A year ago today, Sonic Backgrounds was released as an interview series that focused on audio degree graduates and the curriculum they learned.  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to interview 15 audio friends from 11 different colleges around the world.  From the Vancouver Film School in Canada to Leeds Metropolitan in London, or the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, we’ve cast a nice wide net over the audio education world!

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Throughout these interviews, I’ve asked questions to get a glimpse of what audio degree programs are currently offering, and to see what led the graduates to choose their degree.  Below, I summarize six topics I’ve found interesting from this first year of research!

Degree Itself (What’s in a Name?)

Sound design, and audio work in general, falls into a fusion of arts and sciences, and even though many programs seemed similar in curriculum, there is a split on whether the degree is a Bachelor’s of Arts or a Bachelor’s of Science.  Of the 15 degrees, 8 were BA’s, 4 were BS’s, two were vocational degrees, and one was a Bachelor’s of Music.

The name of the degree also ranged in variety, from “Music Technology” to “Sound for Visual Media”, or “Interactive Arts & Media: Video Game – Sound” to “Creative Music Production & Technology”.  Whether the title was a mouth-full or not, the audio skills gained were mostly similar across the board.  The one difference is that if a title mentioned technology, or was a BS, it was more likely to have projects of the Max/MSP, Pure Data, and Processing variety.

It’s also worth pointing out that four of the interviewees completed their Master’s degrees in audio related programs.  It was in these programs where the most music technology experimentation was encouraged, as students pursued their own creative dissertations.

Age of Discovery – Age of Decision

One fun question I used to learn more about the graduates themselves, was to figure out at what age they decided to go into sound as a career.  The results were pleasantly entertaining!

For half of the graduates, they knew they wanted to pursue sound once they hit their teenage years.  Or perhaps I should say they knew they wanted to be rockstars when they were teenagers!  Whether drummers or guitarists, these rockers knew sound was in their future.  This dream continued until the early college years, when it was time to choose a degree.  It was here that many decided to pursue the music recording, sound design, or music technology fields in an educational and career mindset.  It didn’t mean to lay down the axe though!  As audio people, we always seem to have our inner musician going; a creative outlet that needs to be fed occasionally!

The other half also decided to pursue audio as a career in the college era.  Whether it was a casual interest or an attempt to try something new, these graduates discovered sound in school, realized it was something they loved, and hung on to it to the end!

Prior Degree

Since not all the graduates knew audio was what they wanted to do until a little later in life, some had the bonus of earning other college degrees, an exciting opportunity to blend different fields into the world of audio, and make each graduate stand out in a unique way.  For example, Roel has a BS in Chemistry, Brendan a BA in Spanish, and Sean a BS in Psychology!

Class Size

One thing true across the board was that all of these audio degrees were small.  In each degree, there would be about 20-35 students on average, of which anywhere from 4-8 were actually focused on game audio.  Granted that game audio is a relatively new field, it’s interesting to see how few of the students pursuing the larger general audio field find interest in the interactive side of things.  It seems to be the technology/art, left mind/right mind, line that separates the groups.  One side focuses on music, production, and linear media, while the other focuses on programming, interactivity, and technological experimentation.  It’s great to see how even in our own little audio world we have such diversity!

Tools Learned

Before we even get into this section, you can guess what tool was on every interviewee’s curriculum:  Pro Tools.  The “industry standard” stands tall at each university’s program, but not alone.  Logic, Cubase, and Reason are the next common DAWs to find at an institution, with Audition and Nuendo making appearances as well.

On the hardware side of things, a couple schools make sure to get students behind the console occasionally, and handle mixers, racks, and microphones as well.  This is more likely to be true at a vocational school rather than a university.

Then, depending on how technical a program gets, students can be found digging into audio programming in Pure Data, Max/MSP, and Processing.  And on the implementation side, colleges cover game engines such as Unity, UDK, and CryEngine, and audio middleware such as Wwise, and FMOD.

Projects / Curriculum

The most interesting question I collected was “What kind of projects did you have in your classes?”  I can’t adequately cover all the detail that each of the graduates gave in their answers to this question here, so I encourage you to go check out what they themselves said!  But in summary, here’s my favorite discoveries!

The most common project is the sound replacement video.  Whether the assignment focuses on sound design, mixing, or post-production in general, this seemed to be a staple project at any of the colleges.

The next common project was to team up with another field, whether for a film student’s short movie, or a game design student’s level.  It’s great to see a curriculum cross-pollinate the disciplines at a school, and get the students working collaboratively, as that’s how things work in the real world!

When students worked solo, especially at the more technical schools or in the Master’s programs, projects included game mods, creative audio programming projects, and sometimes small games from scratch, where the audio student is also tasked with building out the level.

An interesting project that a couple graduates described was the full process of finding a local band, recording them, releasing their single, and also interviewing them for a podcast.  One school even throws in a music video as well!  This I found remarkable, as it not only gets the audio students practical experience, but it builds a sense of community with the local music groups, and gives them a little publicity too!

All of the colleges gave focus to recording sessions, whether in music or VO, and many included music history in the curriculum.  And keeping with the classics, if it’s a performance degree, recitals are your projects.

Then, in comparing a university to a vocational school, one might have either algorithmic composition, or the repair of audio equipment and music business contract writing; both very interesting topics!

Shout It Out

Sonic Backgrounds - Year 1

This past year has been quite a bit of fun, and none of it would be possible without the wonderful graduates I interviewed.  So, allow me to give a big thanks to each of them, and their schools!

Joe CaversUniversity of Edinburgh
Roel SanchezColumbia College Chicago
Michael TaylorUniversity of Greenwich
Stefan RutherfordLeeds Metropolitan University
Johnny PeaseFull Sail University
Brendan WoodIndiana University Bloomington
Frank D’AngeloConservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences
Margaret LuUniversity of British Columbia; Cleveland Institute of Music
Joshua DavidsonFull Sail University
Alex Di VitoLeeds Metropolitan University
Stosh TuszynskiColumbia College Chicago
John BornVancouver Film School; University of New Brunswick
Naila BurneyUniversidad Javeriana; Leeds Metropolitan University
Leo WorsdaleUniversity of Lincoln
Sean ClouserColumbia College Chicago

Turn It Up to 11

I’m looking forward to continuing Sonic Backgrounds in its second year, covering new universities, new students, and possibly new evolutions in current universities!  Therefore, if you are an audio degree graduate, or even an audio teacher, feel free to contact me (bryan@creatingsound.com or @BryanPloof), and let’s make some interview magic happen!