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Baptism of fire


Article from The Mix, June 1995

A visit to one of the leading recording colleges

For those who are serious about engineering, a 9 to 5 schedule won't always suffice. Rob Green takes you for an inside view of the engineering school that never sleeps, and discovers that Alchemy really is possible...

There's a calm professionalism about Alchemea which belies their humble surroundings. After all, when budgets are limited, it makes sense for equipment to come first, and premises second. It's nothing that a few tasteful murals can't remedy, and the utilitarian style also lends a spacious and airy ambience. It might have been a blustery Spring day when I visited the school, but the climate inside was at once conscientious and restful.

Plenty of space, and plenty of time are high on Alchemea's agenda. Office hours count for little, with projects routinely extending into the wee small hours. Nor are the school's high-quality studios used for any other purpose than student activities. Unlike some other engineering courses, the advanced students can use the bigger SSL studio around the clock, without fear of being told it's been commercially booked. Alchemea's enigmatic director and founder Claude Camilleri gave me a rough outline of what college life is like:

"When the students come here, they have to get in tune. It takes them five or six weeks to get focused — to see where they're going, and how to get there. The foundation course is there for them to learn the rules. The advanced course is for them to learn how to break them. That's where the personalities come in. We change their attitude to life in general, in some cases. I complained to one student this morning that he wasn't working hard enough, and he gave me an absolute bollocking because he'd been in there for 36 hours!"

Claude mainly teaches production techniques, but also finds himself redefining the role of the producer in the modern studio. It's become a nebulous title, and the only solution is to prepare students for anything the music business may throw at them.

"We do have some people with good production abilities. However, I tell them that to get to the status of a producer, you have to wait, and work very hard. You have to scrub floors to get there. I don't ring studios and say 'Hi, I've got a producer here who's very good.' I say, I've got a student here who's very good at programming, composition, arrangement, using an SSL, automation, digital audio, effects and so on'."

Alchemea supremo Claude Camilleri and his righthand man Hari Voyantzis...

Part of Alchemea's charm is that it's an ongoing project. That is to say that even after you've finished the course, they will endeavour to help you find the right job. However, if you are unsuccessful in finding employment, Claude will sometimes advise that you stay on for a while, to gain more experience and confidence while job hunting.

"We try to help them get a job," adds Claude. "Sometimes, studios call us for students. At the end of the day, there is a big difference between the boys and the men. We do get timewasters, but very rarely. You realise that they have too much money. It's usually the ones who have less money that work harder — the ones that can't afford the coffee from the machine. Those people make me proud."

Having previously worked at SAE, Claude has been working with people for many years. He claims that when he meets someone, he can easily predict if they are made for the job or not.

"It's my job to see potential in people"

"Some people will come in to ask about a course, and say 'Will I get a job out of it?' I say. 'Maybe, there's a 50/50 chance.' Then they ask, 'How much will I earn?' You know then, that this guy is not going to sustain the hardship the course entails, and will lack the stamina to see it through."

Hari Voyantzis, college manager and Claude's right-hand man, is a success story in himself. A precise, knowledgeable and efficient man, Hari runs the school almost single-handedly. He is himself a product of Alchemea. After completing the advanced course, he was asked to stay.

Alchemea is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week — something not many over colleges offer...

"I saw his potential," says Claude, proudly. "It's my job to see potential in people. That's why I'm here. I wrote a report and said to Hari: 'There's something about you that makes me wonder if you'd be a good engineer.' He's too organised to be an engineer! It's also my job to exploit these talents, and channel them into worthwhile projects."

Alchemea run two separate courses — the foundation course and the advanced course. They follow on from one another. On each course, you have 12 weeks of lectures, and then four of revision. If successful on the basic, it is recommended that you move on to the advanced course immediately. The advanced course is much more demanding and intensive. Claude explains:

"It assumes that you know synchronization, sequencing, microphones etc. It assumes that you know how to approach all sorts of things. A lot of it is concentrated on production and music. We also make sure that the equipment they use is up to top professional standard" (hence the SSL).

