They say small is beautiful, and nowhere is that idea better illustrated than in the tiny attic studio belonging to Rose Rylands, recent graduate of the BA Creative Music Technology degree course at University College Scarborough. Located high in the attic of a tall Victorian house, Rose's studio looks out directly onto the Yorkshire moors, and from where she sits in front of her master keyboard and PC the view is simply breathtaking. An ideal working environment, you might think, perfectly suited to harnessing creative impulses. Get up out of the comfortable studio chair, however, and the negative aspects of the studio become rather more apparent — or at least they did to a certain visiting SOS writer, who was unable even to stand up straight thanks to the sloping roof!
Rose's studio is certainly the smallest I've ever been in, but that doesn't make it any less useful as a place to work and record. This is where she did much of the editing and sample‑based composition which netted her a 2:1 degree with honours, and she has successfully recorded guitarists and vocalists here.
The studio came about in this tiny attic as a result of Rose's need for a project studio in which to complete work for her course. To save money while on the three‑year course, she lived full‑time in a mobile home on a caravan site on the edge of the moors, where space was at even more of a premium than in her studio. Fortunately, Rose's parents live only a few miles from the caravan site, and they offered her the use of the old attic box room at the top of their house.
Born into a musical family — her mother was a semi‑professional opera singer — Rose has been a poet and predominantly guitar‑based singer/songwriter for most of her life, but never owned her own recording gear until a few years ago. During the '80s, she was a successful international sales rep, and travelled the world before settling in Sydney, Australia to found her own decorating business. A serious car accident changed the course of her life in 1991, and she decided to take a break from the workplace, return to England, and reeducate herself with the money she had made. She did an Access course to bring herself up to higher education standard, then followed up with a National Diploma in music and film.
During this period, Rose also joined a band, and after a couple of years of bad experiences with poor live sound, she became determined to learn more about sound engineering for herself. "After so many bad live sound experiences, I had decided I'd be better off working desks myself. Also, I wanted a career change, and I knew that music technology was a growing area."
Investigating the available Music Technology courses near her home, Rose made a discovery. A new honours course in Creative Music Technology was starting up at nearby University College Scarborough, now University of Hull Scarborough Campus. "I went in through clearing, and really talked my way in at the interview. I said to the guy that I played guitar, and just impressed on him how much I wanted to do the course. I wasn't going to take no for an answer."
Rose succeeded in persuading the course organisers to give her a place, but her problems were only just beginning. Firstly, this was the first time the course had been run at Scarborough, meaning that equipment, resources, and suitably trained tutors were initially in short supply at the college. Secondly, Rose herself had a lot of theoretical ground to cover very quickly on the recording side. Ironically, her experience of live sound mixing began to widen as she started at Scarborough, though not because of the course itself. "At about the same time as I started the course, I was asked by some friends in a five‑piece a capella group, Henwen, if I could do their live sound for them. I went all over the UK with them to theatres and festivals, including the Edinburgh Fringe. That gave me plenty of experience of different live sound equipment, venues, and acoustics, but when I started the course I still had no recording experience. I knew a bit about effects from live work, but nothing about computers, for example. I was virtually computer‑illiterate, and MIDI was a new world to me. It was all a bit scary — I was older than anyone else on the course, and the only woman, too. I felt a bit of a dinosaur, to be honest!
"Most of the tutors at the college at the time were really just music teachers who didn't have any specific knowledge of music technology, but luckily there was one guy there — Tim Ward — who was drafted in from Manchester to teach us the technical side of things, and he was brilliant. It was Tim who drew up the spec list for my studio, and for my PC."
Owning your own studio was not a prerequisite of the course, but Rose soon realised it would be hard for her to manage without one. "A number of people on the course purchased their own equipment. If you really wanted to spend time on your work and you were serious about it, you just couldn't get sufficient time at the college studio, especially when assessment periods were coming up. Obviously, the college only had so much equipment and a lot of students, so it had to be booked out in twohour slots. The computers were always breaking down through over‑use as well. Ironically, the gear they had there got better every year, and I understand that now I've left it's state of the art! But it was never ideal, and it was a long way for me to go for just a couple of hours in the studio. Also, because I was a learner when I started, a couple of hours' studio time went nowhere!"
