If you haven’t already, check out the first part of this series, “5 things they don’t teach you in audio school.”
I don’t know the curriculum for every audio program, but I do know there are required skills needed to be successful in the recording industry that can’t be learned in a classroom setting. These skills need to be learned the old fashioned way, by doing it and making mistakes. These mistakes are a right of passage. The truth is that not everyone that goes to school to learn how to be an audio engineer or music producer is going to have what it takes to turn their passion into a lifelong full-time career. It’s important to remember that music production is an art form that’s entirely creative based as well as extremely technical. Like most great art, you can’t just learn a set of procedures and become a master. One thing that every great producer must start with that can’t be learned is good taste. Because of this, going to school for audio and production does not guarantee you’ll come out with the ability to produce high quality recorded music. It’s more likely that you won’t. On top of that, even if you’re a technical wizard, make the hardest beats, and have the best mixes, none of that matters if you’re not likable and you don’t meet the right people. After graduation, clients aren’t going to be knocking on your door because you have a degree.
You need to have characteristics and skills that go beyond just turning knobs and making things sound good. Now I’m sure some schools with music production programs will touch on some of the things that I am going to mention, but touching on the subject and emphasizing it, are not the same thing. From my experience and what I know about audio programs are that many tend to be very focused on the technical side of things. This is likely due to the large majority of the students being very new to recording and production. The thought process there is before you do anything creative, you have to know how to use the equipment. The other issue is a lot of these programs are run like for-profit businesses, and there’s a lot of money in selling a dream of working in a recording studio alongside your favorite musicians that you hear on the radio. This is where it starts to taste a little sour for me. When schools focus on selling the dream without giving their students the right knowledge and tools to be successful in this industry.
If you’re trying to decide if studying music production is right for you, read my article “Should you go to audio engineering school?” where I explain things you should consider before making any decisions.
Things can go wrong. And they often do. It’s extremely difficult to be able to remain calm and think clearly when there’s a catastrophic problem, time is money, and important people are staring at you, waiting for you to get things going.
An often underappreciated skill is the ability to troubleshoot constructively and effectively. Troubleshooting is the process of figuring out the source of an issue so you can fix it. In order to do this, you must start at the beginning of the signal chain and remove variables that could possibly be at fault one by one.
For instance, if you have a microphone connected to a console that has a preamp, you can first try to switch which channel you’re using on the console. If the microphone doesn’t work on the second channel, then we know it’s most likely not the console and more likely something with a microphone or cable. This type of guess and check work is essential in order to solve issues in the field.
The next time you find yourself in a situation where there’s a problem, use it as an opportunity to practice troubleshooting. Fixing a problem gives you a great sense of accomplishment.
Working under pressure and making decisions on the fly
We discussed troubleshooting in the previous section, but I didn’t talk enough about how much more difficult it is when you’re working under pressure. If you’re the sound guy and the wireless mic goes out, everyone is looking at you to fix it. All eyes will immediately turn to you and give you the “what the f*ck happened?” look. Trying to fix something while hundreds of people are staring at you while you scurry around a stage chasing cables. My point is this job can be stressful. When working in the studio, broadcast, or live environment, we are responsible for capturing events that are happening in real time. If we mess up, it’s a mistake that can never be corrected. You can never get that performance back.
There’s no class in the world that’s going to teach you how to work well under pressure. You need to be fed to the wolves, you need to make mistakes, and you need to fail. Then, after you’re embarrassed, humiliated, and humbled, you can start to learn from your failures and actually become decent at this job. It’s okay to make mistakes. I’d say it’s necessary to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. It’s also helpful to try and remember that mistakes are part of the process and to keep moving forward.
Working under pressure causes stress. The circle of life. Isn’t it beautiful? A lot of gigs in this field require working long hours for long stretches. It’s not uncommon to have a project that lasts multiple weeks and requires 12 hour days. It’s easy to disregard your health and fall into the habit of not eating or sleeping well. It’s going to be extremely difficult to keep up with what can be a strenuous lifestyle if you’re not taking care of yourself. Make sure you make time to relax and enjoy yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in the grind. It’s okay to take a break sometimes.
Managing yourself as a freelancer and business
When I started school way back in the year 2007, I mistakenly thought that there were still opportunities for full time jobs. I thought I could start as an intern, work my way up the ladder, and in a few years, I’d be tracking Kanye and Drake. I soon realized that wasn’t going to be the case and that full time jobs at recording studios weren’t quite as readily available as they used to be. And by not quite as readily available… I mean pretty much non-existent.
It was years after I graduated that I finally realized that if I wanted to make a go at this thing, I was going to need to make myself the business. I needed to find a way to set myself up to get my own gigs and be my own boss. It turns out it’s easier than I thought. If you think of yourself as a business, you can start treating everything you do as such. If you keep working at it consistently, eventually, you’ll start seeing results. Going to school didn’t help me find this path, and that’s not so much the school’s fault. You can’t teach someone how to make good life decisions. The audio industry has been changing so drastically in the last 10-20 years. Today, it’s the wild west, and audio professionals are finding new ways to make a living. You need to be creative in how you market yourself, what services you offer and how you’re offering them. There’s a lot of money to be made in music production, but it isn’t all in recording the actual music. Try to find a path that makes sense, is sustainable, is relatively future proof and gets you excited. Then start running down that path as fast as possible.
Now that I have my own business, how do I… um… do work? I know what it’s like to go to a 9 to 5 desk job, clock in, do the task I am assigned for the day, and then clock out and go home. Now I have to make my own schedule!? Hold myself accountable and make sure the quality is held to a standard. That takes a completely different set of skills that are not new to me, and I’ll be honest, I am terrible at it. The first step is recognizing that I am terrible at it and then working towards correcting these bad habits. I never cared much about schoolwork, so I never developed a good work ethic. Finding ways to manage your time is crucial when you’re trying to build a business, especially when you have other things going on in your life. I find it helps to focus on setting a schedule for myself. I’ll figure out what I want to accomplish each week/month and then map out what I should do every day in order to achieve that goal. It’s also really helpful to write down specific times you want to do things so you can hold yourself accountable.