SoundLAB: Emma Pollock introduces year three of Chem19's studio engineering course
As Chem19's SoundLAB prepares to take in a new batch of students to their practical studio engineering course, we speak to Emma Pollock, course leader, former Delgado, and co-founder of Chemikal Underground
We spoke to Emma Pollock, formerly singer and guitarist with legendary Scottish indie band The Delgados, and one of the original founders of Chemikal Underground, about SoundLab, the course she helps run with Chem19, which aims to offer practical training, advice and career guidance for aspiring studio engineers. Now in its third year, as the course prepares to welcome a fresh batch of budding apprentices, we asked her about how effective the course has been so far, and what she thinks about the challenges facing those aspiring to make an entry to the industry.
You set up SoundLab in 2011. How would you measure its success so far? Have you seen tangible results, in terms of the 2011 graduates going on to careers in the industry?
We've seen 2 years of the course completed now and it has been a great success. The thing that has surprised me about it is how simple the idea is, and yet how rare the opportunity seems to be. The recording industry is a funny one – it's unregulated, so anyone can set themselves up as an engineer or producer even, but their success will be down to a combination of hard work and opportunity.
The opportunity bit is the most challenging one at the beginning – there are plenty of engineers raring to go but without a studio to work from. The industry is now without the amount of paid jobs, or even voluntary positions that it once offered ten or twenty years ago. There isn't the money any more, as the record industry has less money to spend on recording, so studios have tightened their belts too. Young engineers must increasingly make their own opportunities and hire a studio themselves and work with different artists from it.
What we aim to do is offer a structured, relevant practical experience over an extended period to bridge the gap between knowhow and actually running a session, with emphasis on to how to listen out for and encourage the best performance as well as effectively operate the recording equipment. SoundLAB has seen a fantastic effort from its students, with all of them learning a huge amount over the 9 months and successfully running their own sessions at the end of the course. A couple of our graduates have gone on to secure jobs at leading education establishments in areas of sound engineering and owe their success in large part to their experience gained with the course. Other graduates have set up as self employed engineers, and hire various studios across the country working with a variety of artists.
Having run the course for two years now, how would you judge its effectiveness, compared to more traditional sound engineering courses?
The thing that makes SoundLAB quite different is the fact that we have complete freedom to design and run the course in the way we think will benefit the students most, and have it taught by working engineers and roducers. The course is made possible by funding from Creative Scotland, and so we're very fortunate to have been granted the freedom to design it from the ground up.
There are admittedly plenty of courses out there at colleges and universities, but they are of a more academic nature, particularly at university as that is the nature of higher education. There isn't therefore the focus on the practical or vocational side of the job of studio engineer. There is also often a need for further and higher education establishments to offer a more broad-ranging course, covering many aspects of sound engineering, perhaps incorporating everything from studio recording and live recording to film and theatre sound design. This broad scope will certainly introduce a student to the many avenues a sound engineer/designer can go down, but if they want to record and produce artists in a recording studio they will need much more of a focus on that environment and that is where we can come in.
SoundLAB brings in a production element to the course content as well as engineering skills. An established songwriter is commissioned to write a new song and bring it in to the students to be developed, arranged and ultimately recorded over subsequent months. This experience introduces the students to the ideas of song structure, and how to maximise presentation within the studio to present the song in its best light. The students that have come through the first two years have displayed huge enthusiasm for the hands-on approach and are getting involved with the studio gear from day one. They begin to join the dots, and their previous knowledge, whether academic or purely practical, is put into context as they gradually form a picture of how a recording session is run, and how to listen to and critique an artist's performance.
"The industry of twenty years ago was a lot more exclusive – but with the cheaper gear available now it is possible for the young graduate engineer to make their own way" – Emma Pollock
The other really important part of the course is learning about etiquette when dealing with artists. Their expectations and needs are always subtly different, so [learning] how to deal with this side of things takes a lot of experience, but we do discuss it at length and try to prepare students for what they may have to deal with in the future. When the full day recording sessions take place at the end of the course, the students are dealing with working bands who have expectations of what the session will achieve, and those expectations have to be managed, whether realistic or not. A lot of being a good engineer/producer is down to developing a relationship with the artist and working out the dynamic of the band and the individuals within it.
There are unprecedented numbers of young people trying to 'break in' to the music industry these days, do you think there's any danger in Scotland that expectations about what they can achieve have perhaps become unrealistic?
