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‘A new generation of computer-savvy students is coming through’: The ins and outs of live sound training

Phil Ward packs his pencil case and investigates live sound training

Training at Adlib

Never mind Alice Cooper: training in this sector is in rude health. Several businesses, institutions and individuals are redefining its parameters, as rapidly changing technology conspires with economic turmoil to urge new thinking and fresh initiatives in a uniquely challenging – and exciting – field. There’s no shortage of candidates, but all of the facilities available for this education are going through changes.

Tech that

Mike Lowe has steered training at Britannia Row since the untimely death of Barry Bartlett, whose protégé Luca Stefani is now course director. The outline of the course remains Bartlett’s original vision from when Britannia Row Productions Training was launched in 2013, but there is one particular curve gathering momentum.

“We give our students a holistic grounding in audio,” Lowe says, “but the growing demand for system techs means a fair amount of networking and IT these days. It can take up to three years for a budding system tech to fly on his own after the training, going out with our crews under the wing of a senior system tech and working up from, say, theatre runs to large arenas. But compared with mixing, which takes just as long to build up the contacts and get established, system tech’ing is the fastest way to earn reasonably good money, as well as getting right into the centre of production activity. Everybody needs to interact with the system tech.”

Not to say that other routes – mixing, stagecraft, radio tech’ing – don’t receive the same amount of support and encouragement. “But there is a new generation of computer-savvy students coming through,” adds Lowe, “not least because they’ve been ‘screenagers’ since they were three years old. They still need a passion for music and/or audio and to not mind some heavy lifting, and through that filtering process come the people who actually want to do the job.”

Soulsound was formed when Alchemea College closed and live sound tutors Justin Grealy and Darryn de la Soul reinvented its course in response to demand. Now operating as an online membership agency, Soulsound acts as a virtual resource for sound engineers offering video tutorials, discussion forums, one-to-one sessions over Skype and even public liability insurance, among other benefits. Grealy, erstwhile Prodigy mixer Jon Burton and Tori Amos’s engineer Marcel van Limbeek share the bulk of the material, as well as drawing upon individual experts in specific fields.

“We now cover system set-up,” he says, “as well as cabling – an area rife with misunderstanding. We have to keep putting up new content, of course, and my target is to teach as many different ways of doing a given thing as we can. This means more and varied short videos, including interviews with different sound engineers to find out individual tricks. All are welcome, and in general you can find your way from beginner to some pretty serious stuff.

“We’ve been looking for a venue to do some teaching, as we did at Alchemea using what used to be The Fridge in Brixton, as well as The Village Underground or The Coronet later on. Usually the modules in a college degree course do not have the resources to cover live sound adequately, and where there are bespoke sound engineering courses, they tend to be driven by profit rather than education. Again, they’re theory-heavy and there’s almost no practical experience involved. If you really want to be a live sound engineer, there comes a time when you’ve got to stand in front of a pair of wedges with an SM58 in your hand and start listening. We wouldn’t sign our students off unless they had 100 hours of work experience – which we could offer with me or Jon, or by sending them off to other venues. I’ve taken students with me to The Palladium, Hammersmith Apollo, or a little place in Hoxton… all over London. It’s absolutely essential.”

Some of the previous courses at Alchemea have resurfaced at The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) as Alchemea@ICMP.

Training at Adlib

Research and development

FOH engineer Jon Burton is a contributor for Soulsound and regularly talks at colleges and universities around the UK. This very month Burton begins a new role as a lecturer in live sound at The University of Derby.

“I was drawn to the Soulsound model because of its accessibility to people around the world, in places where there just isn’t the formal education and tuition you can get here,” he comments. “In many countries I’ve visited on tour I’ve met young engineers who are desperate to learn and gain experience. For a great many, travelling abroad to study is simply not possible. I’ve been lucky enough to get the chance to visit countries like Serbia and Armenia and teach short courses.”

At Derby, Burton feels his main asset is his own experiential learning. “I’m hoping to contribute on a practical basis, sharing some of what I have learned over the years,” he says. “Derby is a place that seems to have many graduates actually working in the industry, and I know this because I’ve worked with many of them. It’s a similar story with LIPA and Central, where you see students moving into full-time jobs. I was drawn to the practical side of the course but also the opportunity to be involved in research – to try and make a difference that way, too.”

Research? “I’m interested in the science, but I’m also interested in the way the universities relate to the industry and vice versa. I’ve recently been looking at the manufacturers’ involvement in education. Many are interested but haven’t considered it in enough detail. It definitely should be encouraged. I’ll hopefully be having discussions with some of my contacts about how we can improve things. Rental companies have been getting involved but their needs don’t always match the students’ expectations and that needs addressing. Large companies ultimately need warehouse staff: maintenance engineers rather than sound engineers. You don’t want to spend your internship just stripping PVC tape off cables and painting boxes.”

