A hotly contested topic in the music industry, and a question I frequently get asked by students is, “Will getting a degree in audio engineering be a waste of time and money?” I find the answer to that question is actually a much more nuanced one, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer.
The old guard of the industry came up through the now-almost-defunct studio system where you learned by working your way up, and if you did get a college degree, you had your bachelor’s in electrical engineering and learned the musical/audio-specific portions on the job the same way. This crowd looks at audio schools, especially the non-degree-granting ones, as pyramid schemes and complete frauds.
The funny thing is, they’re not wrong. Graduates of many of these institutions now trying to find their way in the musical workforce look back at their alma maters as farces that sold them a pipe dream and then left them in debt in a ruthless, decaying, boarded-up industry holding the bag. Conversely, some graduates look back at their path and credit every moment of success they’ve had to these institutions. They’re not wrong, either.
What are you looking to get out of a degree in audio engineering?
That may be the million-dollar question here. What exactly is your expectation from an audio engineering program? If you expect to come out of school with your piece of paper and walk right into a job as an engineer somewhere, you’re going to be sadly disappointed.
In the studio system as it stands today, a degree in audio won't move you any further up the ladder; the dues still need to be paid. In some cases, being a graduate of some programs may even get you shown the door before you get a chance to present what you’re capable of.
The next thing you need to define is “success” in the world of audio. Is your goal to mix platinum-selling R&B albums all day, every day? That’s a very narrow definition of success achieved by an even smaller group of individuals. If you’re willing to stretch your mind and your skills, it's very attainable to work in the audio and music field for a living, and your degree can help you get there. So here are some things to consider.
Look into the credentials and reputation of the program
What the program offers you is probably going to be one of your biggest contributing factors to the question of, “Is this right for me?” By that, I don’t mean the catchy stock photos of students smiling at each other and twisting knobs on a large-format console, a free MacBook, or a list of “celebrity engineer” alumni/endorsees/guest lecturers. Try to find a program with a strong alumni network, as this is ultimately what you’re going to be paying for with a degree in audio. Your classmates and fellow alumni are more than likely going to be where you find those first leads looking for gigs or work.
Look for a program that offers you more than “Pro Tools 101” and “Analog Signal Flow.” Finding an institution that will give you more than things you can learn from a Wikipedia article or YouTube video is important. Classes in business or computer science and other disciplines are what are going to give you the tools to be competitive in a market flooded with people holding certificates from 18-month programs.
Learn more about your options
The audio industry is growing and diverse in the applications of your degree. Filling your weeks with recording only indie rock bands may not be viable unless you’re already independently wealthy. There are a number of opportunities in not only the studio, but live sound, television, movies, video games, podcasts, corporate applications, production, plugin and product design, etc. If you’re not afraid to leave the studio or not work on strictly music, there are many more career paths and revenue streams available to you.
Understand the "power" of your degree
You have to remember you're entering a field where sweat equity in the industry is still of high value. Having your bachelor’s doesn’t mean anything. For me personally, the skills I learned in school have been infinitely valuable in my day-to-day work in music and audio, but a degree isn't a badge.
Don’t expect anyone to be impressed by putting “bachelor’s in sound recording technology from XYZ University” on your resume. Instead, that degree is a key (a major key, if you listen to DJ Khaled); it'll open proverbial doors.
If you followed the two above recommendations, you should have a figurative toolbox of skills and experiences you can call upon to help you move forward. However, the hard work is still ahead of you, and you'll still need to prove yourself or carve out your own niche.
I think that having a degree in audio production is valuable and can be an important step to obtaining your goals. That being said, it’s not for everyone, and you do have to do your homework. You have to remember that it’s not a means to an end, but a part of the journey when done right.
So, to answer the question, is going to college for audio engineering worth it? The funny thing is, either way, you’re not wrong.
Aaron Staniulis is not only a freelance live sound and recording engineer, but also an accomplished musician, singer, and songwriter. He has spent equal time on both sides of the microphone working for and playing alongside everyone from local bar cover bands to major label recording artists, in venues stretching from tens to tens of thousands of people. Having seen both sides at all levels gives him the perfect perspective for shedding light on the "Angry Sound Guy." You can find out more about what he’s up to at aaronstaniulis.com.