Heart Of Gold
Computer music at Goldsmith's College
An unexpected find in South London made electronic music more accessible for Chris Everard...
The outskirts of south east London have never been noted for their contributions to electronic music. In fact, south east London isn't noted for its contributions to anything in particular at all! So it was with genuine surprise that not so long ago I found that there were goings-on not far from my humble abode which held much to interest anybody keen on electronic music.
My actual destination was Goldsmith's College. It was here that my reliable informers told me I'd find no less than a Fairlight and countless other goodies of the sort which keep you lying awake at night dreaming up plans of how to earn enough cash in one short lifetime to buy such wonders of modern technology.
As far as the Music department is concerned there are two mains areas which students qualify for. The first is full-time education; Goldsmiths is a part of the University of London and therefore most musos attending will have to be doing degrees and any similar courses to gain any sort of admission to the electronic music departments resources (more of which later). Secondly, the only other form of regular access to the electronic music department is via courses being run by the School of Adult & Community Studies.
The School of Adult & Community Studies (situated within the Goldsmiths building), currently run a three year electronic music course for which anybody can apply. Acceptance will be determined by what experience the applicant has in terms of electronics and music in general (preference being given to students already attending certain courses) and by how many places are available at time of application — it's true though that a person with even very limited experience can find a place on a course at a level where they won't be blinded with science.
Now it's time to tell you what the College has to offer in terms of resources. I thought a general list of all relevant equipment available to the average student (circumstances permitting), would wet your whistles for the time being; I won't include the Fairlight in the general list as its ultimate fate concerning the courses mentioned were undecided at the time of writing this article, but it is safe to assume that arrangements of a regular nature will be agreed upon sometime within the next couple of terms.
So, in no particular order of precedence, let drooling and dreaming commence:
3 Revoxes (A700, A77 and a B77 — just to be on the safe side!)
2 Nakamichi cassette decks
8-track Soundcraft machine with autolocator
1 Chilton 16ch. mixing console
1 Chilton 20ch. mixing desk
Deltalab and Publison sound processing units
Extra Rebis and custom Eq modules
3 Klark Teknik Graphic equalisers Dolby units
Studer B67 master stereo machine
2 BBC Micros
Bose PA system
Tannoy Gold monitors
Several pairs of Mission electronics speakers
3 Epson printers
2 complete Alpha Syntauri systems
A couple of Wasps
EMS VCS3 synth
Casio P1000 prog. Synth
3 major Roland 100M modular synth set ups
2 large 4-voice poly arrangements with phase shifters, sequencers etc. and one other monophonic modular set up with sequencing facilities
several (one slightly modified) Roland 606 Drumatix drum computers
numerous Portastudios abound in every nook and cranny
...and the ever present (hard to miss) standard ILEA/University Danemann Grand piano.
Most of the above equipment is all in the main studios room, though at the time of my visit the Alpha Syntauris were in a separate (locked) room, far away from my flash gun and automatic shutter! The Fairlight was at the time stashed away in a room the size of a broom cupboard — linked up to an NAD 3020 stereo amp and two small JBL monitors. The Fairlight was fully operational when I viewed it and was producing some very impressive sounds — some of which a couple of the tutors at the College had sampled from a Linn Drum. A very respectable contemporary tune was being built up in the memory using the rhythm and compositional pages by someone under the title of 'SLAM 100' — or something. It comprised the Linn bass drum, Linn snare, Fairlight factory sounds of timpani, bass guitar, and two of the 'DO' samples which comprise of (yes, you've guessed it), someone saying "Do".
Also making some very impressive appearances during this composition were two of the best sounds I've ever heard from a Fairlight — the factory preset 'ORCH 5' (Orchestra 5), which was used to great dramatic effect by Klaus Schulze on his last British Tour being one of them. Using the sound at great volume Herr Schulze (with no warning to the audience) graced the entire length of the keyboard with the weight of his upper torso! I have no doubt in my mind at all that I was one of very few people who left the auditorium that evening without having received permanent brain damage of one form or another.
The last sound that was being put to great use was a self-sampled sound from another keyboard. Put all these sounds together — as was being done when I was present — using a very catchy 'scratching' Malcolm McClaren/Herbie Hancock drum line and you could be well on the way to a European Top Ten hit, yacht in the south of France, big house and all the other things that go along to make someone flavour-of-the-month in the singles charts.
