Newcastle CAT School of Music
A personal view of the School of Music at the Newcastle College of Arts and Technology, by one of its students, Paul Evans.
A personal overview of one of Britain's more unusual and forward-looking music schools, from the pen of one of its students.
The School of Music and Performing Arts which forms part of the Newcastle College of Arts and Technology is the only specialised music school of its type in the North East of England, and indeed, it's one of only a very few in the country. It offers some unique courses and opportunities for young musicians, and aims specifically to prepare its students for careers in all branches of the music and entertainment industries.
Established in 1964 with a mere 24 students, the School quickly made its reputation, and as a result of its rapid growth in popularity, moved into its current purpose-built premises in 1974. The three-storey buildings house lecturing and teaching rooms and instrumental teaching rooms for individual and group tuition, including two piano keyboard laboratories, a drum studio and a tuned percussion garage. There are rehearsal rooms for the many groups, bands and orchestral ensembles based in the College as well as a suite of 19 student practice rooms, an electronic music studio and a fully-equipped concert hall.
The School is well supplied with musical instruments. Almost anything is available, from early medieval instruments, orchestral brass, strings, woodwind and tuned percussion to modern jazz and rock instruments and state-of-the-art computer music systems, synthesisers and drum computers. The College also has its own video studio (which is utilised within the music and performing arts courses) and the facilities of the New Tyne Theatre are available for stage musical productions.
The department continues to grow in popularity, attracting students of all ages from all over the country and presently operating near its full capacity of over 250 full- and part-time students. Further expansion is now in progress, and the School has recently acquired the floor of another building to accommodate further growth.
Electronic music comprises only one part of the wide range of studies taught at the School of Music, but because of the flexibility of the course structure, any student may take an active interest in electronic music if he or she wishes. You might be interested to learn of the range of courses on offer: some are geared specifically to the needs of the rock, pop and jazz musicians and composers who make up a large portion of E&MM's readership, while others adopt a more traditional outlook.
In addition to the usual GCEs and the popular Performing Arts Foundation course in drama, singing and dance, courses are offered in three general areas of musical study: traditional 'Classical' music courses; early and medieval music; and light and popular music. And these can be studied at two levels - the initial two-year Foundation Courses and the advanced three-year Professional Diploma Courses. I'll concentrate on the light music courses, since I can't imagine too many of you are actively engaged in the study of medieval composers.
Only a handful of colleges in Britain offer the Light Music Foundation Course. It's specifically designed to meet the needs of young musicians in the rock, pop and jazz fields. To stand a chance of joining the course, you should be technically capable on your chosen instrument, which may be keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, voice or anything else, but you need not necessarily have had any previous formal training. The main requirement is that you should be talented and prepared to work hard to develop that talent. On the Foundation Course, gaps in your musical education are filled by practical and theory classes, and instrumental proficiency is further developed. The aim is that by the end of the course, you'll have a good general musical education and be adept at playing (and reading for) your chosen instrument.
On completion of the Foundation Course, you can either leave to pursue your ambitions as bait for the sharks of showbiz, or progress to the Professional Diploma Course, where nobody is likely to bite your head off unless you're dumb enough not to work hard.
The Diploma Course is an intensive one, however, on which you should become proficient on two or more instruments and study music theory, history, analysis, harmony, arrangement and orchestration to fairly advanced levels. In addition to all this, you can study a choice of many specialised options, the list of which is (almost) endless and includes popular music techniques, improvisation and electronic music. You'll also find yourself playing in the College's Big Band, not to mention smaller bands, medium-sized bands, choirs, theatre orchestras, Newcastle Jazz Festivals, Edinburgh Fringe festivals, lunchtime concerts, concerts on Metro Radio, concerts not on Metro Radio, soundtracking sessions for communications students in the video studio, and generally gaining experience of performing in every conceivable situation you're likely to find yourself once you've left the confines of the School.
Students who make the most of the opportunities presented by the Diploma Course can become versatile, experienced, professionally-minded musicians, with an advanced general music education as well as a great proficiency in their chosen specialisations by the time they complete the course. So these are the aims of the Music School and, by and large, they are admirably met.
As a student there, I'd say the best thing about the School is that all the necessary facilities and tuition are already provided: it's up to the students to make the most of them. You're encouraged and assisted to develop freely and choose your own directions and specialities and the courses are comprehensive and flexible enough to accommodate the diversity of interests that results from this freedom.
Speaking of specialisations, it's time to return to E&MM's own.
The College's electronic music facility began in a small way nine years ago, with the ubiquitous EMS Synthi 100, a Revox A77 tape recorder and a pair of Altec monitor speakers. Despite the apparent simplicity of this set-up, it was used enthusiastically by all those involved, and live performances were given of students' material and of compositions by Kevin Stephens, the senior lecturer in charge of the electronics facility.
