Tonmeistering - The English Way
An in-depth look at what is probably the most well-respected training course for studio engineers: Surrey University's Tonmeister Sound Course.
The Tonmeister Degree Course, run by Surrey University, is one of the few UK courses widely accepted by the recording fraternity as a suitable apprenticeship for prospective producers and sound engineers. Heavily over-subscribed, as is to be expected from such a stepping stone to a recording career, only 7 or so applicants successfully gain places each year.
Janet Angus reports on course activities and chats to this year's students who provide an insight into the exclusive world of the Tonmeisters.
Every day there are thousands of letters arriving at studios all over the world from young hopefuls, desperately trying to get into the studio business. 'I'll sweep the floor, I'll make the tea. I'll pay you to let me work. Anything...'
For a small privileged minority, this initial step is made easier by the fact that they have what is known as a Tonmeister Degree under their belts; it is easier because whilst acquiring this degree, the Tonmeister students spend around a year in a studio as part of their course.
The question of finding a job is often not that hard since, as a rule, the Tonmeisters are pretty good at what they do, and the studios where they spend their industrial years will more often than not ask them to come back.
The course selection is very tough, and competition is extremely high. This year's applicants number almost 200, with only about 7 places to be filled. Requirements are high - very good Music, Maths and Physics A levels at least.
You see, the Tonmeister degree is actually a music degree as well, and is run in close conjunction with the music course at the University of Surrey.
The course derives from the German Tonmeister courses, although these tend to be more scientifically orientated as opposed to Surrey which is very much biased towards music and practical performance. In the music department course prospectus there is a section which warrants reproduction here:
"What is a Tonmeister? Isn't it the same as a sound engineer? Tonmeisters are university music graduates with full professional training in sound recording. Having a degree in music gives the Tonmeister a greater understanding of music being recorded, better rapport with recording artists, and the ability to work as both producer and recording engineer.
What is the point of a Tonmeister course? The Surrey University Tomeister courses are unique, in no other university or college is it possible to pursue a degree course in music simultaneously with full practical and theoretical training in up-to-date sound recording practice."
There is no doubt that the course is very intensive. It also has its faults like anything else! But it is unique, and it does provide a very special sort of training which, if channelled correctly, can be a tremendous asset through your whole career.
Producer Peter Wilson (Sham 69, The Jam, The Style Council etc) is a shining example. The course gives you a far greater understanding of the science of recording than you can usually pick up along the tape op route. Armed with this understanding, provided your character and everything else is of the right calibre to get you on your way, you should have no problem turning out stunning work. A sweeping generalisation perhaps. But as a rule, the past Tonmeister graduates have been very good.
I'm giving this feature such a glorious lead in because the student I spoke to — Erdo Groot who is in fact, a Dutch student — had a great deal to say about ways he feels the course could be improved! He did announce at regular intervals: "I am very glad I came here. I've learned a lot. I can just think of lots of ways to make it better!"
Erdo Groot is a final year Tonmeister (the course is four years long), who came to England after studying Chemistry at University in Holland. Having decided that the Tonmeister course was for him, he set about acquiring the necessary musical qualifications. I asked him what his overall feelings about the course had been:
"In the first two years there is a lot of music, which is okay. The opportunities are there to do a lot of things, but you have to use your own initiative. The big problem in your final year is that when you come back from your industrial year there doesn't seem to be any follow up. Everything just carries on the same way it did before."
What were your aims in doing the course in the first place?
"I wanted to learn how to record music. I wanted to learn quite a lot about music. My aim is to become a classical recording engineer; I also want to get involved in video, but we don't do that here."
"You see my father runs a film school back in Holland and they do something which I strongly feel we should be doing here. When we do our final year project, it's for nothing. Only the examiners see it. We ought to be producing something that will be made into a record or something. At the Dutch film school they have this thing in their final project where they use professional actors, and the end product is actually broadcast. It's much better."
"And quite apart from the project, I think we should have far more opportunity to work with professional musicians than we do."
The course does, in fact, cater for this aspect in a vague sort of way. The studio and mobile facilities are there for any Tonmeister to record whatever he wants. So if you have the time and initiative to find decent musicians - be it bands, orchestras or solo artists — it is possible to inject a lot of variety into your work. It is the fact that the department doesn't do anything to help you in this respect, that Erdo feels is a bit poor.
