Talk about a good question.
I myself mulled over this one for awhile back in 2012 before I ultimately decided to pursue the college route. Years later – after graduating and navigating the music industry as an entrepreneur – I’ve formulated an opinion on this question which I will share with you in this article.
I will specifically discuss my personal experiences in the music industry, and why formal education may or may not be the best choice for aspiring producers and engineers today.
I made the decision to pursue a formal education in Audio Engineering and Production at the Metalworks Institute (think of it as a Canadian SAE or Full Sail). I made this decision after working crappy jobs and realizing that nothing matched my lifelong passion for music, which I had been actively doing as a hobbyist for 10+ years. Up until that point, I had been a self-taught producer and got a lot of value out of free tutorials online. But eventually, I knew more than tutorials could show and I needed to step it up. I also wanted to pursue an actual career in music with the ultimate goal of making money doing what I love.
I weighed out my options and, with a little encouragement, decided to make the leap and pursue the college route.
The Audio Production and Engineering program at Metalworks spans a full-year from January to December with no breaks. It covered a lot of topics and subjects – from using Pro Tools to music theory to Recording Engineering in-studio and more.
The instructors (for the most part) were great – active in the industry and offered a lot of insight and guidance into the next step of our lives and careers. Metalworks also happens to be a very active multi-room recording facility – one of Canada’s biggest – which was great because I was able to learn and work in an actual professional recording studio.
Fun fact: Drake was recording his Nothing Was The Same album while I was attending class next door all through my third semester.
5PiECE at Metalworks Studios during his college education – learning on an actual SSL Console.
The Power of Numbers
I took my education seriously. First of all – I paid for it out of pocket with no help from family. This was not cheap. We’re talking about $20,000 in tuition for a one-year program that guarantees absolutely zero employment upon graduation. This is a steep price of admission if you ask me (albeit in retrospect).
Second – not everyone is cut out for this. I was a very active and engaged student. I made it a point to network and talk to my instructors – about real life human being stuff, not just engineering mumbo jumbo – with the goal of building an authentic relationship.
However, not all of my classmates shared this strategy. Some were over-excited high school kids who had just graduated and wanted to impress everyone. Others were people lost and had no idea what they actually wanted to do in life and apathetically ended up there. Some were pursuing a second-career program after being laid off. Some extroverts, some introverts, and a few in between. I was 22 years old at this point, had attended post-secondary once and dropped out. I knew exactly what I was after and was committed to making it happen.
I recall the first day of class – we had upwards of 70 people in the room. This would be the group that I would have every class with and ultimately graduate with if all goes well.
By the end of third semester, only 17 people remained of the 70.
At graduation, only 7 people from that group of 17 actually graduated.
Out of the 7 that graduated, only 2 are employed in music full-time. I am one of them. Let that sink in.
I talked about this at one of my recent Mixing & Mastering Workshops:
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After I graduated with 7 of my classmates, I remember looking forward to everything that was in front of me. But when I got settled– a couple of weeks went by and nothing. No job. No prospects from my applications. Nothing. I had just paid $20,000 for a piece of paper. Fantastic.
Then out of seemingly nowhere I received an email from the academic coordinator at Metalworks. He mentioned Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s producer/engineer and co-founder of OVO Sound, was looking for interns and I came highly recommended from my instructors. For a brief moment there was a glimmer –and I realized that building relationships and being a good human being in general was beginning to bare fruits. I accepted the offer immediately and graciously.
Did Metalworks make that offer to every person in my graduating class? No. They offered it to one other person and myself – simply because they knew we were qualified and both came highly recommended from our instructors.
You know how the story goes from here if you’ve read my bio. I went to intern for 40 for a while at SOTA Studios and learned a lot. It was a great experience – and then one day, it was over. And suddenly I was back to the drawing board.
Turns out – not many studios were hiring. In fact – most of them were closing down at the time. Welp.
Through friends, I ended up getting another internship at a different studio more focused on rock and metal. During this time, I got to see a very different side of the music industry. Finally – after multiple internships, I was offered a low-paying position and started assisting and engineering at a third studio. This didn’t last unfortunately – making $50 a day for a 10-hour day was just not a livable wage. The studio owner couldn’t blame me for leaving either – even he understood how little I was being paid and wished me well.
Despite this, I leveraged my experience and eventually formed a partnership with another studio to transition over and become their head engineer.
5PiECE mixing at Vespa Music Group on an SSL Console.
The Move to Entrepreneurship
Some say they chose the entrepreneur life – I say it chose me.
After grinding in the trenches- working for other people and slowly building up my name, catalogue, skills and equipment – I was put into an interesting position. The studio I had partnered with was forced to abruptly move locations and had to close for a few months. Overnight and out of my control – my income had dried up and I had to figure out how to replace it because my student debts from Metalworks were still accruing interest.
Lucky for me – all of that studio’s clientele were displaced as a result of their sudden closure. A few had other places to go – but many were already accustomed to working with me. I had all their sessions and they liked working with me – so it made sense to continue doing so. The question became: where would I continue to provide my services to them?
I made a few calls – found a few alternate studio locations, negotiated an hourly flat-rate that I could incorporate into my own fee – and in a matter of days I was back in business as my own man. I offered my services out of other studios for about 8 months as a freelance engineer until finally getting my own location that allowed me to serve my clients better and cutout unnecessary third parties.
So What Did You Learn In Audio Engineering School?
The benefit of college programs is that they’re usually structured and cover a broader range of knowledge. For example, outside of the expected Audio Engineering and Production-based courses, we also had to take other courses focused on subjects like Sound & Acoustics, Music Theory, Pop Culture, Business and more. In one course I even learned how to build my own headphone splitter (which I actually still use to this day in my studio). The benefit of this was that I learned a wide range of things that all tie into music and not just how to use Pro Tools and maneuver around an SSL console.
