Where do you go to learn more about the subjects covered in this magazine? The answer is the Gateway School of Recording & Music Technology. Ralph Denyer investigates.
Aside from reading magazines and gaining hands-on experience, how else can you expand your skills and knowledge of modern recording/sound equipment? The answer is to attend a suitable course such as hose taught at London's Gateway School of Recording & Music Technology.
Ralph Denyer recently spent an enjoyable day with the staff of Gateway, during which the school's founder Dave Ward and their synthesis specialist Steve Howell outlined their teaching methods and the structure of the various courses they operate.
Dave Ward started in music as a singer/musician and has been involved in recording for ten years during which time he has built up Gateway Studio into a busy professional facility. The school grew almost organically from his experiences with the studio and began some three and a half years ago, as he explained.
Dave: "I found that I was spending a lot of time in the studio teaching producers and musicians, answering their questions about studio techniques." As an engineer and producer, Dave was frustrated by the "half-hearted jargon" used by many people to describe sound which often served to confuse more than communicate.
Dave: "Phrases like 'I want more splash' and 'It's a bit boomy'. What do they all mean? One person's 'boomy' is another person's 'adequate bottom end', so to speak. It was easier for me to teach a musician who came into the studio what was going on - what was meant by equalisation, for example - particularly if we were making an album and going to be in the studio together for a long period. Gradually, I formulated a very quick and adequate way of explaining the technology of the studio and a lot of producers and musicians asked me if I could structure this into a course which they could attend."
This he did, and the courses were run initially as evening classes at Battersea Arts Centre before moving to the studio lecture room now located above Gateway's recording studio. Over the ensuing three years, Dave says the courses have "grown considerably in content and popularity".
Through re-investment of income from the courses together with the support of many manufacturers, the studio lecture room is now well-equipped for demonstrations of all fundamental recording techniques. They have a Seck 18-8-2 mixing console with comprehensive patchbay and a range of sound processing equipment including a Great British Spring reverb, Roland SRV-2000 and Yamaha REV-7 digital reverbs, a comprehensive range of Rebis modular effects, as well as Teac/Tascam and Fostex analogue recorders. Too much to list here really.
Dave: "With all the Gateway courses - apart from the Advanced Recording course — we pre-suppose no knowledge of recording or electronics. We don't use heavy mathematical formulae or advanced electronic design formulae. Our object is to short circuit all the jargon and to give people a solid theoretical background to what goes on but wrapped up in practical applications of the theory."
Part of the teaching system Dave has devised is the carefully considered and developed use of the analogy to illustrate a principle that would otherwise require a more comprehensive mathematical knowledge than many students possess.
Dave: "The important thing is for someone to be able to look at the piece of equipment, readily understand what the front panel says: what the controls are for. They must be able to understand the jargon in the manuals and to be able to put their hands on a piece of equipment and start to use it, rather than to look at it for six months and wait for someone to explain what a particular knob does."
"We teach people the basic principles and we teach the basic rules of recording. Once they've learned the rules and how to operate the different pieces of equipment 'properly', we teach them that they can do what they like. The creative input is then to experiment with the equipment and, if you like, break the rules - turn it inside out, see what happens, see what comes out." So at the end of the Primary multitrack course, what should the student be equipped to do?
Dave: "They should be able to sit down at any mixing console or any piece of outboard equipment and have a basic understanding of what that piece of equipment is about. They should be able to recognise the routing, EQ, effects sends and returns, work adequately with the patchbay, and have a good understanding of the tape recorder transport mechanism, what the tape recorder needs in the way of cleaning and maintenance, how to record using a multitrack tape recorder and the basic principles of mixing down the sound. The student should have acquired all this after one week in principle."
"We've now structured our Advanced course which follows on from the Primary. It too lasts a week though it's very much more practically based. Mick Parker writes a piece of music specifically for that course which is played by himself or Mick Powell who joined us recently. The students record and mix that piece of music over the course of the week which is why we have a maximum of five people at a time attending. I sit back, assist them with the recording, teach as they are doing the recording, but generally sit in a chair and be a nasty, mean producer who shouts things like: TIME IS MONEY!"
