Hi-tech at Salford
Interested in hi-tech higher education? Chris Kempster reports on the MIDI studios and recording courses available to students at Salford College Of Technology.
Interested in hi-tech higher education? Chris Kempster reports on the MIDI studios and courses available to students at Salford College Of Technology.
Salford College Of Technology is perhaps best known for its HND in Music Recording, but of much greater interest to SOS readers are the electro-acoustic/MIDI studios that are located within its walls. These are of great importance to two of the music courses at Salford - the BA in Band Musicianship and the Higher Diploma in Popular Music with Recording. In this article I will describe the studios and how they are used and, being a student on the degree course myself, give a critical evaluation of these two courses.
In addition to the College's 8- and 16-track recording studios, there are two MIDI studios - the main room and 'workshop' next door. They were established in 1985 and their contents have inevitably grown since then. On the recording side, the main room houses a TAC Scorpion 16-8-2 mixing desk and Tascam 48, Sony PCM501 and Revox B77 recorders, while the workshop is equipped with a Soundcraft 200B desk, Teac A3440, and another B77. Whilst most mastering is digital, the Revox is still used extensively, being a superb device with which to manipulate sounds. For electro-acoustic type pieces, tape loops and backwards tape effects are often used, and by using the Revox's dual-speed facility, bouncing onto PCM and back again, several octaves of pitch can be obtained. Using tape in this manner is important in creating new soundfields, and is also ideal for making original samples - which brings us on to the sampling facilities...
The main room houses a PPG Waveterm and Wave 2.3, while an Akai S900 resides next door. The PPG is a peculiar beast, superb in some ways but very temperamental. It has some excellent features, like being able to set the amplitude envelopes of sounds on a split keyboard merely by pressing the relevant key and tweaking the ADSR knobs on the front panel, or its ability to combine several synthesized and sampled sounds (a precursor to Roland's LA synthesis and the Korg DSS1). But user-friendliness is not the phrase that comes to mind when it displays its 'Fatal Error' message! By contrast, the S900 is quick and easy to use, but although the synth rooms are linked by tie-lines and MIDI cables, it is impractical to use the Akai when working in the main room since it means occupying both rooms. Such a pity.
Sequencers are the heart of any MIDI system, and those used at Salford are mainly software-based. Each room has an Atari 1O40ST, one running the Steinberg Pro-24 and the other the Hybrid Arts SyncTrack, as well as a Roland MSQ700 dedicated sequencer. The workshop is never as busy as the main room, so it would be useful to use it for pre-production work - programming sequences on the Pro-24, for example. However, having two different sequencers prevents this, since work cannot be transferred from room to room. This would not be a problem if the software was not copy-protected. As it is, a second Pro-24 will probably have to be purchased in the near future.
The Pro-24 is comprehensive and easy to work with, but far from perfect. The lack of MIDI Time Code is a surprising omission. We have tried using the MSQ700 to generate and read timecode from tape, but this has proved unreliable when synced to the Steinberg. The ability to visually edit program changes would be useful, not so much for actual instruments but for effects processors which can be utilised to greater advantage in this way - especially if you only have one.
The Ataris are also used to run the Steinberg Synthworks DX/TX Editor/Librarian program. This kind of program is invaluable in a studio where all new synths have their factory presets ceremoniously wiped, a ploy designed to encourage students to programme sounds themselves [a wonderful idea - Ed.]. This has resulted in some excellent programmers, most notably second-year Graduate Diploma student Brian Roberts. Among his many DX7 and D50 patches is the best string sound I have ever heard, and several rivals to 'Digital Native Dance'. Having heard the mediocre quality of many independently-sold voice ROMs, we have decided to make his voices available to owners of these synths (details at the end).
