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Digital revolution knocks music industry on its ear

By Mark Toljagic
Special to The Sun

If you ever needed proof that the digital revolution -- with the Internet as its conduit -- is changing everything, look no further than the music industry.
Centennial College instructor Sean Savage says inexpensive "project" studios have changed the way music is produced and the Internet has changed the way it's distributed.

It used to rely on powerful, vertically integrated media companies to "develop" musicians, produce their records, market the finished product and distribute "units" through massive retail networks. It was big business and it was unshakable.

Then came the bit.

By converting analogue sound into binary-code signals, music was suddenly unleashed from its inflexible vinyl medium and allowed to flourish on CDs, MP3s, computer hard drives and the Internet. Quite literally, the music became free.

"The distribution model has changed dramatically," explains Sean Savage, an instructor of recording arts at Centennial College's Centre for Creative Communications in midtown Toronto.

"Traditional bricks-and-mortar selling is on the way out. Bands are cutting out the record company and dealing directly with the buying public, thanks to the Internet."

At the age of 31, Savage, who also works professionally as a mastering engineer, producer and remixer, has already seen an enormous amount of change in the industry.

Savage says self-produced bands record their music on MIDI systems in their homes, set up a website and distribute their music electronically. "It's small and efficient with low overhead. They can burn and sell CDs at their concert venues, too," he adds.

With the traditional music production infrastructure waning, Savage decided to help the revolution along by becoming a teacher of audio recording, joining Centennial four years ago as a part-time instructor.

He helped revamp and update the college's recording courses, culminating in a new Recording Arts Certificate of Achievement, which students can take part time in the evening.

"We get two types of students: the younger ones who want to pursue audio engineering as a career, and the older group who have established project studios in their basements as a hobby," Savage says.

With the price of electronic hardware dropping, a lot of people are buying recording equipment and software. But the owners' manuals can be daunting, which is why would-be musicians are enrolling in Centennial's certificate program to learn it first-hand.

The certificate includes six courses in everything from digital audio recording, production with popular recording software Pro Tools, MIDI programming and even music theory.

"Without the theory, you're essentially a beat-maker," Savage says. "A lot of young guys never learn any theory. They're limiting themselves."

Optional courses cover audio mastering, legal issues and sound production for film. While traditional music engineering may be lost to home studios, Savage says there's lots of work in film scores, videography and live sound for concert venues.

"It takes a certain kind of person to be an audio engineer. You have to listen to the same piece of music over and over again. You really have to have a passion for it."

Not surprisingly, Savage grew up in a musical home. He learned to play the accordion, recorder, clarinet, saxophone, flute and, later, drums and piano. He worked as a DJ at parties and raves before interning at a mastering studio, where he learned his craft.

Today, you're more likely to find him at an artist's house, recording tracks onto his laptop computer using a FireWire sound card. "I find you get better performances out of the musician at home than you do in an expensive rented studio," Savage says.

"The industry model has changed. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, there's no limit to what you can do."

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