Tim Ward specified a basic budget system for Rose, which still forms the core of her setup today: a Windows PC with an Emagic Audiowerk8 soundcard and a printer to handle score and essay printing, Emagic's Logic Discovery to take care of sequencing (and to maintain compatibility with the college, where Logic was also used), a Spirit Folio SX mixer, an Alesis Nanosynth sound module and Roland A33 master keyboard. External effects duties were initially taken care of by a Zoom 1204, but after it was stolen from Rose's caravan, she replaced it with a Behringer Virtualiser Pro. The gear was supplied by Wakefield retailers KGM, who were recommended by Tim. Rose later added a portable Minidisc recorder, so she could master from Logic into stereo and complete tracks at home without the need to use the college studio. "I did make use of the college in my last year, to record things like sax, flute, violins and drums, which I couldn't really do in my tiny studio. I also mixed there sometimes, because they had better desks. But when it suited me to do so, I could remain autonomous, master coursework to Minidisc here, and then just put it onto DAT in the college and hand it in."
The course saw Rose undertaking various projects, including composing music and sound effects for short films. She managed this task in her attic studio, too, by bringing a silent film home as a Quicktime video file, loading it into Logic and adding music and sound effects there. But it was the Electro‑acoustics part of the course which really enthused her, to the extent that she bought her own Akai S3000XL, and created several projects based around manipulating vocal phrases in the sampler (see the 'Vocals and Sampling' box elsewhere in this article).
"People did ask me why I bothered to buy a sampler for work like that. I know everyone is taking everything into the computer now, with software samplers like EXS24, but I think even if I could have done that then, I wouldn't have wanted to. I didn't want to do everything on screen. Also, the Akai is absolutely robust and reliable. My experience of computers even then was that they're not very reliable and you can lose things. I prefer to keep the computer's role as simple as possible — it's a recording tool, and that's it."
This last comment hints at some of the problems Rose has had with the computer‑based part of her system. She admits that initially some of these were due to her inexperience, but it is clear that she had her fair share of bad luck too. "Specifying the PC was a minefield to me, because I just didn't have enough knowledge of computers. Two guys came from KGM to install it, Matt and Dig, and I drove them crazy ringing them up all the time... asking them how things worked, and getting them to talk me through everything. And there were things that didn't work — the Jaz drive crashed about two weeks after they brought it in, and we had to reinstall all that. Essentially, though, it was fairly stable — until I had to start upgrading. Then I ran into real problems.
"One example of this was when the college upgraded all their computers and replaced all the worn‑out Jaz drives with CD burners. I hadn't realised how specialised computer systems for music are, so I just took the computer to a local PC shop to get a CD burner put in. At the time I had Windows 95 on my PC, and it was working perfectly. The guy rang me later and said 'I'm really sorry, but this CD writer's not compatible with Windows 95'. I was in a hurry, so I told him to do the upgrade, on his assurance that it wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, Windows 98 was full of bugs, and I couldn't get any MIDI working, because I didn't have the right MME driver. I didn't know that at first, though, and nor did he! The final straw was that I looked on the box for this CD writer and it said quite clearly there that it was compatible with Windows 98 and 95... the guy just didn't know what he was doing. I reckon he'd had some trouble installing the software for the CD writer under Windows 95 and just assumed it wasn't compatible! Fortunately, there's a lad near where I live who is an absolute whizz with PC computer music systems. He put it all back together, and the only conflict I have now is with the printer.
"Everyone I knew was using PCs, and so was the college, so I had to have one — but if I was doing it again, I'd have a Mac any day. They're just better computers, and more stable."
However, it wasn't just PC hardware conflicts which bedevilled Rose's system. She had stability problems with software, too, and once again, she feels they were caused by upgrading. "I loved Logic Discovery, which is what I was using at first, but then the college upgraded to Logic Gold and all my troubles started. Once you upgrade one piece of software or hardware, it feels like you have to upgrade everything else for it all still to work, and half the time, when you're upgrading something like Logic, you just get loads of extra features that you don't even want to use anyway. I think software companies should really get back to basics. A music computer system is just supposed to be a glorified tape recorder that you can edit with, after all.
"I didn't find Logic very user‑friendly, either — and the manual is unreadable. It wants putting on the bonfire! So again, I was constantly ringing people up, like the Logic help line at Sound Technology [UK Emagic distributors — Ed]. But there's only a couple of guys there to cover the whole country, which strikes me as a bit mad. Sometimes it'd take ages to get through. Fortunately, when I did, they were brilliant. I was often on the phone for an hour taking up some poor sod's time, but they wouldn't let me go until they had sorted out my problem."
