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Absolutely not.

This advice may seem hypocritical considering that I’ve graduated from Nashville’s Belmont University with a Bachelor of Science degree in audio engineering, but hear me out…

I’m not denying that college education may have it’s place on your path. It’s just that investing your money in a formal sound production education isn’t a very smart idea if your end goal is working as a music producer, engineer and/or mixer.  No one asks about your academic track record when considering hiring you to work on their album.  But you can count on them wanting to hear your work. Grabbing someone’s attention with a project you’ve completed is a lot stronger of a “foot in the door” to paying work in this highly competitive industry than a diploma ever was.

While I value the time college allowed me to get out and work various internship positions (which was the key benefit to the formal education I experienced) I think this is a very important public service announcement to make:

If you are going to put yourself into debt with academic expenses,  pay for a degree with a more practical application like a business or accounting degree.  

Skill sets like the above will definitely serve you as an entrepreneur and also enable you to get a temporary ‘day job’ doing something music business related if the going gets tough. You may also find you are able to score an internship or entry level position in the industry working for a studio, management group or record label by having command of such frequently sought after expertise.

Maybe you’ve read this far and are beginning to think I’m trying to talk you out of pursuing your dreams…

I assure you that this is far from the case.

If you genuinely feel that the college path is best for you then I think that’s wonderful.  I just want to make sure you get the maximum bang for your $$$$$…By all means, take all the music & recording electives you want and enjoy them. Choose a music path of study as a minor even! That’s part of why you are there and paying top dollar.  But go for a degree/major with a bit more real world relevance than music business or music production.

Don’t be afraid of taking personal responsibility for your own trajectory. You don’t need a professor. They certainly won’t be there when you bust out of the gate on graduation day into the real world.

A few starting point action steps to become a music producer I brainstormed (not a totally exhaustive list), but it should get you started:

  1. Assemble your own studio setup.  All you need is a computer, recording interface, music production software such as: logic, cubase, digital performer or pro tools and a microphone.  The Sm7 is a great all-purpose mic choice that is relatively inexpensive.
  2. Always be working on a recording project. If you aren’t a musician, find some musician friends that would like to have a song recorded for free and get to work on their material. Volume of work is WAY more important than quality which will naturally improve over time.  Do your best, set deadlines and MOVE ON after you’ve given all you’ve got. Below is some advice on this topic from Ira Glass.
  3. Figure out what you don’t like about your recordings and make steady improvements. Trust what you hear and don’t let conceptual ideas about mix tricks or plugins lead you astray.  ‘Trust your ears’ is a cliché for a reason. Reference your favorite albums done by your favorite bands, producers and engineers.
  4. Get a pair of speaker monitors and build a relationship with them.  Specifically, this means becoming familiar with how your work translates onto other sound systems. Over time you’ll begin to adapt to the sound of your monitors and the acoustic environment you are working in.  This will naturally cause your work to translate more consistently across other listening systems. A classic example of testing a mix for consistency is checking it on your car stereo or earbuds.  If you are looking for a recommendation – the Yamaha HS80Ms are an affordable set of monitors that have served me well for many years.
  5. Reach out to anyone with professional experience that will give you the time of day. Maybe you have a relative, friend or acquaintance that works in the industry that can impart some knowledge or advice. Get creative with reaching out to anyone that you think might be able to help you. You won’t know if you don’t try.
  6. You can’t replace practical experience but these are fabulous resources to help you at various points along your journey:
    1. Mixing With Your Mind: Written by engineer Mike Stavrou, this book takes a very unconventional approach to sharing a wealth of engineering wisdom only years and years of experience can buy.
    2. Despite the irreverent title  “Why do your recordings sound like ass?”, is unlike any other thread I’ve read before.  The author (handle name: yep) clearly has a depth of knowledge and writes passionately to dispel a lot of misinformation that is so frequently spread across the web concerning recording techniques.  I confess I haven’t read it in it’s entirety but the 20 or so pages I did read more than verified much of the material’s relevance and credibility.  It’s worth exploring.

Walking the road less travelled…

Finally, the idea of a formal education path towards the cleverly marketed attainment of ‘the career of your dreams’ is highly seductive. But beware…music engineering and production isn’t a career with a predictable trajectory like law or nursing where you can to some degree (no pun intended) anticipate various phases of training completion and a job waiting for you at the end of the tunnel.  Instead, your ability to “make it” will be based largely on:

  • An obsessive work ethic
  • Your personality and ability to communicate effectively
  • Hours spent getting practical experience and honing your craft
  • Establishing what your unique creative contribution will be

So…if not a formal education or college diploma then what?

Here’s my suggestion:

Move to a town with a thriving music-making community (NYC, Nashville and LA are the major 3) and get an internship working with someone who is living the dream you want to live. Then get to work honing your craft whenever you can. In 4 years you’ll still be miles ahead of anyone sitting in class learning concepts like signal flow and gain staging with very limited practical experience.

Get out there and let inspiration carry you. Eat, sleep, drink, breathe & LIVE your passion for music. I wish you success. You’ll have the support you need when you look for it in the context of your current situation and begin taking the bold steps towards pursuing your dream. Don’t let any naysayers in your life crush your resolve. They are probably just upset they don’t have the same tenacity and courage to go after their own dreams.

Finally, realize that even your greatest struggles, challenges and failures that you will inevitably face happen FOR YOU, not to you. They can serve as amazing life lessons you won’t soon forget. This perspective shift is empowering when you realize it’s full truth.

I wish whoever is reading all the best in following your unique and special path.

Eric Westmaas

Eric is a musician, producer, engineer and co-operator of Matchless Mix based in Nashville, TN. In his free time he enjoys reading, running, coffee and discovering new music.

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