I remember seeing a tweet a couple of years ago from Grammy-winning producer Finneas O’Connell about going to school for music production. He believed that it wasn’t necessary to succeed in the music industry. While he proves his own theory, my first instinct when I read this was to defend my own education. At the time, I was studying audio engineering at Berklee College of Music, and I knew it was one of the most valuable programs for audio education in the country. Now that I’ve stepped out of academia and into the professional world of audio post-production, I thought about O’Connell’s tweet again, and how my perspective on his opinion has evolved.
I chose to study audio engineering and sound design at the undergraduate level for a number of reasons. First of all, it was my goal to earn my undergraduate degree, which isn’t particularly common for students where I went to school. Berklee’s latest statistics show a 67% graduation rate, and this is mainly because most students start working in the music industry before they even need to graduate. Nonetheless, I found an academic space to study music production and audio engineering to be really beneficial for my style of learning and for the previous experience I had. I started my first semester with no background or knowledge of audio technology, recording techniques, sound design, or music production. I only knew how to write songs and record in GarageBand. So going to classes to learn these fundamentals and having assignments and deadlines really served what I needed as a student. I also knew that I wanted to take the time to absorb all the information, so I didn’t feel rushed to enter the industry immediately.
Being a part of music production or audio education program provides step-by-step guidance and access to a huge amount of resources. I had the chance to connect with professors who specialized in my interests and to connect with other students who wanted to practice the concepts we tackled in classes together or plan out future networking opportunities. Having access to equipment and studio facilities meant that I didn’t have to buy my own until I graduated. Once I did purchase my own gear, I had some ideas of my own opinions on the gear I wanted like which equipment I liked the most or didn’t need. Furthermore, the variety of classes gave me insight into different fields, histories, and techniques, which led me into post-production sound editing, even though I started the program wanting to focus on producing my own music.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I submitted many job applications, received some interviews, and ultimately the job searching process was long and grueling. It made me think about how the process would have changed if I didn’t pursue a bachelor’s degree, and what kind of cons balance out the pros. The first and most considerable disadvantage of studying audio at the undergraduate level is the enormous financial decision it entails. Not everyone has the financial support to complete a degree, especially when audio engineering and music producing involves purchasing expensive gear such as software like DAWs, synthesizers, and plug-ins, an audio interface, headphones or monitors, a microphone for recording, and any make-shift room treatment to name some valuable home-recording equipment. Paying tuition or student loans on top of all of this equipment is really overwhelming, and most likely will impact your view of which expensive items or programs to prioritize. Also, for some producers or engineers, learning while working on the job can be a better method for learning than lectures, homework, projects and quizzes. Not all starting positions at recording studios require a college education, and starting out earlier in the music industry and in the right city where interests align is a great way to get started and build momentum. Even though I like to learn by viewing lectures and reading manuals, many people are stronger kinesthetic learners who will pick up on recording consoles and signal flow by working through the physical movements of setting up a recording at a studio. Furthermore, like any other field, improvement in music production or audio engineering comes with practice. However, in a college program, practice is assigned in the form of homework and projects. While it’s possible to cover concepts of interest in a syllabus, having the freedom to choose what you practice in your own home setup lets you focus on specific skills to achieve your own goals in the music production industry.
From what I’ve learned since graduating from college, it doesn’t really matter how you acquire your experience and abilities as an audio engineer or music producer. What does matter is that you choose the process that best suits your style of learning and your own goals, and that you can see improvements as you practice and continue to work on recordings or sound edits or MIDI programming. There is no pressure to follow anyone’s path to education but your own because the right method will serve your needs as you step into the industry. I don’t think Finneas O’Connell is wrong to say that formal audio education is unnecessary. However, I do think it’s too narrow of a belief for the diverse, creative minds that want to begin a career in music production.