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Published: 15 October 2013

A sound investment

How the School of Arts gave its facilities a new lease of life that will delight the next generation of Tonmeister students.

At a recent reunion for graduates from the University of Surrey's long-running Music and Sound Recording (Tonmeister) degree programme, dozens of alumni gathered to swap stories of how their time at Surrey had prepared them for successful careers in music, in film, in studio design, in television, in audio research, in any and every corner of the audio-related industries where Tonmeister expertise could be put to work. Oscar-winners rubbed shoulders with the winners of Grammy Awards, of Sony Awards and of Mercury Prizes.

It would have been easy for the School of Arts to look at the degree's history of success, reflect on the continuing stream of applications from highly gifted young students keen to secure a precious place as a future Tonmeister, and to rest on its laurels.

The Institute of Sound Recording embarked on an ambitious programme to completely renovate one of its key facilities

Instead, working on the principle that the best time to strengthen is when you are strong, the School's Institute of Sound Recording embarked on an ambitious programme to completely renovate one of the key facilities in the custom-built Performing Arts Technology Studio building.

Studio 3 was created in 1999 as a mixing room with an adjoining overdub booth. Thanks to the way the building was originally constructed, only a little work was required to isolate the space acoustically so that it could be converted from a teaching room into a studio, complete with a powerful Sony OXF-R3 (Oxford) mixing console.

Over the years, this studio proved an invaluable resource to staff and students alike, with the Sony performing an important and reliable role. But after 14 years, both the studio and the console were beginning to show their age. The studio layout was a compromise that made sense when the room was used to replicate a listening room for the purposes of subjective experiments, but now it is seldom used for that. The Sony console was based on the historic DEC-Alpha computer system and became unreliable, occasionally failing to boot up, which was a significant concern, when you consider that an identical unit at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios  recently suffered a fatal failure following the same symptoms.

Over the years, this studio proved an invaluable resource to staff and students alike

So when the opportunity arose to strip the room, improve the acoustics, redesign the layout and bring in a brand new console before the old one finally died, the decision was simple. There's not much that audio engineers enjoy more than shopping for new kit and discussing studio design, so the project was on. Thankfully, the University was  extremely keen to strengthen the professional provision and the international reputation of the Tonmeister degree programme to provide students with a fully professional experience in preparation for audio careers at the highest level of the industry.

But which console? The Sony had performed formidably, so the new desk would have to be just as good and even more flexible to give Tonmeister students experience of equipment and practices from an expanded set of commercial environments. The list of criteria included:

  • Being a fantastic music console
  • Being a fantastic film/TV dubbing console
  • Being a fantastic DAW (digital audio workstation) controller
  • Having flexible surround sound panning for research and new release formats
  • Being representative of commonly used music consoles
  • Being representative of commonly used dubbing consoles
  • Being able to interface with the existing Studer A80 24-track tape machine
  • Being able to instantly recall snapshots and mixes

Running through the shopping list of potentially viable consoles, a winner eventually emerged - the AMS-Neve 88D. That may not mean much to most people, but audio engineers will be drooling at the name. (And even more so when you consider that the studio next door has a console by SSL, the other big name in studio-console manufacturing, giving Tonmeisters vital experience of the equipment used in most of their future workplaces.)

With the new console ordered, new acoustic structural solutions identified and an improved studio layout planned, all that remained was to get on with the job.

First came removal of the wooden frame, floor and ceiling that had been installed to hold the previous acoustic materials, along with hundreds of metres of cabling. Extra layers of chipboard were brought in to stiffen the walls and improve low-frequency performance, onto which a new frame was built to house a new set of acoustic fixtures and the redesigned speaker layout. This would ensure better sound quality in a larger proportion of the rectangular space once the new Neve desk was delivered and installed two-thirds of the way toward the front, rather than in the previous compromise position right at the centre of the room.

The new AMS-Neve console will allow Tonmeister students to practice a wider range of techniques that will open up a variety of exciting new career paths

With structural work complete, the Neve up and running, a new colour scheme applied and nice furnishings installed, Studio 3 can now physically hold more people than before, in comfort, and deliver exceptional sound to them, which makes it suitable for a wider range of useful teaching exercises, including group workshops and collaborative learning. The new console will allow Tonmeister students to practice a wider range of techniques that will open up a variety of exciting new career paths and free up more time in the other studios for music performance and recording. It will even allow academics to pursue research interests using equipment in other studios, such as the new loudspeaker sphere being used to investigate spatial audio and Perceptually Optimised Sound Zones.

When future Tonmeister alumni reunions take place, there will undoubtedly be nostalgia for the old Studio 3 and its venerable Sony Oxford. But there will also be Surrey graduates explaining how the hours of hard work and expert tuition put in at the controls of the Neve in the new Studio 3 meant they were able to go straight out into famous studios around the world and create award-winning, pioneering recordings. That, after all, is what the Tonmeister degree has always been about, and will continue to be for some years to come.