Tuff Sound apprentice program teaches fundamentals of music production
Musicians have to overcome many obstacles before they record music or perform for live audiences.
But aspiring singers or guitarists have relatively straightforward paths compared to neophyte sound engineers and producers.
Not so long ago, recording interns at major studios had to do menial tasks such as “cleaning toilets and emptying ash trays,” according to Herman Pearl, head engineer and founder of Tuff Sound Recording in North Point Breeze.
“Then you might graduate to tape operator,” Pearl says. “Then you might graduate to assistant engineer. Then you might get a break.”
The Tuff Sound Apprenticeship Program, which debuted Feb. 8, wants to streamline the process. Supported in part by the Hive Fund for Connected Learning at The Sprout Fund, Pearl and resident artist Amos Levy are mentoring six apprentices between the ages of 16 and 22 in the fundamentals of audio production. Each apprenticeship includes one month of general instruction and three months of project-oriented work.
The current apprentices were selected, after submitting samples of their work, from six partnering arts organizations: Dreams of Hope, Alumni Theater Company, 1Hood Media, YMCA Lighthouse, Hope Academy and The Arts Greenhouse.
“The people in the program are also artists and performers,” says Pearl, who records and performs as DJ Soy Sos. “They all have an interest in recording their own music, so this gives them the tools to do that. It also gives them the mindset, or maybe the temperament, to sort of understand how to train and work with other people.”
The apprentices are trained in both practical applications (optimal placement of microphones, cleanness of signal changes) and the execution of creative ideas. One goal is to demystify the technical aspects of audio production so talents naturally emerge.
“You find out what the specific interest of each apprentice is and center the instruction around that,” Levy says.
Jordan Howard, 21, of Wilkinsburg, a DJ who goes by the name the Livefromthecity, performed at mostly small venues before starting his apprenticeship. Three weeks into it, he noticed a vast improvement of his skills.
“Learning the technical things just opens up the door for more creative and artistic things,” Howard says. “Because learning so much about the technical side, now that I know this piece (of equipment), I can bring it to the creative side and open up a whole new world.”
A central goal of the Tuff Sound program is to serve communities that are under-represented in audio engineering and music production. Levy and Pearl have identified people of color, women, and the LGBT community as groups they want to include.
“That doesn’t mean we’re excluding people,” Levy says, “but we’re giving added weight to nominations of young people representing those communities.”
“All the nominees are the type of people who want to nerd out about the technology, the technique and the work,” Pearl says. “Even though some of the people are performers, they are all people who are very interested in the technical side.”
A little under a month into the program, the apprentices, despite initially being a bit intimidated by the array of equipment available to them, had already increased their expertise. Lyndon Shelton, 18, of Hazelwood, was using “a bad program” on his home computer before starting his training.
“After coming here, I learned how to get better sounds from my laptop at home,” Shelton says.
The apprentices will perform at an open house on June 1, showcasing their work for artists, media, musicians and family. Current plans include semesters in the spring and fall, with a summer semester possible.
“This first round is the time to assess the process, assess the results, get all the data in,” Pearl says. “What we need to do right now is figure out what works, what’s best, and what needs to change, and what can be added. I can foresee doing this year-round.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.