Lyndon Shelton works with Herman Pearl at Tuff's Recording Studio.

Lyndon Shelton arrives at Tuff Sound Recording Studio, a quiet teen with a bright-eyed exuberance.

Musically inclined, he plays the flute and piano, encouraged by his mother who has dabbled artistically as a rapper and dancer. The Hazelwood youth has brought a composition that he has worked on at home, music for a friend, a rapper who lives on his street, he says.

He sits down at a technical array—amps, equalizers and compressors—and confidently begins. “When I first came in, the mixer looked really crazy. Now it makes a lot of sense,” he says.

Shelton is a student in a new classroom-style learning experience that is giving local students, ages 16-22, an opportunity to pursue their love of music through hands-on training in audio production engineering.

The Tuff Sound Apprenticeship Program (TSAP) operates out of a 1,200-square-foot recording studio. Tucked into the third floor of a former industrial building in Point Breeze, the building was a mining appliances operation in its last life. The studio is equipped with the latest in high-quality digital and analog recording.

“Learning on expensive hardware like this would be cost prohibitive for any high school student,” says Herman Pearl, co-director of TSAP and owner of Tuff Sound Recording Studio. “We aim to teach the general principles as they apply to many types of software and hardware.”

“The idea is to teach in such a way that students can pick up any audio production tool and figure it out,” adds Amos Levy, who assists Pearl as co-director and works as a teaching artist at CMU’s Arts Greenhouse, a hip-hop music education program for teens.

Technical wizardry comes into play as Shelton begins manipulating his jazz track, overlaying it with a steady tit-tit-tit-tit of a “high-hat,” or drum cymbals.

Learning the technical wizardry of audio engineering. Photo by Rob Larson.

“You could take some bass off the fuzz” instructs Pearl. “Keep cutting. Take the growl back out and see what you think of that. It sharpens it up and makes it bright.”

“He’s combining dreamy and aggressive sounds, which is really cool,” Herman says.

Asked what interests him most about the class, Shelton replies “everything” without hesitation.

“I want to own my own studio someday,” he says. “This is helping me to connect with other music people in Pittsburgh. It’s also helping with my physics class.”

To qualify for the program, TSAP students are nominated by one of several partner organizations like 1Hood and Arts Greenhouse. Participants are selected through an interview process and must possess a strong portfolio of work samples.

Many of the students have been recording with their own bands or doing solo work prior to engaging in the technical side of the business, says Pearl.

Six apprentices attend classes for two to three hours once a week using varieties of software for music producers, plus lab time over a four-month period. Apprentices begin by learning the basics of audio engineering and production. They are required to build a portfolio and collaborate with outside artists.

A recording session at Tuff’s Sound Studio. Photo by Rob Larson.

At first, students find the concepts esoteric and weird, says Pearl. Engineering is an art that involves both artistry and technical knowledge. “The point is to get them working with the variety of different types of artists (and software) so they can become more versatile as audio engineers and producers,” he says.

The goal is to build a bridge that opens up creative opportunities for aspiring young musicians in the region, says Levy. “We are intent on providing everyone with a long-term engagement in audio engineering and production.”

“Many times young people get stuck in their career path, especially when it comes to technical stuff as it relates to students coming from underserved communities,” says Pearl. “Trade school and college programs are very expensive and don’t offer a clear path forward. This opens up opportunities.”

Ideally, the directors hope to see a domino effect of well-trained studio engineers that will spawn a hub of recording businesses in Pittsburgh.

“We want to make Pittsburgh a destination for audio production and audio engineering, our long-term goal,” says Levy.

“We also want to help our participants to make money for this because they can,” says Pearl.

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This article is part of the Remake Learning initiative, a multimedia partnership between NEXTpittsburgh and WQED Multimedia,Pittsburgh Magazine and WESA.  

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.