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Article from The Mix, April 1995

Bob Dormon finds the Royal Academy moving with the times

There's still a wealth of music schools and engineering colleges offering a traditional education, but they're increasingly augmented by new courses for the media-oriented musician. The Royal Academy of Music's Commercial Music Degree Course develops the talents of young composers for the burgeoning TV, film and pop market. Bob Dormon receives a lecture...

Nick Ingman, Director of Commercial Music, with the Manson Room’s Soundcraft 6000 desk

The Royal Academy is perhaps the last place you'd expect to meet the sort of baseball-capped sample-scout who rides a coach and horses through musical genres. Synthesists and sequencists have tended to be self-taught in the past. However, alongside the dozens of rehearsal rooms and the odd music hall within the academy, several small but perfectly formed hi-tech studios have recently-sprung up. The traditional' musical education continues, interpretations of Schöenberg, Stockhausen and Schubert fading in and out as we wander down the corridor. But I'm on my way to the Manson Room, the main mixing facility that is the baby of former pupil Ken Reay.

The Commercial Music course was founded and developed by Nick Ingman, a composer, orchestrator and arranger who's worked with the world's best. Among the famous names that litter his CV are the Pet Shop Boys, Whitney Houston, Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue and Sinead O'Connor. The list goes on, as his highly regarded skills frequently involve him in major film projects working with the likes of Michael Kamen, Stephen Warbeck and George Fenton. Armed with these credentials, the pupils that enter the Commercial Music course couldn't really hope for a more experienced tutor. So I asked Nick what do they need to be considered for a place on his course?

"As far as the Academy is concerned, you need the 'traditional' qualifications, including 'A' level music to grade 7 or 8 in a particular instrument. My added requirement is that I have to find out whether the student is in the right place, because a lot of people come thinking it's a rock'n'roll course. There are plenty of other good places that do that, but that isn't what this course is all about."

So you're after students with a grasp of music and a spark of creativity?

"Yes, I have to see a portfolio, that can be anything. However, I do like to see that they're not just computer guys, 'cos again, there are 100% technology colleges. My brief is to turn them into all-rounders — after four years. Ideally, the students will have broad musical interests. For example, in their first year, students — apart from using a lot of technology — also have to stand up in front of an 80 piece symphony orchestra and conduct their own work. So if that's totally alien to them, they're going to have a rough time."

After using synths and samplers, the real thing must be a real buzz for them..?

"Fantastic. Anyone will tell you that conducting a symphony orchestra is better than sex... and safer! It's true! And funnily enough, it's the people who are totally technology-based that have the best time with it."

Indeed, having the opportunity to conduct your own music is a rare privilege. As technology continues to improve, it may become rarer still. The human element is something that Nick is eager to promote...

"I maybe fighting a one-man rearguard action against the possible demise of live musicians, but I think it's important that the students learn about live situations"

"Although Conducting your own piece is important, it's the concept of dealing with live musicians that I like to draw their attention to. I may be fighting a one-man rearguard action against the possible demise of live musicians, but I think it's important that the students learn about live situations."

If that sounds like fun, then remember that the students have to endure some pretty rigorous music training. The core subjects are the four year writing course, which includes all aspects of 'pop' songwriting, plus basic harmony and orchestration. This is run in tandem with the four year business section, which can involve up to 25 'Masterclasses', from prominent personalities within the music industry. These are arranged by music lawyer Paul Woolf, who's the 'business' course collaborator.

Sibelius 7 uses the RISC based Acorn computer. Screen redraws are up to 100 times faster than its nearest software rivals.

The first two years are lecture-based, with subjects including the history of twentieth century music. Half the time is taken up with commercial music, with the other half concentrating on developing keyboard skills, aural skills, plus basic harmonic and counterpoint theory. In the third and fourth year, the students stray from the academic stuff and work on individual projects. Many get involved in serious hands-on commercial projects. This is where things begin to get pretty esoteric, as the broad scope of commercial music is open to vastly different interpretations. Some students devote their thesis to the business side of things. In the end, successful students receive a bona fide B-Mus. (Batchelor of Music) degree, accredited by King's College, London, making it the only commercial music course offering this qualification.

Four years studying the music business may well seem like an imposition to a dedicated musician. But if you do want to become a music lawyer, Nick suggests you'll be better off elsewhere.

"The business part of the course is there as a protective measure. What this will provide them with, is enough knowledge to stop them getting ripped off. I've seen so many good musicians completely ruined by their ignorance of business machinations."

Having built his own career around music, Nick drew from his own experience when devising the curriculum. While some may have idealistic views about being a musician, Nick's more realistic outlook has become an intrinsic part of the course, enabling music as a career to be a real possibility. He explains.

"What I see in the business is a mixture of two different kinds of people: The people who have enormous success quickly then disappear, and those who have long term success, which is less spectacular, but steady and gradual. I'm more interested in the latter. 'Flash in the pans' rarely last, as it's like trying to win the pools for a living. How many Phil Collins's or George Martins can there be? So my 'target area' is slightly more back room; looking for those who can survive long-term. Music as a career isn't very fashionable; it sounds a bit 'civil service'. Yet that's my belief, partly because I've done it and been in business thirty years and survived, and partly because it seems those people that do it have a better time."

