Ramy Attallah – SAE Paris [Head of Audio]

The SAE Institute, founded in 1976 by Tom Misner, is the most widespread educational organization of its kind. Having started out as an audio engineering school, it’s now branched out to include programs in music production and video games, with franchises on very continent. Ramy Attallah is the Head of Audio at the Paris branch, and I recently got the chance to speak with him about the program he’s running and the facilities they have.

Hi Ramy. Thanks for having me over to chat. Can you tell me about your beginnings with audio and how you became affiliated with SAE?

Sure. My audio background came from my dad being in a band, so he’d have lots of gear at home and I would record things like his synths or guitars with a Tascam Portastudio around the age of eleven. Even though I started producing my own music with Logic in 2008, I wanted to learn more about recording after doing studio sessions with my bands. I remember seeing how the recording engineer set up his rig of microphones and operated the console, and it made me curious about that sort of work. I have a cousin from Italy who had done a short course at SAE Milan, and he told me about the school. So I applied for it after I graduated from high-school and was accepted in 2013.

During your student years at SAE, did you ever work at any studios in Paris? Or did you only focus on your studies?

I had side jobs whilst at SAE, and during the last year of my Bachelor program here, I was able to get session work as a producer in studios around Paris. So bands would bring me their demos, and I’d help them rework the arrangement and instrumentation to finish the recordings. I’d also mix the music and send it to be mastered afterwards.

What’s changed the most at SAE Paris since you graduated in 2016?

The equipment here has only gotten better since then; even things like the quality of our cables and mic stands got better over time. In terms of the facilities, we now have an auditorium on our ground floor that we didn’t have when I was a student. So we’ve continued to expand in this regard, though the essence of SAE’s educational approach remains the same. Our educational process is based on the conventional way of recording bands that play acoustic instruments, although we now include lessons on modern production techniques that have become popular in recent years.

Has the staff also expanded over the years, or have they remained the same since your student days?

The number of programs we offer has increased since I was a student, so we’ve had to expand our staff to accommodate that. That expansion might happen by bringing in new people, or by hiring those who used to work here as freelancers previously.

By the way, we have staff who have been at SAE since the founding of the Paris branch. One of our lecturers was the second student to enroll here in the early 90s, and he decided to rejoin the school despite having his own career in the radio and TV world. So the bond between the school and some of our staff go back decades.

Once you graduated, were you able to get work at any studios around Paris?

I did work in a few studios, but to be honest, I mostly worked as a ghost producer at a label for some years, which required me to sign a lot of NDAs. So I can’t talk about it, even though I might want to. I was an electronic music producer, and used to work in places like Amsterdam and Berlin, where the scene is quite big.

Can you tell me anything about your work for the label that doesn’t infringe on the NDAs?

One of the things I enjoyed the most was when the label booked a big auditorium at a venue for classical music and I was tasked with recording pianos for a few days. Things like that are great when you have good pianists to work with. In the mornings I recorded Chopin, and in the afternoon, Rachmaninoff. It was a beautiful space where I could set up my mics and just press “record”, and the magic would happen on its own.

Apart from working for the label, I also used to work with indie bands, which was fun because I lived in a countryside house that was 30 minutes from Paris. So I’d invite the bands to spend the night there, and track their music in the basement studio. Then I’d mix the music on my own and then send the album to their label A&R later.

Do you still do work as a ghost-producer?

No, I don’t. I cut all bonds with my ghost-production crew because I come to a point where I wanted to be known for my own music. It became difficult to continue when one of the tracks I made did really well for an artist on their roster. He was a young up-and-coming DJ that the label heads wanted to boost, and because of how well my track did he’s been touring ever since. That experience made me realize that I might as well just work on my own music, rather than produce tracks for other people.

How did you end up working at SAE Paris after having been a student here? 

Like most other educational institutions, SAE experiences staff turnover at certain points. This might happen when our freelancer’s contracts expire or certain staff members want to move on. So a supervisor slot in the audio department opened up for me because of that, and my colleagues recommended me for it. I was asked to come in for an interview just a few weeks after my graduation to discuss the position with the Campus Manager, and was given the job shortly afterwards. My supervisor position involved things like helping with workshops and checking on student progress during classes. I later became the audio department’s Head Supervisor, who’s responsible for coordinating the workflow of other supervisors. A colleague of mine later had to leave the Head of Audio position and he recommended me for it, which this is how I got my current job.