On the second course you take another exam, which if passed entitles you to a further 12 weeks. This is a crucial period, and very important to Claude.

"During this period, students are given their own accounts, which are passed on from year to year, to provide funds to promote themselves. Then they provide their services — they can charge people for the engineering work that they do. That is incredibly important to me. Suddenly they are professionals working under pressure and fear! Suddenly they have a team under them. They have to manage their own funds. They have to pay the tape op, and themselves. Some of the money goes in the bank, and the remainder can be used to buy an extra bit of kit of the students' choice — a de-esser perhaps."

Students get to use fully professional equipment, such as this SSL G series console

So what is the record for maximum studio time by a student?

"I think the record is 126 hours in one week — that was quite recently."

It is a transitional time for the students of Alchemea, and during those 12 weeks, Claude and his team hope that they will find a job. However, the foundation students are by no means left out. They also get the chance to assist on these sessions, as paid tape ops. This kind of valuable professional experience is a real confidence booster. They have even introduced a 'Student of the year' prize, in an effort to promote hard work and competitiveness.

"Everything we do is geared for the students to work hard, achieve something, and do what they want to do."

An area that is becoming increasingly important to Alchemea is multimedia. Expansion into this field is being masterminded by experienced engineer and ex-BBC man John Lundsten.

"The foundation course is there for them to learn the rules. The advanced course is for them to learn how to break them"

"It seems obvious that our students should get involved in multimedia. One element is music, obviously the other is text, ideas and graphics. It encompasses many things, and gives the students the chance to experiment in different areas of creativity. They will learn things like how to sample short sound bites, and re-record them through umpteen dynamic modules. One will be able to hear what a snippet sample sounds like when processed through an SSL. Doing this kind of thing for television used to take masses and masses of post-production."

As Alchemea has no alliance with any school or university, they have a ruthless schedule. As well as being open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it appears that they don't even get a holiday.

"We've just managed to snatch four days off at Christmas. We break for two weeks to do maintenance, but we do encourage students to come in during that time. We de-magnetize the heads, re-align the machines, test the synthesizers."

One of the benefits of this time is it gets the students used to the more menial everyday studio tasks that must be faced in real life studio, as John Boumphrey (Alchemea's music law lecturer) explains:

"You can't leave them in an environment where they think they're going to have perfectly maintained equipment all the time. They're actively encouraged to participate in studio maintenance themselves."

Alchemea's studios are extremely well designed and kitted out. The fact that you are catering for students rather than stars doesn't mean you can get away with merely placing a mixing desk in a classroom. These are 'real' studios, with purpose-built equipment panels, acoustic design and soundproofing. There's even soundproofed windows between two of the studios and the live rooms, lending Alchemea an even more professional feel.

Aside from the two studios and live rooms, there is another studio, a lecture room, and programming equipment that can be wheeled around the building to allow use in any studio. Nor is Alchemea short on digital recording, with two Alesis A-DATs, two Tascam DA-88s, a Soundscape hard-disk recording system, two Hybrid Arts Digital Master stereo digital hard-disk editors, and several DAT machines.

The 24-track SSL studio is spacious, pleasant, well-equipped and air-conditioned. A recently acquired Yamaha ProMix 01 now resides beside the luxury SSL G Series desk, providing a more than adequate back-up system to its analogue big brother. The tape machine is a Studer A80 VU 2" 24-track, and other studio gems include a Studer 1/4" valve mastering machine, Roland SVC 350 analogue vocoder, Ensoniq DP/4 Parallel Digital effects processor and an Aphex Type C Aural Exciter.

The other two studios are 16-track digital, with two A-DATs in studio two, and two Tascam DA-88s in studio three. Whichever studio you are using, you will have plenty of scope for creativity. But the real rewards will come on the advanced course, where you will come as close to being a professional as is ever possible on an engineering course.

