Local community arts centres often house some sort of sound studio, and these can be the only way interested members of the public gain first-hand experience of recording and hi-tech equipment. David Hughes reports on one such North-East based facility.
Projects UK is situated in the heart of Newcastle city centre although, to most of the residents of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne who pass by the rather austere front gates, it remains largely anonymous, tucked discretely away behind another recent arrival, the Newcastle Arts Centre.
In a nutshell, the concept behind Projects UK is to promote new and innovative work in the contemporary arts and media, and its main areas of activity are performance, photography, sound, and vision. Projects also commissions new work at both national and international levels and organises one-off public performances and events, often in unusual locations. Projects UK is publicly funded by Northern Arts and Newcastle City Council.
Although Projects UK came into being relatively recently, its origins can be traced back to 1975 when six Newcastle-based artists decided to set up and run their own venue as a simple non-profit-making venture. All of the artists concerned were involved with making and showing their own work either individually or collectively. In 1979, two of the members of the Basement Group - as they were known - decided to break away and set up a facility to promote electronic music in the region, and this became Spectra Arts Workshop.
Spectra became the focus for several local composers such as Ron Berry and Ian Boddy [interview: SOS December 1989], both of whom took advantage of the excellent audio facilities available within the organisation to record several of their early albums. Spectra also operated as the centre for an annual festival of electronic music.
In 1984 Spectro was re-christened Newcastle Media Workshops, although shortly after this change the studios were temporarily closed and the original building demolished to make way for a car park. NMW existed solely as an office for the next three years. However, in 1988, Projects UK was formed and the company subsequently moved to its present location. The centre was formally opened by Prince Charles in November 1988.
Of the original Basement Group, only John Bewley remains in the capacity of Projects Organiser.
I spoke to Projects UK director Caroline Taylor about the aims and ambitions of the company as a whole. Later, I talked to Mal Eltringham, a freelance sound engineer currently attached to Projects UK who has had a long association with the company, about the technical aspects of the sound studios and about some of the artists who have taken advantage of the facilities.
Caroline: "We moved into these premises about two years ago. Prior to that we existed almost solely as office space. The centre is basically geared to education, training, and recording. Like most recording studios we assist in the production of demo tapes and album projects, but we also extend our range of activities to offer a whole set of training options, so that anyone can learn and gain experience of the many aspects of the audio industry - from the basics of setting up a PA and live mixdowns to the very latest computer and sampling technology. Our whole approach to the arts isn't really geared to commercial output. We work towards increased creativity and also experimentation for its own sake, in a sense. We also hope to create the right ambience and environment so that composers working in very diverse fields can meet and form new alliances, which leads to a fusion of ideas."
Although there is a considerable pool of talent in the North-East of England, local artists still seem to have trouble grabbing attention. Does Projects UK attempt to remedy this situation at all?
Caroline: "One of the problems for local artists is that the North-East has no major record distributor or label, so we try to assist in the process of getting ideas into a useful form. However, because we are not a major company, we still find it difficult to command much in the way of good service from companies based in the south of England. So we do support albums but this is only at the manufacturing level - we don't get involved at the marketing level."
There always seems to be something going on at Projects UK. What kind of activities have you been involved with recently?
Caroline: "We've been very busy so far this year. We've done several training sessions involving intensive programs of work, and these have been largely sponsored by the European Social Fund. This year we have had four fulltime and around 40 to 50 part-time trainees paid for by the European Social Fund. The training isn't completely geared towards the technology of the music business. We also deal with other aspects - such as how to make an album, contracts, changes in the copyright law, etc. We also encourage debates that deal with topics such as musical form so that, say, rock and jazz musicians can exchange ideas.
"Although we have a very solid provincial base, we do also work in other areas such as Glasgow or London, as well as at an international level. We've organised international exchanges. We had a Canadian artist here for about three months, and we are intent on sending someone from this country over there for a similar period of time.
"We've been involved with local venues such as Newcastle's Riverside complex, as well as national events such as the New Audio Works festival, which took place in November and looked at a range of electro-acoustic works. In a similar way, we also became involved in more formal musical education, through a local composer - John Kefala Kerr - and the Performing Rights Society. This was also assisted by four of the Local Education Authorities: Sunderland, Northumberland, Newcastle, and Tyne and Wear. Consequently, children as young as 12 and 13 can experiment with making sounds using the new technology, and also gain an introduction to the studio. Although John mainly deals with sixth form colleges at GCSE level, he also works in special schools which may involve people with, say, mental or physical disabilities. We're hoping to continue this scheme next year and we'll involve the whole of the North-East and Cumbrian region, where we are also supporting liaisons between local composers and instrument makers."
Can you elaborate on that?
Mal: "As Caroline mentioned, we're currently involved in a project to develop new forms of musical instruments from existing designs. One such instrument is a combination of the guitar and the drum. It's played as a percussion instrument using various types of beaters, although it uses a chromatic scale of open-tuned guitars arranged in a semi-circular rack to generate the sound. We could have used the technology already to hand within Projects UK to sample a real guitar and 'play' the instrument from something like a Roland Octapad, but that isn't the point. The real point of the exercise is to produce a new type of instrument."
How far advanced are the designs?
Mal: "At the moment, the design exists solely on paper and the specifications are still open to change. The idea behind the project is to work towards composition with a view to developing new instruments from the experience. The next step is to construct a model of the finished article, which will hopefully involve learning a whole new range of skills."
