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PXL-Music on the road to success: ‘We started with a blank sheet’

PSNEurope’s Benelux correspondent Marc Maes discovers how audio and music school PXL-Music has gone from strength to strength over the past decade...

The concept of what PXL-Music is today was conceived back in 2005. The campus, located in Hasselt, Belgium, wanted to focus on practical music skills alongside ‘traditional’ music education.

“We started with a blank sheet,” remembers Gert Stinckens, head of the PXL-Music department. “Being part of a publicly-funded organisation, we had to go through the turmoil of intense governmental approvals before we could actually open the doors a decade ago, offering three curricula: Music Performance, Music Management, and Music Engineering (studio and live).”

From day one, the three-year bachelor course was taught by a combination of master-degree lecturers and lecturers with at least 10 years of working experience in a professional music environment. To cater for the necessary lecturers, PXL-Music issued a call in the professional audio sector inviting music engineers and producers.

“The main thought among us was ‘when we get the opportunity to make the school we would have wanted in our early days, this will be a great project’”, comments Frank Duchêne, PXL-Music lecturer in Music Production Analysis. “The university college’s management would lend us an ear throughout the process, even when we indicated the educational importance of an in-line studio, requiring a large format console.”

PXL-Music’s Studio Engineering programme started with three control rooms, equipped with a Toft console for the first-year students, a Neve VR desk in the second year and an SSL Duality console in the final year. Last year, the Toft was replaced by the very first Ark console.

“We want to support the sector and were involved in the development of this new console, Duchêne says. “When Interphase Audio’s Bruno Wynants, manufacturer of the Ark desk, presented the final design we recognised an analogue console which perfectly fits our educational needs,” PXL-Music’s studio education is focusing primarily on ‘what’s under the hood’ and offers a top-notch training programme. “When students finish their curriculum, they know how to creatively work with split, inline and hybrid consoles, DAWs and the latest evolutions in audio technology,” underlines Duchêne.

“One of our lecturers is currently developing a dedicated module on immersive sound for the studio engineering programme. This is mirrored in the live engineering programme. In combination with the Hasselt cultural centre and pro audio distributor Amptec, the plan is to build a centre of excellence.”

Duchêne also states that, in addition to technical skills, PXL-Music attaches major importance to interpersonal and collaborative skills. “Whether it’s analogue or digital, it obviously has to sound good, but students must also learn how to work together within an international context requiring intercultural competences,” continues Duchêne. “We collaborate with schools in Europe through the Erasmus+ programme and also regularly invite inspiring people or audio pioneers to share their knowledge and insights with our students, like producer Ken Scott or recording studio engineer Geoff Emerick. And our annual ‘International Week’ offers an educational stage for international lecturers and students.” 

“The correct attitude is essential,” echoes Erik Loots, sound engineer and lecturer in Live Engineering. “We never studied for our job, and grew organically into it. But we focus on drive and vision when students actually join one of our courses. In the case of the live engineering curriculum, all students start at the bottom of the ladder, loading and unloading gear from the truck, setting microphones, before they actually get to mix their first live set.”

Loots witnessed the birth of PXL-Music from the front row when he was invited to set up the Live Engineer curriculum. One of his first challenges was to draw up a course programme and to convince his colleagues from the live sound business to join him: “Together with the head of the audio programme, Jorg Sacré, I put together the content of the course. Next came the team of engineers-lecturers – we all know each other from the live jobs and I’m happy to say that, today, we have a very efficient team in terms of organisation, planning and examinations.”

Loots continues: “A second challenge was the equipment – in the early days it was ‘make do with what you have’. The lecturers had good working contacts with audio rental companies so we held our lessons in rental warehouses or invited companies over with a set to our school where we had the Muziek-o-droom venue.”

In 2011, PXL-Music invested in a basic analogue set-up consisting of two Soundcraft MH3-32-channel consoles with outboard gear, and for FOH and monitors four Meyer Sound UPA-1A and two USW subs powered by two M1 and one B2A amps. This configuration is still being used in the classes. “With the analogue as a basis, we thought it wise not to invest in large live consoles for the engineer course,” Loots added. “We attend dedicated masterclasses or introductions with the manufacturer or importer – in doing so, our students get to know the people behind the machines.”