I’ve been involved at SAE Paris for six years now, and it’s interesting how I’ve had a reason to come in to the school at least once a week during that whole time.

What is the most important aspect of your job as Head of Audio?

I think being present for our students is the most important part of my job. To be perfectly honest, this can be a challenging position at times. There are lots of students, programs and staff to handle, which comes with pressure, but because I was a student, I can just ask myself, “What would I want if I were still a student? “. So I try to be as considerate of my students as I can without being too casual, since I still have to act like a professional and be effective at my job. But as an example, if I’m doing important work in my office and a student comes in to talk to me, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and listen to them. I think this sort of thing has made people realize that I’m accessible, which makes the communication side of my job easier for me.

Can you talk about some of the challenges you face with students? What about those who aren’t able to keep up with course-work?

That does happen sometimes. Even though some people have real musical talent, it doesn’t mean that they’re technically savvy. I’ve seen lots of students come through here who are amazing composers, yet some of them have little skill behind the recording console. I’ve also had cases where students tell me, “I actually came here to learn how to produce music, but I’m taking all these classes on post-production, and I don’t really like it “. Even when I tell them that those classes will help them to become better producers, they still say, “Thanks, but I’d rather just focus on being a producer and skip those classes “. So they remain at SAE as students, even though they won’t get their graduation diploma because of all the missed course-work. We have quite a few students who are happy to complete their time here and forfeit the diploma as long as they learn what they want, and even though they don’t graduate, they still leave the school in a better state than when they first arrived.

How much of your work consists of being an administrator that implements the curriculum, versus being an audio enthusiast who imparts his own vision to the program?

Well, I have to wear two hats for this job: on one hand, there’s the serious aspect of planning things correctly because I have to book classrooms, schedule lectures, make announcements to students, etc. This requires a mathematical mindset that gets things done accurately. On the other hand, there’s the visionary side, where I want to improve the audio program based on what’s happening in the industry. So I might ask for a day off from work just to think about things like that, whether it means going to the countryside or sitting at a cafe to brainstorm ideas that I can bring back to my office to try and implement.

There have been times when these two roles have clashed with each other, but I’m lucky to have the confidence and trust of the people I work with, whether it’s the audio team or the lecturers. I used to be one of their students once, and it’s encouraging to know that they have my back. I also work well with the Campus Manager and the Academic Coordinator, so there’s room for discussion with them when I have an idea to improve things.

Have you ever failed to have your ideas implemented due to management interference?

I wouldn’t say “failed”, but rather “postponed” (laughs). But things like that happen. Education is a big undertaking with many moving parts, so I don’t expect to get things just because I ask for them. You need to come with research and arguments that support your ideas, and even then you have to discuss them with management. But as long as the lines of communications are open, things tend to work out.

SAE was founded over 40 years ago, when the sound of popular music was different. Does the school put any importance in maintaining awareness of past recording traditions or is that less relevant because of current music trends?

The past is still relevant, although I’m better qualified to speak about the Paris branch than the other campuses. I talk about things like this during the induction of our new students. SAE does have a legacy to maintain, part of which is that we can show a student what a professional sound engineer should strive for. For example, it surprised me when someone like Andrew Scheps decided to do all his mixes in-the-box, even though he has racks of gear and a vintage Neve console to use. But he was able to make that switch because he knows how to get the sound he wants even with plugins. That’s the kind of sensibility we want to teach our students. But we maintain an analog approach for our classes because we have gear that students wouldn’t have had the chance to otherwise use, and we’d like to expose them to that workflow.

There are multiple audio schools in Paris. Why should a student come to SAE Paris when he has the option to try a different school?

I think the reputation that SAE has built over the years speaks for itself at this point. It’s a school with multiple campuses all over the world, and whenever you go, people generally know what it is. So our students get access to an international network of alumni and contacts from day one, and that gives them the chance to branch out beyond Paris. For example, we’ve had students who do a year at the Paris branch before transferring to another campus in a different country.