I had heard that there were supposed to be new links with the NCOS course at Goldsmiths College in London. This course is for postgraduate musicians and provides an orchestral training. So, it seemed an ideal opportunity to mix the two courses. The orchestra could gain experience of recording, and the Tonmeisters would have the chance to record some, or rather a lot, of decent music and musicians.
However... "Yes, there was an arrangement with the NCOS. But all that happened was one session where the orchestra was given a quasi recording day, where they just breezed through six pieces without stopping for anything. It wasn't very satisfactory. This took place in the Henry Wood Hall in Trinity Church Square in London, which is a beautiful hall. A lot of professional recordings are made there. The day was useful, but there should have been a repeat."
"I and a few others took the mobile unit up there. The mobile is very useful - not that you tend to use it much as a mobile, but it does enable you to transport whatever equipment you like to any venue you like and just set it up. I think you are allowed to go anywhere within a 100 mile radius of the university; any farther afield and you have to have special permission. I just wish the department would organise some of these things because, like everything else you only get to do it if you arrange it yourself."
Once a year the music department puts on a big concert at St John's, Smith Square in London (where the BBC lunchtime concerts often come from). This is the big showcase for the musicians, and is also one of the best opportunities the Tonmeisters have of getting a good recording.
There are usually a few different recordings going on at the same time on these occasions. This year Erdo, who is doing his final year project on 'Ambisonics,' was executing an Ambisonics recording; there was a dummy head recording; there was a recording with a pair of PZMs mounted on sheets of perspex; there was an ordinary stereo pair, and there were two Calrec Soundfield microphones. All these took some organisation as you can imagine; but the prospect of being able to compare all these techniques simultaneously is something that not many people have had the chance to do.
"I think the Smith Square thing should be capitalised on more. I mean, the music students spend 4 weeks rehearsing for it. That's a hell of a long time for one concert. We should be recording more of the rehearsals and things."
"I think the whole organisation of recordable material could be done so much better. Why can't the department hire halls for us to record in? You need to get experience of recording in different acoustics. It's no good just using the university hall all the time. Admittedly it is extremely difficult to record in it, but you still must learn about other things. And there are students who don't bother to do other things outside!"
Ah, but everything you want to do costs money Erdo.
"Yes, but there must be ways for the department to make money! Such as making records and selling them."
Erdo's idea is to turn the music department into some sort of commercial concern which although I am sure is perfectly possible, would most definitely be frowned on by the purists. It's a seat of learning after all, not an industry.
Still, it must say something for Erdo, and for the course, that he is able to think in these terms. He obviously is well equipped for the industrial world.
"Another thing which I feel is neglected very badly on this course is Rock recording. It doesn't affect me, but certainly over half the Tonmeister students are seeking careers in the rock and pop industry, and these needs really should be catered for. If the staff here are not qualified to do it, then why can't they bring people in? We could easily have special lectures from engineers and producers. I'm sure they would come."
"This is all very negative isn't it? I don't mean to sound like this because I do think it is a good course. Really I do, it's just that there could be so much more. I mean things like the studio itself..."
The department's recording studio is situated below the university hall, which is very handy when you want to record a concert going on in the hall, but damn near useless when there is keep fit or a rock concert going on in the hall and you are trying to record in the studio.
"It's not properly soundproofed. As well as that, it is used as a lecture room a lot of the time - the studio itself. So if you try to play anything in the control room at any sort of level you get an angry lecturer descending on you like a ton of bricks telling you to turn it off. It's crazy. So you can't really work during the day. Studio time is very bitterly fought over. It's best in the final year because you have priority over everyone else; but it's still not very satisfactory."
I asked Erdo to describe what the course had involved so far. Regarding the first year, Erdo's mind immediately leapt to that bane of every first year student's life: the piano exam. Every student who is not a first study pianist must sit this dreadful exam, and pass it, I might add. Still, it's not as bad as all that, although Erdo would beg to differ.
"Apart from that, the first year consisted of, for music, Classical Studies, Baroque Studies, General Musicianship, (this included keyboard harmony), Aural, History of Music, and Recording Techniques. Recording Techniques involved the history of it; basics of the studio and the mixing desk, we did maths in the maths department, and physics, electronics and acoustics in the physics department. There was no practical at all in the first year, apart from assisting the older Tonmeisters."
