Learn Audio Engineering
Ian Hellström | 6 September 2021 | 7 min read
What is the best way to learn audio engineering for the (wannabe) home studio owner in 2021?
Unless you can afford a full-time programme from Abbey Road Institute, Berklee, Full Sail, MI, SAE Institute, or similar, you’re probably better served with a fully online, part-time course. As I have charted a path through the wilderness, allow me to be your guide.
Audio Institute of America
Peter Miller’s career may have spanned almost 6 decades, but I doubt you are familiar with any of his works. I definitely was not. The Audio Institute of America offers a course created by Peter ‘Big Boy Pete’ Miller. In return for $299, you receive a collection of PDFs and a few printed materials that you can work through at your own leisure. If you manage to ace the online exams, you are offered a diploma to hang on your studio wall.
While not super relevant to audio engineers for small and home studios, who mostly work ‘in the box’, tape has shaped not only the sound of an entire era but also influenced functionality we take for granted in today’s DAWs, such as (non-destructive) cutting and pasting. The course talks about magnetic tape at length, although it discusses fully digital production workflows, too. Knowing about the intricacies of tape means you are not shocked when you read about the Ampex master tapes for Queen’s A Night at the Opera being baked for a couple of days.
While AIA’s course is fairly comprehensive and definitely ‘legit’, covering the fundamentals of sound, psychoacoustics, digitization, microphones and recommendations for different instruments, mic techniques, the production process from recording to mixing and beyond (e.g. production of CDs), it is not without its drawbacks.
The PDFs have Flash content embedded. It may require a bit of fiddling to make that work nowadays, as Flash is not supported any longer by Adobe Acrobat. That content is mostly audio with an occasional short video from a studio. That does not mean there is a fair amount of audio to train your ears on though. There is not.
The PDFs include exercises, but none of these actually require a DAW. Not a single mix is reviewed, although there are a dozen or so audio tracks to play around with. The AIA course teaches the theory of audio engineering, but not its practice. Unfortunately, audio engineering is an applied discipline, which limits the value of the entire course. It is also outdated, as evidenced by many screenshots of ancient versions of Cubase and Pro Tools.
Initially, I desired a course that would teach me the basics of audio engineering while not costing an arm and a leg. While AIA teaches a lot of fundamentals, the lack of hands-on exercises with professional feedback is a serious oversight. The value of the diploma is questionable at best.
Alan Parsons’ Art and Science of Sound Recording
Alan Parsons needs no introduction. His Art and Science of Sound Recording offers different versions of the same course. I opted for the $49.95 video streams instead of the downloads or physical media. Alan talks through a lot of it and shows how he works in the studio. Snippets of the studio sessions for All Our Yesterdays, a track that features throughout the videos, are sprinkled throughout the course. It gives you an idea of what working in a real studio looks like.
The course is short and sweet. It is also very now. For example, Alan shows how to collaborate remotely in real-time over the internet with Pro Tools and Source Elements. He also explains what to look out for when sharing audio files with people who may or may not have the same DAW. Always consolidate!
Alan interviews other famous audio engineers, producers, and artists, such as:
- Erykah Badu
- Niko Bolas (Melissa Etheridge, Kiss, Steve Perry, Toto, Neil Young)
- Tony Brown (Lionel Richie, Shooter Jennings, George Strait, Wynonna)
- John Fields (Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Pink)
- Steve Marcantonio (Aerosmith, Heart, Kiss, John Lennon, Taylor Swift, Steven Tyler)
- Sylvia Massy (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Spiderbait, System of a Down, Tool)
- John McBride (Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton)
- Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers)
- Jack Joseph Puig (Fiona Apple, The Black Crowes, Hole, Stone Temple Pilots, U2, Weezer)
- Simon Rhodes (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, John Williams)
- John Shanks (Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Take That, Van Halen, Westlife)
- Allen Sides (Mary J Blige, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Green Day, Alanis Morrisette, Frank Sinatra)
- David Thoener (AC/DC, Faith Hill, Matchbox 20, John Mellencamp, Carlos Santana)
There is a nice balance when it comes to various approaches, such as working entirely in the digital domain or using a vintage analogue mixing desk. It is refreshing to hear both sides being argued and see how a lot of it comes down to personal preference.
Session files are available for purchase to play around with. These are professionally recorded tracks from studio and remote sessions.
I loved the idea of gaining some hands-on experience with a decently sized mix. As a novice, though, it’s not a great idea to load the DAW with 62 colourful tracks and no idea of where to even begin. The lack of continuous feedback means the mixing experience is a one-off.
