to study audio engineering, the next step is to find a good college that will be worth the time and money. Based on what I know now from having studied sound engineering and also having worked professionally in the industry for many years, this is what I’d look for in an audio school:
1. Access to great teachers
Find out who will actually be lecturing you. You want to be learning from experts with actual experience in the industry, not just academics or ex-students who have only just completed the course themselves.
My experience was mixed. We had some awesome lecturers… one guy had actually helped make the hand claps you hear on Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Just listening to him tell his stories was fascinating. On the other hand, we also had some well-meaning, but inexperienced ex-students who basically just parroted back what was in the course books.
2. Access to great gear
One thing you can’t get in an online course is access to high-end audio equipment to learn and experiment on. If you’re going to go to sound school, make sure that they have the goods!
The audio college I attended had some awesome equipment. From big analog consoles to modern digital gear, it was great. We even had a reel-to-reel tape machine to experiment with.
Apart from the gear, find out how long you have to wait to actually get into the studios, and how much studio time students typically get. This is something a lot of people overlook and are disappointed when they find out they’re not even allowed in the main studios the first year.
3. Curriculum that lines up with your goals
As mentioned before, audio school is not just about producing music. If you know you want to produce music professionally, make sure that a good portion of the course actually covers this – don’t just take it for granted!
If you don’t really know what you want to do yet, but you think it’s probably something in the audio field, then being exposed to different aspects of sound engineering could help you to discover your passion.