When I visited Blackbird back in July, it had been 7 years since I had been to the studio. The place looked as beautiful as ever, but the big thing that had changed was the addition of their audio school, The Blackbird Academy.
Founded by John and Martina McBride, John hired pro audio veterans Mark Rubel and Kevin Becka to collaborate on developing a curriculum that offered students a chance to learn in a real-word environment. The program is founded on a mentor-driven, experience-based education and provides student access to the studios’ gear and facilities.
I caught up with Kevin to talk about what they’re doing at the Academy, what they have to offer, and what their plans for the future are. Full disclosure – Kevin and I worked together at Mix Magazine for a short time, where he was considered a top expert and advocate for the art and science of audio engineering.
What’s the relationship between Blackbird Studio and The Blackbird Academy?
Here within Blackbird we have 9 studios, Blackbird Audio Rentals, John and Martina’s publishing company – Little Champion, and The Blackbird Academy. They all exist here as part of the same bundle and they all work together.
What are the advantages to having an audio school in this kind of environment?
First of all, to have it here on the premises here is unbelievable. To me, this studio is like the Smithsonian, only you can touch and use everything and it all works.
Aside from having access to this place, the first thing I saw was the opportunity to have smaller groups of students on the gear. In the past when I was teaching, having too many students in the room was always an issue. Here we can keep the studio classes to 5 and attract a higher-quality student because we can vet them a little more strenuously.
How many students are in each class?
We accept a maximum of 30 students in a studio class and 20 students in the live classes. The live sound program is a separate program, with it’s own staff and facility up by Clair Global’s Nashville office— the relationship we have with Clair is incredible. The placement rate for live sound students getting a job after the program is over 90%.
How you do you select who attends the school?
To be considered for enrollment you have to write 2 essays, have two letters of recommendation and then do a personal interview. The whole idea behind this is not to be exclusionary, but to make sure it’s a good fit. In a sales-driven school environment where you have to fill seats, people will come in who are not right for the program or are there for the wrong reasons. The way we’re doing it has really worked because it makes sure we’re enrolling students who are here for the right reasons.
Are there other options for students besides the Studio Engineering and Live Sound Engineering programs?
Absolutely. We also have both 3-day and 5-day summer camps for high school students where we teach signal flow, cable wrapping and the basics about setting up microphones—that sort of thing. Then, we’ll actually track a band. It’s usually Martina McBride’s road band or other high-quality musicians. The musicians will teach the kids about about the Nashville Number System and then the students will take part in that tracking date. From there, we’ll do a day of mixing in the studio, have an incredible guest speaker from Nashville’s audio production community and then finally have their parents in for a playback session at the end of the program.
We also do both weekend and weeklong workshops for adults where anyone can come in and spend a week tracking and mixing with ace producers and engineers like Dave Pensado, and Ken Scott. We offer a lot of different tiers of educational programs here.
What role does Pro Tools play in the curriculum?
It’s required learning for our programs. The classroom has 30 individual Pro Tools stations and the studio itself has Pro Tools in every room. We’re running Pro Tools every day. Up at TBA Live, they’re running Pro Tools for capture and playback across a range of consoles.
Aside from the hands-on studio experience, what kind of materials are you using to teach?
We’ve created our own curriculum here from scratch and it’s all delivered in iBook format. We’ve written over 25 iBooks with interactive graphics that can be updated instantly. There’s such a brain trust here that it made sense to draw on the experience of the team here.
Do you have any plans for expanding your education programs?
We’re proud of how we’ve redefined audio education and have some incredible things planned for the future. I can’t quite talk about them yet, but rest assured we will be setting the bar even higher.
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