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Educational upgrade fuels recording and radio investment in Belgium

Both the Mechelen-based Thomas More University College as well as the Ghent School of Arts have recently opened a new learning environment, catering for the needs of the professional broadcast and audio recording industry. And whereas, in Ghent, analogue is the key-word, the radio studio in Mechelen opted for digital.

At Thomas More, The ‘Bachelor International Journalism’ higher education programme added a new radio studio.

“This year, the radio classes count twice as much students than the ‘print’ education – I suppose the popularity of radio stations like Q adds to the fact that more and more youngsters are attracted to radio.” says Nelles De Caluwe, coordinator studio and editing at Thomas More.

As a result of the course’s popularity, with over 130 students signing up for the 2016-2017 academic year, De Caluwe had to expand the programme’s radio landscape.

“The idea is that our students learn the practice of making radio. Their bachelor degree should allow them to work in any radio studio. Thomas More’s radio education’s lecturers all have professional radio background,” he explains.

The current radio inventory consists of a basic mobile radio studio, used for location broadcasts, which consists of a D&R Airmate USB portable console and 2 RØDE Broadcaster microphones.

A second radio studio is equipped with an analogue Datec BC50 console, an RME Fireface 802 60-channel, 24-bit 192kHz USB/FireWire Audio Interface plus three RØDE Broadcaster microphones. “With some 30 students in the third degree, we absolutely needed an extra studio, using one specific studio configuration in each year of the education,” De Caluwe says.

The new on-air studio was built around an Axia QOR.16 integrated console engine, using an Axia Radius IQ8 digital radio desk supplied by radio equipment distributor TVV Sound. “The main reason we opted for Axia is the brand’s user-friendliness,” underlines De Caluwe. “And we’ve absolutely wanted a digital console in the new room. With the new Axia desk we have the option to attribute dedicated user rights: our students log in to both the console and software and get access to certain functionalities like interviews, phone-in or a music programme, without changing the basic settings of the system.” Two RØDE Broadcaster mics, controlled by an Audiotechnica ATMX341b 4 mic mixer, a Tascam headphone amplifier MK40 MkII, one Tascam CD-500 19-inch CD player and two JBL SR305 monitors complete the set-up.

The connectivity between the console, automation software and streaming software is effected through Livewire – the audio signal is channelled through an Omnia ONE Studio Pro processor before the actual streaming and live output in the college hall.

De Caluwe says students are encouraged to use the studios as much as possible, also outside class hours (“Radio is something you do” is De Caluwe’s adage) – in this respect, the third radio studio is a valuable asset in the education. The on air studio is used to produce programme content for the college’s 21BIS media platform and radio stations like Radio Randstad, FM Brussel and Urgent. “The choice for Axia and LiveWire is part of our idea that content prevails over technicality – we’re not a studio engineer education, although our students must be prepared for today’s on-air radio studios,” he says. “These days, we’re preparing the second year’s group practices: the assignment is to produce a one hour radio show, including music, interview, editing, presentation and engineering (‘self-op’ is taught in the third year of the education).”

In Ghent, the School of Arts’ Music Production education programme renewed its recording studio landscape and put in place an SSL AWS924 console (right).

The current School of Arts unites two ancient and renowned institutions; the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) and The Royal Conservatory – departments of the University College Ghent since 1995, with more than 18,000 students the largest university college in Flanders.

“The Music Production programme is part of the ‘Bachelor and Master of Music’ education, and is quite unique in its kind,” explains Gert Jacobs, coordinator of the education. “We stand out because we combine both the musical as well as the technical aspect of music production. All students get a thorough music theory education, focusing on composing music as well as arranging and producing for other artists.”

In the first two years of the education, students mostly work in a small studio using a Toft ATB32 analogue console. In the third year, a digital D-Command console was the students’ workstation, and is now replaced by the SSL AWS924, supplied and installed by Benelux SSL distributor Joystick Audio. “We have been one of the School Of Arts’ partners from the very start of their Music Production course, equipping the studio with the highest level of outboard gear, microphones and monitoring. For the upgrade of the centrepiece of the studio, the SSL AWS console came out as the ideal solution, meeting both their educational demands as well as offering the best sonic quality, in line with the rest of the studio,” comments Mathijs Indesteege, product support engineer at Joystick Audio.

Jacobs points out that the upgrade was essential for the future of the education. “We built the first studio in 2005 but, today, we feel it’s time to catch up with the evolution in the professional studio sector. We also got feedback from students on internships in studios that they felt there was a vacuum between our studio and the big studios with large format consoles,” he explains. “The AWS924 is the logical next step after having learned to work with the Toft. We want to continue challenging our students to take critical decisions, routing, recording and summing before entering Pro Tools. The analogue signal flow is an absolute bonus.”

In 2015, the studio upgrade was initiated when the control room was completely stripped. Dutch company Audioworkx was assigned for a completely new acoustic treatment. Last year, the Pro Tools Accel was upgraded to a Pro Tools HDX system with AVID HD I/O interface.

“We issued critical parameters for the new studio configuration,” continued Jacobs. “It had to offer room for at least a dozen students, and operational round the clock. Students usually work in the studio in four to five-hour blocks and the clock is ticking… That’s why opted for a compact console with a straight link to the professional studio world.”

Jacobs says the SSL AWS924 therefore was the best choice. “The console has all the features of a bigger desk; extensive routing options, an uncomplicated and clear one-on-one signal flow, comprehensive metering with analogue VU meters, the SSL Bus compressor and, of course Total Recall,” he says. “The Total Recall option comes in handy because students very often work in multiple sessions – they can now record the session and continue their homework or task after the lecturer’s feedback. In addition to all this, the AWS is very user-friendly for our students, making it the best option for educational purposes.”

The console was expanded with an SSL X-Rack with 8 Dynamics modules in expansion of the AWS’s onboard channel compressors. With an outboard set including among others a Bricasti 7M reverb, a Gyraf Audio EQ and compressor, API and Slate Pro Audio preamps, two Distressors and a Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture distortion enhancer, plus PMC IB1S and AML monitoring, Jacobs is convinced having reached a professional level for the studio education. The faculty also continues to invest in high quality microphones and recently added a Josephson Engineering C700S, e22S, C42MP, C617set to their inventory.

Consequently, two API 3124 preamps were relocated to the Toft console studio, resulting in a ‘light’ upgrade of that facility, which was recently expanded with two Warm Audio WA76 compressors and two Warm Audio EQP-WA tube equalizers.

A crucial part in the Production programme roster are assignments like recording external bands or musical ensembles – Jacobs cites the examples of Belgian bands Balthazar and Amatorski, where former students combined the role of musician and producer in their band.

With lecturers like Jacobs, who formerly worked as in-house engineer at Galaxy Studio, and guest lecturers such as engineer/producers Werner Pensaert, Jan Chantrain and Reinhard Vanbergen, the music production faculty brings expertise to the class control rooms. For the faculty’s master exam, each student has the option to pick a professional mentor guiding him through the test.

“Personally, I think that the new control room is a dream come true for everyone. Plus the fact that students can learn to use the analogue signal flow process, and the grip on analogue thinking and decision-making. From thinking ‘in the box’ with a mic and pre-amp they now deal with producing sound ‘on the spot’,” concludes Jacobs.