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Editor's Note: Jack of All Trades

Nov 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Tom Kenny, Editorial Director

At least a couple of times a year, for the past 20 years, I find myself in conversations where an engineer, producer, studio owner or manufacturer will say, “These schools have to stop! There are no jobs out here!” Then I talk to the schools and the truth is, there are jobs out there, all kinds of audio jobs, and students are getting hired. There may be fewer behind a console at a commercial facility, but the schools know this and they continually make adjustments to their curriculum as the job market changes. They have to. If graduating students don’t get hired, the schools can’t stay open. There are rules, and state and federal governments can make life difficult for the program that doesn’t deliver the numbers.

So this year, as we were preparing our annual Education issue and I heard the refrain one more time, I started to think about what it takes to have a successful career in audio. How can a student who has the passion, the drive and the talent find success? And what can they, and the schools, do to prepare for an industry that is constantly undergoing technological and budget-conscious change.

Three conversations from this past week came to mind:

The first was with John Fry, who sits on our cover this month as a tribute to his 45 years in the business. He has been through ups and downs, changing markets, dozens of formats and distribution models. He used to wear a tie while he mixed. And he’s still vital because he recognized early on that Ardent Studios could not just be a fee-for-service facility. So he has publishing, a label, artist development, video production—all related, all designed to boost an artist’s career.

The second was with John Schirmer, a full-time engineer for Keb Mo who says he is where he is today because he has learned to do all things audio: live sound engineer, tour manager, production manager, studio builder, engineer, mixer. This, he says, is what you need to do today. Be valuable in all that you do and bring some of everything to the table. His live sound experience, he says, where he makes an artist sound good night after night in some lousy-sounding venues, made him a better mixer in the studio. And his time in the studio led him to design. His work as a tour manager makes him a better project manager, and his work as a production manger makes him a better businessman.

Finally, I ran into Ron Lagerlof of Visioneering Design at a Meyer Sound/Harrison party at Wildfire Post. He’s been in and around our fine industry all of his life, from starting out as a recording engineer at Universal Studios in Chicago in the '70s, to studio manager at Motown Hitsville in L.A., then operations manager at Skywalker Sound. He founded his own company in 1992 and has worked on projects as complex as designing portions of James Cameron’s custom technical operation that made Avatar possible a few years back. He’s an audio guy through and through, but he’s just as likely to fall into conversations about Red cameras, screen resolution and super-high-bandwidth streaming. “It’s no longer jack of all trades, master of none,” he says. “It’s jack of all trades, master of many.”

We are leaving the age of specialization and entering an age of true convergence, a word I tend to find meaningless, but at the same time it rings true. Yes, there are still very talented people who can make a good living as a mix engineer, and there are large studios that can turn a profit. But that is more the exception than the rule today. The graduating audio student, tomorrow’s audio professional, needs to be on top of all things audio. If they are, they will find a job.

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