The second thing SAE offers is its facilities, which are only getting better. We like to simulate real-world scenarios in our classes in order to reflect how things work in a commercial studio. This is why we have well-built rooms with good mics and consoles. Also, SAE has the most amount of studios of any audio school France, partly because of the large student intake we have. Additionally, all of our programs are recognized by the state, by way of the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Education. We have nine different certifications that we can give to our students, based on which of our programs they graduate in. This gives us credibility and we can certify that our graduates are competent to work in the audio industry.

Can you tell me about some of the connections that SAE Paris has with other music institutions in Paris and how that benefits your students?

I can proudly say that one of the most acclaimed studios in Paris, Studios Ferber, is one of our official partners now. We select twelve students every semester to spend two days each with the resident assistant at Ferber and he gives them a tour of the whole place. We also provide the studio with monthly interns from among our students. It’s been a great experience for them, and they usually coming back as different people with a new outlook on what it means to work as an audio professional. I’m truly grateful and proud of this partnership because it means SAE Paris now has a studio that it can guarantee interns for consistently.

Can you tell me about any notable alumni that have come through SAE Paris?

I know we have Grammy winners in the Latin music category, as well as in the mastering category for Daft Punk records. We also have studio owners such as Guillaume Andre, who’s the owner of 85 Productions, formerly called Studio 85. Additionally, some of our current students already have Gold and Platinum records, mostly within urban music.

What other industry connections does SAE Paris have, other than with Studios Ferber?

I don’t like to speak on things until they’ve been finalized, but we have a partnership in the making with a popular radio station in Paris, so I’m hopeful about securing that. We also have a relationship with ADAM Audio, who not only provide us with their speakers, but also come in to do presentations to our students. Normally, those kinds of brands just want to sell their products, but when the Product Manager is willing to give lectures that actually teach our students something important, I find it to be quite admirable.

We also send students to work at a studio in the south of France called La Fabrique. We don’t have an official partnership with them, but when they see that the applicant is from SAE, it helps them towards begin considered for an internship. By the way, I’ve never had a problem with a students who couldn’t find an internship after they’ve enrolled in the Sound Technician program here.

We also have good relationships with companies like Audinate and Sonarworks.

I’d like to mention a few names of institutions or artists, and perhaps you can tell me what kind of relationship SAE Paris has with them?

Gang Recording Studios: We’re big fans of what they do, and I have a lecturer who is good friends with the owner there, so we’ll probably be in contact with them in the near future, as they’re a nice studio and have done great work on well-known albums by bands like Air and Phoenix.

Daft Punk: We have an alumni that works with them. I’d like to bring them in sometime to talk to the students, although I know they’re pretty busy and don’t go out a lot. But it would be great to hear from two French guys who released an album like “Random Access Memories“, which revived a certain vintage sound in the music industry.

Mix With The Masters: Whenever students ask us about how the pros work, we always recommend they check out Mix With The Masters. As I mentioned earlier, we sometimes send interns to La Fabrique, which is the studio that Mix With The Masters uses, so there have been times when our students get to work at their seminars.

Can you give me a breakdown of the facilities and gear at your Paris campus?

Sure. We have two studios with Avid S3 consoles, Avid converters, and 5.1 functionality for post-production and surround-sound mixing. We have another studio with an Avid S6 and external pre-amps from brands like Neve. Then we have the studio with our main analog console, a Neve VR Legend, and lastly, a studio with an SSL AWS900.

In terms of our live rooms, we prefer to have them sound as neutral as possible, so as to encourage students to experiment with their instrument setups. We’d rather have them explore the room to find spots that give them usable reflections, rather than construct a room that sounds good regardless of where you record in it.

In terms of other consoles, we have a small Audient in-line desk, which is the first one that students use in the beginning of their program. We also have a Mackie 1604 VLZ4 that’s used to teach about analog signal flow. It comes with an effects rack, an ADAT multi-track and a two-track recorder.

