No Tech Left Behind
Mar 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Bruce Borgerson
Digital complexities spur company-sponsored education.
Back when the world was analog, major new product introductions were accompanied by, at most, a few hours of product training. Then came the tectonic shift toward integrated, programmable, and networked digital systems. As familiar analog technology retreated to the far ends of the signal chain, complexities multiplied. Sometimes, confusion reigned. Rapid expansion of the knowledge base became essential.
Yes, it's a brave new world, but fortunately our industry has responded by involving nearly everybody in some form of “digital re-education camp.” Certainly the industry's trade associations have taken a leading role in sponsoring a range of initiatives, with several independent educational enterprises also filling niches for specialized training in specific technologies or for fast-growing market segments.
Less obvious, perhaps, has been the steady growth of inhouse, company-sponsored education programs. In the bygone analog era, such company “education” was largely restricted to brief product-oriented trainings, more often than not conducted — with varying degrees of technical expertise — by sales representatives. True, a few companies did pioneer dissemination of foundational knowledge, primarily through publication of comprehensive printed materials on technology basics, as noted later. However, in-depth education courses were far more the exception than the rule.
Today, in contrast, company-sponsored programs are widespread. Many are established as separate entities, with independent management working in parallel with marketing and technical support but not fully subsumed under either. The balance of this article profiles the educational programs of a cross-section of companies representing a diversity of market sectors. Several have been leaders in this effort for a decade or more; others of equal prominence are not included here only to allow inclusion of smaller companies, recent start-ups, and market sectors inherently less training-intensive.
CRESTRON: KEEPING IT SIMPL
Computerized touch-screen control has opened new realms of system flexibility while maintaining a user-friendly interface, but making it all work transparently requires considerable skill. To supply the needed expertise, one leader in the technology, Creston, has developed an extensive customer education program. Dubbed the “Crestron Technical Institute,” the company's seminars are presented in dedicated training facilities at the Rockleigh, N.J., headquarters and at six other satellite offices in the United States and Canada. Most program offerings also are available internationally at locations in Asia, Europe, and Mexico. Crestron's program is administered by a staff of six, with two instructors working full-time and twenty other Crestron employees dedicating part of their time to customer education. The training rooms typically seat 15 students, and offer full AV facilities including dual-projection, multiple AV sources, AV matrix switchers, as well as student control panels.
Crestron's comprehensive program encompasses seven course offerings ranging from a single eight-hour day to four full days. The core course of the curriculum, Essentials of Crestron Programming, requires four days of study and is held weekly at each training location. Those who wish to earn full certification in Crestron's SIMPL programming language must complete two additional three-day courses, making ten days total. The balance of CTI's course catalog focuses on four application-specific offerings: commercial system design, residential system design, professional installation, and lighting control systems. With well over 100 courses scheduled per year, Crestron boasts more than 2,000 attendees annually, though some individuals likely take more than one course in a year.
It's a major undertaking, and an expensive one, but Crestron apparently has decided it's worth the effort for the future of the company. “As our dealers get educated, they ask better questions,” says Jon Otteson, director of technical sales for the Southern Region and a key course curriculum designer. “They push us. They demand more of our products, so we have to keep improving our knowledge base and our customer support.”
EXTRON: GETTING SIGNALS STRAIGHT
The digital explosion has introduced a horde of new signal formats, while nearly all the old analog signal types remain in service alongside them. The resulting complexities demand considerable expertise when it comes to interfacing, switching, and distribution. As a consequence, Anaheim, Calif.-based Extron Electronics joins Crestron at the top-tier “institute” level.
The Extron Institute is split into four course programs, or in the company parlance, four “schools.” The core of the Extron program is the School of AV Technologies, a two-day course covering the essentials of video signal formats, distribution, video scaling, and related issues. Students who want more can move on to the two-day Advanced School of AV Technologies, which covers many of the same issues at an advanced level, particularly in regard to digital video. Rounding out Extron's offerings are the “schools” of Integration Sales and IP Link Technologies, the latter concerned with the company's proprietary network-based products.
The two AV technology courses comprise the bulk of offerings in both number and geographic distribution, with more than 50 scheduled worldwide in 2005. Of the 39 “schools” offered in the United States, about half are at the company's Anaheim headquarters, with the rest on the road in 11 other cities. Internationally, a dozen classes are at Extron's location in the Netherlands, three at the company's Singapore facility, and nine more scheduled in seven other Asian nations. The aggressive schedule calls on the efforts of 17 of Extron's technical staff, all working under the direction of Jim Clements, the director of education and training.
Extron's training facility at its Anaheim headquarters certainly sets a standard for others to follow. Covering more than 6,000 square feet, the seven-room complex incorporates three learning settings: a lab-type classroom, a theater, and a model presentation-type classroom. Also included are two videoconference rooms, a computer-based training room, and a video production studio.
