Why many modern educational facilities aren’t up to scratch

Stephen Bennett speaks to White Mark managing director David Bell about why he feels a worrying number of new media centres for students are not meeting the required standards.

Someone said – it was either Whitney Houston or Aristotle – that “the children are our future” and this is as true in the field of audio as it is elsewhere. The training and education of the next generation of young engineers is paramount if the industries surrounding creative practices are to prosper. This concern for the future was expressed in an open letter published recently, with the signatories reading as a ‘who’s who’ of expertise across a range of industry professions, including Richard Boote, the owner of AIR Studios and Strongroom and Ivor Taylor, director of GCRS.

The signatories claim that the practical facilities being constructed by the UK-based education sector are falling far short of those required to train the next generation of audio professionals. They write: “In recent years we have become increasingly concerned about the standard of newly built educational facilities in the UK. On a number of occasions, we have been called in to consult on new buildings where users (students and teaching staff) were worried that performance was unsatisfactory and, often, significantly worse than the buildings that were being replaced.”

David Bell, director of White Mark, is also a signatory. The company prides itself on a rigorous scientific approach to acoustic design and has built and equipped some of the most recognised audio facilities in the world, including many in the educational sector. Bell is concerned that this is a situation that has become increasingly problematic and feels that the decision to bring this issue to the attention of the industry was timely and important.

“There are media centres being constructed that cost in excess of one hundred million pounds,” says Bell, “and we were asked to come down and look at one of these. They had been working for some years in what was basically a series of glorified portacabins and they had a range of vintage equipment that they were really happy with including a lovely old console. The new studios had been built in a sort of pentangular shape – because that’s what architects appear to believe is how studios need to be designed – and the main recording studio had the door in the front right hand corner where you couldn’t physically get the console into the room, let alone into a position where it could be used properly. So you first think, ‘we have really not just fallen at the first step, we’ve actually failed to get out of the blocks!’ And then you think, ‘Why didn’t they come to us, or another recognised studio designer, in the first place?’”

Paying the price

Bell believes that this is a particular problem with publicly funded institutions and, of course, it’s the taxpayer or student who eventually foots the bill. Private companies are often more careful with how they spend their cash and likely to consult companies such as White Mark right away. Using a specialist company like Bell’s is often more cost-effective than consulting an acoustic architect or builder who is more used to making buildings sound ‘right’ for day-to-day office or warehouse use.

“People in the educational sector often say to us ‘oh we couldn’t afford you’ – yet, when we’ve done a proper costing, we usually come in with a lower bid than their usual acoustic consultants and builders. Sometimes clients have, or would have, paid twice as much as we would have charged if we had designed their facility,” explains Bell. “They perceive us as expensive and yet what they’re actually doing is often spending silly money on the wrong type of facilities. If they’d gone to a specialist studio designer right away, they could have had something that would be comparable with top-end post-production studios in Soho and, more importantly, something that was really representative of what students will be using when they go out into the world of recording and post-production.”

The group are calling for a change in how these facilities are designed and built, with new regulations created specifically for the sector. For this, says Bell, we need a better description of what a recording studio actually is. Bell says that the current specification appears to be derived solely from the Building Bulletin 93 – Acoustic Design of Schools – A Design Guide (BB93) document and is completely unsuitable as a guide to designing industry-standard facilities.

“The idea of watching a student trying to learn microphone placement techniques in a room where there’s more reverb than an average toilet is just sad,” says Bell. “So that’s where our motivation comes from. We don’t claim to be geniuses, but I fundamentally believe you don’t need to be to do this job properly – it’s dead simple really when you base it all on solid engineering principles and a good knowledge of the requirements of the sector.

Picture (L-R): Letter signatories Ben Mason (750mph), Richard Boote, George Apsion (Kore Studios), Ivor Taylor and David Bell