"...whether you're a producer, engineer, tape-op, musician or MD, err on the side of effort, passion and taking it seriously. Give 100%, and you can't lose"

But how does the apparent contradiction of his own feelings about using live musicians and the weight of coursework based around technology fit into that? Can the two exist side-by-side without a conflict of interest?

"When it comes to using technology or not, it's the ability to use both that makes the difference. The people who survive can turn their hand to pretty well everything. That doesn't mean 'jack of all trades, master of none', it means they've got their feelers out across the whole spectrum. So if they're rung up and asked to do a jingle that involves technology, then that's fine. And if the next phone call asks them to do a Bach pastiche, then that's OK too. To say you can only do one or the other, immediately cuts off a large chunk of potential work."

While many other degree courses exist, such as Surrey University's Tonnmeister, and music courses at the University of Westminster, it's their differences rather than similarities that are their strength. Something Nick was keen to point out.

"Looking at all the competition, if we were all doing the same thing then we'd all be out of business. The Royal Academy's course is unique because it's specialised, because it's non-specialised, if that makes sense. For instance, Gateway is a technology school, Tonnmeister is sound engineering, and we're none of those things, instead we're a bit of all of them. And I suppose that's my personal philosophy about survival in the business."

Having an active musician as the course director of the course adds a touch of realism to the subjects taught. Nick believes that the training offered should leave students prepared for whatever the future may bring. He expands.

"Only about five years ago, most studios had a house engineer. These guys had a job for life, in theory. Now the freelance engineer is very much of the moment, and so engineers have to fight in a competitive market. So if you go on say, the Tonnmeister course, you'll end up a very good engineer, and that will be what you have to offer. But if you're a very good engineer and also possess production, musical or technological skills, then you've got an edge on your rivals."

All of which goes to show why Nick Ingman emphasises variety as the spice of a healthy musical life.

For more information and a prospectus, contact The Royal Academy Of Music, (Contact Details).

For more information about the Sibelius 7 score-writing software, (Contact Details)

Masterclass with Millar

Robin Millar, producer, in the Manson Room.

Ask anyone who's been on a sound engineering or production course what was missing, and they'll tell you it's what you learn from actually working in a commercial situation. As a student, you can be protected from the harsh reality of despotic producers, bands with bad habits and unreliable equipment. So when that first session dawns, the experience is often less than rose-tinted. While there's no substitute for this kind of experience, course director Nick Ingman draws upon his vast array of eminent friends within the music business to inform his students of what lies ahead in the real world of professional music making.

These masterclasses are as varied as the business itself, with appearances from Rupert Perry (Chairman of EMI), Steve Redmond (Editor of MusicWeek), Ed Bicknell (Manager of Dire Straits), and Michael Kamen, in his role as Visiting Professor of Composition. This week producer Robin Millar took the forum with an audience of some 50 students from all disciplines of the Royal Academy of Music. Among Robin's production credits are Sade, the Fine Young Cannibals and Men at Work. With that success, I found some firm opinions about music as a career, when he spoke to me just before his Masterclass. Being in the position of talking to tomorrow's hopefuls, I asked him if there were any anecdotal studio gems that he regularly recounted for their benefit?

"I was involved in a recording for a film quite recently, using 29 musicians playing live from a score. What they had to do was to provide backing for a short piece that had to encapsulate an emotional two hour, heavyweight, big budget movie. And also serve the needs of the record company, who wanted a single for a 27 year old, female rock superstar."

To mere mortals, that may sound like a tall order, yet Robin's experience told him that playing it right wasn't enough. He wasn't happy, and he let them know it.

"They played and then chatted away about Gardener's Question Time, and browsed through their motoring weeklies. After another take for technical accuracy, they came into the control room looking quite happy, and I just sat there in complete stony silence. I was literally speechless. I'm speechless every time I'm in a situation where people don't respond correctly."

Reminding the band of the purpose of this piece of music (and that he'd been told they were hand picked), Robin admits he rather cruelly gave them his personal opinion...

"I don't know what you were hand-picked for, but it wasn't for this. You're playing like monkeys, you're insulting the people who are paying you, and if you expect a rock superstar to stand up and sing over this you're mistaken, because it's only suitable for Bruce Forsyth! So, I'm going to notch it up 1.5 bpm and you're going to do it again.

Now the interesting thing was, if I played you the chatter before that next take, you'd have thought it was a completely different room of people. You'd have thought they were ten years younger. The whole dynamic between them was more intense. They played, the tape was rolling, they finished, and I walked out and gave them a standing ovation. Credit where credit's due."

The cosseted existence of a music student definitely appeals, after that kind of commercial confidence-crunching. But Robin has his reasons, which he likes to relate to the students.

