Friday, July 9, 2010

Raising the Recording Literacy of Musicians

In the June 2008 issue of Mix Magazine, Humber Recording Studio was among a number of new facilities that opened and qualified as one of "The Class of 2008". It was opened in September of 2007 as a key piece of a brand new Bachelor Degree music program offered at Toronto's Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning. The studio featured a 30x30-foot main tracking room with two iso-booths and a 30x20-foot control room equipped with a SSL Duality console. The live room was designed for recording great horn sounds.

As great as the room is, it is only half the story. The new four-year Bachelor of Applied Music – Contemporary Music program as well as the new recording space is the brainchild of Ian Terry, a seasoned engineer / producer who now teaches at Humber, in collaboration with Program Head Denny Christianson and existing faculty.

Ian Terry has over 30-years of experience in audio recording (includes working in the recording scene New York for 14 years) and has engineered and produced over 400 records. Ian also ran a studio in Montreal called Studio Tempo From 1976 to 1996. Artists he has recorded include David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion, Diana Krall, Oscar Peterson and countless others. (He also served as Director for five consecutive years on the executive board of SPARS in the ‘90s). Ian is currently the Head of the Music Production Department at Humber and teaches Aesthetics in Recorded Sound and Master classes in Music Production among other courses.

It is the intent, the philosophy around how the new curriculum was put together that is truly visionary. Consider the fact that there are more people than ever creating music than any other time in history. There are simply not enough trained recording engineers with the right kind and depth of knowledge to properly take care of every artist’s recording needs.

Recognizing also that artist and musicians now have access to a lot of powerful recording tools and basically call the shots on when and where to record, Ian wanted to design a unique curriculum to raise the recording literacy of musicians as one of his main design goals.

It was important for Ian to raise the knowledge level of musicians so they take the responsibility for how their art is produced. The aim of the program is NOT to train musicians to become engineers and learn another craft, but to be able to make informed decisions on where and how to record and the right “who to hire” to get their projects done. Understanding the limitations of what one can do and knowing how to ask for the right kind of help are two important ideas Ian wanted to instill.

Statistically speaking, not everyone has the aptitude nor the desire to be a great musician AND a great recording engineer. Yes, there is that rare person, perhaps one in 10,000, that can do both extremely well, but the focus of the program is being a musician first.

As part of the recording literacy curriculum, students learn the difference between MP3 vs. WAV files; why bit depth of 24-bits and what that means; what is the difference between 96k vs. 192k sample rate; what is mastering; how does mixing in the box compare to mixing using an analog summing box; what do you look for in a studio; what do you look for in an engineer; how do all these factors affect how the music actually sounds?

In order to teach all these concepts, they needed a room to be able to demonstrate and have students hear and experience firsthand what it means to record in a quality facility.

During the first two years of the program, students focus on musicianship and performance. In their third year, students begin taking engineering and production related courses. All students in this program must complete a recording project / portfolio in their fourth year. For the recording project course, 70% of the effort is focused on one’s own recorded performance as an artist and 30% on producing an artist other than themselves. A professional recording engineer is brought in as well as a mastering engineer to finish each of their projects in the form of a final recording. This professional-quality recording, along with a complete press kit and other promotional materials, become part of the assembled portfolio, which will function as a student's calling card for entrance into the music industry upon graduation.

The program is in its fifth year and the second graduating class has just finished up. As the relatively new curriculum solidifies, Ian has seen a marked improvement in the quality of project work from increased focus on recorded music production. With 75 students and only one room available, students must complete 3-4 tunes in 16-hours. The limited resources force students to make the most efficient use of time both in and outside the studio, simulating real life situations. Pre-production becomes a much more critical part of the entire process.

Ian states it in another way: “If you have a $5,000 recording budget, the artist has to make intelligent artistic decisions to figure out how to allocate resources and to consciously know what quality level to shoot for. That translates to knowing when to go into a studio and when not to and make deliberate decisions on which particular audio set up and gear to use.”

The program has proven so successful that it has attracted a lot of notice and talent with 1,100 to 1500 applicants vying for just 100 openings each year.

A tagline used by a clothing and shoe retailer called SYMS, states that “an educated consumer is our best customer.” This is holds even truer for recording studios.

** Thanks to Don Wershba at SSL for introducing me to Ian Terry.

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