Extron's model program attracts about 2,200 attendees annually, a mixture of dealers, contractors, consultants, and users. Courses conclude with a written exam to verify that learning objectives are met, and participants in some courses are eligible for continuing education credits from CEDIA, InfoComm, AIA (American Institute of Architects), and BICSI.
BIAMP SYSTEMS: MASTERING “ONE BOX” AUDIO
The advent of integrated, “one box” DSP units has turned the commercial audio industry topsy-turvy in recent years. Among the many entrants in this burgeoning field, Biamp Systems of Beaverton, Ore., maker of the Audia product platform, has leveraged education as a key to staying one step ahead in the market.
Initially, like other smaller firms, Biamp first took its Audia training out to the dealers and contractors. “We did half-day and full-day classes at various locations around the country,” recalls Biamp's training director, Ned Ludlum. “That approach helped launch the product successfully, but we knew we needed more in-depth education for the long run. We felt it was important, with this product, to involve them with the company and the engineering staff, so we decided to build a dedicated training room here.”
Located at Biamp's headquarters in suburban Portland, Ore., the 1,400-square-foot facility houses 12 complete Audia-equipped networked workstations, along with enough open space to accommodate groups of 50 or more. Students plug in their own laptop computers (now standard practice in nearly all such sessions industry-wide), with Cat-5 video links from each workstation allowing display of any student's computer on the front screen via a Mitsubishi high-resolution projector. At the far ends of the Audia-controlled audio system are Audio-Technica mics and Tannoy ceiling speakers.
Working under the supervision of Matt Czyzewski, Biamp's vice president of technical operations, Ludlum coordinates the three full-day sessions of the single Audia course. In addition to Ludlum and Czyzewski, six to eight other key technical personnel are brought in to conduct portions of the seminars, each focusing on a particular area of expertise. As part of the experience, students are encouraged to showcase their own “real world” Audia-based projects to explain their own approach and solicit alternate solutions.
Although relatively new, Biamp's program already has trained more than 300 participants, with more recent attendees benefiting from recent accreditation by ICIA for renewal units. Session registration for the once- or twice-monthly offerings is strictly limited to twelve students, with most sessions now filling three months in advance.
The Biamp course was developed specifically to support Audia, though Czyzewski notes that, for many participants, it also serves as a generic introduction to DSP-based systems. “In many cases we're really training for a new technology, a whole new approach to doing audio systems. It involves a different way of thinking about how you go about the whole process. So there's a benefit for the whole industry.”
MEYER SOUND: RETOOLING THE SCHOOL
DSP audio is nothing new at Meyer Sound. Although the company's first digital loudspeaker processing device (dubbed Galileo) debuted only recently, Meyer Sound entered the audio test and measurement market with its proprietary, DSP-based Source Independent Measurement (SIM) system in the late 1980s. Shortly after the first SIM machines were introduced, Meyer Sound's Bob McCarthy launched the now-familiar SIM Schools, developing most of the curriculum (based around his loose-leaf Meyer Sound Design Reference) and leading the three-day sessions, initially at the company's Berkeley, Calif., headquarters, but eventually expanding internationally. Though McCarthy now works as an independent consultant, he continues his keystone role in the company's training program on a part-time contract basis.
Late last year, Meyer Sound announced a marked upgrading of its educational programs, expanding both the training staff and the number of course offerings, and also opening a new 50-seat training room — complete with rigging support for large arrays — at the Berkeley facility. Gavin Canaan was hired to serve as a full-time educational programs manager, responsible for seminar logistics and administering the activities of eight program leaders. Four educational staffers are full-time, including coordinator of technical education Mauricio “Mugu” Ramírez, while six other leaders are borrowed from the technical support, design services, and engineering departments. A notable recent addition to their staff is Don Pearson, founder of the famed UltraSound touring rental company.
Meyer Sound's expanded course offerings — now six in all — are tiered to match different levels of expertise and application requirements. The new line-up ranges from the one-day introductory System Design Principles to the exhaustive six-day Design Reference for Sound Reinforcement. Other offerings cover line-array principles and the company's MAPP Online acoustical modeling software. The famed SIM School has been re-tooled as SIM 3 Alignment and System Design, a four-day course in two parts: The first part reviews the essentials of SIM measurement but then focuses on operation of the latest SIM 3 iteration of the technology; the second part deals more broadly with the physical and acoustical principles of system design.
Meyer Sound programs are offered worldwide, with 2005 offerings split roughly 50-50 between U.S. and international sites. Meyer Sound's staff is unique in that Ramírez and two of his training associates are fluent in both English and Spanish, thereby fostering an exceptionally strong educational presence in Latin America and Spain.
