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Article from Home & Studio Recording, July 1986

Janet Angus reports on Dave Foister's varied activities at the Guildhall.

Dave Foister runs the audio/visual department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In addition to the teaching of matters technical to students of the jazz and rock course, his duties include recording concerts, plays, recitals, records and projects.

On his appointment, one of the first tasks facing Dave was the re-equipping of the studio control room. Performances which involve the A/V department might take place in any number of venues, including the music hall, variety, theatre, lecture/recital rooms, the studio and outside venues such as the Barbican Concert Hall.

The choice of equipment capable of coping with such a diversity as well as being able to handle sound projection (PA) for contemporary music involving electronics needed to be very carefully considered.

The studio itself tends not to be used for live recordings as much as the A/V workshop, unless multitracking is required. Here they have, amongst the banks of cassette recorders a Neve Kelso 10:2 mixer.

It's very basic, but you could drive a tank over it. The facilities are in general rudimentary, but it sounds very nice and we've had very little trouble with it. Monitoring is on Tannoy Ardens.

We also use a Sony F1 with a VHS machine because we had one already and couldn't afford to buy a Betamax as well. For what it's worth the reasoning behind buying the F1 was economy of space as much as quality. Obviously from our point of view it's nice to be able to record digitally, but most of our work ends upon audio cassette anyway. Economy-wise we can record a 3-hour concert for a fiver, whereas with analogue tape it would cost at least £30 and take up considerably more storage space.

Making the Most of...

The recording potential of a room in the bowels of the purpose-built school is limited. Nevertheless for an establishment of this kind the studio and equipment offer versatility and opportunities for performance students to analyse their playing, singing, or acting from a listener's point of view and to gain experience and understanding of a medium which they are almost certainly going to encounter in the course of their chosen careers.

The design specification for these facilities called for a typical BBC drama studio for radio drama. What we got was nothing like a typical BBC studio. For a start it should sound dead, and to build a control room twice as long as it is wide is a disaster that contradicts the basic rule of acoustics. In addition, there was no proper sound treatment whatsoever. When I came here, my predecessors had put up steel perforated panels filled with rockwool. I took them down and replaced them with Illsonic tiles; the only cheap solution was to deaden it and rely on artificial reverb.

We decided on 16-track because we wanted to install a facility that would be as close as possible to an ordinary commercial studio, and as far as I'm concerned, 4- or 8-track studios have a whole set of rules to themselves.

The role that recording plays in the one year full time postgraduate course in pop and rock music is an important one. Although the school doesn't have the time or manpower to actually run a studio engineering course the students do come in, push faders around and comment on the sound.

We aim to give them experience of working in a studio to enable them to understand more when they go out into the real world. 24-track would therefore have been ideal, being the industry norm for mid-priced studios, but we couldn't afford 24, so 16-track was the next best thing. The processes are very similar.

Fitting Out

After a lot of research, and much talking to mixing console manufacturers they finally decided on a Rebis 28:16 (a prototype version of the Omega). It has two full parametric systems on each channel, four stereo foldback sends, each of which has a submixer to mix the four main auxiliary sends for setting up submixes to foldback.

The monitoring section is very versatile. Each channel doubles as an extra Line In if needed. As far as subgrouping is concerned, each pair can be run back into the main stereo subgroup pair. The multitrack recorder is an MCI JH2416-track which is used with DBX noise reduction, which I think is good no matter what anybody else says. It has simultaneous encode/decode which is important. We have our Studer B67 with Dolby A and we've borrowed a Revox B77 from the Barbican. Monitoring is on Tannoy Little Reds powered by a Quad 303.

Outboard equipment, though limited, is carefully chosen.

We have an AKG BX15 reverb, and we did have an MXR01 here on trial but I didn't like it much. There's a Rebis rack with two noise gates, four compressors and a dual delay system. We'd like more but we can't afford it. If we're working on drums, we could do with more gates and for big band stuff, four compressors are not really enough either.

Lurking above the rack is an old Roland Studio Synth System.

