I was not like most other students at The Art Institute of Vancouver. It seemed that many students were coming to the school straight out of high school, whereas I had already completed a Bachelor of Music (jazz piano at the University of Alberta, Augustana Faculty), and spent a year working to save up for tuition. I was 23 years old when I started and 25 when I graduated.
I had a background in classical and jazz music, while rock and hip hop seemed to be the genres of choice for many students.
I had a background in classical and jazz music, while rock and hip hop seemed to be the genres of choice for many students. I learned quickly that the culture of the studio world and of audio engineers was in sharp contrast to my upbringing. After graduation I got a job at the school as an Audio Lab Instructor (tutor).
Importantly, please note that I attended Ai at the Burnaby campus, but the school has since moved to the new Renfrew campus near the Renfrew skytrain station. I cannot comment on the new studios, classrooms, or equipment.
Learning of Ai
I first learned of the Centre for Digital Imaging and Sound (CDIS) from a poster that hung in the office of the school guidance counsellor in my high school in central Alberta. It was advertising an arts competition, and from that moment I knew that I wanted to go to CDIS. My first ambition was to be a video editor, so for years I told people that I would move to BC to get into the film world. Music was always a part of my life as well, and as the years went on it became more and more important to me. I decided to do a Bachelor of Music first, but always with the intention of going to CDIS after.
By the time I finished university, CDIS had become Ai, and I had become more interested in music than film, but that did not change my desire to move to Vancouver and pursue this dream. I went to an information session in Edmonton in a hotel conference room, and after the presentation sat down with an advisor to discuss the school. I was impressed with the technology used in the programs and the promise of the careers services department, so it didn’t take much to convince me. The following week I flew to Vancouver to go to an open house at the Burnaby campus. This was in October 2005.
Although I thought highly of the Art Institute, I did check out a number of other schools, including PAVI in Vancouver, Grant MacEwan College, DevStudios, and NAIT in Edmonton, Recording Arts Canada in Toronto and Montreal, Trebas Institute in Toronto, Metalworks Institute in Toronto, McGill University in Montreal, and as far as Full Sail in Florida and the Jazz and Rock Schüle in Freiburg, Germany. Each of these schools had its own appeal, but for me the Art Institute came out on top. I do not wish to imply that these other schools are not worthy of attending, but rather that I was making the best choice for me at that time, given my career goals and expectations of faculty, curriculum, facilities, and general approach to education.
They did a great job at the open house of showcasing the studios, classrooms, computers, equipment, sound stage, etc., and really got me excited about the recording arts. One of the main factors that made me decide to go to Ai was the fact that it was a full two-year program, whereas many other schools had similar courses but were only six months or one year long.
It All Comes Down to Money
The harsh reality is that the tuition is debilitating. Because I enrolled a full year in advance, I was able to lock in my tuition rate at $33,600 for the two-year diploma program (it has gone up significantly since then). You need to be prepared for this expense, and you need to be very sure that you are going to make the most of the experience. Most people I know cannot afford to enroll at Ai without truly knowing that this is what they want to pursue in their professional life. All that being said, I have no regrets.
My impression is that it is relatively easy to be accepted into the school. Because of my prior education and good grades, and (most importantly?) my stable payment plan, there seemed to be no hesitation in accepting my application. If you can afford to go to Ai, even with student loans (which they will gladly help you apply for), you will probably get in. The Art Institutes, which is an American-owned chain of schools, of which Vancouver is one, is a business first and foremost. Money is the main concern of the administration, while education is generally the main concern of the instructors. My best example of this comes from my experience as a lab instructor after graduation. Each eleven-week class costs roughly $1000, and I saw students fail the same class again and again, almost always allowed to re-take it, as long as they could keep paying. There had to be some serious issues present before a student would be kicked out of school for good. This is not good for the student, wasting money on something they might not be cut out for, it is not good for the instructors, dealing with students who are not there for the right reasons, but it is good for the school’s bottom line.
The Professional Recording Arts Program
I had a choice between a two-year diploma in Professional Recording Arts, a one-year certificate in Independent Recording Arts, or a one-year certificate in Electronic Music. There is also the “LIPA” program (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts), which allows you to do extra course work on the side to eventually transfer to Liverpool, England. Since I already had a university degree, this was not very appealing to me, but I did observe a few people start the LIPA program. I never did see anyone finish it and actually go to England, though…
You do not get to choose your classes. Each term (called a “quarter”) is clearly outlined for you, with five classes per quarter, each quarter eleven weeks long, and a two week break in between each quarter (Oct.-Dec., Jan.-Mar., Apr.-June, July-Sept.). The October start is always the busiest, with the most students beginning at this time, although you can start in October, January, April, or July. Class sizes were anywhere from four to forty.
The strength of the curriculum at Ai, in my mind, is in the variety and scope.
The strength of the curriculum at Ai, in my mind, is in the variety and scope. You have the core subjects, like studio classes, MIDI/Logic, audio/ProTools, audio theory, music theory, but also exposure to other subjects. I know a lot of students complain that they are forced to study things like web design, DVD authoring, location audio, live sound, corporate audio/visual, audio electronics, etc., but I was grateful for the exposure to each of these things. I would not have necessarily chosen for myself to learn location audio, for example, but I am thankful that I now have an appreciation for what is involved. As much as it is good to learn about what you like to do, it is equally valuable to learn what you do not like to do. I know that I will probably never be a sound effects editor or a foley artist. That is valuable information to have, and something I would not have known if I did not have to take those classes. In my first job (an internship) out of school, I was mostly using Photoshop and DVD Studio Pro at a TV production company. I never saw that coming, but I was able to do it because of my training at Ai.