YAMAHA: STILL RE-WRITING THE BOOK
At this point we shift to a different level of education, perhaps no less important, but not as all-encompassing. For the most part, companies represented below manufacture products that are inherently more user-friendly and therefore demand less understanding of the technological innards involved. For that reason, course sessions tend to be shorter and there is less reliance, if any, on company-owned training facilities.
Yamaha, with its PM1D mixing console line, offers what amounts to a transitional program. Though intended to be largely product-specific, the company's highly regarded PM1D school represents, for many participants, a generic introduction to the art of digital mixing.
“We do get a number of participants who are working on a digital console for the first time,” says Daniel Craik, product manager and hardware instructor for Yamaha's Commercial Audio Systems division. “If you understand the basics of signal flow, it all becomes intuitive very quickly. But it you don't understand signal flow, we need to do some hand-holding.”
Adds Mike Nicoletti, customer support manager and PM1D school's software instructor, “We're also bridging a generation gap. We've noticed that most of the younger students immediately go for the mouse and computer screen, while the older ones want a knob to turn. Fortunately, in most cases, you can make it work either way.”
The PM1D school session spans two full days and covers all the operational procedures of the console along with some digital basics such as word clock fundamentals and use of memory cards. Attendance per session is capped at 40 students, with multiple consoles (as many as 14) available for extensive hands-on learning. The main West Coast training site is the Cerritos Center near Yamaha's Buena Park, Calif., headquarters, while hotel facilities are normally rented for programs held in other cities. New York, Nashville, and Dallas also have hosted PM1D schools, with about 500 qualifying students annually taking the free course. After successfully completing a “rider” test (complete set-up for both FOH and monitor applications), students receive a certificate of completion.
As a side note, Yamaha's current educational efforts carry on a tradition started in the 1980s, when the company sponsored the publication of the 412-page Sound Reinforcement Handbook by Gary Davis and Ralph Jones, the first comprehensive treatment of the topic for serious users of that era. Though it doesn't cover digital in any detail, the book remains in print (published by Hal Leonard) and is a valued reference for everything analog in the system.
SHURE: FRONT-END CREEP
Shure is another company with deep roots in the print publishing side of education. Back when reliable information of any kind was hard to find, Shure published a number of pamphlets and short books on not only microphones but also audio systems in general. For example, the “Shure Audio Systems Guide for Houses of Worship” was a godsend to church sound supervisors as it is just the right length (60 pages) and level of technicality to be grasped by sound team leaders and more astute rank-and-file volunteers. That classic is still available as a PDF, along with dozens of other helpful publications and data files in the extensive knowledge base on Shure's website.
One reason the Shure classics remain valuable is that the essentials of microphone use and applications have not changed dramatically in recent years. What has changed, however, is the “front-end” creep as the company delves deeper into digitally controlled wireless systems and associated DSP-based mixers and controllers. To satisfy the need for more intensive, direct training involved with such systems, Shure offers a selection of training programs that range from short, in-store training sessions for retail personnel to extended, custom-tailored workshops for contractors and consultants. Some sessions are held in the expanded training facilities at Shure's Niles, Ill., headquarters, but most are presented at regional locations or in conjunction with major trade shows. Extensive educational materials, in print and CD-ROM, are produced by both the Market Development Group and the Applications Engineering Group, and all are offered free of charge as part of the training sessions. Although the company prefers to keep numbers confidential, the numbers attending Shure seminars annually are in the thousands, according to Shure's director of corporate market development, Sandy Schroeder. Also, says Schroeder, Shure is “aggressively working to provide web-based training programs” which he says will include “a combination of scheduled interactive sessions with Shure personnel along with a scripted tutorial available on-demand.”
HARMAN PRO: SOUP TO NUTS
Taken as a whole, the companies in the Harman Professional Group — JBL Professional, BSS, AKG, Crown, Dbx Professional, Soundcraft, and Studer — can supply all the principal components of virtually any conceivable commercial audio system. Under the leadership of Rick Kamlet, senior director of installed sound marketing for JBL Professional, the group has developed a strong educational component as part of its popular HPro Road Show program.
“These full-day seminars are held in cities around the country,” says Kamlet, “and usually we do three a month. We provide education focused on four applications: upscale business music systems, houses of worship, performing arts facilities, and collegiate sports facilities. After the educational portion of each application, we present any new products in the HPro group designed for that application.”
Most seminars are held in a rented performance facility, such as a theater, allowing for a real world demonstration and hands-on learning by the attendees. Normally a full day is required to set up equipment for the event. For most Roadshows, Kamlet and Ted Leamy, JBL's director of engineered sound marketing, serve as principal presenters, with assistance as appropriate by representatives from most if not all of the other participating Harman companies.