And so at the end of the Advanced course, at which point should the student be?
Dave: "After the second course they are at the point where they can adequately go and get experience either in the workplace if they have a job, or on their own equipment if they have it at home. Those people who have not yet bought recording equipment and there are many people who haven't, who come on the courses are in a much better position to judge what they need."
Many studios and manufacturers send their sales and administrative staff on the Gateway courses to get a better understanding of the equipment they're dealing with, which of course is of benefit to all studios and everyone in the industry.
Previous to joining Gateway, Steve Howell had run his own Hollow Sun synthesised music studio in Cardiff. At one point he found that the telephone was almost ringing constantly, with someone on the other end desperately needing advice of one kind or another relating to synthesizers. He told me how he eventually had to attempt to gently dissuade at least some casual callers, so he started telling people who needed information that they would have to come to Steve's studio and he would basically act as a synthesis consultant for £5 per hour.
Steve:"I thought that would be enough to put people off but instead they said 'Great!'. So people came to me on a one-to-one basis, and I've been doing that for two and a half to three years now."
Dave: "We wanted to start a new course at Gateway in synthesizer programming and, in particular, FM programming. By fortune, Steve got in touch with me and we decided to pool our resources and he would come to London and teach the courses."
As with the recording courses, the assumption is that students have no prior knowledge or hands-on experience. In general, this is the case for many people attending but others have some experience. To many people the class numbers may appear to be small, but an essential part of Gateway's teaching method is the assessment of each student's level of knowledge at the beginning of the course which allows them, to a degree, to respond to their individual needs. It's all a question of emphasis, When a day's scheduled topics have been covered, when the scheduled 10am to 4.30pm course ends each afternoon, Dave says they are happy to spend time with students who have not grasped all of the subjects covered. If everyone is basically happy, then students can spend time between 4.30 and 6pm experimenting on their own with the recording equipment and instruments.
Steve: "Some people come on both the Recording and Synthesizer courses. They're usually the type that have picked up stuff from the music magazines and think they know about EQ or Voltage Controlled Filters, and they come here often just to have everything clarified for them."
I asked Steve to give me a broad outline of the Primary Synthesizer course.
Steve: "The first day deals with the properties of acoustic sound, and we're now going to incorporate a harmonic analysis program to aid our explanation of fundamental principles."
The program Steve speaks of gives a graphic representation of input information. A fundamental tone and combination of harmonics are keyed in and displayed on-screen and the program computes an equivalent waveform representation which is also displayed.
Steve: "Then the Roland System 100M comes out to demonstrate how each module has a discrete function within the synthesizer. I explain voltage control first of all. That is of prime importance: understand sound and voltage control and you're halfway there!"
"Then we look at each module in turn: the Voltage Controlled Oscillator - how it works, its role, its function; then on to the Filter; the Voltage Controlled Amplifier; the Envelope Generators, the controllers - such as Low Frequency Oscillators - and so forth."
"By now we're on Day 3, Wednesday. Then we start moving on to more advanced controllers and talking about control voltages and gates. Then we say: 'What if we take a number of control voltages and gates and store all these voltages in a computer?'. You have a sequencer, and we then talk about sequencing. We can start putting it all together at that stage and I show people how certain synth sounds are made up. We also do an afternoon's very basic overview of FM programming as part of that course."
"Naturally, coverage is given of MIDI and all that entails: the channels, various modes and so on, then we deal with effects which naturally leads on to sampling. We use the Akai S612 to demonstrate that: all the looping techniques, reversal and manipulation of samples. We wind up on the final day with a look at possible future developments in synthesis technology and specialist systems such as the Fairlight CMI and Synclavier."
"Those who attend need to know nothing at the beginning and at the end they should know all there is to know about analogue synthesizer techniques, a basic knowledge of what FM is, and a fairly good knowledge of the principles of sound sampling."
