Pictured on the cover of Mix's annual education issue is the refurbished student production studio at University of Massachusetts Lowell. This versatile facility was originally designed in 1989 by architect/acoustician Bob Alach of Alactronics to be the heart of UMass' then-young Sound Recording Technology program. Alach was brought in to redesign the room to accommodate surround sound and a new API board.
“We completely renovated that control room space to accept the new API Vision console, but also to provide for accurate surround sound playback,” explains Professor William Moylan, who has directed the program since its inception. “One of the wonderful things about the API console is the ability to mix in surround and 2-track simultaneously. We reconfigured the room to be an accurate surround sound playback space, as well as a space for 2-track monitoring and playback.”
“The initial room wasn't designed for sound to be arriving from the rear of the room,” Alach explains. “There were a lot of hard surfaces that had to be changed so that the rear channels behaved as close as possible to the front channels.”
Alach's new design made use of some of the existing older-model RPG acoustical products in the room, as well as new custom treatments.
As with a commercial studio, the remodel had to be planned carefully to minimize downtime. Fortunately, a university has a built-in gap between sessions — better known as summer vacation. “As soon as students were done with their projects in mid-May [of 2006],” Moylan says, “we started gutting the studio, and we had it back up and running in October of that year. It was extraordinarily fast, and Bill Carman, our facilities director, made it happen. API was also extremely cooperative and understanding, and Bob Alach was very helpful in producing what we needed on time.”
Moylan further explains that the remodel required adjustments to the geometry of the room to expand the sweet spot within the new SLS surround monitoring system. The studio is also equipped with a Studer 24-track machine, a Steinberg Nuendo system and an array of processing gear that's designed to give students broad hands-on experience with the breadth of audio technologies available. He also stresses that the Vision console is a core teaching tool in itself.
“With the analog board, students can trace and learn signal flow in a tangible way,” he says. “We also selected the API for the integrity of the signal and the transparency of the sound. One of the distinctive parts of our curriculum is our focus on ear training and listening skills, and it was apparent to me that this device does not alter the sound quality as it goes through the signal path. That's important. It allows it to be a more meaningful teaching tool for us.
“It's critical that we remain current in our technology,” Moylan continues, “but it's also critical that we remain clear in teaching concepts and not tools. The basic structure of our undergraduate program hasn't changed in 25 years, but all of the course syllabi change almost every year because of changes in the tools that we are using.”
UMass Lowell's Bachelor's degree program requires that students take six semesters of instrument lessons, as well as music history and theory, and ear training before branching off into engineering courses. Sound Recording Technology majors also fulfill a 15-week internship requirement, working a minimum of 20 hours per week in a segment of the audio industry that interests them.
In addition to serving UMass Lowell's undergrads, the renovated production studio is also used by students in the university's three-year-old Master's degree program — the only Master of Music program in audio technology in the U.S.
“The concept behind our program has been to use technology as a musical instrument,” Moylan says, “to bring the students to an innate understanding of technology by taking studies in calculus, engineering and computer science, and physics to get a basic understanding of technology, but simultaneously to get a thorough understanding of musicianship so that they can learn audio theory and production techniques in a way that a creative artist would if they have a thorough understanding of their instrument.”
“We've done work for schools, corporations, universities and individuals, and the UMass faculty has built a program over the past 25 years that's truly exceptional,” Alach says. “Their commitment makes you want to do your best and give them something equally extraordinary.”
Barbara Schultz is Mix's copy chief.