As synthesiser technology advanced, better instruments became available, and the School of Music augmented its instrumentation by buying one of the first programmable polyphonic synthesisers - a Roland Jupiter 4 - in 1978. The emphasis has, until very recently, been laid firmly on live performance and this led to the purchase of a high-quality Carlsbro PA system with which the JP4 was frequently used in concerts given by diploma students.
Kevin Stephens and the School's Director, James Joseph, have pursued a policy of obtaining the best instruments available, assuming that this is financially possible. When it became clear that computers were going to play an increasingly important role in modern music (around 1981), they ordered an Apple IIe computer music system, which has been used as a compositional, arranging and transcribing tool for works as complex as the 1812 Overture. The recording facilities were simultaneously expanded by the arrival of a second Revox, a Soundcraft 16:4:2 mixing desk, a Sharp amplification/monitoring system, numerous pairs of headphones, a Roland RE501 chorus-echo-reverb unit and a cassette duplicator.
Paradoxically though, electronic music was of secondary interest to most CAT School students until the dramatic emergence of electronics as a major force in modern music resulted in the department beginning to attract a new breed of student wishing to specialise in this field. In order to meet the growing demand, Joseph obtained the department's proudest possessions: in 1984 a Rhodes Chroma computer-synth and the latest updated version of the E-mu Drumulator digital percussion computer. A Rhodes Triad interfacing unit, together with concurrent hardware and software expansions to the Apple, have completed a state-of-the-art computer music system of which students are currently taking full advantage. Other new arrivals are a range of signal processors and effects that include a compressor, flanger, gate, chorus, octaver, EC distortion and overdrive pedals, and a selection of dynamic mics and C-ducer contact mics for acoustic instruments.
The department has a strong community spirit, and co-operation between the students has resulted in the semi-permanent residence of a Korg modular synth system, a Roland CR78 Compu-Rhythm, Yamaha DX7, Moog Source, various delays and effects and several multitrack cassette machines in the Electronic Music Studio. And cassette mastering machines, in addition to the Revoxes, are provided by the College's Educational Technology Resources Centre. The facility also enjoys a good relationship with local dealers Rock City Music, who supply and service all the equipment. In return, students have occasionally provided studio demonstrations of the Chroma and Drumulator for the store's customers.
As part of the School of Music's continuing growth, and as a reflection of its serious commitment to electronic music, James Joseph recently allocated the funds to provide the Electronic Music Studio with a fully-equipped multitrack recording facility. After consultation with Kevin Stephens and, ahem, the author, it was decided to install a comprehensive, high-quality, eight-track with an open-ended, expandable system design. The system (which will have been installed by the time you read this) consists of a Tascam 38 with full transport remote control, punch in/punch out footswitches and two Tascam DX4D noise reduction units, while a new AHB System 8 model 168 mixing console will be used in conjunction with the Soundcraft (plugged into the 168's expander inputs) to give a 32:8:4:2 mixer. The AHB's ability to use the group outputs in mixing will allow a maximum of 40 line inputs, and this should make the most of the individual voice outputs on the Chroma, Drumulator, JP4 and other instruments.
From now on, monitoring will be via a pair of Tannoy Little Red Monitors powered by Quad 405-2 amplifiers, with the Sharp system acting as a domestic reference. The high quality delays available from the RE501 obviate any need for a DDL as yet, but future outboard additions will probably include a compressor/limiter (to control high-transient signals such as vocals and bass guitar), and a couple of high-quality AKG condenser mics and Sennheiser headphones. Finally, the department hasn't forgotten those little essentials that make all the difference to a studio - mains hum suppressors, VDRs to protect the electronics from voltage surges, miles of spaghetti to connect everything together, and (surprise, surprise!) plenty of tape for the multitrack and for mastering onto the Revoxes.
Plans for the future include adaptation of all equipment to the MIDI standard and software for the Apple (and a new BBC micro) to control everything via that standard, so long as nobody's watching Star Trek on the colour monitor, of course.
Security is tight at the College, so the studio facilities are only available when the department's technician, Raymond Hislop, is there, unless you make special arrangements with the powers-that-be. However, the studio is in use nearly all day, every day, for a variety of different purposes. A great deal of time is spent generally investigating and practising with the Chroma/Apple/Drumulator system in conjunction with the Korgs and JP4.
Other, more concrete uses of the studio include the following.
Diploma students Gordon Hall, Bill Robinson and John Simpson are currently in the studio arranging and recording various pieces for their course projects. Other students create 'vocal' sounds on the Chroma and use them to perfect their choral and harmony arrangements, while various jazz groups rehearse with it.
As the first students to specialise in electronics and studio techniques at the School, the main users of the facility are the author, Peter Riani and Stephen Scorer. We're currently writing and demoing an album of pastoral English pop music for a five-piece studio band, Absent Friends, for release after this year. And we're also rehearsing a small electronic-acoustic orchestra for a performance of 'Tubular Bells', specially arranged by Steve Scorer, to be staged in the College's concert hall at a future date.