Becoming an audio engineer at San Quentin State Prison is a reality. Imagine learning to edit, mix, and master recorded tracks of music, commercials, promotions, spoken word and podcasts.
In partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Prison Industry Authority (CalPIA), the nonprofit The Last Mile (TLM) is training the incarcerated in audio and video production.
More than a decade before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his plan to convert the 171-year-old prison into a rehabilitation center, The Last Mile was producing entrepreneurs and computer coders. In April 2022 the organization began its Audio and Video Production (AVP) program.
“This program has given me new direction, and really brought to the forefront a past dream that I thought died when I came to prison,” said Erik Rives, 52, who’s been incarcerated 32 years. In the 1980s, he was a roadie for Bay Area heavy metal bands. “I really loved the music, people, and wanted to learn how to be a front-house engineer.” He’s now the teaching assistant for the course.
“It took brave people at a high level at CalPIA, CDCR and TLM to conceive of a class like this and have confidence that it could work,” said Jon Gripshover, a supervisor in CalPIA. He said CalPIA’s partnership with TLM has been synonymous with coding. “Both now offer so much more,” he said, adding, “We offer modern-day relevant technical vocations.”
“Upon receiving my acceptance letter into the program … I was overwhelmed with excitement,” said Messigh Perry-Garner, 30. “I never would have thought of becoming an audio engineer.” He’s been incarcerated 14 years, and said the course changed his view of rehabilitation. “This is the best thing that has happened to me.”
The course did not have an on-site instructor to teach AVP. Instead, students relied on the books Pro Tools 101 & 110 to learn Pro Tools software. To supplement that reading, and some hands-on work, they also read Audio Engineering 101 and Modern Recording Techniques.
Twice each week, CalPIA and TLM staff facilitated class participation in two-way, remote instruction over the Internet, with TLM audio engineers Dan Tinkler and Walker Delbo. Through a special Google application, the class used a Learning Management System (LMS) to read, watch instructional videos, download and upload assignments, and take tests. LMS describes a variety of computer-based educational platforms. TLM uses the LMS called Canvas, a popular web-based platform.
If students had technical questions they sent email “tickets” to Tinkler, who responded right away.
“I have had to find new ways to teach some of the concepts without being able to walk around the classroom and help students individually,” Tinkler wrote in an email for this story. “There are limitations with the education we’re able to provide, due to the environment.” He said this means students do not get hands-on experience with microphones and other recording equipment. “On the other side of that, they have spent that extra time working inside of Pro Tools and working with editing and mixing real audio projects. That is a skill that takes a lot of time and practice, and I feel that our students excel in that area.”
Tinkler said the difference between TLM students and those on the outside is “Students who are incarcerated don’t skip class because they don’t feel like going and they remain engaged throughout the duration of the lesson. I don’t have to remind our students to pay attention or wake them up during class.”
Tinkler started his audio engineering career in 2010 and joined TLM in the summer of 2021. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Audio Production, and a master’s in Sound Arts and Industries. “Without my education I would not have learned about physics, electronics and acoustics,” he said.
“The remote instructions were very helpful and informative,” said Kevin Rojano-Nieto, 27. “Dan, our instructor, did a phenomenal job in keeping us engaged and moving through the curriculum smoothly, with help from Walker [Delbo].” A Millennial, he described himself as a “gamer” because he loves to play video games and wants to learn that aspect of production.
The newer teaching methods adopted by TLM aided Ammen Shinti, 68. He’s a keyboard player with experience as a computer consultant, and in products and tech support. He has worked with bands and musicians such as Earth Wind & Fire, George Duke, Miles Davis, War and the Rolling Stones. “Every so many days we would have a stand-up,” he said. “We got to discuss what was in our way, and what progress we were making.”
Katy Gilbert joined TLM a little more than a year ago. One of her duties is to make sure students are successful in the classroom. “It’s sort of known that the job is giving students support,” she said. At the start of each class, she facilitated stand-up conversations in the classroom. She said tech companies do the same. “Students know where their classmates are at, and it’s for us to know where the class is as a whole.”
Experienced or not, the class studied editing, mixing, gain staging, acoustics, dynamic and effects processors, microphones, frequency response, sample rates, bit depth and more. The studies came into play when they edited and mixed songs by different artists, in various genres. They also worked on a 14-minute podcast.
Students delved into techy stuff, like watching videos on Lynda.com, such as The Anatomy of Reverberation, that describes Sabine’s Equation. It illustrates how long it takes a sound level to fall by 60 decibels. The class also learned that predelay is the gap in time between direct sound and the onset of the reverb tail, measured in milliseconds.
“Prison education is an area where there’s a lot of opportunity to make an impact,” said Walker Delbo, TLM’s audio-video production manager. He helped develop the course curriculum and establish partnerships with organizations to donate educational resources for the course. “I figured out a long time ago that I like educating people, and I like knowing my effort is making meaningful impact.”
Philippe Kelly, 39, said he learned the most in the areas of editing and equalization. “Those things go hand-in-hand with each other, especially with spoken word projects, so those two things have stuck more than anything else.” Kelly has since paroled.
The second audio engineering course started in April, with 12 new students. Each of them had to apply and interview. “Participation in the program is restricted to people who have worked hard to improve themselves intellectually and emotionally,” according to Wikipedia.