Spectro Sound Studio
A look at Newcastle’s ‘open access' electro-music studio.
A look at an 'open' access studio in Newcastle which is used for the recording and performance of electronic music.
Spectra Arts Workshop resides in the City of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and can be found in the City centre, off the high street through an archway.
The Workshop itself consists of many units each housing activities ranging from photography to painting but if you go to the back of the building and walk up a flight of stairs you will find, near to the bar, the Sound Studio.
The Spectro operation was set up originally in Whitley Bay, a few miles away on the coast, about 10 years ago. In 1977 it moved to its present location and has gone from strength to strength.
Use of the Workshop is not restricted to university members or students — it is open to all members of the public and such involvement is actively encouraged. Membership of Spectro costs £25 per year (quarterly rates are available) and many departments give discounts to Spectro members from their normal fees. Students and the unemployed are granted special rates too.
The Spectro Sound Studio consists of a performance area/recording studio, 38ft x 18ft, an adjoining control room which can double as a secondary sound studio, and the main sound studio which is where most of the recordings and compositions take place.
The Studio is ultimately responsible to the music department of Northern Arts which supplies most of its money in the form of grants. Smaller amounts also come from the City but their major problem is one of finance. This year their grant was cut by 30%, along with most other grants to the arts but still they carry on, postponing plans, ideas ana projects until resources enable them to carry them out.
Head of Department is Peter Burne-Jones, a qualified teacher and composer who has worked at EMS Studios in Stockholm and at the Institute of Sonology at Utrecht.
Paul Gilby is the Department Technician and he studied electronic music at Cardiff University. He produced a soundtrack for his Arts degree and the 17-minute tape took 18 months to produce having over 100 layers of sounds.
Ian Boddy, one of Spectra's more regular users, joined us in conversation and between them they discussed the Studio; its past, present and their plans for the future.
Peter was careful to stress the 'open access' arrangement under which the Studio operated. "It is one of only two studios in Britain," he said, "which allows members of the public to use its facilities without any restrictions regarding the type of music performed or recorded. Northern Arts actively promote 'New Music' such as that written by Stockhausen and John Cage but there are no hard and fast rules. We encourage all Workshop users."
Over 200 people use the Studio every year including rock bands and folk singers. It is a cheap form of recording for them (£6.00 per hour with the first hour free plus a discount for Spectro members) and a useful source of income for the Studio.
The Studio runs courses throughout the year which consist of one session per week for six weeks. They cover the history of electronic music and end by describing how to use various pieces of equipment. The courses attract a wide variety of people from students to interested 'dabblers' in their 40's. Response is encouraging.
Peter explained how the Studio operates: "As well as providing facilities for the man in the street, we have two schemes aimed at encouraging new ideas. Our Project Support Scheme is offered mainly to local composers. They will approach us with a formal application detailing a project they would like to carry out over a three month period. If their application is accepted they are given £100 of free studio time and £30 worth of material, usually tapes.
"Our Composer in Residence Scheme aims at attracting the more professional composer from home and abroad. We apply to Northern Arts for specific funds with which to offer a bursary to a composer which will pay residence costs etc. Both schemes are intended to culminate in a concert or a number of performances, an exhibition or a series of Workshop lectures."
Peter continued, "Hugh Davies, Director of Music at Goldsmith College, London University did a 'Sound Environment' exhibition in the Spectro Gallery and it has since gone on national tour."
He described some current projects underway. "One local composer is recording natural sounds and combining them with instrumental sounds — very much in the ambient music tradition. Another project involves the use of source tapes: radio sounds, adverts, conversations, all sorts of sounds and these will be combined into a montage or collage. The same composer is working on a project to record 'ghost' voices which are sometimes heard in churches so you can see our activities and involvement are very wide."
The Performance Studio can hold 60 or 70 people and is the scene for about two concerts per week. They vary immensely from folk music to poetry readings, punk music and rock but electronic music concerts are high priority.
Peter explained: "We are probably unique in that we have the facilities to produce the music and to perform it both under one roof. This also enables us to perform works by other studios and composers, especially those works requiring tape machines and we can invite speakers to give talks and supply the equipment they need for demonstrations."
Ian talked about his live concerts: "Some incorporate a recorder and pre-recorded tape, possibly a sequencer but others are 100% live. I try to split the keyboard signal into several paths and process them all differently. I adjust the volume levels on a mixing desk. I am playing electronic equipment rather than just synthesisers. The advantages of having the Performance Studio next to the Workshop are enormous. I can set up very quickly. It might otherwise take all day." He obviously enjoys the concerts very much and intends to give one every few months. There are about 15-20 regular users like Ian but so intense has his involvement been that he is now acting as consultant.
As technician to the Studio, Paul is, perhaps, more deeply involved with the day-to-day running of it and he has a lot of contact with the users. He explained: "All users are given assistance and technical help but only if they require it. We do not wish to produce anyone's work. We show them how to operate the equipment and we can even offer them artistic advice if necessary."
The Studio is laid out in the most ergonomically and functional way possible. All the equipment is hooked into patch bays and the connections are all colour-coded and numbered. Peter reckons an outsider can come in and learn to operate the Studio within an hour.
They talked about the equipment. "There is a lot of equipment we would like to have," said Peter, "but finance is the main problem. Some companies have been very good to us. Klark Teknics supplied us with two graphic equalisers at half price. Roland have given us generous discounts as have Shure and AKG (who help a lot with maintenance). A lot of our resources are swallowed up by the cost of maintaining the equipment which is often in use eight hours a day, five days a week. We would like to explore various methods of recording outside in an open environment but lack of finance means we cannot afford the equipment. We are interested, too, in obtaining a computer for experiments with computer music. It would be a good teaching aid, too. Something like an Apple or a Pet would be very nice. We will be running workshops in computer music using tapes during the festival."
In spite of the financial restrictions, the users obviously derive a lot from use of the Studio. The enthusiasm and involvement of the staff is evident. They have no biases and are as keen to help the poet as they are to help the electronic music enthusiast. The Studio is able to combine audio and visual effects for performances and is involved in almost every area of the creative musical arts that it is possible to think of.
The total conversation with the Studio staff progressed from one aspect of involvement to another. So wide an area is covered by the Workshop that full details of its activities would be very lengthy. The 'open access' arrangement is an idea that should be developed in other parts of the country (should the facilities exist). Anyone can go along and spend an hour at the Workshop with technical assistance from Paul for the nominal sum of £2.50. Rates reduce drastically for Spectro members. This gives everyone the opportunity to find out about electro-music and those who lack recording facilities can find them here at very minimal rates.
In the area of musical development, Spectro is involved on the very frontiers and the Studio can make available to everyone the facilities and assistance to become involved with the 'New Music'.
Further details of the Studio and its schemes can be obtained by ringing (Contact Details) and asking for the Sound Studio or write to Spectro Arts Workshop, (Contact Details). Peter or Paul will be glad to help.
Equipment: Teac 4-track recorder x 2; Revox A700 ½-track; Revox A77 ½-track; Teac A170 stereo cassette recorder x 2; Alice 12-48 mixer; Itam 10-4 mixer; VCS 3 synthesiser x 2; AKS synthesiser; Roland SH-09; Klark Tekniks 027 graphic equaliser x 2; EMS Filter bank; Amcron D75 amplifier x 2; Amcron 0150 amplifier; AR 12 Speakers x 2; AR 3 Speakers x 2; Kef Cantata Speakers x 2; Carlsbro PA Speakers x 2; AKG microphone D202x 4; AKG microphone 0140x2; Shure SM58 x 2.