Each term builds on the concepts learned in the previous term. For example, in the first term you will have DMT 100 (Digital Music Technology), in the second term DMT 200, and so on. It is a good system, a logical progression, and by the end of each term I really felt like I had learned something.
I really liked my instructors. It is no surprise that I found some to be better than others, but I do believe that in each case, these men (I had no female instructors) truly love what they do. That is, I believe they all love audio and music, but not necessarily teaching. Some were truly fantastic teachers in addition to being experts in their fields, but at any school you will find teachers who know their subject but are not able to effectively communicate their ideas, or just resent the fact that they are there.
My advice is to treat your instructors with respect, and they will do likewise. If you do your homework, come to class prepared, stay awake, ask questions, and actually do your best, you will not be disappointed. We have all heard that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. It is up to you, the student, to get what you want out of school. It is so easy to place blame on instructors, equipment, class schedules, etc., but it really comes down to you taking responsibility for your own education. It will be amazing if you make it that way.
The Best and the Worst
The best part about my Ai experience was the opportunity to network with classmates and instructors. These are the people who you will be working with/for in the coming years, so it is good to share ideas and collaborate in a non-competitive, educational environment. Also, access to the studios, computers, software, microphones, etc. is valuable, if you make use of it all. We had 24/7 access to the studios during my time at Ai, but the four hour blocks got booked up quickly, so you have to be willing to go in to school in the middle of the night to get your projects done. I am not sure if they still have 24/7 access or not.
The worst part about my Ai experience was realizing that it is all just one big business, and the school seems to be more concerned about money than education. It may have been naïve for me to think otherwise. Because it seems that they let almost anybody in, the overall quality of graduates is less than stellar, and the reputation of the school is not what it could be. It makes my diploma from Ai worth that much less, even though I paid nearly $40,000 for it in the end.
But Am I Employable?
Another valuable thing I learned while at Ai was the hierarchy that exists in the studio world, and what it would mean to be a runner or an assistant engineer. I decided part-way through my program that I did not want to go that route, that I could not afford to volunteer my time as a runner, and I was not enthusiastic about the abuse that the people in those positions regularly endure. My true aspirations are in composition and arranging, possibly for film and TV, so it made more sense for me to work on my own from my home studio (if you haven’t already, you’ll soon find that much of your expendable income will go to buying gear).
Yes, I do think that I could have got a job at a studio, in a post-production house, doing location audio or live sound. What happened instead was I applied for an internship to work for a TV production company, which seemed like a great idea in that I could make some connections and try to get my music into the TV shows produced there. It ended up being much less glamorous that I had hoped, and I was thankful when the three-month contract came to a close. Shortly thereafter, I was offered a job at Ai as an Audio Lab Instructor – helping students do the projects I had just finished doing myself. I did that for nine months, which was a wonderful experience, but I did not want to be there forever.
The lasting legacy of Ai for me is in my home studio, and my library of textbooks and meticulous notes from all of my classes. I have a lot of information at my fingertips, a better understanding of the content having been through the program, and I am glad to be a part of a network of students and teachers.
Everyone who graduates will have a DVD portfolio, showcasing the best of their work. I am not sure if they still do that or if it is online now, but either way it is a valuable tool to have while job-hunting. I found the actual portfolio show (that happens when you graduate) to be a disappointment. We were expecting a flood of industry employers who would come sweep us into the glamorous work world, but it was mostly just us – classmates hanging around listening to each other’s work. It was not the networking opportunity we hoped it would be.
The Career Services Department will work with you for the six months after graduation to help you get a job. They will help you improve your resume, your interview skills, etc., but you cannot depend on them to do everything. You need to help yourself, because nobody can be expected to care more about your career than you.
I would recommend the Professional Recording Arts program at The Art Institute of Vancouver, but only if you are prepared for the expenses to your finances and your health.
I would recommend the Professional Recording Arts program at The Art Institute of Vancouver, but only if you are prepared for the expenses to your finances and your health (all-nighters and sporadic meal patterns are bound to happen). You need to really see yourself working in music/audio when you are finished, and you need to treat it like post-secondary education, not just like a fun place to hang out. The drop-out rate in the first few quarters is astounding – please don’t be part of that statistic. It is important to really think about whether this is the best thing for you to do before you sign on the dotted line.
Right now I am the music director at a church in Vancouver, playing piano and organ on Sunday mornings as well as leading the choir and arranging guest musicians. I teach private piano lessons to 34 students each week, something I started doing while attending Ai. In my spare time, I work on projects at home, using Logic and ProTools, including demo CDs for singer-songwriters and young vocalists. I am happy doing what I am doing, and although there are many skills that I learned at Ai that I am not actively using, I do see myself trying different things in the coming years. My education was not a waste.
I am not finished learning, nor will I ever be. In the coming years, I hope to do the Audio Engineering Work Study Program at the Banff Centre in Banff, as well as the Master of Music in Sound Recording at McGill in Montreal. From what I understand, those are two of the most highly respected recording programs in Canada, so I recommend looking into those schools as well.