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Inside Nottingham’s Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies

Phil Ward discovers that those who can do, especially if they trained in Nottingham

Greg Marshall, director of operations at Confetti Media Group

When Jools Holland stepped up to receive the inaugural ‘Confetti’ Award last month, he was impressed. As a guest at an evening to mark 25 years of the Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies in Nottingham city centre, he addressed fellow celebrities, local civic leaders, alumni, staff and students with fulsome praise for the facility which, just in time for this milestone, had completed a three-year project of epic proportions.

Christened ‘Metronome’, it’s the centrepiece of Confetti’s Creative Technology Campus and is described as a ‘music and live events hub’. Importantly, it is no hermetically sealed academy but a real gig taking hard cash from paying punters, just as its recording and broadcast studios have real-world interfaces. The education at Confetti is both Further and Higher, and over 2,000 students currently learn inside it.

Adding to the campus’s already generous estate – green screen VFX studio; motion capture studio; gaming, VFX and animation studios and classrooms; TV production galleries; film studios and screening rooms – Metronome boasts six recording studios and four edit suites, 14 rehearsal rooms and a 400-capacity live venue, designed and built in a unique collaboration between staff and students at Confetti ICT and White Mark, the acoustic and technical design market leader.

The Marshall plan

Greg Marshall is director of operations at Confetti Media Group (CMG), the association of enterprises that occupy Confetti ICT. His in-tray is full: it includes both management of the entire estate as it is and project management of all future facility development from planning to build – a role that now extends beyond Confetti ICT itself to third-party clients. Meanwhile, group-wide AV support, local TV broadcast management and the design of the new AV infrastructure all came under the auspices of CTO Joe Duckhouse and his team. “Most of the facilities are used for education,” confirms Marshall, “but the Confetti mantra has always been ‘do it for real’ so there’s a lot of industry activity directly related to it. For instance, we run Notts TV, the local channel, and most of the crew are students on the film and TV courses. It means when they graduate they’ve already got hundreds of hours of live broadcast under their belts, while thanks to the Metronome live venue that we’ve just built with White Mark, our live and technical events students are learning in a real venue.”

The studios are real, too, placing students on genuine commercial projects with top-notch equipment. “Because there’s lots of cross-pollination between our students on their various courses,” continues Marshall, “there’s a strong mixed economy of education and commercial activities right next door to each other.”

The fresh intakes each year inter-leave with the graduating students as they depart for glittering careers to maintain a constant flow of talented staff, although a few – like Marshall himself – stay on to run the place and replenish the teaching body. In fact, Marshall was one of the first intake back in 1994 and his time here coincides with the 25th anniversary celebrated at the gala evening in November.

It’s well worth re-quoting star guest Jools Holland’s comments on that night, because they sum up the potential of the site to make a huge mark on the international scene at every level: “I am honestly amazed at the mind bogglingly brilliant facilities you have here,” the ex-Squeeze pianist said. “The studios I have seen are better than any I have seen anywhere. And the students I met were so engaged because they love what they do. They have such great opportunities. I haven’t seen anything like this before and I am sure this place will soon be on the global map.”

Since Confetti was acquired by Nottingham Trent University in 2015, the institution that now ratifies all of the degree courses, investment has burgeoned to £15 million over the past three years. Working closely with White Mark, Marshall has been at the heart of it, putting every moment of his 25 years in the industry into this re-thinking of possibilities. Having gone through the digital revolution in person, he upholds the pedagogical value of the analogue signal chain as do most pro audio educational and training facilities. Accordingly, there are not only multitrack analogue tape machines in service but also a lathe for cutting vinyl, with resident expert. However, an equally valid – and very modern – principle is reflected in the holistic connectivity of the entire site and all of the various disciplines within it.

“The facility is 3,500sqm,” Marshall points out, “a pretty epic building, with a full Dante network across every single room. A few weeks ago, we had the guys from BBC Introducing here: showcasing new talent on stage with proper sound reinforcement; Dante outputs to Studio One where it was mixed by the BBC’s Andy Rogers on an SSL Duality, with degree students all sat around for a masterclass; more Dante outputs to Studio Three where another group of students were mastering the material; and the output of that going to the cutting room where it was cut live to vinyl. All the bands had a song each cut to vinyl which then went to BBC Introducing legend Dean Jackson to play on his show.

“There were 60-plus students involved in that whole process, including Live and Technical Events students working on stage management, artist liaison, lights or sound reinforcement. That’s what I mean by a mixed economy of entertainment technology and management, mingled with analogue and digital workflow. We can do some crazy things when the situation demands it…”

Confetti ICT students are essentially Nottingham Trent University students, with access to all of the accommodation, resources and leisure facilities that a leading UK alma mater can provide. The city weaves together its cultural threads with unusual intimacy anyway, and so Confetti stands today as something of a jewel in the crown of Nottingham’s vibrant urban empire. Indeed, as a wholly owned subsidiary, it adds considerable kudos to the campus of University departments dotted around the city centre and pays back a lot of that investment with considerable human interest.

The cornerstones of the industry are represented by several courses across music technology, recording, performance and live production; games and digital media; and film and television production and post-production, now with facilities in each discipline to match any in the world – it has been compared independently to Full Sail, the Florida campus often considered a flagship for global industry training.

In a white room

The emphasis on rock-solid audio is music to David Bell’s ears. As founding director of White Mark, he is more aware than anyone of the need to provide students with a truly critical listening environment. When commissioned to tackle Metronome, he saw a golden opportunity to make design statements worth hearing – and seeing.

“This is up there with our best work anywhere in the world,” he asserts, while referring to the brief to provide the kind of real-world operability to make a thousand colleges green with envy. “You rarely get the opportunity to build something so large and comprehensive, and it has everything we know in it!”

The concert venue is where theatre almost meets studio live room, such is the spec. “You can be as legally loud as you like,” Bell points out, “and you can’t hear a thing in the apartments above. The whole auditorium is floated in such a way as to allow classes of five people doing a soundcheck to be in there, or an audience of 400 people.”

On the recording side, Studio One in the basement has a generous height and a spec to match a studio recently completed by White Mark in the Bahamas, despite the latter costing more than the entire Nottingham campus. “They’re designed to be effective for the cost, but the isolation is superb,” continues Bell. “I’ve been in educational facilities’ studios where you can hear the floor polisher three floors up.”

Even the edit-control rooms in the post-production suites are connected to the live rooms. “The isolation is good enough that you can do voice-overs in a booth in Studio Two while a band is recording in the booth to its left.”

While remaining multi-functional – a suite might be used for mastering or sound design for games – every room is acoustically accurate if not exclusively optimised for one or another function. And it seems White Mark and Confetti have more to come, with or without Jools, Later…

“Working with Greg is fantastic,” reflects Bell, “with the building chiefs – woodwork, concrete – actually in the design meetings with us. It’s a really close team. We’re now working on a project in Sheffield, and it’s great to have them on board.”