"When I'm here, I just want to make people aware that you should never take picking up your instrument for money for granted. Remember, even if it's the third job that day, somewhere along the line, somebody got passionate about putting those ideas down in music. The only advice I can give, whether you're an producer, engineer, tapeop, musician or MD is to err on the side of effort, passion and taking it seriously. Give 100% and you can't lose."

Manson room kit list

  • Tascam ATR-80, 2" 24-track analog recorder
  • Bass Station, analogue bass synth
  • Roland JD-800 synth
  • Yamaha RY-30 beatbox
  • Steinberg SMP-24 MIDI interface/synchroniser
  • Atari Mega ST-4 & SM124 monitor (with Cubase software)
  • Teac TA-4 phono amp unit
  • Sony TCWR 770
  • Denon DCD-1290 CD player
  • Denon DRM-800 cassette recorder
  • Yamaha DTR-2 DAT recorder
  • Sony DTC-1000ES DAT recorder
  • Digidesign, Sound Tools Digital Interface
  • Digidesign AD IN, 2ch analog to digital convertor
  • Yamaha SY99 AWM/AFM synth
  • Apple Macintosh IIex (with Cubase software)
  • Korg 01/W Pro X, Wavestation synth with weighted keyboard
  • Akai S3200 sampler with MO drive
  • E-mu Proteus Pop/Rock synth module
  • Korg 05R/W synth module
  • Diki Devices, 600Mb hard drive
  • Opcode Studio 5, MIDI interface/synchroniser
  • Drawmer DL221 dual compressor (x2)
  • Drawmer DL251 spectral compressor
  • Drawmer DS 301 noise gates (x2)
  • Drawmer M500 dynamics processor
  • Yamaha SPX1000 multi-effects processor
  • Alesis Quadraverb multi-effects processor
  • Aphex Aural Exciter type C
  • Roland SN-550 digital noise eliminator
  • Ensoniq DP/4 parallel effects processor
  • Quested Q D1 500s power amp, Denon amp (for headphones)
  • Quested Q 312 main monitors, Yamaha NS 10, nearfield
  • Soundcraft 6000 36/24/2 mixing console

The studio as a classroom

The Yamaha Room

Looking around the Yamaha room, tables of donated Yamaha equipment line the walls. Four separate 'workstations' allow students to work independently, and develop their skills in programming the sequencer as well as synth sounds and music in general. Students average about ten hours a week in here supervised by Ken Reay, Head of Music Technology. He described an average lesson with students' eyes glued to the screen, and hands to the mouse.

"The workstations are based around the SY99 and Cubase on the Atari ST. This is where most of the teaching takes place, because we use next door (the Manson room) for mixing. If it's an hour lesson, then we'll take half an hour tutoring about a particular setup, usually the sequencer. Then they'll do half an hour on their own, or I'll talk them through things while they operate. We've got an ADAT too, so I can record to demonstrate compressors and gates."

As Cubase on the Atari supports score printing, I was curious to know if the students used this facility?

"We don't here, because we've got Sibelius 7, a new program for the Acorn Archimedes computer, which is excellent. We've got four, so anybody who wants to do any serious score printing will use that with the laser printer. However, Sibelius tends to get used by the classical composers. The Commercial or jazz students do less intense score printing, so they might well do it with a printer and Atari of their own."

Once again, it's the trusty Atari ST that opens the door to the world of MIDI sequencing to these musicians. The plan for the future is to upgrade to Power Macintoshes, however, strolling down the corridor to the Roland room — their first freebie gear studio — Ken explained that many students are just amazed to hear a sequencer replay a C-major scale! The Music Technology Department is not just in the domain of the Commercial Music students, but open to the more traditional music courses within the academy. Ken frequently faces explaining MIDI and other studio tools to musicians who've never even touched a synthesizer before. Hard to believe in this day and age, but it is kind of quaint.

Ken Reay, the College's young Head of Music Technology, in the Roland room.

The Roland Room

The smaller Roland room is that little bit extra for the students during a busy week, and as they near exam time and other facilities are occupied. Among the donations are a Roland Rhodes piano and the S770 sampler.

"The S770 is a really, really good sampler but it's not that user-friendly", says Ken. Looking around, I was struck by the fact that the D50 was the master keyboard, and not the weighted Roland Rhodes. However, there was a simple explanation.

"The Jazz department tend to grab that and use it. It was one of the first gifts from Roland."

So how do the more 'classically' trained students react to the unfeeling world of plastic keys?

"They adapt fairly quickly. I also give them a couple of information sheets on working the studio equipment, so they can come in and just make a lot of noise. After four or five weeks, I introduce them to sequencers and recording. These technology novices aren't on Nick's course, but are from the general music degree courses. I find that it's really divided those that can't get enough from the traditionalists, who aren't so bothered. Remember, the major thrust of the academy is orchestral, so it's only natural if you're studying violin, that you could be intimidated by all this stuff."

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

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The Mix - Apr 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Chris Needham

In Session



Feature by Bob Dormon

Previous article in this issue:

> On the beat

Next article in this issue:

> Dream sequences

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