My instructors also provided a lot of insight into situations that may happen in recording and mixing scenarios. I was able to get an idea of how actual engineers and producers went about structuring their workflow and tackling problems. It helped me improve my own approach and develop better systems when recording, mixing and mastering at the time. I’ve expanded on that since then – but it certainly made me grow into who I am now as an individual and audio engineer.
When I graduated, I had more confidence in my abilities and myself as an audio engineer because I made it through that program (63 other people didn’t based on the above numbers). Even though I may not have fully learned how to mix, or how to make money from my musical efforts at that time, I know that I had invested a lot into the experience and ultimately got a lot out of it. I also went out of my way to get the most value from it because I was driven.
The final consideration is that graduating from a college program like that adds immense credibility. It shouldn’t be over-emphasized, but it does show that you are willing to invest in your passion and is proof that you’ve put in a lot of hours already. Real world experience is still absolutely necessary in order to bridge the gaps in knowledge, but a diploma and studio experience doesn’t hurt to start.
This graphic borrowed from Buffer perfectly summarizes the importance of experience.
Did College Really Teach Me What I Needed To Know About Production & Audio Engineering?
To be completely honest – no. I would say much of what I learned in this industry both in business and engineering was a result of real-world experience. Nothing beats that. School simply can’t prepare you for everything and this career path is one you have to work towards.
The other catch is a recognized institution has an obligation to make sure every student is on the same page. Since so many students are coming in at different skill levels, instructors may be forced to cater to the students that have less knowledge, which limits how much the more advanced students will learn. I certainly felt this way at times as I already had some background in music prior to attending Metalworks.
Now that’s not to say education doesn’t have a place. My education at Metalworks gave me the structure I needed to understand all main aspects of the industry from engineering, to music theory, to production, to using the actual software everyday. I got a lot of value out of those things and still utilize that knowledge to this day.
Metalworks connected me to fellow artists, engineers, and producers – some of whom I’m still friends with and work with today. They also connected me to opportunities – such as working with 40 at SOTA Studios. Stuff like that is indispensable. I can’t say I would’ve received those opportunities if not for attending college and playing my part.
What they didn’t teach me (and honestly probably couldn’t teach me) is how to maneuver around artists, how to have a productive and successful recording session, how to fully monetize and market your music, how to run a company as an entrepreneur and much, much more. While those may be more business and marketing focused, I think they are extremely important to every person in music today and should be incorporated into every curriculum. In the end- if I’m spending THAT much money on my education, I should at least be taught about how to recoup that investment.
Even mixing and mastering. Sure – I learned about how EQ and compression work– but they didn’t show me how to actually mix a song. That was learned over years of trial and error, getting my hands dirty by mixing directly, seeking out knowledge and mentors, and learning from legends like 40 and others in-studio as mixes were happening right in front of me.
If You Didn’t Go To College – What Would You Have Done?
Author Tim Ferriss talks about the Real World MBA in his book “The 4-Hour Work Week” and on his podcast. This is something that I whole-heartedly agree with and would probably pursue if my situation were different all those years ago.
A Real World MBA is taking the money you would invest into a college education, such as $20,000 for the Metalworks Institute, and instead spend that money on real-world experiences that will teach you what you hope to learn in that program.
For example, you could take that $20,000 and invest it into learning directly from active engineers and producers in the music industry. Compensate them for their time and sit with them to get them to teach you all the aspects about what they do and how they do it locally and abroad in other locations.
Some other things you can do to create your own audio engineering MBA without college:
- Invest into studio time to record and produce records with artists locally
- Travel to different locations and work with producers, artists and engineers in other places
- Attend music conferences, trade shows, festivals and other events centered on music production and audio engineering
- Buy books and online courses on the subject
- Sign up for workshops, seminars and private lessons on topics that will further your skills
Spend that money acquiring as much knowledge and as many experiences as possible to create your own MBA. This is important because most of the knowledge I acquired that I use regularly came from outside of my college education- mostly in the form of additional courses, books, free tutorials and more. I’m still learning outside of college every day. Imagine what you could learn on your own too.
People actually unknowingly create their own MBA with me in my private lessons all the time. My students are smart because they are paying a much smaller fee compared to a college tuition and still accessing knowledge and education that I spent well over $20,000 to acquire (just for the education alone!). The information I provide can save them a lot of time, energy and frustration on their journey as I can help direct them, cut out the unimportant and shed light on how to use this knowledge in real-world scenarios for their own benefit.
The best part of this strategy is that you don’t have to commit the full $20,000 – you can slowly chip away at it over time in smaller increments until the full amount is spent. You may spend $500 of it and decide the music industry isn’t for you. At least you can walk away with the rest of your money unscathed.
There is nothing wrong with education. As you can tell – it helped me greatly and put me into a position to succeed after graduating. However – the music industry itself doesn’t require a degree or diploma in order for you to succeed in it – especially as a producer or engineer. You simply need the right skills, experiences, and social behavior to make something happen.
If you are thinking about pursuing your passion for music more seriously – I strongly encourage you to look at the Real World MBA approach first. After acquiring enough experiences – you will know whether attending college for music production and audio engineering is the right choice for you.
In the end- no institution can teach hustle, ambition, creativity or any of the necessary components to be a success in music. These traits are internal and usually requires something more to inspire them. To quote one of my instructors: “anyone can learn Pro Tools – but not everyone can be a good person.”
I wish you the best of luck on your journey.
If you’re interested in creating your own real world MBA focused on mixing as a producer – I am hosting a Mixing and Mastering Workshop in Toronto for Producers that want to learn how to mix and master their beats like a pro.
I also offer private lessons in-person and online for creatives who want to learn more about producing, recording, mixing and mastering one-on-one.