Audio Engineering: A degree that hits the right industry and the right music notesStudents in Lawrence Tech's Bachelor of Science in Audio Engineering Technology program work on the latest and best industry equipment, because the studio where they spend part of their time is an actual working audio studio
Combine an unusual academic model, Lawrence Technological University’s longtime “theory and practice” educational emphasis, and an audio engineer’s labor of love to turn an old church in Plymouth into a recording studio, and what do you get? The answer is LTU’s Bachelor of Science in Audio Engineering Technology (BSAET), which is supplying trained audio engineers—with the emphasis on the “engineer” part—to some of the world’s biggest and most influential businesses.
The professors who created LTU’s program, its graduates, and employers all say it’s unusual because it didn’t grow out of a music school, but instead out of LTU’s College of Engineering. Learning how to mix music is integrated with the fundamental engineering knowledge of electronics and software.
“I think for me the biggest drawing point is that it was an engineering degree, and I was learning concepts that I could take beyond the audio and music profession,” said Caitlin DelVillano, BSAET’15. “It involves more than media production.”
Eric Poplawski, BSAET’19, agreed. He said a friend studied audio engineering at another university, and “it didn’t give him a strong experience in engineering or production—you were basically there to make music. LTU’s program is a hands-on studio experience entwined with engineering. My student projects enabled me to work with electronics, audio, and mechanics in the fab lab. And it wasn’t restricted to a club or a team. If you have an idea, you could go into the lab, build it, and make it happen.”
Then there’s the BSAET program’s original student, Brandon Wheeler, BSAET’13. He started at LTU in a different major, then switched to audio engineering technology when the program was established. He said he appreciates the technical nature and multi-disciplinary approach offered in the BSAET degree.
“The major thing I’ve seen out of this program is that there’s a broad enough approach, with different kinds of experiences, so that you can go in a lot of different directions, both in technology and entertainment,” Wheeler said. “You can work in automotive, in music publishing, in audio forensics, in a studio. There’s so many different avenues you can choose.”
One look at how different those three students’ career paths areshows the truth of that statement. Wheeler manages a team that designs car audio systems for Harman, the car and home audio firm now owned by Samsung. Peplawski is now an engineer for Kyocera International, the display firm, where he works on a team producing industrial video displays. And DelVillano is music coordinator for ESPN in Conn., where among other things, she organizes the music packages used in thousands of live sports events.
Jim Little, general manager of industrial displays for Kyocera International, said Peplawski’s “background very much prepared him for what we’re using him for as a field applications engineer. He’s a technical liaison with the sales manager for a region that covers about a dozen states. He does 2- and 3D CAD designs, works with customers to answer their technical questions, troubleshoots our displays in their applications. He assists customers with every aspect of their design, from mechanical to electrical to software, and supports them after the sale. He’s a great FAE. He’s willing to learn, willing to do whatever it takes to be better at his job.”
That kind of work wouldn’t be possible if Peplawski had only studied acoustics, Little said.
That diversity in career paths is very much intentional, according to Ken Cook, chair of LTU’s Department of Engineering Technology, and Chris Breest, director of the BSAET audio studio.
The connection between the BSAET program and Breest’s Plymouth Rock Recording Co. started as the university was starting an audio engineering technology program. Together, Breest, Cook, and an industry advisory board developed a hands-on, engineering-centric BSAET program. This came naturally for them—with Breest’s audio and business experience, and Cook’s engineering and business background, the program started with a strong cornerstone in industry.
BSAET students study physics, calculus, economics, chemistry, electronics, embedded processors, software, and circuit design, in addition to acoustics and sound design. This provides them with a background not just in music production, but in the inner workings of studio equipment and the realities of the audio business.
The proof of the program’s design came when Wheeler graduated and got a position at Harman. “That showed that the way we are doing things, immersing students in the industry, is the right approach,” Cook said. Added Breest: “To me, the most important function of any undergrad program is that it gets graduates jobs.” LTU BSAET graduates are now working in audio systems companies, auto suppliers, recording companies, network media production, and the Detroit Big Three, among others.
Looking ahead, the audio engineering technology program is also planning to add new certificate programs in game audio programming and audio forensics.
The latter involves the use of the audio from security and police body cameras as evidence in civil and criminal litigation, as well as being able to identify “deep fake” video and audio that is manufactured by increasingly sophisticated technologies. Game audio programming, meanwhile, involves designing, inserting, editing and using audio creatively in visual software such as Unreal Engine for use in augmented reality, virtual reality, and video gaming.
This program provides ample opportunities for internships. “COVID has been a massive setback for those opportunities, but we’ve continued to place students at Panasonic, Bose, Rust Belt Studios, North Star Media in Bloomfield Hills, Harman, and the Detroit Three,” Breest said.
The program also focuses on having adjunct professors who work in the industry. “Our students might be taking a class from a professor who could hire them,” Cook said.
A video promoting the program and a three-dimensional virtual tour of Plymouth Rock Studios can be found at www.ltu.edu/audio. Said Breest: “Our next step is letting people go on the virtual tour and be able to hit a snare drum, and have it sound not just like a drum, but exactly like that drum, in that exact acoustic space.”