Monthly Archives: January 2015

Do Industry Certifications Matter?

I teach in the Music Technology program at Foothill College, and I really enjoy the duality of teaching both academic and vocational courses. It gives me a flexibility in course creation that simply wouldn’t exist at a four-year university where career training (if it even exists) takes a backseat to ivory tower academic pursuits.

Many of our vocational courses are focused on software training for a number of important audio applications including Avid’s Pro Tools, Apple’s Logic Pro, and Ableton Live. These are some of our most popular courses at Foothill, and in the case of the Pro Tools courses they are even required for the degree and certificate in Music Tech.

One of the questions I frequently get from the students in my vocational classes is, “Do Industry Certifications Matter?” Unfortunately, my response is often something like, “Well, that depends…” And it does depend on a lot of factors. For someone who already has credits in the industry, an industry certification (IC) is somewhat meaningless; there’s no question that real-world credits trump theoretical expertise every time. I often joke with my students that you won’t find many Grammy winners with a bunch of certificates posted next to the gold records on their studio wall. (The fact that many famous producers and engineers often work in a manner that is anything but efficient is a topic for another time…)

On the other hand, for someone looking to make a career change, the IC can provide a clear training path resulting in significant expertise in an industry-standard application. For example, I often have older students that are successful in a field such as video editing, but wish to add sound design or audio mixing to their CV. In this case, the certificate can impart the necessary confidence to present themselves as an expert in the adjacent field.

Finally, for students with no industry experience, the IC can help to differentiate them from other job candidates applying for internships or entry-level positions. I’ve worked in several organizations where ICs where required to make it through the first phase of job application screening for an internship. While it is true that creative industry ICs like ours are not valued as highly as something like a CISCO or MSCE certification in the IT industry, they do have significant value. Many creative organizations build their entire workflow around one software application (like Pro Tools or Adobe Creative Suite) and our certified students can typically demonstrate much deeper expertise in that application than a senior designer. Does this mean they can do the job better than that person? Absolutely not. But junior personnel in creative fields are often EXPECTED to possess deep knowledge of applications so that they can impart that knowledge to more established colleagues who simply don’t have the time to stay on top of every new feature. Sharing this knowledge in a humble, un-selfish fashion has been a key to advancement in our industry for decades.

The Bleeding Edge

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difficulty of keeping up with the latest technology in my classes. In my field, Music Technology, there’s an interesting split between foundation courses and electives. The foundation courses typically deal with basic concepts in audio engineering, as well as the fundamentals of using a digital audio workstation. In the case of the former, the basic concepts haven’t changed much in decades; the signal path from microphone to pre-amp to recorder was more or less perfected by the Germans during World War II. In the case of the latter, I’ve been working with our primary software platform (Avid’s Pro Tools) since the 1990s. These are subjects in which I possess a wealth of both academic knowledge and professional experience; both can be leveraged when developing, maintaining, and delivering courses. So far so good, right?

The core courses do remain relevant and will for the foreseeable future. (I guess that’s what makes them “core.”) But the core courses don’t reflect the current direction of the department or our industry. In this case, the most logical direction is audio for video games and other interactive media. (I’ll get into the employment statistics supporting that case in a future post…) I’ve written a group of new courses that push us in that direction. But, due to the lengthy process of updating degree and certificate requirements, all of these new courses are currently electives.

So the problem here is two-fold: first, game audio is a relatively new field, so not many comprehensive textbooks exist; second, the industry changes so rapidly that the relevant hardware and software is constantly in flux. As a result, I not only need to write my own curriculum for each of these courses, but I’m aiming at a moving target as far as which technologies to explore. Sure, there are core concepts that remain constant just as they do in any field. But in this field even the core concepts must be taught on recent technology; the way the industry moves, a computer/operating system/software configuration from as little as two years ago can be hopelessly obsolete! And that’s not even taking into account the type of computer, console, or handheld device that the consumer will use to play the resulting game.

The most challenging aspect of this situation is that I can no longer expect that I will be an absolute expert on the subject matter at hand. (A very uncomfortable position for someone who has always had subject matter expertise as a reliable crutch upon which to prop courses.) For example, I’m currently teaching a brand new course on advanced game sound design that uses a software application called FMOD Studio (see post below). But I didn’t truly begin learning the software until last month! (The application itself is only about a year old…) For the first time in my professional career, I find myself hoping that no one deviates too far from the lecture agenda and uncovers my ruse! Just kidding. Mostly.

But it’s actually working out beautifully. I’ve found that an essential aspect of teaching college students, which I’ve had the good fortune to do for the last several years, is letting go of the ego that you acquired through working successfully in the private sector. And now I’m going a step further and letting go of my need to know everything about a subject (or a piece of software) before I feel confident in my ability to teach it to students. I’m incredibly excited to teach this new material because its new and fresh to me. (Perhaps it’s the adrenaline?) And students are definitely picking up on that and getting excited, too. Perhaps exploring a subject together with my students is the only realistic way to maintain the kind of agility that developing relevant courses requires.

FMOD Studio

FMOD Studio was released last year, and it is quite an amazing tool for game audio design and implementation. Just the fact that it looks like a DAW and supports standard control surfaces is enough to raise some eyebrows. Training materials have been steadily rolling out, and I can definitely say that now is an excellent time to jump in. Sound recordist and FMOD guru Stephan Schütze of Sound Librarian has created the official FMOD 101 curriculum, which features a game project which integrates FMOD Studio and Unity.

And the FMOD team have also just released a video training series by Sally Kellaway that offers a deep dive into integration with the Unreal Engine (including some useful lessons on audio programming using UE’s Blueprint technology). There’s even an excellent vehicle engine design lesson, which appears to be incredibly easy using UE’s vehicle template.

I just completed the FMOD 101 online certification in preparation for teaching FMOD Studio in two new classes at Foothill College (MUS84B Advanced Sound Design for Games and MUS84C Music Composition for Games). I’m really looking forward to it.