So, I bet by now you're wondering who's got the enviable job of working in this overgrown toy cupboard. The man in charge is David Burnand. He got involved in music by getting an A level. He then took matters further by gaining a place ("by the skin of my teeth") on a three year course to attain Bachelor of Music status at (isn't it funny how things work out?) Goldsmiths College! After completing a post graduate year at the Royal College of Music, he squeezed a one year grant from the government to take his master of Arts in Contemporary Music at Cardiff University. He told me that he was the only one taking the course and that he spent the whole year as a recluse working in the University's Physics labs on the big, old EMS modular and other gear which had previously been lying dormant waiting for a person who knew how to work it to come along! He said that he was made to work in the physics labs with other students studying acoustic physics etc. looking over his shoulder and giving him funny looks, because "...the Music department wouldn't allow the synthesizers in!"
It was he who was to answer my questions — and so, without further deviation, I set the recorder in motion, ready for anything!
Q: What made the College decide to start an electronic music course — after all, employment in the field is quite scarce?
A: "The historical situation is that since the sixties there has been electronic equipment at Goldsmiths, Hugh Davies was responsible for setting up the first equipment we had. In the early days we had a couple of EMS VCS3's and it was very much a 'classical' electronic music studio. The School of Adult & Community Studies has traditionally run non-vocational courses, therefore any consideration concerning employment in a particular area was irrelevant.
Only in the last two or three years have we been in the situation to offer the sort of facilities that people perhaps in pop music, might be more interested in. Obviously the classes we run have changed, plus generally with unemployment and so on, what have traditionally been non-vocational courses have tended to be seen as part-time informal training for young musicians. That attitude, I think, is seen in the people who come and work here. We are not training engineers, we can't offer a full enough teaching programme to do that — what we're doing is for the most part allowing people to develop their musical potential within the studio, therefore we do tend to attract people who may not necessarily have got themselves an instrumental technique, but have some keyboard ability or have some sort of compositional imagination and want to develop it in the studio. Obviously you always get people coming along thinking this is the easy way out!"
Q: Trying to do their demos?
A: "Oh yeah! (laughs)... The trouble is that we can't offer those sort of facilities, as far as the evening courses go, we run a couple of introductions which are only two hours each a week — I'm talking about next year's programme, we've actually had some cutbacks, it was a slightly fuller programme last year — and that really is mostly the students being told about the nature of sound and having a look at some of the equipment and maybe getting their hands on something, doing a quick music project or something like that. Then there's an intermediate course which is supposed to offer students more of an opportunity to work on say an eight track project over the term period. The problem is that we have to enrol something like 10 people onto a course at the beginning of the year and with 10 people in the small confines of the studio, it's unlikely that everyone is going to get all the time that they're going to want, certainly on eight track."
Q: So, just to summarise what's been said, is the three year course being run at the moment, recognised by any employers as significant qualification within the electronic music field?
A: "It isn't — and I don't think it will be. The situation is that we are devising a three year, extra-mural University of London Diploma in Jazz and popular music. For the time being, any work which is done in the studio is lumped together with jazz and popular music and therefore has come into that scheme, so it would be misleading to say that we're offering any qualification — it has to be certificated by the University of London, which they can't do until we're running the course! So, we are running the course — but we can't offer any qualification! (laughs) It's not a particularly enviable situation to be in. Also, in a sense, electronic music is at the moment on the fringe — we're more interested in getting the jazz and popular music running. Eventually I would like to see a separate electronic music, three year diploma and at that moment, we would have to decide; 'What is it for?'"
Q: Even at just one evening per week, three years is a long time and may look very daunting to a person who is interested in just an electronic music 'crash course' — are there, or will there ever be shorter courses available?
A: "These extra-mural courses should work so that you can join at any level, leave at any level and you can opt for the diploma — you don't have to become part of that so there are always places available for people who want to come for just a two term introduction course. As far as 'crash courses' are concerned, we would like to see more of them, but during the daytime the studio is available to the full-time music department and we can't get access to the studio over the entire weekend, so Saturday daytime is about it. So, crash courses during term time are out of the question — during vacation time I think we could do a few crash courses, now that we have the Fairlight and are sorting out some sort of policy over using it, I think, probably we will start considering day courses in the Fairlight."
Q: Does the department encourage its students to develop their interest in electronic music outside of College hours — such as informing them of groups and solo artists using electronics who may be touring or appearing on TV?
A: "What we normally find is that most of the students are as clued up — or even more clued up than we are, so mostly they give us the information and the tutors end up tagging along to concerts! (laughs) But certainly, there is always encouragement to work outside College hours. A lot of the students who come to the evening classes have Revoxes or Portastudios and some basic synthesizer equipment of their own and they will at least be doing some preparatory work for the time they can spend in the studio. They tend to come here to use equipment that they wouldn't normally get their hands on, I mean we do have some very sophisticated equipment..."
Q: It's a great playground?
A: "Yes, it's a good place for finding out what things do — not necessarily a good place to use them constructively."
