Inside University of Westminster’s new high-end studio complex

Having heard the University of Westminster now claims to offer recording facilities that most high-end commercial studios would be proud of, Adam Savage took a trip to the Harrow Campus to see for himself…

It’s not that often that we focus heavily on a recent studio build at a college or university – after all, why would our professional readership care about new facilities designed for those just starting out? – but bear with me here.

First of all, take a look at the main image of this article. Does that look like the kind of set-up you would expect to find at a specialist audio college, let alone a university? I expect your answer is ‘no’, but that’s what around 300 music and audio production students enrolled at the University of Westminster’s Harrow Campus now have available to them. 

That’s right, I’m sure some of you have spent years begging for the chance to be let loose in a studio equipped with an SSL Duality console, PMC’s flagship monitors, TubeTech outboard and much more besides, and now you discover that all this can currently be found in the grubby hands of some kids who are only just beginning their audio journey? Oh, the irony.

Sorry about that, but let’s look at the good news: surely this is a clear sign of how far pro-audio education has progressed in recent years – at least in terms of the quality of kit on offer – and can you really argue against giving these young people the chance to learn on some truly high-end gear right from the off? Well that was the main objective here, according to Alan Fisher, previously acting dean and head of the university’s music department, and now consultant.

“Our philosophy is to only introduce students to equipment that is industry standard. We realised some years ago that we needed an acoustically accurate recording studio that was of sufficient size to accommodate a large group of students,” he says. “It has taken five years to accomplish our mission, but the University of Westminster now has a facility that is easily on a par with commercial recording studios, enabling us to educate students on the techniques and skills they need to progress in the real world.”

And if the Duality wasn’t surprising enough, it’s also home to the first PMC QB1A main monitors – the kind that were installed at New York City’s Capitol Studios recently – in Europe, as well as vast quantities of Van Damme analogue Blue Series, video, HDMI, data and control cable, along with connectors, patchbay and studio hardware – all supplied by VDC Trading. There are also 5.1 surround systems featuring PMC’s twotwo 8 speakers in the control room, adjacent live room with variable acoustics and in three other spaces across the facility.

What’s more, the control room is permanently linked to the university’s existing live spaces, including Area 51, a large onsite performance area boasting an L-Acoustics ARCS Focus PA and Avid VENUE SC48 consoles, courtesy of SSE Audio Group – enabling concerts and gigs to be recorded.

Going All-Out

In fact, there was a lot more to the installation than just the main centrepiece, as Bill Ward, director of Langdale Technical Consulting, explains: “This was a big install with an SSL control room housing the 48-channel Duality console, a machine room, live area, vocal/drum booth, three rehearsal rooms, two performance rooms, a fully equipped live venue and, just for good measure, two further spaces allocated for future use and expansion,” he comments.

“We designed a complex multi-room system and I have to say Westminster University now has in its possession one of the finest audio recording facilities to be found at any university in the world.”

Designed by Peter Keeling of Studio People, the facility’s impressive spec is largely down to the work of studio manager Colm O’ Rourke (pictured) – along with other members of the faculty – while Yan Gilbert-Miguet and Neil Bola of Academia took responsibility for sourcing and supplying the gear.

“It was a collaborative process, particularly for the big-ticket items such as the console and the monitors,” O’Rourke explains. “We listened to a number of different monitors but the only ones that really impressed us were the PMCs. Although we all have very different musical tastes and different views on what a good monitor should sound like, PMC was the only brand on which we could all agree.

“We are now using 48 channels of Prism Sound ADA-8XR I/O in our new control room and the sound we get is exceptional – very natural and with no coloration at all.

“We’ve got a top-class facility – well we’ve got two, as we’ve also got Area 51 and we know that’s really up to scratch for the live side of things.”

And as for the console, getting hold of a board of this quality had been on the university’s wish list for some time, partly as a way of fulfilling demands that weren’t exactly easy to meet. “It was the one thing that students would give feedback to us about,” O’Rourke reveals, “so we were confident if we only installed equipment with a global reputation for excellence, we would attract the best students from around the world to study with us.”

“As part of the deal our engineers have been certified by SSL on the Duality and the [existing SSL] AWS, and to put that on our website or outside out tech office is really attractive for students. My staff get a great kick out of that.” 

The Best of Both

The new desk’s hybrid approach, which allows students to combine a traditional analogue path – SSL’s SuperAnalogue inputs, mix bus and processing – with DAW control and integration on the same surface was also key for O’ Rourke, who was keen to stress the importance of passing down both modern and classic recording techniques to the next generation, and used the outboard versus plug-ins debate as an example.

“We don’t dictate to our students, we say ‘OK, here’s the plug-in version and here’s the real thing’ and we’ll line them all up, play three versions and ask them to tell us which they think is the best,” he says.

“Until we do that they won’t come in here with the idea that a Duality is going to sound better than their Waves plug-ins, but we let them listen and decide. We’ve kept three studios heavily on outboard, and this [the main control room, with space for up to 25 students at a time] is one of them. The idea is to give them both experiences. 

“What we want to do with our students is say ‘there are all the plug-ins that you need, and there’s all the hardware, so you learn how to use them and we’ll show you how it all works. We’re not going to tell you which is best; you’re going to find out yourselves.’”

O’ Rourke has been succeeding with this method of ensuring proficiency with both analogue and digital equipment – but allowing the class to pick their own preferences – for some time now, and relishes that moment when the student realises they’ll need a lot more than just a laptop and some software when they take their first steps in the real world.

“We get in students who think they know a lot before they do, and when they come in they will have used the plug-ins, they’ll have done a certain amount of in-the-box mixing, but by the time they leave they’re generally different people entirely,” he continues. “They’ve discovered what a mixing desk does, what a proper room does and why you would spend so much money on monitors, and that gives us a lot of pleasure actually.

“And to be able to give them a facility where we know the monitors are excellent, the room is excellent and the desk is excellent – that gives us an awful lot of pleasure too.

“We’re probably the biggest course in the university now, which is weird considering we were the smallest when we started 16 years ago.”

Some might argue it’s almost a bit of a shame that there’s now a new studio in London bursting with high-end kit, yet out of the reach of pro users, but there are plans in place to allow producers and engineers to use the facilities out of term time, and make the studios useful to non-students in other ways.

“The university is also developing some interesting links with external organisations such as the BBC, providing a Maida Vale-style service to the BBC Introducing initiative, and British Underground in promoting their acts,” reveals Fisher. “Students from TV and Music get the opportunity to work on these projects, which gives them real experience while they are still studying. This is definitely a benefit to everyone involved and something we are keen to expand.” 

Photos: Mike Banks