Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts
International recording artist Ultra Naté found herself seated at a mixing board several years ago at the Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts in Phoenix.
Naté, who was born in Havre de Grace, had returned to school after more than 20 years in the business. She enrolled in Audio Works, one of three recording industry education tracks offered by the Sheffield Institute, part of Sheffield Audio/Video Productions in Phoenix, Md., to develop the skills necessary to more efficiently collaborate with music producers in an ever-changing technical world.
“As I was buying more and more equipment, I wanted to fortify my own education,” she says. “As an industry professional, I needed to keep up with the way the business was changing and functioning.”Previously, Naté jetted all over the world to record with international producers, whether in Sweden, England or elsewhere, and stayed several weeks to collaborate. “Now I don’ t have to physically be there,” she says. “It’ s what the industry has become.”
Sheffield’ s programs combine classroom lecture hours with lab time providing students with hands-on learning experiences. The AudioWorks program, for instance, includes 96 lecture hours and 200 lab hours. Among the topics are digital audio production, digital audio recording, intermediate and advanced digital and audio production, and live sound reinforcement. The Video Works program consists of 130 lecture and 198 lab hours, and Tech Works, a high-end electronics installation, maintenance and operations program, totals 384 hours, including 165 lecture and 219 lab/practical hours. Tech Works includes a partnership with Crestron, a vocational technical school offering intense training in electronics, signal flow and analysis, hands-on training in audio-video installation, maintenance and repair. Sheffield also offers a program called Careers in TV/Radio, which totals 304 hours.
John Ariosa founded Sheffield Audio/Video in 1968 and operated a small school in Timonium, which closed in the mid-1980s. Today’s school opened in 1996, under the direction of Vance Van Horn, a former “wanna be drummer” who joined the company in 1981 after working at a record pressing plant out of high school.
The Sheffield Institute is accredited by the state of Maryland, and it boasts one of 17 Solid State Logic (SSL) consoles in the world, Van Horn says. Sheffield’ s lobby looks like a museum upon entry, with its large glass windows that show the platinum and gold albums it played a part in producing from artists like Aerosmith, Rod Stewart, Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott and Loverboy. There’ s also the first Apple laptop, antique microphones and a can of Sheffield Lacquer Thinner, which spawned the company’ s name.
Van Horn brought record pressing to Sheffield, but when there wasn’ t a need he handled studio bookings and worked on remote sound and video trucks. At 64, he still loves to listen to music and finds himself downloading old tunes and donning his headphones to enjoy the sounds. His passion is reflected in all that he touches as president, and his hand has been in much of the work over the years, from live shows including Mixed Martial Arts Shogun Fights and most recently the inaugural Maryland Music Awards, to concerts and events.
“There were days when I crawled home, but I had a ball,” he says.
He recalls his school days when he “was kicked out of Baltimore County Public Schools because of my long hair,” and those of his son, Mike, who worked his way up from an unpaid intern cleaning bathrooms and emptying trash at 25 to today’ s post as vice president and leader of the video side of the business. Some of Sheffield’ s students are ones that don’ t do well in public school, not for lack of smarts, just missing motivation or good teachers, Vance notes.
“When they’ re done here, they don’ t want to leave,” he says.
That’ s because all staff members work hard to make the place like a family atmosphere. They pitch in wherever needed, even if not their particular job description. All serve as mentors to students, who have been known to bring donuts to the office and just hang out and chat during off times. Students help each other, as well.
“It’ s so cool to watch,” says Vance. “This is their passion. They want to help each other succeed.” They also help one another after graduation, when they pass along gig leads to each other. Many spend hours before and after classes and on non-class days as interns, doing the same tasks as Mike did years ago. They dig up wires, scrape down drywall and perform any other task that is needed.
Vance estimates about 125 students go through the institute each year, and about 50 to 60 percent purse work in the field. Former students have worked for Carnival Cruise Lines, Ringling Brothers, and on videos for Elton John, Kiss and Carrie Underwood. Some boast awards, like Mike Mariaca, who earned an Emmy for “Hard Knocks with the Cincinnati Bengals,” and wrote a letter thanking Vance for his training and experience through Sheffield.
“We tell students, ‘ When you leave here, you have our name on the certificate,’” Vance says. “We take a lot of pride in that.”
They also take pride in their faculty members, who are experts in the field. One Audio Works instructor is Glenn Workman, a professional songwriter and musician in 13 different bands including local greats Crack the Sky and Off the Wall. Workman, who has worked in the industry for 40 years and taught at Sheffield since its 1996 opening, focuses his talents on instructing current audio technologies like Pro Tools and Digital Performer, as well as video synchronization including sound effects, dialogue, narration and music, along with editing, mixing, sound production and album assembly. Workman estimates about 50 percent of his students end up working in the field, whether weddings, corporate meetings, product releases and even churches, which serve as some of the best live venues in town, he says.
“Anytime there is a microphone and speaker, somebody needs to hook it up,” he notes. “We teach people to properly utilize the tools to (apply) the physics of sound, which doesn’ t change.”He credits the Sheffield with having a strong mix of instructors who have gold records, multiple albums and big movie projects. All teach students how to be professional, to answer the phone – not let it go to voicemail – and have a professional email address.
“It’ s one thing to be a rock n roll guy,” says Workman, who has engineered for the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder among many others in his day. “But it’ s another thing to work.”Naté enrolled in the six-month audio program at Sheffield, without fanfare. She was “just another student in class,” learning equipment like SSL boards, software like Pro Tools and Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), doing homework and studying for tests. But unlike the other students, she completed class on Thursdays and high-tailed it out of the country to perform before returning early Monday morning to do it all again. While away, her road manager often quizzed her, helping her to review for upcoming examinations.
She applauds the instructors, acknowledging their expertise and support especially to the young student just out of high school who needs inspiration and guidance.
Naté says taking the course not only taught her the basics of the “other side” but it reinforced her belief in teamwork, from the sound engineer to the video producer to the live performer.
“It’ s a team aspiration,” she says. “The lighting has to look amazing; the sound has to sound amazing, the performer has to be amazing. We’ re all working to the same end to put on an amazing show.”Naté commends Sheffield for always staying current, remaining in the forefront as the industry and technology change.
“Sheffield for me is one of the great diamonds here in Baltimore,”says Naté. “It’ s a really great school to have at our fingertips.”
Naté’s drive is something Vance looks for in his students. At graduation, he has discreetly taped $5 bills under each seat. When he instructs all present to stand up and look underneath the seat, he asks students what they had to do to find the bill.
“Get up off your a**,” they say.
“I get upset when I see a kid working at Wal-mart,” he says.
“You have to make your own destination. I see myself in a lot of these kids.” I95