Education, Sound

I’m an audio student, what do I need to buy?

This is another of my regularly asked questions by students of mine. Usually this is from students who have just commenced thier studies, thus are enthusiastic and excited to start a new phase of their learning, or even thier lives. They want to know how they can start off thier new journey in the best possible way. This is some of the most fun I can have as a teacher as you have a group of students who are keen, determined, switched on, if even a little bit shy.

So the question I get, usually by someone after thier very first class is “what audio gear should I buy?”. They often ask about computers, DAWs, mics, plugins, speakers and almost any other piece of gear. The right answer, or at least the answer I give?


A good pair of quality studio headphones that you like the sound of and make sure that you try before you buy. That’s my answer and I’d say more than three-quarters of students really don’t like that as an answer.  It took me a while to understand why. What I’ve discovered is that the students have come to learn from me because they want to be in the business of creativity. Which is fantastic and that is exactly what I’ll teach them.

They don’t like my answer of headphones because they want tools that will allow them to create. Headphones aren’t typically looked at as the tool that they will create with. What they are asking when they say “what piece of gear should I buy?” is what is the best tool I need to have to be able to create. And my answer to that question is still headphones.

It’s not because headphones are the most important tool, it’s because they work with the most important tool. Your ears. Having a playback system that you are familiar with will help you train your critical ear. This one of the most important tools you can have when you are working with sound. It will allow you to analyse and understand what you are listening to and how to make it better.  When you are first wanting to learn about sound you should be listening and thinking about sound more than you are doing (and you should be doing a lot). But it all starts with listening and you need a great tool that will help you do that. Headphones.

Now, if you want to talk headphones, then let’s do that here.

But, after you get headphones, go; computer, DAW, interface, speakers, mics, desk/surface, outboard. Which is a relatively logical order as you usually need the thing before to get the next thing. But at any point, you’ve still go your own personal monitoring system that you are tuning and improving. If you are a student at a school (like my students) then the institution should have all the other tools you need to produce with (I would hope). But get your own headphones, because trust me, there is nothing worse than “communal” headphones.


Is Investing in Your Education Worth It?

Came across this article a couple of days ago. The TL;DR of it is outlining which undergraduate qualifications give you the worst return on investment. Basically, with the money spent on your degree, does the job you get from it make it worth the money spent.

The bit I enjoyed is that all of my qualifications sit in or around at least one of these qualifications (this being education, fine arts and communications – I’m not exactly these, but pretty close). This made me think, as all good articles should …

have I got a good return on my investment in my own education?

It can be a confronting question to answer. What if all of my thousands of dollars spent on a certificate, diploma, bachelors (w/ honours), a grad cert and now a masters has all been for nothing? I probably have more qualifications than I need. I’m passionate about education, both as a teacher and as a student so I enjoy being a student and learning new things. Its also why I quite enjoy being a teacher.

I’m also a bit of an autodidact so one would ask, why bother with the qualifications if you can learn everything yourself. In fact, this is a problem for many teachers that I know. What value are they adding to their students if they can just jump on YouTube and learn everything themselves?  Admittedly, this is a question I have asked in the past of my own practice. What worth are we providing to our students? Did professors ask this same question of libraries in years past? But I digress …

I use most of my qualifications everyday as I teach in the discipline of my undergraduate degree and most of my other qualifications are in education. So from a knowledge standpoint, the investment has been worth it. Also, I have to have certain qualifications to do my job. So, to remain employed I have had to invest in the status of the qualification. Many of the qualifications in the list in the article require that a person be qualified to a certain level to perform that job because they need to have that experience and knowledge before they begin that job (i.e. the field of psychology).

But what about fine arts? Many great artists haven’t formally studied in that discipline. But they would’ve all have been “students” in their discipline in some form and many of them would’ve had mentors and idols. But none of this necessitates a need to enrol in a formal course of study. But I also don’t think it matters. Learning to be a master painter, musician, filmmaker, actor, designer, etc. necessitates an investment in time to develop the necessary skills to be that type of artist. And you continue to make this investment in time well into the future as you pursue your discipline.