The past ten years has seen a lot more courses available in all sorts of media at both further and higher education levels. This does produce a large amount of graduates looking for jobs and arguably there aren't the amount of traditional, paid engineering jobs out there to support them all. With the explosion of cheaper studio recording equipment however, a lot of these graduates do have the opportunity to find a space, kit it out relatively inexpensively and get started. The engineering industry is now full of sole traders as well as established studios. A young engineer/producer has a lot of different avenues available to them to start out - they can take things into their own hands and start their own small studio, or hire out other people's studios for a relatively small cost and record artists they bring in themselves. It's all about being active, constantly gaining experience and gradually building a reputation. The industry of twenty years ago was a lot more exclusive – but with the cheaper gear available now it is possible for the young graduate engineer to make their own way.
Technological change – from cheap home studio equipment to self-distribution platforms like Bandcamp – have made it possible for many more people to make music and release it themselves, without the need for labels, or joining established networks. Broadly, do you see this as a good thing?
This is a hard one to answer, particularly given that Chem19 still has strong links with Chemikal Underground Records and we still see enormous value in the discrete management of all of the elements of putting out a record, i.e. the band writes the material, the studio records it and the label manages its release. To try to do all of these things at once, with the same people behind all of them, can be very difficult, but not impossible.
It's a great platform to get started – it gets the music out there at a reasonable cost and without waiting to be signed by a label. Whether it's a good long term proposition though I'm not sure. Chem19 also offers a Demo Fund to young artists under age 25, again backed by Creative Scotland, which awards 3 days of recording time to an artist who has submitted a promising demo. What we've found in the years doing this, is the sheer relief and enjoyment that the artist feels once the burden of recording themselves is lifted and handed over to an experienced engineer. The band suddenly have the freedom to only consider their music. The recording of that music is a very different thing and trying to be both performer and engineer can muddy the waters a great deal and compromise the experience for everyone.
This harks right back to the point of SoundLAB – it is possible for a band to buy recording gear and record themselves, but it is rare that that recording will match the quality both technically and artistically that will be achieved if the band goes to a good studio to be recorded instead. There's a world of difference between simply recording the sounds that a band makes, and listening to the songs, understanding how best to present them and then recording and mixing them to a high sonic quality in a studio with great gear. That is what SoundLAB engineers are being introduced to – the importance of quality in the recording industry.
Chemikal has a strong track record of investing in the development of new artists, and rewarding success with opportunity. What do you think is behind this ethos and approach, and where does it have its roots?
I think years ago, when we started out in 1994 with The Delgados and then 1995 with Chemikal Underground Records, we were frustrated by the hold that the major music industry had on the fate of almost all of the bands we knew that had dealt with them. The DIY ethic was also strong then – fanzines had taken huge hold of the underground scene, and the independent label had been in existence for a good while by then. The four of us were quite opinionated and keen to take control of how our own music was presented and didn't like the fact that every experience we'd had of the major record labels had led to the suggestion that we change something about what we did.
We saw the whole point of putting out our music of it being just that – putting out our own music, not our own music altered to suit the needs of the current record industry and their perception of the then successful styles and presentation. We were too young a band at that stage to have that kind of pressure put on us and so we wanted to develop at our own pace, and putting out our own records allowed us to do that. We were also hugely excited about starting a record label – doing the research into putting out our own first 7" was amazing and we drove down to London in an old VW Polo with a piece of cardboard in the back ready to be photographed and turned into the sleeve of the first Delgados record. It was the only way we thought it could be done at that point.
We've always championed quality and a more level playing field. I think it comes from a frustration that there is a lot of great music in Scotland that often doesn't find a platform. With Chemikal Underground I hope we've gone some way to provide a platform to showcase a lot of the great talent in this country, and with Chem19 there's a great studio for all bands to use to make a world class recording.
What key piece of advice would you offer to any budding applicants looking for a place on the Sound Lab course?
At the end of the day it's the applicant's CV and answers to the questions posed as part of the application process that will form a picture of who they are. That's all we have to go on when making the selection. So it's really important that the individual gets across what makes them unique, and why they feel so passionately about the vocation of engineering and production in their application. It's not necessarily an easy course to get through – it takes dedication and hard work to get the most out of it, but the sessions are only 4 hours long, every fortnight so we hope it's not too time intensive and can let students get on with other commitments they may have. Strong evidence of taking the initiative and finding opportunities to gain experience are considered of huge value in an application as so much of an engineers success in the future will depend on these qualities.