Media Production Services
Want to be a recording engineer? Terry Holton provides an insight into the audio and video production training courses offered by London-based Media Production Services.
It is becoming more widely accepted within the recording industry that the traditional method of training aspiring engineers by allowing them to look over the shoulders of working professionals (in-between running errands and making cups of tea) is no longer adequate. With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, a more formal grounding in the fundamentals of audio, as well as an understanding of the latest developments in digital recording, MIDI, console automation systems, etc would seem to be essential for anyone hoping to build a career in this industry.
The training department of Media Production Services (MPS) has been offering courses in both audio and video production since 1984. The curriculum has been continually upgraded and for the past couple of years MPS has concentrated on full-time one-year courses designed to prepare students for a career in the audio or video industries. Specialised courses in Computer Graphics, Pop Music Video Production, TV Journalism, and several others, have also been added to the prospectus during the past few years. Having audio and video facilities under the same roof offers the possibility for a great deal of interaction between students from different disciplines. Video students certainly need to understand the basics of audio, as silent television has never really been very popular, and most audio students realise the important impact video has had on the recording industry, especially since the arrival of MTV.
Media Production Services' programme of audio training tuition ranges from a one-week introductory course to a one-year comprehensive programme combining lectures with practical sessions. Also on offer are six-week and six-month part-time courses for students who are not quite willing or perhaps able to devote themselves to full-time training. Most people who participate in the short courses seem to be testing the waters, trying to determine whether they have a real aptitude and strong enough interest in recording to make a full commitment. Once they have had a taste of what is possible in a modern recording studio, the majority of them do enroll on longer courses.
The cornerstone of Media Production Services' audio training programme is the one-year, fulltime Advanced Sound Recording and Production Techniques course. This is modular in design and consists of three 12-week terms comprising Analogue Sound Recording, Digital Sound Recording, and Creative Music Production. As the popularity of this course has increased, Media has been able to raise their standards as well as their admission requirements.
According to Paul Halpin, director of audio training: "We're looking for some sort of musical education, or background either as a musician or as an engineer. We would also like them to have some previous recording experience, even if it's only on a 4-track. If an applicant doesn't have very much relevant experience, then we look at their educational qualifications. In that case we would be quite strict about a minimum of two 'O' levels, preferably in Mathematics, Physics, or Music. If a person has very limited experience we would normally require that he take a short course first, in order to prepare himself."
While not everyone who attends Media's audio training courses ultimately seeks work as a recording engineer, it is important for them to understand that success in this profession often goes far beyond knowing which buttons to press or which knobs to turn. Communication skills, and the ability to create a positive working environment in which musicians feel comfortable, are traits any successful recording engineer should possess. As the final stage in the admission process, each applicant is interviewed and references are checked in an attempt to determine whether the person has the right attitude and personality for such an intensive programme.
Although initially reluctant to support students in a field of study considered somewhat out of the mainstream, several Local Education Authorities have recently begun to award grants covering tuition, and sometimes living expenses, for the one-year courses. But it should be pointed out that it usually takes quite a bit of perseverance to convince the LEA that the study of music recording really is a serious and worthwhile pursuit. Some foreign countries (particularly Scandinavian ones) seem a bit more open-minded about the whole subject and are quite often very supportive financially. A large proportion of the students at Media Production Services come from abroad, because training of this calibre simply does not exist in their own countries.
Media insists on maintaining high academic standards, and during the one-year course no student is promoted to the next module unless he/she has made satisfactory progress. Alongside continual practical assessment, two examinations are conducted every term in order to monitor each student's progress and to detect and clarify any specific problems. Anyone contemplating enrolling in one of Media's courses should be warned that the academic workload is considerable. But, of course, all the theory in the world is virtually useless if the students do not have the opportunity to apply what they have learned in a practical environment. Hands-on experience and the chance to experiment with state of the art equipment are perhaps the most appealing aspects of Media's training programmes.
Media Production Services' aim is to provide its students with the best equipped training facilities in the country. In order to achieve this goal the 24-track recording studio and MIDI programming suite are constantly being upgraded. Last year saw a new Otari MX80 multitrack and an Otari MX55T mastering machine installed in the studio, while both facilities added Akai S1000 stereo samplers along with several new pieces of outboard gear.