We also have smaller studios for our short courses in electronic and urban music production, which come with a recording booth for vocals or instruments. There’s the “Apollo” studio, which is another small one, but it comes with a few analog synths and an UA Apollo interface, hence the name. We also have a number of Macs, each of which come with a MIDI controller, Audiotechnica headphones and multiple DAWs.

Can you tell me about your Sound Technician program? 

The Sound Technician program is a full-time, one-year degree that focuses on the technical aspect of recording, although it does include some classes in composition and music production as well. The idea behind the course is that students are able to apply for work at commercial studios after a year of studying with us. The program features weekly workshops, seminars and classes from Monday to Thursday. We also have a partnership with Middlesex University in the UK, where they validate our programs so that students are able to obtain 180 ECTS credits after finishing the two-year Music Production program.

What about the Masters in Music Production program? What can you tell me about that?

That’s a two-year Masters program that was started in 2016, and is offered in partnership with UPEM, which is a university at Marne-la-Vallée. It usually requires that the student already has a Bachelors degree. They don’t necessarily need one from SAE Paris, although it doesn’t hurt their chances of being accepted if they do, since the classes are taken both at our campus and UPEM’s, and we have staff who teach at both.

You also have the short courses in Electronic Music Production and Urban Music Production. Why do you have two courses for what is essentially beat-making? Couldn’t it be taught in just one course?

Students always want the tips and tricks of each genre. The way you process an 808 kick in dance music isn’t the same as in rap music, and the same goes for how to use autotune and samplers. So we teach different approaches and show what the norms are for each genre. But we’re aware that the genres are increasingly blending together, and we have a another short course in the making that will take more of a global approach to cover both.

Our short-courses last four months, and can be followed by an additional four-month advanced course that delves deeper into broader aspects of music production in both genres.

What kind of reading material does SAE Paris have as a part of its curriculum? And does it include pro audio magazines?

We have quite an extensive bibliography, and all of our courses are based on recognized books, as well as the personal experience of our lecturers who have been in the field for over 30 years. Books are especially important for teaching the theoretical aspect of physics, acoustics and electronics.

We have a big collection of audio magazines in our open space where students can borrow whatever they want by simply signing their names for it.

Tell me about SAE’s “Meet The Pro” video series. 

“Meet The Pros” is about bringing in well-known professionals to give interviews and masterclasses to our students. The talk I did with Renaud Letang is a recent example of that, and the masterclass he gave afterwards was one of the most significant ones we’ve done. He came in and shared a lot of useful information about things that he learned through-out his career, and talked about things that could only be learned by working in the studio for a long time with different artists.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard about audio schools like SAE is that they overcharge for an education that’s freely available online. Why should a young person spend money on an SAE education when they can just use Youtube tutorials to make a crappy track in their bedroom and get famous?

You just answered the question yourself. Because it’s a crappy track (laughs).

I know, but they can still get famous with a crappy track…and rich. It’s not uncommon for young music professionals to exclusively strive for that these days.

Well, we know it’s not all about fame (laughs). It also comes down to your mindset. People who enroll in a school like SAE know that they’ll save time on their learning process. Let’s say you want to teach yourself how a certain synth works, and you read the manual to learn everything about it. When you come across another synth, you’ll have to redo that process all over again. Here we teach you synthesis, so you’ll learn what an oscillator and a filter is, as well as how a modular synth works and how to patch it. It used to take five to ten years for people to teach themselves how to mix well, but at SAE you save time on that because you’re able to avoid making unnecessary mistakes. Yes, there are Youtube channels that claim to teach stuff like that, but they don’t always tell you the right things, especially when it comes to theoretical notions. You’re better off learning that from someone who’s been working with audio his whole life. You also have to remember that Youtubers are not going share more than about 60% of what they know, because sharing 100% means that they won’t have any more content to offer their subscribers, and that’ll put them out of business. But in an educational institute like ours, it’s the opposite: our teachers aren’t afraid to share their knowledge and you end up learning things faster because we simulate a professional environment for you to work in.