At fifty bucks, you cannot really go wrong. It is a blast to see a real pro at work in the studio, so if you can spare that amount of cash, go for it.
Still, if you want hands-on experience, you have to look elsewhere. There is also a $695 course with assignments, projects, and a certificate. I cannot comment on whether that is worth it, because in the meantime I had set my sights on HOFA.
What AIA and ASSR lack, HOFA has in abundance: audio samples, exercises, and of course practice mixes! These practice mixes are always reviewed by the audio engineers at HOFA. The reviews are quite exceptional in the level of detail. It is clear the engineers know what they are talking about. The fact that they review a lot of student work means they have great tips for common mixing issues.
HOFA may not sound familiar to many, but they have had their own studios in south-western Germany since 1988. They even develop plug-ins and sell materials for acoustic treatments for studios.
The audio samples and practice mixes with reviews are pivotal. The pro course includes multi-track covers of classic songs, recorded by session musicians at HOFA Studios. Their engineers lift the veil on everything from mic selection and placement to effects, and mastering.
A decent cross-section of genres and instruments passes through your DAW with the various practice mixes. That is great to learn techniques you may not explore on your own.
You are issued a student card, as the course is accredited in Germany. This means you can benefit from everything that entails: educational discounts on gear as well as cheaper museum tickets within Germany.
Finally, there is a lively YouTube channel with plenty of (public) live streams and even contests with serious prize money.
At over $2,160 for the complete course, which includes mastering, it is definitely not cheap. Payment in monthly instalments of around $100 is offered. The course is then unlocked one module at a time. At a mix per module, the pace is perfect.
The feedback can sometimes be excruciating to read, especially when you slaved over a mix that grated because the song was not up your alley. The reviews are supported with comparisons to reference mixes and information on genre-specific characteristics.
I have found it particularly useful to listen after receiving the feedback. If I cannot notice the suggestions for improvements, that is my cue to keep training my ears. I have had a few mixes for which the feedback was clear: something specific was clearly off (e.g. vocals too quiet or the kick drum and bass too resonant). In many of those case, I had not noticed anything at the time of submission. So, every time I read HOFA’s comments, I fire up my DAW, press play, and within seconds I usually heard the problem too. The gap of a few days is usually enough to hear issues with a mix. My advice (to myself) is therefore to sit on a mix for a week and then listen again before submitting.
Out of the courses I have done, HOFA’s is the best by a landslide. It comes with plenty of high-quality plug-ins that come in handy when mixing and mastering. There is simply no substitute for hands- and ears-on training with regular feedback from the pros. HOFA definitely delivers that. Without the regular exercise from a programme such as HOFA’s, I doubt you’ll ever get the value out of whatever gear you acquire.
Speaking of gear…
I started out with a basic laptop, Reaper, and regular headphones (Pioneer SE-M531). Mainly as a consequence of HOFA’s mix reviews, my equipment has evolved. Right now, I rely on the following gear:
- Superlux HD 681 headphones
- Studio One 5 Artist
- PreSonus Faderport V2 controller
- Eve Audio SC203 near-field monitors
I switched to the Superlux headphones after I studied the feedback on my very first mix: it was clear the Pioneers were colouring the sound as well as my judgement. I needed headphones with a flatter frequency response. Fortunately, I had the Superluxes lying around.
With the crummy built-in mouse on my Sony Vaio, tiny movements on the trackpad made the faders fly all the way up, which in turn hurt my ears, as I was using headphones exclusively. Making the Faderport work with Reaper turned out to be trickier than I had imagined, so I switched to Studio One and have not looked back since.
I added near-field monitors to my setup recently, because I noticed that mixing with headphones for hours on end really does not work well. In fact, it’s hard to get a balanced mix purely with headphones. I always had to check my work on external speakers anyway. The laptop speakers were of no use, and the single Sony SRS-XB12 that I connected via Bluetooth did not really do the job, because it had not been designed for studio monitoring. The Eves represented a compromise: small, accurate, yet not too expensive.
I also have a iRig Pro Duo I/O, Panorama P4 and a Zoom R24, but I do not use the latter as a controller, because the faders are not motorized. That is simply a must for any serious studio work. Plus, it looks really cool with volume automation.
As you may have noticed, a lot of my gear is designed for portability. That’s intentional as I do not (yet) have a dedicated room for music production. Some day though…