Manufacturers, Burton believes, need bright, motivated students with a passion for sound. “Not all students who attend university necessarily want to mix bands,” he adds. “I’m sure there’ll be someone who wants to be a Dante technician, for example. They’ll be interested in networking, not mixing. We need to encourage them with the same passion.”

In Liverpool, Al Mouat coordinates Adlib’s ‘Manufacturer Training Days’ as part of a commitment to refreshing the market. Adlib’s website enables registration for training updates, as well as an email address – training@adlib.co.uk – at which to fire specific requests. This gives Adlib insight into what the market is most curious about. “We know we can fill any course, every time,” Mouat says. “We’ll do something with the main console manufacturers two or three times a year, and we host a three-day L-Acoustics course every year using our gear. Mostly, it’s professional freelancers or venues retraining their staff in new kit, especially if we’ve supplied it.”

Adlib founder Andy Dockerty devotes time to arranging work experience for young hopefuls, as well as liaising with LIPA for student involvement. One annual target is Production Futures, the one-day milk round now hosted at Fly By Nite’s HQ in Redditch. “That’s always a good place to meet youngsters looking to get into the business. Last year I did a panel there,” adds Mouat.

Adlib’s Al Mouat

Instituting changes

LIPA graduate Andy Davies, now part of Meyer Sound’s worldwide technical support team, regards his education as more than vocational, appreciating its aim of delving into different learning opportunities across multiple disciplines. “That allows students to grow and change as they progress through the course,” he says, “and produces graduates with an understanding of how the wider industry works.”

In a changing live audio rental industry, some traditional entry points are vanishing, Davies believes. “Consolidation of rental companies means there are fewer opportunities to sweep the floor, coil cables and make tea. More and more venues have installed PA systems, so small tours regularly don’t travel with PA, therefore opportunities to rig systems in multiple small rooms, experiment and learn on the job are disappearing. Health and safety, insurance and employment laws are now much tougher – and better for it – but one effect is to prevent the addition of an extra crew person to shadow.”

Some of this slack is being taken up by new partnerships, however. “Cooperation is key,” adds Davies. “I love what LIPA’s doing with the SSE Audio Group, taking on students for experience and internships. Clair, too, has developed the Roadie In Training programme to try and overcome the lack of small tour experience. The biggest single source of intake is from Full Sail – so people who’ve already had higher education. I would love to see more courses that work with the industry to place people on events and shows. It’s such a shame that dBS Music’s ‘The Hub’ in Plymouth is closing, as they had their own venue to work in, as well as teaching the formal stuff.”

Andy Davies – LIPA graduate and Meyer Sound technical support

At Central School of Speech & Drama, Peter Rice has just taken over as course leader for Theatre Sound. He describes it as a highly practical course, with several on-going productions that the students work on for the majority of their learning. That – combined with formal workshops, seminars and lectures in the opening weeks of each term – makes up their training.

“My main observation of formal education as a means of training, versus my previous experience of somewhat ‘on the job’ learning, is the extent to which you ask students to formally reflect on their experience,” says Rice. “This is needed as a way of measuring how much they understand about what they’re learning, but importantly it’s also a solid way to compound that learning. At Central we recognise that not everyone is academically equal so we offer the opportunity to present this reflection in a number of ways, either as a formal written submission; a visual essay; a live presentation; or a video or audio presentation. Essentially, some form of recorded reflection is required at the end of each term in order to make sure there is parity right across student learning – and as a way to ratify the degree qualification.

“The main thing that sets Theatre Sound apart, I think, is the dramaturgical understanding – which is interpolated into the sonic delivery. That, and the extensive planning and collaborative skills required to deliver the work, are key. You’re part of a team delivering a text, and that involves an artistic interpretation equally combined with the engineering challenge.”

Pop music

Some things, however, never change. It falls to Al Mouat at Adlib to voice a value that everybody shares across the live sound industry, with Alice Cooper’s gruff vocal ringing in our ears…

“With audio equipment becoming more and more compact,” he says, “you’ll get a lot of people setting themselves up as a business with a small console and various plugins. But the best way to learn is on a 24-channel analogue desk that only has 16 working channels – two of which pop and crackle; a rack with four gates, four compressors and one multi-effects unit; and an XLR loom that’s a bit ropey. If you can work with that and still make it sound good, you’ll probably do all right.”

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