The Blackbird Academy Vs. A 4-Year University: A Frank Discussion

How I Started

John McBride here. I come from a family that feels strongly about getting a college education. Both my parents were college graduates, my dad was a Professor of Anthropology at Wichita State University, and I am the second of four children who grew up with these expectations. 

From an early age I have always had a huge passion for music, but I treated it as a hobby. After high school, there was no question that I would attend a university. Not going didn't even cross my mind. So, I enrolled at WSU, decided to major in Chemistry/Pre-med, and worked three jobs to pay for my tuition and other expenses along the way. 

I attended WSU for three years and my grades were great. I was taking Chemistry, Biology, and Physics classes to satisfy my requirements for my major, but I was also learning more about music on my own through magazines like Mix, Recording Engineer and Producer, and other publications centering around recording and live music.

During college my passion for music grew and grew, and the wheels began turning inside my head. I borrowed a small amount of money from the Campus Credit Union and bought a small club PA system. I put up flyers around the clubs in Wichita and the phone started to ring. I learned on-the-job in clubs and truly loved every minute of it — even while I was still attending classes.

If the TBA had existed when I was growing up, it would’ve saved me 10 years of struggling to learn what I needed to know.

At this point I talked to my parents about it, and they agreed to support my dream of having a career in music. It's what made me happy, and I knew that as deeply as I've known anything. I then proceeded to "drop out" of college. That ended up being one of the best decisions of my life. 

I was determined to make a living in music  — somehow, some way. Growing up in the small Midwestern town of Wichita, Kansas where there is essentially no music business made this a bit of a challenge, however, through hard work, perseverance, and the right attitude, I achieved that goal by working as a live engineer, production manager, and studio engineer with as many people and as often as I could.  

I decided to move Nashville in 1990, which made more of a difference than I could have ever known. I have toured around the world with many of the biggest acts in music, and my name is on records of which I am very proud — all without following a "traditional" path. It has allowed me to have happiness that I would have never experienced if I had a different career. Simple as that. 

For the record, my older sister and I did not graduate from college, but both my younger brothers did, and I will argue that I am the most blessed member of my family! 

The Blackbird Academy Vs. A 4-Year University: A Frank Discussion


So why the backstory? Why consider TBA? Well, the most important factor, in my opinion, is your son or daughter’s attitude about what they want to do with their lives. And that's a tough decision… at 18 or even 22 how do you possibly know what you want to do for the rest of your life? That is a daunting premise, I know, but there are signs that will help along the way. 

If they have determined that they have to be in music, then the TBA is the right place for them. I have been a huge music fan – a bit obsessed with music and curious about how records were made and what it took to put on a live concert since I was a child.

I believed one thing: a hundred years from now if I played a part in creating music that changed the life of even one person, then my life was not wasted. We all know that music can change the world, and it has changed my life for the better many times. If I was there working sound at Bonnaroo or the New Orleans Jazz Festival or even a local club, then I knew I would have amazing memories and stories to someday tell my children and grandchildren. But mostly I would have the deep satisfaction of knowing I was working in music! 

If the TBA had existed when I was growing up, it would’ve saved me 10 years of struggling to learn what I needed to know. The most important factor in deciding whether the TBA is the right move for your son or daughter is dependent upon their desires, passion and attitude. If they are really unsure of what they want then I do not recommend coming to this school – I do not want to waste their time and I do not want them to waste mine.

If passion is evident, music seems to be intrinsically tied to what makes them happy, and you never see them as motivated by anything else as they are with music, then that is a sure sign of the type of individuaI that both succeeds and needs music in their lives to make them happy. I know because I'm one of those people.

I do not believe there is a better program for learning audio engineering anywhere in the world – whether it is a four-year college or university, a trade/technical school (actually our formal title is a Post Secondary Educational Institution), or any other program in existence. At the TBA we focus heavily on attitude, work ethic and etiquette… qualities that will improve every aspect of their lives. How students deal with relationships in their own lives determines the quality of their lives in many ways.

Currently there are approximately 9 jobs in the live field for every 1 job in the studio field, and over 90% of our live graduates are already working full time.

The size and setting at TBA allows students to form close, personal relationships not only with their instructors, but also with each other. The comfortable student to teacher ratio allows the instructors to focus on each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses, and these relationships and specialized training translate seamlessly into the professional audio world.

Another advantage to attending the TBA is the fact that it is an INTENSE 6-month program with a cost of $23,100 for tuition – not a debilitating amount of time, and not nearly as expensive as most 4-year colleges, or even other trade schools (oops… Post Secondary Educational Institutions).

At the end of this program, your student/graduate will be prepared to start a career in either live audio engineering or studio engineering, and I feel the need to also inform you that any students looking to work in live audio will have many more job opportunities than studio audio engineers.

