The Noise Gate
Courses for recording.
...or how to unlock the secrets of studio sound. Chris Dale sits in on a three-day course for engineers, and comes back a wiser hack.
"You've got all balanced in, all unbalanced out, unless it's ground compensated, which I very much doubt; integrators on the reverberators, attenuators on your auto-locators, phantom on channels one to 25, pin two's cold, pin three live; there are rack spares on tails if you want to patch a processor, we have graphics, expander/gates, a Marshall, and a Vocal Stresser... it's all pretty standard stuff really, but if there are any genuine emergencies you can get me on this number..."
There were. In fact there were lots of emergencies. Not to mention moments of personal crisis and protracted visits to the toilet for the contemplation of suicide.
Memories of my first session as an engineer still invoke feelings of mindless, bowel-moving panic. In those days the most common mode of entry to a career as an engineer was bluff, which meant that the first few sessions could be agony for all concerned.
The need for some form of better training is greater now than its ever been, and for several reasons. Remote controls, memory functions and the like have greatly reduced in the fully-fledged studio the need for a tape-op ("tape operator", mainly involved in menial tasks). The opportunity to observe has diminished accordingly.
Technological advances have significantly simplified the recording process at the basic home-recording level. But these advances have added greatly to the complexity of the hardware available to state-of-the-art set-ups. The use of highly sophisticated electronic musical synthesis is now commonplace in the studio and means a whole range of hardware which the engineer may have to deal with (and which may only be hired in for the day). Lastly, of course, there is now much wider interest in home recording.
Gateway studio in Clapham, South London, has been around for some years and enjoys a good flow of custom. Above the studio, Gateway owner Dave Ward has set up a schoolroom (his term, not mine) specifically to stage his three-day multitrack recording courses which have been running, roughly fortnightly, since September 1982.
It costs each student a very reasonable £65 for the three days — this includes a fair amount of written information to remind you of what you've learnt: the precise content of each course can be modified to suit the special requirements of any group.
I dropped in for an afternoon on the third day of one such course. Due to a lack of publicity, this particular session could boast but two students as opposed to the normal ten. Both people were extremely impressed with the content and style of the presentation and were full of praise for Dave.
The equipment present was an A8 8-track, a 3060 mixer, and a 3070 compressor with gate (all from Fostex), plus a stereo Drawmer gate. Other such courses that I know of are held in an actual studio, perhaps equipped with the works: 32/24 desk and 24-track recorder. This has its advantages, especially once the basics have been communicated.
But when you don't know the difference between a pot and a pan, such complex facilities simply serve to confuse. Far better to start, as here, with a straightforward 8-track system.
Having the studio downstairs from the schoolroom at Gateway means access to a large range of professional gear when necessary, and is invaluable in giving the student an understanding of current techniques in bigger set-ups.
Dave is a very good, unpretentious teacher who attends to individual queries while keeping a fairly tight control on the progress of the course, so ensuring that things run roughly to plan. His practical understanding comes through in his approach to teaching — the subjects are all well covered.
For example, most people have probably seen so-called "polar diagrams" showing the various directional characteristics of different mikes. But how much more directional is a hyper-cardioid than a cardioid? How can they be used? Just how dead is a figure-of-eight pattern at the sides? Where would you apply such a pattern? With the use of a range of high quality professional mikes, those present get to experiment and find out with simple acoustic instruments.
Multitrack tapes recorded in the main Gateway studio are used to demonstrate the functions of various pieces of studio equipment, such as a basic mixer, including its equalisation. Dave demonstrates how to put punch in the bass drum and slap in the bass, and how to patch various effects in to give bigger, tighter, softer, or just unusual sounds.
Any questions are answered with a practical demonstration whenever possible, and no-one left the session I visited with any answerable questions left unanswered.
Three days can't possibly be long enough to turn you into an engineer, but it can serve to give you a grounding, to let you know the extent of your ignorance, and to put you in touch with other sources of information.
If there is sufficient demand for such a course in your locality, Dave will bring the necessary equipment down with him and stage the three-day event in your town. The cost would still be £65 per person, and you would be expected to provide the room and so on.
If you're thinking about using multitrack, even in a moderately serious way, and whether you live in London or not, I think the Gateway course is a good investment.