Q: I see that certain parts of the syllabus require students to design and construct equipment themselves; how complicated do the designs get and in what fields do you encourage development most?
A: "Yes, the level three course has always been partly a third level music projects course, where you can carry on from level two with your eight track projects etc but also, a good 50 percent — if not more — of the students are primarily interested in construction work. Now that we have a couple of BBC micros and our Roland modular systems. In the past, we've built vocoders, filters and odd bits of equipment like that, including a 32-step sequencer."
Q: Do you ever wish that there was a manufacturer making electronic musical instruments specially for educational purposes?
A: "Yes, I do. We have to take into consideration the sort of equipment that a musician, say a songwriter, would want — something with quick access to a number of different sounds and which doesn't involve tons of programming — so that they can get their sounds quite quickly. At the same time, we have to balance that against the classes that deal more with making people understand how the equipment works — this is why we bought the Roland modular set-ups, where the students have to actually link everything up with all this spaghetti, rather than buying something that was a bit more quickly accessible, where you didn't necessarily have to know what the voltage controls were doing — you could just hear what it was doing! So, there is a constant compromise and it's a shame, because it makes us spend money where and when we shouldn't have to. It might be worth it at some stage, for Colleges to list the specifications they require to give manufacturers some idea of the 'gap' in the market."
Q: Can you see the recording gear used in the electronic music studio being updated in the near future — possibly going digital now that the Sony pcm equipment is in an affordable price range?
A: "Yes, apart from the fact that for practicality's sake we have just purchased a Fostex 8-track because it's portable and can be used for the Fairlight. Apart from that kind of equipment, we do not plan to go to 16- or 24-track capability until we are totally prepared to go digital and build it up slowly."
Q: Some of the syllabus includes the need for students to perform individual and/or group compositions; where do these performances usually take place, and how much of the original equipment used in the studio can be transported and utilised on stage?
A: "Composers from the full-time music courses have in the past managed to do some sort of live work recently; people on the Adult Studies course have not done any live work. But in the future we hope to include the need for students to perform as part of the syllabus."
Q: What was the main deciding factor in acquiring the Fairlight?
A: "It was a strange situation... there was no way that the School of Adult & Community studies or the Music Department could afford to buy a Fairlight. But, during the summer vacation in 1982 a lump sum became available to the College which was specifically to be spent as a lump sum for a College resource. As most of the departments had gone home for the summer, there were very few suggestions as what to do with the money. The fact was that the sum available roughly coincided with the cost of a Fairlight, together with the fact that over the last year or so the people in charge of the money have been acting under the impression that anything digital is good — even if they have trouble understanding exactly what the equipment does! And so, the whole idea was looked upon favourably — and that's how it all happened, we got the Fairlight by pure chance!"
Q: The Fairlight can perform some very interesting functions that previously were executed by separate machines, such as rhythm composers and sequencers — now that the College has a Fairlight, will this prohibit spending large sums of money in the future?
A: "We always have to justify spending money, but since the Fairlight came out of a non Music Department or Adult Studies music budget, we will not be penalised in the future for having a Fairlight at our disposal." (Good news!)
Q: With the technology in the field of electronic music racing towards new grounds, such as FM synthesis, fully digital systems and now the ever popular MIDI equipped instruments, how do you see the electronic music course developing in terms of resources and educational methods?
A: "I don't think our educational methods have caught up with the equipment we have now, therefore I can't see any radical changes. In terms of new technology, I think maybe we've reached a plateau here in the Goldsmiths Studio. We've already suffered cutbacks in equipment budgets; we are in the strange situation where we have a Fairlight — and can't afford disks! We have an eight track — and can't afford tape... and so on! So, for the time being, I think the funds we have should be used to maintain the equipment and to find better facilities for it, and to come up with an educational programme which suits the equipment we have, rather than looking ahead to the next step."
Q: Finally, with a wide range of other instruments being taught at the College, will there ever be an attempt to amalgamate the two sides of music — conventional with electronic — in a performance presentation and/or educational course, which will obviously be of direct importance to many of the College's present and future students?
A: "It would be very nice! Our problem is that our course classes are spread out across the week and many people who already come to evening classes are hard pressed to find any more free time. However, it is something which would be good, and just a matter of overall planning. As yet, we haven't done it and I hope we will in the future..."
Q: It would be nice — especially with the Fairlight!
A: "Yes... especially with the Fairlight!"
Well, there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth. There are a few more details of the course below, and if they don't convince you that it might be worthwhile to return to part-time education, nothing will! Electronic Music evening courses are run by the School of Adult and Community Studies, who have a free prospectus available to anyone interested. For a copy, send an SAE to:
University of London