The Blackbird Academy Vs. A 4-Year University: A Frank Discussion

Currently there are approximately 9 jobs in the live field for every 1 job in the studio field, and over 90% of our live graduates are already working full time. This is an incredible statistic! We are affiliated with Clair Global, the largest sound company on earth, but we also have great relationships with other sound companies, venues, and churches all over the country and the world.

The studio audio engineering course graduates generally take longer to become successful. There are, for some reason, more dues to pay in the recording studio than in the live field. However, approximately 62% of our studio graduates are currently working and earning money.

Another reason to attend the TBA is just to learn how to make great sounding recordings. We have students that do not want to pursue an engineering or producing job after graduation, but who want to know how to make great recordings. Some of these grads are songwriters, some are players, and some are just looking to further their knowledge of how to make great recordings.

One of our first mantras at the TBA went like this: “The greatest education, in the shortest amount of time, for the least amount of money possible.” I feel like we have achieved that goal, and the graduates from the TBA have reinforced that since day one. 

Where are they now? Click here to read about our alumni! 

The Blackbird Academy Vs. A 4-Year University: A Frank Discussion


Another thing I would like to mention here – we've signed a partnership with the University of New Haven (UNH Connecticut) to teach their students as a “study abroad” type program at the TBA. UNH will send 15 students to Nashville for 14 weeks 1-2 times per year to further their student’s education. They have a music program at UNH but feel the facilities and standards at the TBA will further their student’s education in a very positive way. The first program just finished in May of 2016 and was highly successful!

The students at TBA also recently won a prestigious contest – The AES (Audio Engineering Society) Spring Mixer. This competition happens once per year every spring and the TBA students won this competition in 2015 by a landslide! I am so proud of that – it reflects our program and our standards.

Another interesting aspect to the TBA is a recent partnership formed with the Hal Leonard Corporation to provide educational materials online for high school students around the world. The quality of the work we are doing is in high demand – but there is nothing to replace the reality of being here in Nashville to teach these things by the hands-on approach that we employ.

For additional material on the benefits of specialized education versus a four-year degree, I recommend reading the following articles here, here, and here.

The Blackbird Academy Vs. A 4-Year University: A Frank Discussion


In conclusion, if your student or child is intent on working in music and wants to make a living in audio, then the TBA is the right place for them. Students in the studio program will train at Blackbird Studio, where hit records are made every day, and students in the live program will train at Clair Global, the greatest live sound company on earth. The good news there is that it's only a six-month commitment, not four years. It is not cheap, but $23,100 is much cheaper than most schools, and the connections plus hands-on experience you receive at TBA are invaluable.

Making a living in music and audio is a commitment and a lot of hard work, and it isn’t right for everyone. It takes a great work ethic, perseverance, and a great attitude, but you can find success in this industry. We also work hard to help find employment for all of our graduates.

We are not successful if our graduates are not successful. Period.

We have a family atmosphere at Blackbird – between the studio, the school, Clair Global, our previous grads, artists, and our mentors. We will do whatever we possibly can to help our grads find the job that is right for them. Our numbers are growing every day and our networking capabilities are phenomenal.

Our standards are extremely high, and we are well respected in the music business. Blackbird Studio has set the bar high and The Blackbird Academy is setting those same standards. I also want to reiterate how much time it can save your student in starting a career. And by the way, I know that my dad is no less proud of me than of my brothers who did graduate from college! Success, mastery, and happiness are not confined to a college degree. I have had a successful life both financially and in the happiness I have experienced by pursuing what I love in life, and students that study at the The Blackbird Academy have the best shot at doing the same. 

If we can answer any more questions you may have regarding the Blackbird Academy, please let us know.

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John McBride

Written by John McBride

John McBride, owner of the internationally renowned Nashville-based Blackbird Studio, has spent his entire life in the pursuit of quality, professional sound. Getting his start in live sound by launching MD Systems Sound in his hometown of Wichita, he came to Nashville in late 1990. He sold the company to Clair Brothers Audio in 1997 and fulfilled a lifelong dream by opening Blackbird Studio in 2002 and hosting sessions from the likes of Tim McGraw, Kid Rock, and Grammy winning projects by Jack White and Kings of Leon. An avowed champion of analog recording, he has amassed one of the greatest collections of vintage and modern recording equipment on the planet, including a microphone collection without equal. In 2013, he opened The Blackbird Academy, dedicated to advancing the quality of recording education through a hands-on, professional training curriculum. John was recognized at the 2014 Pensado Awards where he won for Live Sound / FOH engineer and Educator. He is married to country superstar Martina McBride, his partner in life and business; he has three children.