"You see, each 2nd year Tonmeister has a 'duty week' each term where he is responsible for recording any musical activity the department is involved in, be it within the campus or outside, and each duty Tonmeister gets a first year to do the carrying. You also learn from them I suppose."
It's not so different from tape opping after all! Then the fun begins in the second year, once everyone has been brought up to the same level in all subjects.
In the second year, the Recording Techniques consists of: microphone techniques, magnetic recording techniques, processing techniques (noise reduction etc), metering PPMs and VUs, tape playbacks (tapes are played back to all the students and the recording is analysed for faults and misrepresentation!), technical listening, Music History, Romantic Studies, Aural, 20th Century History and Analysis, Electronic Music, Orchestration, Further Acoustics, and Electronics/Acoustics Lab, which consists of a day a week spent in the physics lab measuring amps, speakers, tape recorders etc."
A pretty full timetable as you can see, and the balance between the recording and music elements of the course is still fairly even at this stage.
"Now everyone is very concerned with finding a place to spend their industrial year. This is something that all the students feel let down on. We get no help from anyone to find a place to go, and it is extremely difficult to persuade anyone to take you - especially when it is only for one year."
Erdo was one of the lucky ones. I think it would be fair to say that most of the students, who have got any initiative at all (and let's face it, you need it if you are going to make your career in this industry) do find very good jobs. What's more, they are usually offered places again after they have graduated.
Erdo went back to Holland for his industrial year and worked for Sony in Amsterdam. Last year at Sony was a very exciting time with all the developments in digital and compact disc recordings. Erdo's job was to demonstrate the digital equipment, carry out market research, write articles on digital recording for various magazines, work at exhibitions demonstrating the equipment, and also some involvement in video. Not bad for a few months.
After this he worked for six weeks as a freelance engineer at Polygram Classical Recording Studios in Holland, After such an interesting year, it is easy to understand Erdo's discontent on his return to the university campus. Like all these institutions, life just goes on. It is hard for them to understand the student's feelings and it is easy to see why. But it is now, more than ever, where your initiative can make all the difference. It is up to you to make something of your final year. It's no good just sitting around moping and wishing you hadn't come back.
The fourth year of the course so far has involved Romantic Studies, 20th Century History and techniques, Aural (1st term only), Advanced Electronics/Acoustics, Recording Techniques, Technical Listening, Musical Analysis, and your final year project. This is the big thing.
"My final year project I am doing with another student, Tim Partridge, and we are producing a market report on Ambisonics."
In addition to the project, each student must prepare a portfolio of recordings for the examiners to hear.
"I don't know what else we will be doing this year. So far, in the recording techniques, we have looked at Quadraphonics, Digital Recording, Recording Mediums - examining sales figures and technical figures. We may look at Ambisonics and TV. I don't really know.
The facilities in this department are really quite extensive. The money involved in equipping a studio with the latest technology is phenomenal, and obviously a university music department cannot have everything.
There are less obvious problems. Although there is a need to keep abreast with the latest technology, it is necessary to avoid buying too early, or you pay too much and before the idea is fully developed - as with digital. The control room is equipped with a Neve desk and Studer and Revox machines as far as I can remember, with several different pairs of speakers, and ancillary and digital gear.
There is also a copy room which is tie-lined to the studio and has another Neve desk, thus serving as a second recording room. These, combined with the mobile unit, although not ideal, are certainly better than nothing, and provide the average Tonmeister with the possibility of working on many different types of recording.
As Erdo says, it's up to you what you do. To a certain extent it could be argued that that is what a university course is all about. You shouldn't expect to have everything handed to you on a plate.
The course is definitely a worthwhile thing to do and, as I said at the beginning, furnishes its graduates with a deeper understanding of their craft than is usually achieved simply by working in the studio. As with anything, there is apparently a lot of room for improvement, but it is difficult to be all things to all men. Some of the proposals put forward by Erdo seem to be very good and quite feasible - others financially prohibitive; but at least he is thinking constantly of ways of making improvements. Maybe the university will take heed. We'll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, if you are a studio owner willing to take on an industrial year Tonmeister for a pittance, why not let the university know? Your call will be most appreciated.
Music Dept. University of Surrey. (Contact Details).
Feature by Janet Angus
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