You might have expected all of these difficulties to have left their mark on Rose, and she admits that they affected her creativity during her course, but she remains positive. "I did find — and I think this applied to a lot of the people on my course — that I was spending a lot of my time sorting out PC problems, and not thinking about the music. But it was making mistakes that taught me the most! That and having my own place in which to learn. The level of competence I have at this now is entirely down to me having my own equipment. I've been able to practise routine things in a variety of different ways, and I've learnt how to use the Device Manager on the computer properly, and so on. I didn't have a clue about all that three years ago. I've learnt a phenomenal amount, and together with the live experience I've picked up from working with the a capella group, I feel I have a whole new set of skills."
At the time of my visit, Rose had graduated, and was beginning the hunt for engineering work, either in the recording or live sound arenas. She did some live sound mixing at the local Whitby World music festival last summer, and continues to tour as live sound engineer with Henwen. With her undoubted ability and characteristic determination, she deserves nothing less than success. But she remains modest to the last. "Basically, I'm just trying to find something to do that I enjoy, because when you enjoy what you do, you do it well."
- Pentium PC running Windows 98.
- Emagic Logic Audio Gold v4 sequencer.
- Alesis Nanosynth sound module.
- Akai S3000XL sampler.
- Spirit Folio SX 12‑channel mixer.
Initially, Rose had no sampler of her own, but the coursework for the Electro‑acoustics part of her course so interested her that she got one. "We were expected to create our own electro‑acoustic compositions as coursework, recording real sounds and transforming them. A lot of people were doing this nasty stuff based on sound, taking bangs and scratches, sampling them and creating 'sound collages'... 'intellectual' stuff like that. I'm a bit too musical for that kind of thing, though, I hate it — so I chose to use voices as the basis for my work. I love the human voice — I think it's the finest instrument on earth. Also, I'm a singer myself, I was working with the a capella group and it just seemed to make sense. So I did a lot of sampling of vocalists with very fine voices and manipulated them in a sampler, then triggered them from a keyboard to create new compositions. At first, I used a friend's sampler at his studio in Whitby, but I was so converted to sampling that I bought my own Akai S3200XL. That really transformed everything.
"I recorded vocalists with my SM58 into both the sampler and the computer simultaneously via my mixer, so I could keep a copy in the computer and resample if I wanted. For my final presentation, I put together a 20‑minute piece to play during an exhibition of a friend's abstract paintings, made up of singing voices slowed down in the sampler and triggered from the A33, with some vibrato added with the mod wheel. I also did lots with the EQ in Logic to bring out some of the odder frequencies, and layered the voices to create rhythms and textures. As the piece progressed, I layered in more chanting voices at their normal speed, transformed with just delays and reverb. That gave a nice range throughout the piece from bass voices at the start through the mid‑range to the non‑pitch‑shifted soprano voices at the end.
"I did the mix in quadraphonic at the college, so the music was moving around the room as people walked about looking at the paintings. I took it in to the University on CD as a multi‑channel Logic file, then ran it off to an ADAT there, and mixed from that into quad. But the basic material was all recorded here in my attic, with just some reverb and effects from my Behringer. I thought it sounded lovely, although I did wish I'd had a condenser mic!"
"Studio gear — even a relatively cheap system like mine — is very expensive, and companies are all too happy to sell it to you, but where's the support after that? Sometimes it seems as though the sales departments of these places are the most efficient parts of the company. Where is the help and the backup? For the amount of money you spend, they should offer more in the way of support, because this is very complicated equipment, and it takes a lot to learn your way around it."
Setting the right DAT recording level: SOS January 1995. Noise and how to avoid it: SOS May 1995. A Concise Guide to Compression & Limiting: SOS April 1996. The Mysteries of Metering: SOS May 1996.Minimising Mixer and Effects Noise: SOS July 1996.
- Alesis Nanosynth.
- Roland A33 master keyboard.
- Behringer Virtualiser Pro multi‑effects.
"I like the Behringer, which I saw in an ad in SOS, and I think it has the edge over my old Zoom technically. It has a Split mode which allows you to put different effects on the Left and Right channels, and loads of different types of reverb. They're also all written out on the top panel, which is really useful."
- Shure SM58 dynamic mic.
- Spirit Absolute Zero Monitors.
- Spirit Folio SX 12‑channel mixer.
COMPUTERS & SOFTWARE
- Emagic Logic Audio Gold v4 MIDI + Audio sequencer.
- Pentium PC running Windows 98, with Emagic Audiowerk8 soundcard, built‑in CD burner, and printer.
- Sonic Foundry Acid loop‑based composition software.
- Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro audio editor.
- Akai S3000XL.
- Minidisc Recorder for stereo mastering.
- Iomega Jaz drive for transporting projects.