Audio Education Focus: Are High End Workshops Worth It?

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It’s the Wild West in audio education right now.

From all-you-can-eat free advice on YouTube to online course subscriptions and no shortage of audio trade schools and colleges, there’s more sonic learning available every day. In addition to those channels, updated approaches to studio internships/apprenticeships are on the rise, as are tightly focused workshops.

Despite being an industry in transition, people who are serious about audio are willing to pay thousands of dollars for intimate time with top pros. In early November, Flux Studios sold out a 16-seat Master Class with Mick Guzauski and Fab DuPont, for attendees paying $2,090 apiece. Mix with the Masters has made a consistent business of offering high-end, week-long classes with the likes of Steve Albini, Michael Brauer, Chris Lord-Alge, and Tchad Blake, held in the South of France – they’ve held more than 60 seminars to date, attracting lecturers and attendees from 50+ countries.

Vlado Meller

Vlado Meller

On the mastering side, the Vlado Meller Mastering Workshop is an elite option. Selected students get to spend three days at his Charleston, S.C. studio, benefitting from his 43 years of experience and jaw-dropping discography: Beastie Boys, Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Cash, Charlotte Church, Celine Dion, Duran Duran, Kenny G, Kenny Loggins, Julio Iglesias, Michael Jackson, Lil Wayne, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Kanye West, Kenny Loggins, Paul McCartney, Metallica, George Michael, Oasis, Pink Floyd, Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shakira, Barbra Streisand, System Of A Down, Weezer, and Jack White.

Attendees to the VMMW can expect an admission fee of $3-5,000, depending on their travel and accommodations. Meller has led eight workshops since launching the series in 2013. Two in NYC, followed by six more in Charleston, with the next one scheduled for February 26-28, 2016.

“I had wanted to do these when I was with the major label studios, but they were not interested,” Meller says. “Now that I’m on my own, I can do whatever I want to do. I wanted to talk to the next generation of mastering engineers — the same kind of hands-on training I had back when I started at CBS Records. I learn more with each workshop in terms of how to explain to people what I do, how to engage them and make them more comfortable in a learning environment.”

The attendees’ common thread is a need to know much more about mastering. “Students want to learn my techniques – how I do it, the equipment and technology I use, how I go about getting my business, what kind of clients I’ve had throughout the years,” notes Meller. “The differences between prepping the files for iTunes vs. CD vs. vinyl. And I think they all recognize that this type of workshop is the only way to truly learn.

“If someone wants to learn how to fly, they can read 10,000 books about flying but until you sit next to a pilot in a plane, you’re not flying. I don’t know of any other mastering engineer in the United States who’s doing this type of intensive workshop.”

Stop the Silence

Meller hopes to break the image of mastering as a dark art accessible only to a select circle. “Since I started in the 1960s, it was always very secretive – no one really had an inside vision into what mastering people were doing,” he recalls. “Then in the 1980’s, when everything changed to digital and CDs came out, anyone with a computer was told that they could be mastering.

“But again, it’s a profession that can really only be taught in a legitimate mastering room. You can’t learn it from books, or YouTube, or in a classroom, and the students who are serious about learning all acknowledge that.”

For Meller, the hardest part of the VMMW is reviewing the applications and putting the class together. “We turn a lot of people down because they don’t have the right level of experience,” says Meller. “The group is so small, just two or three people, that to get the most out of it you need to come in with a knowledge of mixing at least, and a basic grasp of mastering. This is not the introductory course. It’s about tuning your ears to the mastering process.

“I like to keep my workshops pretty small in size to insure that all attending are at a similar skill level, so the class can focus on the most advanced mastering techniques without much basic introduction. But once you’re there, it’s one-on-one, hands-on experience from start to finish. I tell participants to bring in their latest projects so I can lend assistance and advice to perfecting them.”

The course is also a valuable experience for a much wider audience: mixing engineers. “They obviously know what they’re doing on the specifics of mixing,” Meller says, “but I’ve found that for them to look at it from the mastering perspective can really shape how they prepare the project, for the final stages going forward.”

The other upside to the small class size is that Meller has time to keep in touch with everybody afterwards.

When the students go home, and six months later a student sends me a photo of a mastering studio that they’re building in Germany or Tuscany – it doesn’t get any more rewarding than that,” he states. “When they’re engaging me months after they left, with in-depth questions on technique for projects they’re working on, it shows that they’re very thankful for what they learned, and very thoughtful and serious about applying those techniques going forward.

“A constant refrain I hear after the workshops is that they learned more about mastering in a few days than they did in their whole lifetimes before that.”

Meller's mastering suite in Charleston, S.C.

Meller’s mastering suite in Charleston, S.C.

 

Attendee Outlook

The other way to view workshops is from the student perspective. What type of audio professional spends thousands of dollars, plus the time and expense of travelling to the Charleston, S.C. destination, to improve their mastering?

SonicScoop talked to three participants from two recent VMMW workshops, and got three different viewpoints on why they came as well as what they came away with.

Name: Kent Hooper

Kent Hooper, far left, at the VMMW.

Kent Hooper, far left, at the VMMW.

Website: http://www.houseofbig.com

Pro Audio Role: producer / mix engineer / mastering engineer / programmer

Credits: CeCe Winans, Michael W Smith, Kristin Chenoweth

Why did you want to improve your mastering skills? My reason for attending the workshop was less about bettering my mastering skills, but more about becoming a better mix engineer.

I’ve been able to hire Vlado as a producer to master albums that I have produced and mixed, and I was always blown away with what he did. I wanted to see what he did to my mixes, and why – so I could possibly fix some of the issues he was correcting during the mix process. Of course my mastering skills got better – much better, but that was not the reason I chose to attend the VMMW.

Why did you decide to learn via the Vlado Meller Mastering Workshop, as opposed to another format like online tutorials, a trade school course, etc…? 100% because of Vlado. He mastered many of my favorite albums, and I wanted to see how he worked, and why he does the things he does during mastering.

What was a key technique you learned at the VMMW, that you expect to be applying in your own work? The way Vlado approaches mastering is done with absolute respect to the client. It was great to hear him speak about how about how important it is to not try to change what they give you to master – the client has spent months toiling over their production and mixes, and your job is to make it “10 – 20% better” and not try to reinvent it.

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