Of course, the best sequencer in the world is useless without decent sound sources to drive, and until recently the main studio room has been slightly lacking in this area, with only a DX7, Juno 106 and the PPG. But with the arrival of a Yamaha TX802, things have greatly improved. This multitimbral FM box is excellent for sequencing, having eight parts and 16 voices. The biggest plus, though, is the time saved in setting up before each session. If, for example, we had eight monotimbral keyboards instead of the TX802, every time a student came in to work they would have to set the MIDI channel, mode, volume and patch number on all eight synths before they could start. With the TX802, all this information is stored in a 'performance memory', which in turn can be saved to disk along with your Pro-24 sequences. Simply load one disk and you're away!
For processing sounds, each studio has a Yamaha SPX90, with an additional REV7 reverb, Drawmer gate and graphic equaliser in the main room. The SPX90s are (not surprisingly) the most used devices, and in comparison the REV7 is very noisy and far less flexible. Monitoring is on Quad-powered JBLs in the main room and Tannoy Little Reds in the workshop. Future purchases for the studios include a master keyboard (probably the Cheetah MK7VA), possibly a Yamaha WX7 wind controller, and (if we are really lucky) a Fairlight Series III. Now let's take a look at those courses most involved with the studios...
The BA in Band Musicianship is a new course at Salford, having only started last September. Because it has developed from the old Graduate Diploma course, it is different to most university degrees. As well as having lessons in the traditional subjects of music composition, history, conducting, scoring and arranging, every student is taught how to use the MIDI studio, either as a 'Synth specialist' or 'Non-specialist'. Unlike almost any other degree, students can specialise from year one and by the last year (since you could choose synths and composition as your main subjects) you may be doing nothing else!
Synth specialists have five hours tuition a week from Head of Synth Studies, Jonty Stockdale, and about three hours studio time for individual projects. Both students and staff feel that this is not enough time in which to produce credible work and we are (successfully) trying to persuade the 'top brass' to open the studios at weekends. Tuition begins in September with a bombardment of varied and often obscure studio-produced music, from Stockhausen and Music Concrete to Miles Davis. After this disorientating introduction you really get down to business, and after a few days you will have covered mixer architecture and the use of tape machines. This is followed by sequencers, sampling, FM synthesis and signal processing, so that by the end of the second term students should be competent in all these basic areas.
At the end of the year, Synth specialists are required to submit about ten minutes of recorded music for assessment, although most produce much more than this. The music itself varies drastically in style-from pop, New Age and electro-acoustic, to that which is uncategorisable - and is entirely the choice of the individual.
In addition to synthesis, BA students can also take the 'Recording Techniques' option, which is available in the first two years. This involves one lesson a week in the College's 8- or 16-track recording studios, and about three hours of free studio time. There are, of course, areas of overlap with synth lessons but the approach is entirely different, with greater emphasis on microphones and acoustics.
Recording studios play a large part in the Higher Diploma in Popular Music with Recording (PMR), which is a two-year course. This is geared towards the recording musician and as well as spending substantial time in the studios, PMR students receive the same synth tuition as on the BA course. The remainder of the timetable is filled by classes in arranging, composition, history and improvisation. The type of music produced by students on the two courses mentioned are not mutually exclusive, that is, pop students do not only write pop tunes, and the BA students do not write only 'serious' music. In fact, PMR students seem to be more experimental than their BA and GDBM (Graduate Diploma) counterparts, some of whom produce nothing but pop tunes.
So what do I think of it? Well, for composers and MIDI lovers it's excellent. Of my timetabled lessons, I spend more time doing synthesis and composition than everything else put together, and that's not including free studio time! The fact is, the MIDI studio is the ultimate tool for the composer. It provides him/her with huge sonic resources and the invaluable ability to hear the music before it is finished. What do I do if I can't get people to play my latest composition on their 'real' instruments? I nip into a synth studio, sequence the parts, and 20 minutes later have a finished product, complete with faultless timing and intonation, and a concert hall ambience instead of a lecture room echo.
The main attraction of the course, though, is that from the moment you start, synthesis and recording can be your main study subject. So if you are interested in hi-tech higher education, and can put up with noisy brass bands, Salford might be the place for you.
Contact Admissions Tutor, Salford College of Technology, (Contact Details).
Details of DX7/D50 patches from: Splatch-Patches, (Contact Details).