It's a very versatile monosynth, especially where it comes to patching. You can plug anything into anything, and you can cross-modulate two filters with two independent VCFs and use them as sine wave sources to provide FM synthesis.

Sitting on the desk are two boxes not seen in other studios: one controls cue lights and the other the television camera for use with the CCTV, both of which Dave built.

Choosing microphones for the wide scope of applications resulted in a collection which includes the Tandy PZM, Neumann KM84, AKG 451, D12202, and a Calrec CM1D50.

It's a very nice bright condenser which you can use for almost anything, though it's not as bright as the Neumann and AKG mics. I use it for 'cello, bass guitar and things like that, but the difference is minimal). We also have Sennheiser 421 and U3, and a STC 4038 ribbon microphone used mostly for drum work because of its lovely warm sound.

The recording area consists of a 14ft x 25ft room with a Steinway grand piano and a pair of Tannoy 15" Reds in custom cabs for playback.

Learning the Trade

Dave's background is peculiarly appropriate for the job, touching as it does both on music, engineering and theatre. Being a graduate of Surrey University's Tonmeister course ideally suited him for this job which requires musical ability, a musical ear and reading and an understanding of many different kinds of music.

I spent a year at the National Theatre as a sound operator. I decided to do that because I had worked in theatres a lot, (including Drury Lane and The Palace), and I thought that it would be a good combination of what I had done and was training to do.

On graduation he first went to the Guildhall as assistant stage electrician and then, as the result of many misspent student hours in a recording studio with folk band Fiddlers Dram, their single 'Day Trip to Bangor' was suddenly a top ten hit. Not unreasonably Dave was swept up in this side of the business, as he had co-arranged, produced, played and sung on it. Asa result, he left the Guildhall and went on tour playing keyboards with the band. Thereafter he worked with a friend at a small folk studio producing folk albums and singles. Just as the money began to run out he got a phone call asking if he wanted to run the A/V department at the Guildhall.

A Day's Work

I think that it's because of my background that I get on really well with students and staff on their own terms. The musical background helps in the studio when arrangements are wrong and when I have to make up exam tapes. I'm just handed a lot of records and marked up scores and left to get on with it: not something a non-musician could do.

Having tasted success, what is the appeal of working at the Guildhall?

It's very different to working in a commercial studio. For a start you usually work from nine to five on weekdays only. If you do a concert it's always on overtime. You never have to work through the night, you are just not subjected to commercial pressures and you get more variety: pop, rock, jazz, contemporary avant garde, classical, early music, drama. You name it, we do it down here.

"Editing unaccompanied choral work is very difficult because they have no pitch reference, but an orchestra has a reference and they don't drift very far in pitch."

The other people involved include Dave's assistant Carl Sutton and visiting lecturer Mark Sutton (no relation) of the Sutton Sound mobile. Mark's role is to try to convey to the students the difference between playing in the studio and on stage. The work is not restricted to recording only though. Dave's teaching role includes teaching electronic music to postgraduate composition students and covering equipment and projects. He also provides PA and sound projection for contemporary music when required to do so.

Drama is surprisingly unadventurous. One would have thought that the drama people could make tremendous imaginative use of a recording facility, but it seems that most of the time the technicians are required only to set the studio up and then leave them to it. Once a year, however, a BBC drama director is drafted in to spend a week on a drama project.

We will stick up different room acoustics with screens, set up spot effects, make effects tapes and generally try to engineer the whole thing for them.

A number of recording projects will end up on vinyl either for general or limited release. Past efforts have included a double LP (partly recorded by Mike Sutton), for the Lord Mayor of London called 'The City Celebrates' and featuring Guildhall students past and present including Noel Coward, Myra Hess, Geraint Evans, James Galway and Peter Skellern. It also featured the biggest classical project Dave has done at the Guildhall: Vaughan Williams' 'Serenade for Full Orchestra' and 16 solo singers which was recorded live in concert (with another take after the audience had gone).

Orchestral Manoeuvres

Although I know it's done all the time, I have never quite understood how you can dip into the middle of a classical recording and edit between takes and still have the same pitch and tempo.