This year MPS intend to upgrade the Akai samplers to the maximum eight Megabytes of internal memory as well as adding a removable hard disk system. These improvements will considerably extend the potential of the S1000s by providing over 47 seconds of stereo, full-bandwidth, digital sampling with editing capability. Even with the standard two Megabytes of RAM, the samplers have proved very useful for 'spinning-in' things like backing vocals and, of course, for creating multi-sampled instruments. With the full memory expansion, the possible post-production applications take on a whole new dimension.
Because of the multi-faceted nature of Media's operation, many of the purchasing decisions are made with video compatibility in mind. The latest choices for audio mastering, for example, are the Fostex D20 DAT recorder and the Otari ¼" machine, both with timecode capability for synchronisation purposes. One of the advantages of training with a very active production company is that students occasionally have the opportunity to participate in some interesting projects. Students on the recently concluded course recorded and mixed the soundtrack for the Rose Theatre Appeal video production. The programme featured several big name personalities, such as Dustin Hoffman and James Fox, and was distributed throughout the world. Certainly a nice credit to have on one's CV.
"Hands-on experience and the chance to experiment with state of the art equipment are perhaps the most appealing aspects of Media's training programmes."
Many of the annual changes in equipment involve replacing even slightly out of date items with the latest products available. For instance, this year sees the departure of the Yamaha SPX90 and the arrival of the SPX1000; out with the Yamaha RX5 and in with the Roland R8; no more Aphex Aural Exciter Type C, now it's the Aphex Type III.
But in a much more significant move, the studio's Soundcraft TS24 console is being replaced with a fully automated Amek Mozart. The Soundcraft desk has served Media well, and as a very straightforward in-line console it can be coped with by students in a relatively short period of time, while still offering quite a bit of flexibility to the experienced user. But the all-input design of the new Mozart will be ideal for training purposes, because the desk can effectively be arranged in either a split or an in-line configuration; or even as a combination of the two.
Amek has been very responsive to suggestions from Media's engineering department regarding certain aspects of the automation system. In a few areas, large console automation systems can lack some of the editing versatility found in lower priced MIDI-based systems, such as the combination of three Yamaha DMP7s with the C-Lab Creator sequencing software used in Media's programming suite. The Amek Mozart desk, with software designed by Steinberg, will hopefully provide some of the best of both worlds.
Although Media Production Services is justifiably proud of the high standards it maintains in its in-house facilities, it is impossible for any one company to own every piece of equipment that trainees might benefit from using. This is one area where support and co-operation from many of the leading manufacturers, recording studios, broadcasters, etc has played such a vital role in the development and success of Media's courses. Paul Halpin explains: "Sony and Ampex have been particularly supportive over the years, and since we've begun offering one-year courses we've had a collaboration with Mitsubishi, who loan us digital multitracks and mastering machines twice a year." During a typical one-year programme as many as 40 different companies may participate, including such impressive names as New England Digital, Dolby, and Neve. Obviously, many elements within the pro-audio and video industries recognise the importance of training.
In the early stages of the one-year programme, students receive a fairly equal balance of practical sessions and theoretical lectures. Certain basic concepts need to be understood from the outset, while at the same time the real satisfaction comes from applying this newfound knowledge in a well-equipped recording studio. So while the students are coming to grips with such essential topics as decibels, timecode, and phantom power in the lecture room, they also have the opportunity to put this information to use in practical situations. Of course, it is necessary to divide the students into groups according to their previous experience for the initial studio sessions, so that everyone is allowed to progress at an appropriate pace.
About midway through the first term, students begin working in small groups on musical projects. Musicians, often some quite good ones, are rarely in short supply on these courses, but players from outside can be brought in to fill any gaps. The use of sequencers is kept to a minimum during this first term so that students can concentrate on the fundamental skills of a recording engineer. The ability to work through a track with a musician, punching in and out where necessary, can only be developed by actually doing it under the conditions of a real recording session.
By the end of this term, students will have recorded and mixed at least two pieces of music and should have gained the ability and confidence to engineer a session in a 24-track recording studio. They won't quite be ready to take over at Air Studios, but they will hopefully have a good understanding of the process involved in producing a multitrack recording.
