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Does a Sound Technician in TV need a Degree?

Sometimes when you find someone has written something really useful, relevant and just what you wanted to say – you may as well steal it!! With the author’s permission, of course….

Jake Knott is a very experienced sound supervisor in TV and he has his own very good blog. He has kindly allowed me to copy one of his posts here for your interest and information. Naturally you could read it all on his own site at: http://jakeknottaudio.co.nr/.  If you have interest in the technical side of television, and especially sound, then he’s your man.

So here they are, Jake’s words of wisdom on the continuing saga of what qualifications you may need – or may not need – to get a job in television.

“That’s what I go to school for….

A couple of days ago we had some visitors to the Jeremy Kyle studio; a party of work experience teenagers, all of whom were still at school, and who were here under the ITV Inspire scheme. We ran a typical show opening and chat sequence and they had the chance to try their hands at the various positions in a TV studio from director down to cable basher. It was a busy morning, so I didn’t get chance to chat with any of them in any detail, but it was clear that they were all very keen, motivated and quick to learn, and quite a few expressed an interest in coming back to sit in on a real show.

Now, this is a little different from our normal visitor profile; our typical guest is late teens or early twenties and is either part way through a university degree or has just completed one. So just how did our young visitors compare to our typical older ones? After all, they didn’t have the benefit of several years of Uni education behind them……

They were good. VERY good.

In fact it was quite scary just how quickly they picked up all the different studio roles, and how motivated they all were.

Although they may not have had the technical knowledge of a college student, they were all so committed to giving their best that after a couple of rehearsals they ran a show with minimal intervention from us and it worked! In comparison, some (although I must stress not all!) of our older visitors, who should really have impressed us, have had all the drive of a wet lettuce and VERY patchy technical knowledge. All of which leads me to the real reason for writing this article.

When our young visitors come round in a couple of years to looking at THEIR university options, they’ll have a lot to consider. Particularly the fact that when they finish their chosen courses and graduate they’ll have two things: a piece of paper with “Degree” written on it and a bill in excess of £30,000.

That’s a very expensive piece of paper. But of course it will help them get a job in the industry won’t it?

Ah. Sorry. It won’t. First off, in spite of what many lecturers will tell you, there are hardly ANY actual jobs on offer in TV. There ARE freelance opportunities, but there is a LOT of competition for these. But you still have to get a degree to get the knowledge to work in TV right?

Oops, sorry again. You don’t.

When I chat to our older visitors who are in the middle of these courses, it becomes clear that although they ARE learning useful things, they’re doing it in a very long drawn out and expensive way. The knowledge they seem to gain is knowledge which we could teach them in a much shorter period, or they could easily find out for themselves by reading back issues of Sound On Sound. Yes some of them are very keen, motivated and willing to learn, but I suspect they’d be the same if they’d walked in when they were 17 like our visitors this week. Suddenly that piece of paper is looking less useful.

Now please don’t think I’m tearing apart the whole higher education system. There’s a lot of “serious” degrees which WOULD impress us, such as music, electronics or electrical engineering, but the good sound-based ones seem to be few and far between. Surrey’s Tonmeister course (for which you need to be at least grade 7 with an instrument) is highly regarded, as are some from LIPA and Salford University. If you’re not looking at a traditional university, then somewhere like the National Film School or Ravensbourne are worth a look. For what it’s worth, I’d take a look first at the shorter industry-led courses at somewhere like SSR (http://www.s-s-r.com) in Manchester or London. You’ll learn just as much as with a degree and come out with a considerably smaller debt….

It’s worth bearing in mind that the standard BBC training, the “A” course as it was known, was a mere 3 months long, yet managed to give you everything you needed to start working in TV the moment you completed it. You were still a trainee for your first three years, but at the end of that period you’d completed all your training AND had nearly three years real-world experience. The entrance requirements to join the BBC as a sound assistant in the first place were O-levels in maths, english and ideally physics. As well as a passion for sound, drive, curiosity and motivation, which were expected even in an 18-year old applicant. If you were the sort of person who took their toys apart as a child to see how they worked, you were perfect.

Hmm. That word “motivation” yet again. It seems to have come up a few times since I started this. And it’s worth repeating: our young guests were motivated and keen in a big way, even though they didn’t have a huge store of technical knowledge to help them. THAT is what makes a good TV trainee. We’ll do the rest…… ”

Thank you for letting me steal that, Jake. More food for thought if you are wondering what to study at university or college, especially if you are keen on the more technical side of television. 

If you are interested in sound then don’t forget to check out Jake’s site: http://jakeknottaudio.co.nr/

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