I read a recent interview given by SAE’s founder, where he said something like this, “In the past, if our graduates got a job in countries like Australia or Germany, they wouldn’t admit that they’d gone to SAE because it wasn’t cool to go school for audio. But in the past ten years, that picture has changed. Nowadays, if you graduated from SAE, it’s a big plus for you “. Is this something you’ve experienced in the Paris branch? Are your students proud of the education they receive here?

I’m proud to say that I attended SAE and now work here. I also have students who tell me that they got a job because their employers trusted their SAE certifications over those of other schools. One of my dear friends who does workshops here once told me, “Ramy, I’ve been working for 25 years in commercial studios, and the graduates from SAE always stand out from the rest when I work with them “. I’ve received comments like that from Ferber as well, prior to becoming their partners. So it’s always a nice thing to see what kind of impact SAE Paris has had, and to be honest, our graduates have never have a hard time finding jobs since I started here.

The digital revolution in music has standardized many production and recording practices, to the point where most bedroom producers use the same plugins in the same way. Do you think a global institution like SAE helps further this kind of standardization by teaching people the same thing all over the world?

No, because we always tell our students about the importance of experimentation, and we ask them directly, “Do you really want to sound like everyone else? “. Even Renaud Letang talked about this in his masterclass, and it’s why I sometimes worry about bedroom producers that rely exclusively on plugin presets. At SAE, students have the opportunity to experiment with different recording techniques. They have the freedom to call in a band to sample drums or guitars all day if they want, and they develop their own sound through things like that. We’d go out of business if we encouraged students to be conformists. The end result of conformism is to have AI programs do your mixing and to use plugins that choose your chord harmonies for you. So we’re not fans of standardizing music here.

But the gear used at SAE doesn’t tend to be vintage equipment. What if a student is interested in recreating the sound of 70s recordings? How is he going to do that on a Neve VR and with plugins?

We’ve been very selective about the tools we use in our audio programs, since there are different factors to consider when putting together a curriculum. But again, look at Andrew Scheps – you would never believe that his mixes are done in-the-box. So even though vintage gear is a useful thing to have, I think you can still do interesting things in a modern a setup with plugins. I think it’s more about how you use your ears and approach the sound. A good option is study how certain things were done in the past and find out what the best alternative for that is today, since we have a lot of plugin emulations as well as new hardware that emulates vintage gear at a cheaper price.

Is there a lot of student demand to enroll at SAE Paris?

Yes, there is. There have been times in the past when student demand was unexpectedly high, but I’ve told our admissions office, “Give me the application list and I’ll take care of it “. They’ll tell me what our maximum capacity is and that we shouldn’t exceed it, and then I work correspondingly with those numbers. But we’ve never had a problem of not having enough students to fill up our courses.

Can you tell me about the tuition for the audio programs? I don’t see those numbers on the SAE Paris website.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t keep track of the tuition costs. I may need to know what certain gear costs or what a guest lecturer would charge for a class, but I’m not very involved in the business side of things. Even during our Open House days, students are directed to ask the Admissions office about tuition questions.

What is SAE Paris’ graduation rate versus the drop-out rate for students?

Those who stay until the end of the program and try their best to complete it usually get their diploma. That number represents 85% – 90% of enrolled students. Ultimately, the faculty is here to help the students, and even if a student misses a workshop, the supervisor will still help them catch up on what they need to know. So those who want to work hard will do that, and they’ll usually graduate. But sometimes people feel that they’re not up to it and they leave the program, although this represents a small percentage of our students.

You mentioned earlier about students who decide to forfeit their diploma in order to study only what they want at SAE. Do you consider them to be drop-outs?

Yes, I do. They usually pop in for a day or two, then disappear for a while, and pop back in again. But I understand their situations. Even though we have lots of students that are teenagers or young adults, we also have 50 year-olds who realized that they weren’t happy with their previous careers, and wanted to try something else. But they have families to take care of and can’t always commit the necessary time to the program.

Thanks for this interview Ramy. What does SAE Paris have in the works for the rest of the year?

As I mentioned before, I prefer not to talk too much about things that aren’t finalized, but I can say that we’re planning to purchase a lot of new gear over the summer, in terms of things like compressors and pre-amps, and we’re still developing our surround-sound system.