Birmingham’s Triangle Media & Arts Centre houses what is probably the largest 8-track recording facility in the country. It also runs some interesting extra-curricula activities in the form of a Rock Recording course. We asked the man in charge, Bruce Hart, to tell us more about it.
Within the bowels of the Triangle Media and Arts Centre, buried in the heart of Birmingham, lies a hidden room where a colony of recording engineers are reputed to live. In fact, this is more than a myth – if you dare to venture further, you will find what must be one of the largest 8-track studios in the country, with a cavernous recording space measuring 120 feet x 55 feet. Bruce Hart, the studio’s ‘manager’, takes up the story…
The Triangle Recording Studio is part of Birmingham’s Triangle complex which contains, amongst other things, a cinema, second screen (with both video and 16mm film projection facilities), a photography gallery, darkrooms, and which also runs programmes of music and theatre events. It was initially financed by the Gulbenkian Foundation in 1983 but is now funded largely by Aston University and West Midlands Arts.
One common application of the studio is for a range of educational activities. The longest running course (four years old now) is that on Rock Recording. This two and a half day course is open to anyone with an interest in recording and gives a hands-on introduction to the recording of rock music. It’s very popular as there are only seven people on each course, and everyone gets to have a good go on the equipment. The range of people we attract is often surprising. Sometimes it’s someone with a Portastudio wanting to know more, or experienced studio musicians who are tired of unsympathetic engineers pulling the wool over their eyes. We also get a few electronics engineers with a more technical slant, as well as local students with a more general interest.
An increasing number of schools are visiting us now as part of their music curriculum. Mark Rowson’s the man in charge here – he spends endless hours making people sound like Smurfs (using the harmoniser on the Yamaha SPX90). Silliness apart, it’s also very easy to produce very satisfying slick backing tracks for a song using the Roland TR707 drum machine together with the new Korg SQD-1 sequencer and Korg DW6000 synthesizer. We’ve got a competition coming up for primary schools as well, to write a script for a horror story, for which the prize is free time in the recording studio to turn it into a radio drama. It’s fun to do something well over the top like that now and again.
Another thing we’d like to try soon is to run some weekly workshops in the studio, where a group of people could really exploit the creative potential of the studio (not just learn which knobs to twiddle, like on the Rock Recording course). This is particularly appealing to us as everybody that works at the studio – myself, Mark Rowson and ‘Pickle’ (not the edible type but another engineer) – are all active musicians, and would like nothing better but to create music.
We also hire the studio out to individuals at very competitive rates. This time tends to be split roughly 50/50 between demos and records or film/video overdub sessions. Other current projects include work with Sound Ideas (a local music co-operative with a strong interest in recording), an annual Summer School (for 16-21 year olds, combining recording with video, theatre, photography, and music), and joint workshops with the ‘Big Brum’ Theatre In Education Company who are based at the Triangle.
The record projects we seem to attract are nearly all for independent labels, such as Vindaloo, Abstract or Backs. Indie chart successes include two Terry and Gerry singles, and 12-inch singles for The Bomb Party and Pigbros. We’ve recorded 20-odd singles plus a few hours worth of album tracks in the past two years. Fittingly enough, we’ve also just released our own cassette – Handy Wrappers – which contains a cross-section of tracks that have all been recorded here at Triangle. It’s very satisfying to hear the wide range of music and recording styles on it – I like to think it’s because we don’t give the same stock, cliched sounds to everyone, but listen to each track afresh.
A big asset of the studio is undoubtedly its recording space, with enough room for 450 people and marvellous live acoustics, courtesy of the BBC (it used to be a BBC television studio – you might recognise it from ’65 Special’). The largest act to be recorded so far is a 40-piece gospel choir, whose members fitted in the corner with no problems. As the same area is used for music and theatre events as well as video shooting, we hope to acquire a longer multicore and a set of mic splitters so we can take on live recordings. Regular events include Birmingham Jazz concerts and a fortnightly ‘Hi-Dive’ alternative cabaret series, plus many rock gigs, so there’d certainly be plenty of material to choose from.
The brain of the studio is a TAC Scorpion 16/8/2 mixer; the heart a Tascam 480B 8-track recorder with DX4-D dbx noise reduction. We’ve had no regrets over our decision to purchase either of these machines. The Scorpion desk is very quiet, soundly constructed and has a good 4-band EQ system. My only criticism of it is that it’s got no ‘mono’ test switch, which makes stereo/mono compatibility testing a bit awkward. The Tascam 48 is a big improvement on the Teac 80-8 recorder that it replaced, not so much in sound quality but in features like the real-time tape counter and two-point (zero and one cue) autolocate which are important when time’s a premium. We’ve not used its capability to time-lock with a video machine (or second tape machine) yet, although it may be used in the future when we get some video production facilities on site.
The dbx noise reduction we use with it is generally okay, although you have to be careful not to record anything too high that contains high level, high frequency sounds – they just disappear, so drums are recorded at a conservatively low volume, or sometimes without the dbx altogether.
Mastering is done on an Otari 5050 B2II open-reel deck, which is a marvel – I only wish I could afford their 8-track!
It’s very simple to maintain, and I find the front panel bias and level controls, and built-in oscillator, very useful – it takes less than a minute to line up the whole machine before a session.
We’ve got four effects units at the moment – Yamaha REV-7 digital reverb and SPX90, a Roland SDE2000 digital delay and a Great British Spring reverb. When the REV-7 and SPX90 arrived, the tapes produced from the studio were completely transformed – suddenly it was possible to put reverb on drums and choose a different reverb effect for each sound. The GBS still gets used, especially for something like synthesized strings. The reverb quality is very smooth but it’s obviously hopeless with any percussive sounds, and the reverb time is stuck at a rather longish four seconds.
Compressors take the form of two Drawmer DL221 compressor/limiters, which do their job (what more can you say?). De-essing is a bit awkward to achieve at the moment though, as you have to patch in a second compressor with a filter in its sidechain. I’d prefer a separate de-esser unit, or better still, the new Brooke Siren Systems machine which compresses, limits and de-esses using a single signal path. Our noise gates are Drawmer units too. They’re mostly used for tidying up sounds, especially after compression. They were used a lot previously to create gated reverb effects but the SPX90 and REV-7 have put a stop to that!
On the instrument side we have a Roland TR707 drum machine, Korg DW6000 polysynth, Korg SQD-1 MIDI sequencer (our most recent addition), a Steinway grand piano, and an old EMS VCS-3 monophonic ‘noise-making’ synth with its DK2 keyboard and KS keyboard sequencer. Now we’ve got the Korg sequencer, we’ll be looking to add one or two expander synths/samplers in the near future and to hiring out all these MIDI machines, on site, separate from the main studio.
The Triangle Studio, I believe, shows what good use can be made of a mere 8-track, whether it’s for teaching, recording of a demo tape/record, or purely creative use. As long as the music’s the most important thing, I don’t think we can go far wrong!