Dizzee, The Streets and you...

An increasing number of universities run audio production courses, where students can become designers of music technology, as opposed to users of it. Clare Dwyer Hogg takes a listen
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The Independent Online

There are some jobs that have more of a cache of cool than others, and the music industry is one of them. Behind the scenes, though, it's the nitty gritty action that makes it happen. An album doesn't just appear - there are teams of people who have the expertise to make it work. And, once that's done, it would be pointless if the speakers that played the tunes weren't delivering optimum sounds. So there are people who know how to do that too. Welcome to the world of music and audio production.

There are some jobs that have more of a cache of cool than others, and the music industry is one of them. Behind the scenes, though, it's the nitty gritty action that makes it happen. An album doesn't just appear - there are teams of people who have the expertise to make it work. And, once that's done, it would be pointless if the speakers that played the tunes weren't delivering optimum sounds. So there are people who know how to do that too. Welcome to the world of music and audio production.

There is an increasingly popular array of courses in universities across the country that teach people these skills, and they've become even more popular since an A-level in music technology became an option. But a word of warning: make sure the course you choose is what you really think it is. Professor Trevor Cox, who oversees the audio technology course at Salford University, says sometimes undergraduates don't realise that what they're signing up for isn't just about producing sounds.

"We aspire to help people to become designers of music technology, as opposed to users of it," he says. The point is that students will acquire skills that will enable them to go on to design studios and concert halls: audio technology degrees are often about developing the technology to enable music to be at its highest quality. Precisely because of that, students need a mathematics or science A-level to get on to the course.

"If you're going to design a loudspeaker, you need to be able to manipulate an equation," Cox explains. Which doesn't sound glamorous in the slightest. "No," he agrees, "but while a lot of students are interested in music production when they're 17, by the time they're 21 they often realise that they'd prefer a more secure job."

The hard work pays off if that's the case. The majority of Cox's students go on to work at big companies like KEF and Phillips, and some divert slightly, working for Nokia and the like on acoustics. With this in mind, music and audio technology degrees can often be more jazzy offshoots of the more traditional engineering degree.

Graduates of the audio technology course emerge with a BSc; then there are postgraduate options: for the past two years, Salford has facilitated a distance learning postgrad that is more academic than the undergrad.

This can give students the edge when they're applying for jobs: two consultancy firms have indicated to Cox that they prefer people to have this additional qualification. Music production courses are not always structured like this, which is why it is essential to find out about the course before you commit to it.

City College Manchester, for instance, teaches music technology as part of music and new media management, which leans towards people who want to become managers, producers and even performers (John Jenkins, the drummer in The Streets, came from this course). Phil Ellis, a former artist manager, is the head of department there."We've been very successful in generating funding," he says, "which helped us set up our own record label, Raw Fish (RF)."

Creating RF in 1997 means that the resources are there for students who want hands on experience in the industry they aspire to be part of. He cites their recording project in Strangeways Prison as a good example of this: three rival gangs rapped and RF put the record together. About 13,000 copies were sold, the profit went to Victim Support and students saw the project go from nothing to a finished product.

City College's foundation degree is based primarily on building up links with employers and getting hands dirty: planning music conventions; releasing records; and trying out work experience with artists on tour (Dizzee Rascal, for one, has had students from the course helping him out). This course is two years: at the end, the student can choose whether to leave with a FSc qualification or do one more year to make it up to a BSc.

Whatever form of qualification students embark upon, the insider knowledge they'll acquire in the process will give them a foot in the industry door and - importantly - an indication of which specific area they'd like to make their niche. And that, after all, is half the battle.

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