PXL-Music’s Live Engineer course is Belgium’s and probably Europe’s only course where students get a three-year full-time education of live audio. “Our students are submerged in all aspects of the job, and that’s where we are unique,” says Loots. “And the effort pays off because our education has become an added value for the live sector. It’s a true mentality shift where we see companies standing in the row to offer internships or jobs to our students.”

Gert Stinckens confirms that PXL-Music is gaining credibility with the professional audio business.

“When we started out we were facing the perception of ‘you cannot learn rock ‘n roll at school, it takes a garage rehearsal room’ or ‘it takes at least 20 years of on-the-spot training to become a sound engineer’. But this perception has shifted and PXL-Music has been providing local and international internships to renowned companies and organisations.

Stinckens also points out that today the standard of the students is incredibly high, as they enter education with a grounding in studio work or live mixing. “This is a generation that has everything on hand via the internet, but they don’t have the ‘gatekeeper’ nor the professional network and I think we play an instrumental role here, together with the students,” he says.

Engineer and producer Koenraad Foesters, an alumnus of PXL-Music’s class of 2015, paid tribute to the course and its benefits. Before commencing his professional audio engineer education at PXL-Music, Foesters made demo-recordings with MIDI-interfaces and worked as recording assistant for Staf Verbeeck. During the curriculum’s final year, Foesters did an internship with producer Peter Katis in the US and today he works in his own Jupiter Studio, taking on recording, mixing, production and post-production.

“The PXL education was very valuable to me – after the three year curriculum, my knowledge was lifted to a higher level, thanks to the skilled and helpful lecturers and the adequate coaching,” he said. “It’s hard work, but the studio technician course is the perfect step-up to a professional career.”

Masters in Ghent

Another key player in Belgium’s audio education sector is Ghent’s School of Arts Music Production education programme, which kicks off the 2018/19 college year with a new recording studio and a 150 capacity concert venue.“ The Music Production programme is quite unique,” says Gert Jacobs, course coordinator. “We’re the only conservatory offering a master degree in music production, pop and jazz music in a five-year curriculum, Ghent’s Club Telex building combining both the musical and technical aspects of music production. All of the lecturers have a professional background in their respective field, from singer/ composers to studio engineers/producers.”

The music production classes and studios are located in the historical Bijloke site – the Jazz and Pop classes were housed in several rented buildings. “We decided to open a new campus and renovated the Paddenhoek- building. It has sufficient room for the Jazz/Pop classes, two control rooms and a 22 by eight metres concert hall,” says Jacobs, adding that since 2017, the Music Production curriculum added Live Mixing as a new course. “We follow the new trend. By adding live mixing to the curriculum, music production students get more experience on hand.”

The new studio is fully Dante-based, offering maximal compatibility with the 20-plus rehearsal and exercise rooms in the building. “The control rooms are equipped with a Pro Tools HD native system, Focusrite RED 4 PRE interfaces and four racks with SSL SB8.8 Dante IO preamps, supplied by Joystick Audio. Furthermore we have KH310 and KH120) Neumann monitor speakers and we’ve expanded our microphone collection both for studio and live performances,” continued Jacobs.

Club Telex, the school’s new concert hall, is equipped with a professional sound system. “The college opened a tender-bid amongst A-brands. Distributor Amptec won the bid and supplied a d&b system consisting of 2 24 S-D tops, 2 21 S subwoofers, powered by one d&b 30D and a tandem of two d&b 10D amplifiers. The mixing console is a Yamaha QL5 digital live mixing desk.”

Jacobs said the venue will serve to promote the music course, with exam concerts, showcases and masterclasses: “We felt like being on an island in the Bijloke site, which continues to exist with the new SSL AWS924 console, but we’re inspiring students to learn to collaborate with other segments of the course.”