I should mention that keyboard skills and music theory are not addressed in either of the synthesis courses.
Steve: "That's left up to the individual to sort out. They might want to play ragtime piano-style on the synthesizer or they might want to play simple one-finger pop. We teach them how to use the synthesizer to achieve whatever musical aim they may have."
And so on to the DX Programming course. I haven't accidentally left off the '7', if you were wondering, because the course deals with the full Yamaha DX range of synthesizers - not merely the DX7. Again, the course is structured to cope with different levels of knowledge, starting at zero. In practice, most people attending this course have either attended the Primary Synthesizer course or have owned an analogue synthesizer. Others have started their experience within the digital domain having bought a DX7 as their first synthesizer.
Accepting the fact that the DX7 has proved a fantastically popular instrument across the board and is also accepted as an industry standard, it is quite amazing to think that very few people have been able to come to terms with the instrument's facilities for creating individual - as opposed to preset - sounds. Generally, most DX users have accepted defeat from this front.
Steve: "Part of the problem of DX programming is the small LCD display you find on the machines which only allows you to see the work you are doing one parameter at a time. But I think the biggest problem with synthesizing generally is that there is often a lack of understanding of what is actually happening in terms of sound.
So again, we begin the DX course with a look at the characteristics of sound and examine the envelopes and harmonic structure of traditional acoustical instrument sounds as a reference point for creative sound synthesis. Seeing and understanding how the envelopes of different instruments differ can speak volumes to those new to the subject."
Dave: "Again we've been fortunate in that Yamaha have supplied us with their CX5 computer which does have a program which gives you a visual display of what is happening in the envelopes of the FM carriers and modulators."
Steve: "What is appealing about the analogue synths, especially the Roland 100M, is that you can see where the controls are set, which gives you an immediate feel as to the sound you have constructed. With the FM synths - and actually all single-parameter access synthesizers - it's very difficult to imagine what is going on. We use the Akai AX80 polysynth here, which is very nice. It has a fluorescent display, so when you switch from one memory to another it instantly reads out control values of the various parameters. With the DX7 alone, it is a problem. Using the CX5/DX7 editing program, effectively puts those values up on a screen like a control panel."
At Gateway, they have the DX7 rigged to the CX5 music computer and an oscilloscope. Adjust a parameter and you see the visual on-screen display change. Once you have the desired sound, you can play the note at the keyboard and simultaneously see the control parameter settings on-screen and the waveform representation on the oscilloscope display. Dave and Steve obviously get a kick out of seeing looks of wonderment on the faces of students who see all this together for the first time, their expressions often betraying the conceptual quantum leap they experience. In fact, measuring equipment and oscilloscopes are used equally well in all the Gateway courses to help convey different concepts visually.
Steve: "We've also got some nice stuff to show how to get standard waveforms out of a DX7 using FM. I've got some sounds programmed which are raw sawtooth waves and raw sine waves and stuff which people say can't be done with the DX7. But it's all here. We show it to them on an oscilloscope and they go: WOW!"
At the end of the DX workshop, students should be able to cope with FM programming. Obviously, attending the course does not overcome the problem of the DX's single parameter display, but it does give the student a basic understanding and working knowledge of FM synthesis. The combination of taking the Gateway course and buying the CX5 and the DX program will provide access to a fascinating and useful range of creative possibilities. Also, the concept of 'orchestrating' synthesized sounds is covered in the course with demonstrations on the Yamaha DX21 and TX816 FM tone generators.
Gateway follow up all the courses in various ways. For example, they will give references for students and a course certificate which Dave Ward stresses is not a passport to a guaranteed job in the recording industry. On the other hand, Gateway are well known within recording circles. A personal recommendation from Dave for ex-Gateway student Tom Pearce did result in him becoming a tape-op at Jimmy Page's own studio, where the first project he worked on (with Gus Dudgeon producing) was the recently released Elton John album Ice On Fire! Well, you never know...
Feature by Ralph Denyer
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