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Finding Ways to Forge a New Career Path in Sound

When Michael Turner ’23 joined band in elementary school, it wasn’t because of his love for music—he signed up because it was a requirement. Students at his school had to choose between two years of band or choir.

“Looking back, that was one of the greatest forced decisions of my life,” he describes. Thanks to that academic obligation, he discovered his passion for bass trombone.

His band program was part of the Merit School of Music, a nationally accredited music school located in Chicago’s West Loop that aims to remove barriers to high-quality music education.

Although he had the opportunity to study sound and audio tech as a music student there, he wanted to focus on trombone performance—and his passion flourished as a result. He joined the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, participated in chamber competitions, played alongside Solange Knowles at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“Depending on the year, weekdays and weekends wereMichael Turner completely booked. I basically had no weekend until I reached freshman year of college,” Turner remembers.

After high school, he attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. “Once I got in there, I started to quickly understand the full scope of what the trombone-playing world would be like career-wise. It’s a lot like sports. You can be the best kid in your state, but as you take things to the next level, you quickly discover how much tougher the competition can be.”

At first, this hurdle motivated him to improve his performance capabilities even more, but he realized the tremendous amount of work it would take to become a professional bass trombone player. Then, when COVID-19 hit, he saw first-hand how classical musicians were financially impacted as live performances were cancelled. With only one bass trombone player needed in a symphony orchestra, Turner knew his chances were slim.

After he graduated from Eastman School of Music, he decided to enroll at Northern Illinois University to study trombone but transitioned to recording arts in the second semester. There, he worked for the school’s recording crew and interned at Aphorism Studios, which serves theatre, dance, and music communities. Through this hands-on experience, he began to see the potential that sound offers as a career path.

When his recording professor left NIU, he was doing work at Northwestern—and he encouraged Turner to look into the MA in Sound Arts and Industries program.

Turner applied and is now on his way to earning a master’s degree. In addition to helping him expand his knowledge of sound, the experience has also rekindled his fascination with video games. “Even before I started playing trombone, I was always fascinated with video games,” he describes. “I realized I could learn about and get a job in game audio. I’ve always loved gaming, and I’ve always loved sound design and audio in games. You can’t have good games without sound.”

He says the classes on field recording have opened his eyes to new techniques when using field recorders and applying listening theory. “Just doing that over and over again—trying to be creative, pick the right times, and find new spots around my neighborhood to get interesting sounds—has pushed me to be better.”

Film sound classes have helped him learn how to use lav mics and professional recorders, which is useful for his work as a freelance audio engineer and piquing his interest in post-production as well.

“While I’m interested in game audio, I can also see myself working in post-production,” he explains. “The experiences I’ve had in the program have helped me discover the wide variety of jobs that exist in the world of sound. If you want to do something, then you’re encouraged to just try it. That’s how I’ve been able to determine which types of sound jobs I know I want to do—and which types of sound jobs I don’t want to do, which is just as helpful.”

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