For more information about courses, contact Alchemea on (Contact Details)

Alchemea's precious metals

Studio One
  • SSL 40006 series (full automation)
  • Studer A80 VU 2" 24-track a Genelec 1030A near fields.
  • Tannoy custom main monitors with Thule amplification
  • Lexicon PCM 80 Digital Effects Processor
  • Sony DPS D7 Digital Delay
  • Eventide H3000 D/SX Dynamic Ultra-Harmonizer
  • Roland SVC 350 Analogue Vocoder
  • Aphex Type C Aural Exciter
  • Ensoniq DP/4 Parallel Digital Effects Processor
  • Roland R880 Digital Reverb
  • Alesis D4 Drum Machine/Trigger Convertor
  • Francinstein and Hughes Stereo Enhancement Systems
  • Studer C37 1/4" 2-track Master Tape machine (Valve)
  • Tascam DA30 MkII DAT Machine
  • Phillips CD 940 CD Player and Aiwa AD-F940 Cassette Deck

Studio Two
  • Trident T65 24x16 Mixing Console
  • Acoustic Energy AE1 Monitors with SMA Amplification
  • 2 x Alesis A-DAT with BRC and full timecode synchronisation
  • Lexicon LXP 15 MkII Digital Reverb
  • Alesis Quadraverb GT Digital Multi Effects Processor
  • Alesis 3630 Dual Compressor/Limiter/Gate
  • Alesis MEQ230 Graphic Equaliser
  • Drawmer Dual Gate
  • Echotron Digital Delay Line
  • Rebis Rack (EQs, Compressors, Gates, etc.)
  • Tascam DA30 MkII DAT Machine
  • Sony CDP 770 CD Player and TEAC Cassette Deck

Studio Three
  • Soundcraft 1624 24x16 Mixer
  • Yamaha NS10M near fields, Acoustic Energy AE3 main monitors with Quad amplification
  • 2x Tascam DA88 Digital Multitracks with full remote and synchronisation
  • Lexicon LXP 15 Digital Reverb Alesis XTDigital Reverb
  • Bel Analogue Flanger
  • Echotron Digital Delay Line
  • Audio Components Stereo Valve Compressor
  • Eventide H910 Harmonizer/ Delay
  • Rebis Rack (EQs, Gates, Sampler/Delay, etc.)
  • Sony DTC 77 ES DAT Machine
  • Phillips CD Player and Denon Cassette Deck

  • Over 50 microphones including Neumann (inc. 4 valve), Schoeps, AMS Soundfield, Calrec, AKG, Shure, Beyer, Electrovoice, Sennheiser, Octava, PZM, etc.

MIDI Equipment/Workstations
  • Atari ST computers with full synchronisation in every studio, Akai S1100 and S1000PB samplers, Roland U220, Yamaha DX7, EMU Proteus 1XR, Korg MIR, Ensoniq SQ1, Akai MX73 and Roland A80 Mother Keyboards.
  • 2 x 486 PCs running Cubase.
  • 2 further Atari STs running Cubase, Notator and Notator Logic

Additional Digital Recording / Editing Systems
  • Soundscape Digital 8-track Hard-Disk recording system (64 virtual tracks) with 1.2 Gb drive allowing over three hours track time.
  • 2 x hybrid Arts Digital Master stereo digital hard disk editors with 780 & 540 Mb drives.
  • Fostex D20-B timecode DAT machine
  • Sony DTC 77 ES DAT machine SONY TOD D10 professional portable timecode DAT machine

Film, Multimedia & Broadcast PAG broadcast 16mm Film Recorder
  • CB Electronics Timecode Reader/Generator
  • Dolby A and DBX Stereo Noise Reduction Systems
  • Sony PCM F1 Digital encoder
  • JVC VS1 Spectrum Analyser
  • JVC 6600 U-Matic Recorder
  • Sony Profeel Video Monitor
  • Pentium PC with various multimedia and CD authoring software

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Dream sequences

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Rough Mix

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Jun 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

In Session



Feature by Rob Green

Previous article in this issue:

> Dream sequences

Next article in this issue:

> Rough Mix

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