Judging by the great variety of clients who use the facilities, the Projects UK studios have to be very flexible in their approach to recording. Perhaps more so than most?
Mal: "We've worked with a huge variety of bands in the past few years. We've sponsored the recording of a series of improvised performances with groups such as the Lapis String Quartet, and also with jazz fusion bands such as Fosil. This is quite different from commercial studio policy. We can deal with a whole breadth of musical forms which other studios would not perhaps regard as commercially viable or as part of their 'musical profile'.
"The studios are well equipped and very flexible in terms of what we can accomplish. The equipment we have to hand has basically evolved from the 8-track equipment which was available at Spectro Arts Workshop. When the organisation became Newcastle Media Workshops, this seemed to be a good point to start to put together a studio based around the technologies that were beginning to emerge at the time - such as MIDI, sequencers, and computer techniques in general. We incorporated these concepts into the basic design of the studio right from the start. For example, we deliberately incorporated a very large performance area into the studio and also a medium-sized overdub/vocal room.
"When we acquired this facility, our budget allowed us to buy a Soundcraft 16-track on 2" tape machine and a series of Yamaha and Roland outboard effects. The computer side of the studios is currently handled by an Atari Mega ST running Steinberg Pro24 Version III sequencing software.
"To supplement the main studio we also have a smaller 8-track programming room and a sound generation suite, which is reserved for users who just want to learn about and experiment with the equipment available. This also means that users don't have to pay the more expensive rates for the larger facilities. All of the equipment is compatible, so we don't have problems when people move between studios.
"When we first set up the facility we received a very generous donation in the form of equipment from Roland UK, so the studios are all very well equipped and give excellent value for money."
One of the local artists who utilises Projects UK's services, and whose name should be familiar to readers of SOS, is Ian Boddy.
Mal: "Ian recorded his recent CD Odyssey in the main studio and it was an interesting job to take on. We had to more or less strip down the studio as most of the equipment used on the album Ian brought in from his home setup. Ian was in the studio for a total of three days - which is quite remarkable when you consider the sound quality of the finished result. All of the pieces - about eight in all - were mixed directly to DAT so that the sound quality was kept as high as possible."
Education is very much a part of the Projects UK scene. How does that fit in with running the studio?
Mal: "As part of the general educational nature of Projects UK, we make as much use of the studio as is feasible. When the studio is not actually being used to record material, it's used to show people what we can accomplish within the studio. We run courses to teach people the basics of sound engineering so that when they come to use the studio, perhaps to record some of their own material, they won't feel like they've suddenly been transported to Mars. It should be familiar and comfortable to them, and this is generally reflected in the way that they use the studio.
"We feel that the role of the engineer is often vague and ill-defined. This can be attributed, in part, to the fact that sound engineers in general like to keep the tricks of their trade to themselves - which is a point of view we appreciate but obviously don't agree with. To us, the artist and his material are of greater importance.
"We run courses which hopefully cater to all aspects of the industry. These are usually open to members of the public so that anyone can come along to see and hear new developments in the industry. For instance, the role of the computer in the studio has changed very dramatically in the past few years and, although the price of the technology has fallen dramatically, it is still beyond the means of many people on low incomes.
"Consequently, our courses are made easily affordable to a very wide range of people. An example of this policy is the 'Computers In Music' workshop which we held recently. This attempted to illustrate the number of possible applications of the computer within the studio environment, ranging from its use as a sequencer to a guided tour around The Music Network [a musicians' electronic communications network]."
Plans are well underway at Projects UK for the expansion of existing courses and the introduction of several new recording-related ones.
Mal: "We're intent on expanding the 'Computers In Music' workshops as well as the 'Samplers & Sampling Theory' sessions. We're also going to deal with topics which may not be at the cutting edge of technology but which are still musically viable. An example of this might be the use of tape in the studio. We're also extending our range of courses in response to the feedback we get from users.
"Very shortly, we're starting two new courses aimed at the guitarist and the drummer who, even though they have caught up somewhat in the past few years, still feel that they've been left behind in the technological revolution that has taken place. The overall aim of these courses is to basically help people to get more out of their instruments and to show what is and what is not possible in a studio, with the emphasis on improving the player's performance at source rather than trying to 'fix it in the mix' later.
"Another important subject we intend to cover is 'communication'. By introducing people to the studio and the techniques involved, we hope to demystify the role of the engineer and what he does so that they understand what's happening around them. It also reduces the risk of a player being messed about by a studio. The course tutors are Les Cheetham, who'll be handling the guitarist's weekend, and Geoff Armstrong, who'll deal with the drummer's clinic. Geoff has worked in several diverse fields such as the Moscow State Circus and, more recently, with the Widespread Panic and Depression Orchestra."
How do you see the role of Projects UK developing over the next few years?
Caroline: "We have a number of plans for the future. However, our most urgent requirement is to fill the recently vacated position of head of the audio section. Rob Meek used to hold the position and he was involved with Projects UK right from the early NMW days. He recently left to manage a well-known musical instrument outlet in Newcastle and his presence is greatly missed. So that's basically our first requirement.
"With Europe and 1992 looming up on the horizon, we're hoping to organise an exchange between composers from the UK and Barcelona. We're also hoping to expand our training scheme and to increase the number of full-time and part-time trainees within the organisation. So, with all of this activity going on around us, I suspect that we'll have our hands full for sometime to come!"
Projects UK, (Contact Details).
Feature by David Hughes
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