Although this first module is referred to as the Analogue course, it is inevitable that many elements of digital audio technology will play an integral role in any modern recording studio. The basic theory behind digital recording is covered in a three-lecture series near the end of this term. These lectures, along with a couple of very popular seminars on recording console design, are presented by Richard Salter of Focusrite. Salter was an early member of the design team that developed the Solid State Logic mixing consoles and is well respected in the field of digital audio as a result of the work he has done with Sony Pro-Audio.
"While the students are coming to grips with such essential topics as decibels, timecode, and phantom power in the lecture room, they also have the opportunity to put this information to use in practical situations."
Managing director Raphael Panko is keen to point out that all of the lectures presented during Media's courses are delivered by professionals, actively involved in the audio and video industries. As well as assuring that the courses remain up to date with technological developments, these lecturers are also able to provide insights into the realities of the business. "One of our aims is to prepare people for the real world, with all the difficulties and obstacles that they are bound to face. The students also have the chance to meet people who have achieved success, and find out how this was accomplished."
Digital Audio is the topic that dominates the second module of Media's one-year programme. An in-depth series of 12 lectures covers everything from basic sampling theory to advanced digital signal processing techniques. These lectures are presented by Richard Salter in collaboration with John Watkinson (author of the definitive textbook, The Art Of Digital Audio).
Most of the practical work during this term is carried out in Media's MIDI programming suite, based around an Atari Mega ST computer in conjunction with three Yamaha DMP7 digital mixing consoles. Various sequencing and editing software is used along with a wide range of synthesizers, samplers and drum machines to create a powerful pre-production facility. In fact, many instrumental pieces (particularly for video soundtracks) can be produced to a very high standard entirely in this room. Although not strictly a part of the curriculum, at this stage in the course students are usually allowed access to the recording studio during off-peak times, in order to gain more hands-on experience.
The third term of the one-year course is hopefully where everything the students have been taught comes together and is applied in a practical way. During this Creative Music Production term, students work on a variety of projects with bands from outside the programme. A genuine attempt is made to simulate a professional studio environment, with an emphasis on the intangible elements that contribute to a successful session. Engineering for musicians from the outside world can be quite a different and valuable experience for students who may have only worked with their friends in the past. This also gives the students a chance to put together a potentially impressive portfolio of recordings.
In order to communicate properly with musicians, as well as to work with sequencers and drum machines, at least a basic knowledge of music theory and notation is essential. These fundamentals are introduced throughout the year, and an in-depth look at composition and the development of different musical styles takes place during the third term.
As part of Media Production Services' broader approach to audio training, a very popular aspect of the final term is a series of practical sessions involving radio, TV and film sound operations. These sessions are held at some of the top production facilities in Britain, and students soon realise that there are many interesting jobs in the audio industry besides simply working in a pop music recording studio. In fact, some of Media's graduates are now involved in quite diverse areas of the audio profession. Former students can be found working for companies like Finesplice (digital editing of classical music) and for mixer manufacturers such as DDA and Focusrite, while a number of others have been employed by concert and theatre sound companies. Quite a few ex-students continue to pursue careers as composers and recording musicians, but with a much better grasp of the technical as well as the creative side of music production.
For many of the people who attend Media Production Services' audio training courses, the dream-come-true would be to work in a top-notch, multitrack recording studio. Some studios have traditionally been reluctant to hire graduates of training courses for a variety of reasons. Some have unfortunately had the bad experience of hiring a course graduate who seems to think he knows it all and has nothing left to learn. This is simply not true. A training course is only the beginning of the long process involved in the development of a studio engineer.
Paul Halpin (a former studio manager himself) realises that even a comprehensive training programme like the one Media Production Services offers can usually only help people to get in the door for that all-important first job. "A student leaving our course feels he has the knowledge, although not necessarily the experience. There's obviously a difference between the two. We wouldn't expect studio owners to pay full engineer's wages immediately to our graduates, but we would hope that they would at least give them a chance. There have been a number of studios and other companies that have approached us to send over a few of our best students to interview for a possible job. They always want the best students, of course. It's well known that most jobs in the recording industry are made available by word of mouth and not by advertising, so any contacts a person has can be very valuable."
Recent Media graduates have found employment with Jacob's, Mayfair, Terminal 24, PRT and several other top recording studios in Britain and abroad. Although there is no easy way to break into recording studio engineering, more and more studios seem to be recognising the advantages of hiring people who have been properly educated and trained for a career in this highly competitive business.
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