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I'd like to begin learning about sound engineering, and am considering going to college for it this year, but I could do with some advice first. It's analogue music production I want to work in, but I wondered if learning using digital equipment, which the college uses, would teach me the principles I need to learn in order to use analogue equipment properly. I didn't want to spend time and money on courses that wouldn't be of much use to me when trying to make in-roads into that line of work. Would I be better off taking a different route, or does it not matter what type of mixing equipment you learn on? If someone could give me a little explanation along with an answer, that would be awesome too.

I appreciate it may be an extremely novice question, but it's difficult for me to get hold of much information at the moment, so this seemed like a good place to ask.

Many thanks for reading.

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If I were you I'd go ahead and take the college course.

A lot of the stuff you learn will apply both to digital and analogue, when it comes to things like mic selection and placement, equalizing and mixing. One thing they probably won't teach you is how to record on tape at an optimal level to minimize tape hiss, and how to calibrate tape machines, but that's stuff you can pick up later.

Mike Davis Ottawa

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I'd like to add two caveats to AJ Henderson's great answer: All digital workflows are abstractions of analog workflows. For people who are tactile learners, engaging with an analog-style workflow can help immensely in teaching the fundamentals without the added and sometimes dizzying array of distractions that DAWs can offer. Yes, they are incredibly powerful and flexible, but I think there is immense pedagogical value in learning analog-style recording and mixing on dedicated hardware before going into the abstraction of a DAW.

To me, this is analogous to a composition workflow valuing the importance of abstaining from notating anything, for example, until the idea is really well developed and clear in your head. If you go to notation too quickly, you engage the wrong part of your brain and lose the creative thread. I've felt that sort of thing happen to me when I've "gone into the DAW" with too little analog-style recording and mixing experience.

Note I say "analog-style" and not necessarily pure "analog." I think this caveat would apply to an all-digital setup that mimics an analog setup, as well as a hybrid setup (e.g., digital multitracking feeding analog compressors, EQs and perhaps even FX units).

But you will learn the fundamentals either way as long as you can train your ears to hone in on what you like and learn from people whose work you admire. I completely agree about prioritizing getting real-world experience over academic experience. The academic process should supplement the practical experience, not supplant it.

The second caveat is that analog is certainly not dying out. It's role in the recording, mixing and mastering process is changing. Digital recorders and players rapidly replaced analog recorders and players as less maintenance intensive, less expensive, more reliable, more convenient and compact, and, now with 24-bit 48khz, arguably little to no difference in fidelity. But analog systems have their own (pleasing) sound and has practically 0 latency (because it travels through wires at the speed of light). Those two factors alone make it interesting enough to keep around, and many studios maintain or even prioritize an analog signal chain, even as a side-car to their digital signal chain.

Digital systems have often merely been trying to mimic analog systems with complex algorithms, to varying degrees of success. Those algorithms take time to process and add very noticeable latency, as does DAC and ADC.

But I often see neglected in these discussions the psychological and pedagogical aspects of analog-style workflows. Analog-style is more limited, more tactile and forces us to use our ears more than our eyes or algorithms. You can learn the fundamentals without getting distracted by things such as dithering, latency, buffer xruns, software updates, menus, plugins, etc.

To me, this is analogous to a composition workflow valuing the importance of abstaining from notating anything, for example, until the idea is really well developed and clear in your head. If you go to notation too quickly, you engage the wrong part of your brain and lose the creative thread. I've felt that sort of thing happen to me when I've "gone into the DAW" with too little analog-style recording and mixing experience.

Digital systems are incredibly powerful and flexible, but more abstract, so I would put digital workflows in second place for purely psychological and pedagogical reasons.

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Before going to college for it, I'd first see if you can find any studios you could intern at. It would be far more valuable experience with less cost. College is good for learning sound theory, but the nuts and bolts skills of mixing and recording are picked up through practice, not classrooms.

As far as digital vs analog. I'd suggest learning on digital. Analog is a rapidly dying breed and digital workflows are far cheaper, more common and arguably better quality at this point. You don't want to go to college and pay to learn an end of life skill.

As far as differences, there is a lot of theory that applies specifically to digital that doesn't apply to analog, but not so much the other way around. Digital signals by nature start and end as analog signals, so they are dependent on all the same theory as analog mixing. The only difference is that digital adds more toolsets and sampling theory.

The equipment is a little different, but the principle of things like preserving levels to keep a high signal to noise ratio are basically the same whether you are using a tape deck or an analog to digital converter.

Learning digital will help you more in the long run and won't significantly harm your ability to do analog work if you still want to after learning both.

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  • @damaru.inc Thanks, both of those answers have already helped me a lot. I know digital is standard these days but would still like the option to learn analogue. I'd like to intern but was under the impression that doing so wasn't a guaranteed possibility, hence my thinking about college. AJ Henderson: In that regard, do you think I'd be wise to simply buy my own equipment and learn with the use of books (with or without college/an internship) or would it be a waste without any sort of guidance? That's all the questions I have guys, it's up to me to decide on a course of action afterwards. – Rutez Dec 18 '14 at 10:48
  • @Rutez - you very much want guidance. The most important skills are not easily taught by a book. It consists of listening to stuff, discussing what needs to change with someone who knows what they are doing, trying to make the changes and then having them help teach you what you are missing. A book can't do that. Books may provide useful technical information, but you learn how to really mix by actually mixing with someone who can help you learn. – AJ Henderson Dec 18 '14 at 14:28
  • Note, I say this as someone who threw an Electronic Arts major in to a dual major with my computer science education simply because I had already learned the entire major from doing stuff in the real world under great techs. I did pick up a little bit of additional theory, but overall, my skillset was head and shoulders above anyone else in the program that hadn't also done professional work previously to taking the program. And this was at a school whose Electronic Arts masters program was the 4th highest ranked in the US at the time. – AJ Henderson Dec 18 '14 at 14:32
  • Thanks, I thought that may be the case but thought I'd check first. That's a solid example, and of course I want to learn all the whys and wherefores, the ins and outs of recording and mixing. It's a lot clearer to me now which path I should be taking, so thank you very much for your time, very much appreciated. – Rutez Dec 22 '14 at 9:32

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