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Alchemea’s debut column: ‘What is the point of an audio education?’

Darryn De La Soul
Alchemea’s debut column: ‘What is the point of an audio education?’

Audio Pro International is proud to present its debut column from Alchemea College, with course co-ordinator for the facility’s Diploma in Live Sound Engineering Darryn De La Soul providing the inaugural contribution…

‘What is the point of an Audio Education?’

Every now and again I come across a bit of prejudice from a few of the ‘old boys’ in the industry, against educating people formally in audio.  I imagine this stems from the “I swept the floor for five years before they let me touch a desk” point of view.  And in years gone by this was indeed the way to get into the business, and would still be legitimate if these opportunities were ever offered.

It seems to me, however, as someone both running a college course and helping young engineers into the workplace, that just like record companies now require bands to turn up with a finished product before they’ll even get a listen, employers in the audio industry want engineers to turn up with a complete set of skills.  This is only to be expected in the current climate (training someone up may not cost too much in wages, but it still costs food and accommodation if you take them on the road) but does beg the question of how people are to get into the industry if there are (a) no floors to sweep or (b) the cost of living is now so high no one can eat on a floor-sweeping wage.

I can also see how a theory-only university style education in sound creates genuine difficulties in the real world workplace where a piece of paper means little when it comes to pushing faders around; and also how the expectations of degree graduates clashes horribly with the reality of entry-level employment opportunities. 

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The more time I spend in adult education the more I realise whilst uni might be fun, unless you’re becoming a doctor or a lawyer, it’s not really good preparation for the workplace, especially in a practical career like sound engineering.  To be able to mix a band or load a truck, you need to spend time learning to mix bands and load trucks, not writing dissertations about it.  Without this practical experience, degree graduates are not very employable and I think this is where a lot of the prejudice from the ‘old guys’ comes from. You need to be able to DO things, and are particularly unuseful if you cannot.

Vocational training has a lot going for it these days.  Although fees are often high at the private colleges offering these courses, university fees are now similar.  The time commitment, however, tends to be much shorter so parents and/or loans only need to pay for Little Johnny’s rent and pocket money for a few months rather than a few years.  Little Johnny’s earning potential at the end of a vocational course – usually an entry-level job – also matches the initial investment slightly better. Investing in three years of tuition, rent and living does give rise to an expectation of higher earnings, and possibly also an unrealistic expectation that your degree earns you a spot mixing on main stage Glastos.

So, whilst I can understand the annoyance the old boys feel with “too big for their boots” graduates, the industry at the moment also demands ready-made engineers, and so vocational college courses come into their own.  Alchemea, for one, never pretends to students that they will be more than entry-level when they graduate.  We do find, though, that the good ones climb the ladder very quickly once they get out there and get working.  Even more importantly, a very high percentage of graduates DO actually get out there and work.  They come with a great work ethic, a deep respect for those who’ve been in the business for longer than they have and an understanding that they still don’t know everything. All of this stands them in good stead. They can also make a three-indie-bands-down-the-pub gig happen with half a microphone and three bits of gaffer tape, which, for me, is the real mark of an engineer with a future ahead of them; making something happen with nothing.

So in this era of “unemployment amongst young people at an all time high,” turning out employable graduates, with realistic expectations and the right character traits, nurtured in small groups with personal attention from tutors, is what education should be striving for, and what we at Alchemea believe we are getting right.  Our Live Sound Diploma is particularly successful at this – at last count, over 80% of Diploma graduates (those who scored 70% or higher) are working on one way or another in the industry.

Darryn started her career in Live Sound at London’s 93 Feet East, where she spent two years. After this she went freelance, tour managing and mixing FOH for Domino Records artists Juana Molina, Hood and Test Icicles as well as Rephlex artists. Whilst continuing to work as a FOH engineer at such venues as The Fridge, Village Underground, Neighbourhood, Ocean Village 2 Cruise Ship, Bush Hall, The Courtyard Theatre, de la Warr Pavillion, Heaven Night Club, NFT and Battersea Arts Centre, she also got involved in Production Management, most notably with Faster Than Sound (a long-term experiment in collaboration between classical and electronic artistes), Jem Finer’s “Longplayer” and the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory. She also maintains a close relationship with Punchdrunk Theatre Company.

Darryn has also dabbled in film, winning Best Short Documentary 2008 at the London Independent Film Festival.

Tags: audio college, the fridge, alchemea college, domino records, 93 feet east, village underground

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