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Studio management in an educational environment

Tom Waterman, chief technical officer, Audient Ltd, writes…

In an audio education environment, one thing that we found hugely beneficial was to expose students to a very broad spectrum of tools, people and styles. That may sound obvious, but seemingly many academic institutions spend their yearly budgets on large flagship facilities with perhaps 50% of the budget going on one item (a large console for example). These flagship rooms look great on open days and certainly give the marketing department something to write about when looking to reach next year’s recruitment targets, but do they cater to the entire student cohort? Do they promote an individual learning experience?

Conversely, facilities with multiple rooms or workstations that aim to offer more equilateral environments often strive to provide consistency so that students can transfer work from one room to the other without being disadvantaged. This in turn can lead to a slightly rigid experience for the student with regards to workflow and development.

Consistency often leads to having the same loudspeaker in every room for example, or the same console, the same set of microphones. Which is fine of course, except what happens when a student graduates and enters into an audio job? Yes despite the rumours, there are still jobs in audio, as myself, many of my graduates and friends have found. You have to learn how to adapt to something different, this is much easier to do if you are used to adapting regularly already. Wherever you end up working, one thing is for sure, your training really begins on the job and “house styles” will always be different to whatever you were taught, so being prepared to adapt and having a wide grounding in many areas is essential.

The same equipment or fixed workflow in every room could be seen as analogous to going to an art college where you are only allowed to paint in red oils. Yes it is easier from a facilities management point of view, and a lot more affordable in many ways but is it as much fun and as rewarding for the students in the long run?

Some of the largest and most successful academic institutions now have multi-room facilities with an all-analogue room, a digital room, a mastering room, an editing lab, a 5.1 mix room, an anechoic chamber, a test lab etc. Going to study audio engineering is becoming the last place you can go and experience all of these varied environments next to each other and learn collaboratively!

With increased tuition fees in the UK, universities are looking for ways to add value and bring people through the door. Flagship facilities are one way to do that and big brand name consoles are always a draw, but wouldn’t it be more powerful to spend that budget on as much variance as possible? Or to add value by bundling tools within the tuition fees, a free audio interface upon subscription for example?

Here are a few examples that we have used in the past and a few that we haven’t:

  • Multiple loudspeakers that can be investigated to educate the difference between sealed, ported & transmission line enclosures, everyone has to learn how to conquer the personal journey that is “mix translation”
  • Better acoustics, what good is all that gear in a poorly treated listening space?
  • A variety of bookable outboard such as FET, Opto, VCA and Vari-Mu dynamics to educate the ear and also use as a platform for measurement and modeling, after all what is being copied in plug-in form today, are they accurate? Does that even matter?
  • Old gear (so you learn how to hit it to get it working again)
  • Broken gear (so you can fix it)
  • Cutting edge gear (so you’re seen as current)
  • An Audio Test Measurement set to investigate frequency response, distortion & advanced performance aspects (if the course is technically slanted)
  • A Studio booking and statistics system to increase room efficiency
  • Programming tools, evaluation boards and DSP development kits
  • Guest lectures and visiting tutors so that exposure and networking is increased
  • A consumables budget so that fun things can be done, musical instruments can be built out of scrap objects to teach fundamentals of acoustics & vibration for example
  • An online music subscription for each student so that they can have reference material and playlists for reverse engineering classes as part of their study pack

The list is endless and only limited by the creativity and passion that you choose to put in to facilities development. A good balance of the above is absolutely the right way to equip a teaching facility in my opinion. Exposing a student to a breadth of equipment, different characters and mentoring them to find their own path, style, workflow and adaptability can only be a good thing.

If you find yourself considering a £100,000 recording console, consider a £20,000 one and put £80,000 into a more organic and wide ranging experience.