A question that relates to the return on your investment is the question of; is your degree worthless if you then don’t make a career in that discipline? On the face of it, this sounds like its a poor return on investment. But it actually raises questions more about what is the point of a degree. Is it to learn specific, discipline focused skills for a specific job, or is it about having the cognitive skills of a certain level to be able to by employable. The first option makes you better trained for a specific role and the second gives you more options for a variety of work. A bachelor’s degree should give you both. A focus for a specific area and general higher order cognitive skills.

Anyone who completes a bachelors degree should have certain levels of communication, team work, problem solving and critical thinking skills. These are valuable tools that are worthwhile skills in any job and makes you more employable overall.

I hope this post at least raised some ideas about looking at the investment from a time, status and broader skills perspective as money is only part of what you need to invest in order to achieve a degree. Many people look at a degree from only a money perspective and I believe there is more to it than that (on a different note, we shouldn’t have degrees that are prohibitively expensive, but thats a post for another time). The actual piece of paper that states your qualification is really just the receipt. The product you have worked toward for many years is the growth in your own learning of a variety of skills, and not just within the discipline.

From my point of view, its definitely worth it. Yes.

Education, Sound

The Language We Use

I’ve been thinking a lot about language we use over the past couple of weeks. This has been prompted by conversations I’ve had with my students and its come up in two ways. Firstly, the type of language we use within our industry and secondly, the language we are using when discussing our learning. It has really struck me on how much impact the language we use impacts what we do.

One of the big questions we get asked about is mastering. In the context of audio production, this is the final stage of preparing any sound asset for it to be used elsewhere or ready for distribution. Conceptually, that is pretty much it. But you often hear everyone talking about it as some of “dark art”. I’ll agree that you need to have a keenly trained ear to be able to be an effective mastering engineer, but making it sound like magician’s work feels like it lowers the professionalism of the industry as a whole. Its the same when we talk about “tips and tricks” of mixing or recording. If we refer to the skills and knowledge that we have spent years of time and mountains of money learning about as a set of life-hacks then we aren’t doing our own profession, and ourselves, any justice.

Would you pay $2000 for someone to do some “tips and tricks” on the sound of your TV commercial or for someone to apply years of practice, experience and skills to create an engaging soundtrack that meets the needs of the product you are trying to sell? One of those options gives you value for money, the other one is way over priced.

When discussing with students about the work they are completing, they way in which we are discussing the work changes depends on the context of the subject. In one subject, we are working on the development of a major large-scale project. In the other (with essentially the same set of students) we are working on a series of creative projects in the studio for short-turnaround completion. When discussing the development unit, this unit has “assessments” and “due dates” for the “students”. When discussing the studio projects unit, we use the terms “projects”, “deadlines” and “team members”. In the development unit I get asked about “… what do I need to have for the presentation … ” and in the studio projects unit I get ” … how does my mix sound …”.

Admittedly, one unit is more about documentation and prep and the other is about production, but the style of questions shows a difference in cognitive approach. One is asking about what they need to do to get through the assessments, the other is about how can they be better at what they do. What I find interesting is the difference in approaches the students are taking. Because one is using typical “school” language and the other is using professional language they seem to be thinking about them differently. Both subjects are looking at the creation of creative works, so I think the difference is in the way the brief is set, which influences the way they are thinking about it – or at least discussing it with me.

The institute I teach at has recently undergone some changes in its teaching philosophy. One of those changes has to do wits modeling the correct behaviour that we expect of our students. If I write blogs, then they will write blogs (hence the blog writing). I’m a big fan of this pedagogical approach. So if I use the type of language I’d like the industry to use, then hopefully I can get my students to use better language, which means they will think better about their productions, which means they’ll be better as professional practitioners and use better language in the industry, which will hopefully means there is a new way that everyone will look at the creative arts because we won’t be referring to what we do as “tips and tricks”. Am I too egotistical/ambitious/delusional to think that my teaching can have an impact on the industry?

I guess I have to be.