Sound Knowledge: Inside Britannia Row’s training courses

Gone are the days where learning the art of live sound can solely happen on the road. Yes, practical experience is invaluable and provides opportunities to continue learning every day, but it now helps to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the technology you’ll be using (which is itself evolving at a rapid pace).

In 2013, west London pro audio supplier Britannia Row added training courses to its inventory. Seeing graduates go on to land top jobs in the wider business and receiving university accreditation along the way, the team are now looking forward to improving on the industry-leading training they provide to the next generation of professionals. AMI spoke to Britannia Row Production Training MD Mike Lowe about how the initiative got started and where it all goes from here…

Why did you start to offer training courses (and when)?

We have trained our people internally for decades. In the 1950s and ’60s, audio equipment was relatively simple and people could largely learn on the job. From the 1970s, professional audio equipment began to get more complex and has continued to develop with ever increasing degrees of sophistication. It is not possible today for an audio technician to learn on the job without first having a good deal of training and underlying knowledge and understanding.

We trained our own personnel for decades. From that time and right up to the present, we have found that people who come off audio courses from degree level, college level or down to small private courses, do not end up with the skills, knowledge and understanding that we or the industry requires of them. A lot of audio courses are essentially studio courses with a small element specific to live sound. Training is not just about technology – it’s also about the industry practice and culture of the many market sectors using live audio, all of which are constantly developing.

We had often talked about the possibility of extending our internal training and offer it out to the world at large. In 2012, one of our freelance engineers, Barry Bartlett, approached us and told us that he felt that we should look at offering our training to the outside world. Barry was knowledgeable, had lots tutoring experience and was completely passionate about passing knowledge on. We let him run with it and in 2013, Britannia Row Productions Training was born. Very sadly, Barry died this year. The work he put into the syllabuses and session notes, together with his enthusiasm, passion and commitment, has driven all that worked with him and under him to carry on and build on the foundation he laid.

What sort of thing is covered on the courses, and who teaches them?

Industry overviews, acoustics, electrics, PA operations, rigging and system design – there are loads of things applicable to all of our courses, although at varying levels of content depth depending on the course type. The tutors for all of our short courses are drawn from our staff and our freelance engineers and technicians. They also deliver all of the masterclasses on our degree course. All of our tutors are people working at a very high level in the industry which makes our delivery and student experience totally unique.

What are your post-graduation employment rates like for each course?

Very high. We put a great deal of effort into trying to place everyone from each course in an area they want to work in, doing the work that they want to do, or at least on a path where they can reach their goal. We give most of our students on full-time courses the opportunity to get some paid work with us during their course, although our success is purely the success of our students. Having said this, some of our students come on the courses for a variety of reasons. We have four students from a Japanese manufacturer on our current Live Sound Technology course who work in R&D and product development. Their intention is not to work in live sound, but to gain a better understanding of what sound engineers and audio technicians want and how they use products.

What’s the feedback been like so far?

The feedback over the last seven years is that the big majority of students have valued their time with us and that the skills and knowledge and contacts they have acquired has given them more confidence and boosted their careers, which is immensely gratifying for us.

What future plans do you have for Brit Row’s training courses? Where would you like to see it taken in the next five years and beyond?

Putting more students through our courses is a definite concentration, along with keeping the courses relevant with regards to changing technologies and the needs of the market. We found that with the educational system as it is, it was nigh on impossible to get funding for young students. This is why we went for the three-year degree course (which is through South Thames College and validated by the University of Northampton) but not everyone is in a position to devote three years to the course and take on big student loans. I want to keep pushing for young people to be able to get grants or loans for shorter courses. Learning in audio for an effective practitioner should be ongoing for life and there is no reason why young people should not be able to do a bit of training, get a bit of experience and come back for more training without it being only possible through the bank of Mum and Dad.

Apprenticeships are not proving to be as effective as they should be for our business. Britannia Row has around 12 apprentices at one time but this is outside of any government scheme.

All of these things mean changes at government level. Government has to listen to industry for the sake of our industry and for the sake of our young people. There is lots of fledgling training activity in our industry right now and it is nearly all borne out of the fact that the system is not delivering what to meet the requirements of our industry. It might all be possible in the next five years if our government has headspace for anything else other than Brexit.