“There is a great benefit to holding these seminars, both for our companies and those attending,” says Kamlet. “It's a great way for attendees to get direct exposure to new technologies and products, and learn how to apply them to achieve optimum results. For us, instead of simply showing our products, we can put the functions and capabilities into a real world context of meeting customer needs.”
NETSTREAMS: THE HOME FRONT
For Austin, Texas-based NetStreams, education is seen as critical for helping this relatively small start-up company stake out a stable share of a rapidly expanding market for high-end custom home audio systems.
“We've been in business just over two years,” says NetStream's vice president of marketing, Petro Shimonishi, “and we're looking for dealers to get on board who can represent this new technology to the consumer. We want them to have a good experience, which makes effective education perhaps even more important than with more established companies.”
The company's inhouse education program focuses on technology underlying the DigiLinx IP-based home audio distribution system. IP-based audio is a brand new development in home systems, and, according to Shimonishi, many dealers and installers who are new to the technology need considerable education in order to reach the comfort level necessary to recommend such systems to their customers.
“We find a broad range of technical expertise among our dealers,” she notes. “We have a lot of new entrants into the field, coming from IT installations as well as cable, satellite, security, and general electrical, as well as custom AV. So we need to bring everybody up to the same level. Those coming from IT, for example, will know networking, but little or nothing about audio quality. That means we have to build a lot of flexibility into our programs.”
Beginning in October 2003, Net-Streams launched an intensive nationwide training tour, conducting seminars for more than 250 dealers in the United States. Seminars were held regionally at AVAD (Association of Value Added Distributors), a home systems integration provider and national distributor for NetStreams. The first round of seminars were conducted by Shimonishi and company CEO Herman Cardenas, but NetStreams has since hired a training and technical support manager, Michael Leonard, to expand the program and ease pressure on the top executives' time.
Anticipating further rapid growth, Shimonishi is now looking at hiring another person for the training staff. “It's difficult to find people out there who have an audio background, and who also have a dynamic personality that can effectively present both the technology and our product. It's relatively easy to teach the basics of networking, but we've found that somebody that has been out on the job site, who is used to talking to people about what they encounter out there, automatically garners more respect from the audience. People with that combination of skills are becoming extremely valuable to any company in this business.”
NO EXCUSE FOR IGNORANCE
With the plethora of educational opportunities now available, there's no excuse for anybody in the industry, from entry-level techs to the CEO, to complain that they don't understand that new digital stuff. True, some programs are invitation-only — usually to dealers, associated contractors, and industry consultants — but others allow open registration. Most sessions are free of charge, though some allowing less restrictive enrollment may charge fees to those who are not regular clientele or in the dealer network. In most cases, details on qualifying for enrollment are posted on the company websites listed in the sidebar.
So our best advice is join the thousands who are updating their knowledge and skills at the company expense. With higher education costs skyrocketing, opportunities like these are bargains too good to pass up.
For More Information
Bruce Borgerson is principal of Wavelength Communications in Ashland, Ore.
The following industry trade associations and independent entities offer a broad range of educational programs, both in conjunction with annual conventions and — in most cases — at other locations throughout the year. Note that many association seminars draw on the expertise and resources of manufacturers: Material presented often closely parallels the content of the inhouse seminars, but with most product-specific information deleted.
TRADE ASSOCIATION PROGRAMS
CEDIA: CEDIA University offers a range of courses on design and installation of custom home electronics systems. More than 70 offerings are on the calendar for March through December 2005 at locations in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. More information at www.cedia.net.
ICIA/InfoComm: InfoComm Academy offers introductory courses on AV technology, sales-oriented training, an intensive course focused on IT-related applications, and four professional tracks: installation, design, sales, and rental. Most U.S. sessions are at the InfoComm show or ICIA's Fairfax, Va., location, but many offerings are available at locations worldwide. More information at www.infocomm.org.
NSCA: NSCA University offers certification courses for electronic systems technicians as well as registration status for systems integrators. Other learning opportunities focus on specific technologies and general business skills. More information at www.nsca.org.
Church Production T3 Seminars: Church Production magazine sponsors a series of seminars aimed at audio, lighting, and video applications in houses of worship. More information at www.churchproduction.com.
Fits & Starts: An independent organization originally focused on recording, Fits & Starts now offers live production training seminars, again focused primarily on the worship market. Program locations and costs posted at www.fitsandstarts.com.
Syn-Aud-Con: Founded by Don and Carolyn Davis, this program has been a staple of audio industry education for over three decades. More than 15,000 professionals have taken at least one of Syn-Aud-Con's in-depth courses on acoustics, measurement, and related issues in sound system design. Seminars are held at sites around the country, often in conjunction with audio trade shows. Information at www.synaudcon.com.
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