Editing unaccompanied choral work is very difficult because they have no pitch reference, but an orchestra has a reference and they don't drift very far in pitch. With the Vaughan Williams we actually cut between the two recordings a lot. We covered all our options on that one and used multitrack 16-track, analogue stereo and F1. We got HHB to transfer the digital recording to 1610 and spent a lovely evening in Abbey Road's editing suite.

We used a main crossed pair of U87s in a figure of eight quite close in to the stage because the acoustics of the hall are not particularly good and so we wanted to improve the direct to reverberant sound ratio. We had KM84s on each section of the strings (violins 1 and 2, violas, cellos and basses) and a KM84 crossed pair on the wind with a bit of space, positioned in amongst the back of the violas to avoid picking up only the section leaders. There was a crossed pair of AKG 451s on the percussion; four Calrec CM1D50s on the 16 singers (SATB) in front of the orchestra and a spot mic on the harp.

The harp isn't all that difficult to record. I have done a lot of harps because of my work with folk bands; the most peculiar was a Welsh triple harp. The best bet is just to point the mic at the soundboard (in this case a KM84). The only real problem is that it's a very quiet instrument and so you have to get in very close, but not so close that the balance between the strings becomes uneven. We also had one U87 behind the harp's horns because all the sound comes out of the back of the instrument.

But the audience don't hear the sound like that?

I believe that if you put onto tape exactly what a member of the audience normally hears, the listener wouldn't like it because the visual stimulus is missing. This applies to an orchestra in fairly subtle ways. If you made a very purist recording of an orchestra; ie. you did a straight take using the natural sound balance, the chances are that the brass would sound too loud and that the harp would be lost.

When you you attend a concert, you can hear the harp because you can see it and the brain compensates for the lack of level. Similarly, you expect brass to be loud so the brain compensates here too making it blend with the other instruments. It applies even more to jazz or folk where the normal listening environment is a club with an alcoholic atmosphere and patter from the performers. If you just recorded the music without the extra stimuli it would be very boring.

This is a problem I have had with a lot of folk musicians; they assume that they can come into the studio, do their set and that's all that's needed to make a record. In my view there's more to it than that. You have to do something to the recording to make up for the lack of visual stimulus. You have to add extra interest, tart up the arrangement and use a few production tricks.

An obvious case in point is rock music; a live album works because of the atmosphere it captures. Those same performances without the atmosphere would rarely stand up as a studio album. The atmosphere also affects the way people play. I had a similar problem with the Guildhall big band album we were putting together. I suggested we should record it in the concert hall where the acoustic is nice and there's plenty of room for everyone to play comfortably. The band however wanted to do it in the studio. The big band consists of the rhythm section: drums, bass guitar, piano/keyboards, five saxes doubling flute and clarinet, five trumpets, four trombones and guest soloists. Eighteen people in such a small space doesn't work too well.

Just try it

One of the most attractive things about working at the Guildhall is the opportunity to experiment on those occasions when there is enough time. For example, I've experimented with a dummy head recording technique a couple of times. I did 'Dreaming about Therese', a contemporary opera done in the round and musicians up in the gallery behind the audience. I hung an ORTF style dummy head (two back to back cardioid mics spaced as a pair of ears would be) over the middle of the stage and it worked very well for me; it was set up for my ears!

I also tried that technique on a contemporary piece by David Bedford called 'Star Clusters'. I used a similar arrangement but his time set up in the middle of the audience. Why in the middle? Because dummy head recordings are supposed to reproduce what a member of the audience would hear. Having heard the piece, it struck me that this was a good position, again to my ears at least. My head must be a funny shape.

As technology plays an increasingly important role in life in general and the arts in particular, facilities such as those at the Guildhall are likely to become more common, the scope and variety of work offering a realistic and appealing alternative to the harassed recording engineer working in the commercial field.

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Publisher: Home & Studio Recording - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Home & Studio Recording - Jul 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman



Feature by Janet Angus

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