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Feature: Raising the bar

Feature: Raising the bar
Massey house engineer Toby Lloyd at the controls of the Neve VSX (Image courtesy of Victor Naveira at The Granary Post Production)

Feature: Raising the bar

Massey University’s School of Music and Creative Media Production has a new facility offering postproduction and music studios, plus a 7.1 dubbing theatre, at its Wellington Campus. Caroline Moss reports

Peter Jackson’s blockbusting Lord of the Rings trilogy, not to mention The Hobbit and King Kong, have put New Zealand on the map as a sought-after filming location. The Jackson effect is pronounced in Wellington, where his Weta film and TV production facilities are based. Most recently, it has spread to Massey University, which has upgraded its music facilities to offer a commercial, world-class recording and performance facility and teaching university.

The university’s School of Music and Creative Media Production was established in 2015 by associate professor, Andre Ktori, who arrived from the UK to work at the College of Creative Arts. The school teaches a Bachelor of Commercial Music with majors in music practice, music technology (pathways in sound engineering and music software and hardware) and music industry skills. The school also delivers a Bachelor of Creative Media Production with pathways in film and TV, gaming, VFX and animation, directing and producing and creative technologies, and established a Masters of Creative Enterprise in 2018.

An Audient ASP8024 in the teaching control room 
(Image courtesy of Virginia Ghiglione)
An Audient ASP8024 in the teaching control room (Image courtesy of Virginia Ghiglione)

‘When the university’s College of Creative Arts embarked on this ambitious project, the aim was to build a world-class sound recording facility that would place our students in a professional environment from day one,’ says James Coyle, technical services manager at the School of Music and Creative Media Production. ‘It was important to the university to have the spaces and equipment to contribute to the buoyant New Zealand music industry as well as the very strong film, television and gaming sectors.’

Renowned UK consultancy Munro Acoustics was approached back in 2014 to develop an outline design under a brief from Ktori, founder and now head of the new school. ‘Andre knew our work from a previous project at the University of Wales and also from the many recording studios we have designed around the world,’ says acoustic consultant and company director, Andy Munro. ‘That initial feasibility study led to my visit to the site and a presentation at Massey School of Music in November 2015.’

The brief involved transforming a large, existing building originally designed for heavy engineering work. Featuring dense concrete walls, the structure hadn’t been constructed with the possibility of earthquakes in mind, so before work even started, a steel collar had to be retrofitted to the building in order to comply with today’s building regulations. As the project progressed, further work required collaboration with the structural engineers and architects to overcome conflicting requirements, one for vibration isolation through separation and ‘floating’ rooms and the other for ultimate strength and integrity.

In November 2015, Munro visited Massey to stress the importance of the acoustic and technical performance of each room, with all other design aspects aligned with that primary aim. Nothing had ever been built like this in the region before, and Munro demonstrated that the top-end studios they’d specified, unlike simple, classroom-type spaces, would require a high degree of professional input.

The SSL Duality control room 
(Image courtesy of Victor Naveira at The Granary Post Production)
The SSL Duality control room (Image courtesy of Victor Naveira at The Granary Post Production)

‘At the time, we were working on the BBC’s New Broadcasting House as well as a new film and music mix theatre at Abbey Road, next to the historic Studio 2, for which the isolation had to be perfect,’ he explains. ‘So I had some relevant, current projects to show them. In March 2016, we were officially appointed to design the studios, by which time we’d done quite a lot of the preliminary design work and worked closely with the architect, Athfields, who were very good and helpful. It was a first for them, and one of the biggest technical education projects they’d handled.’

In order to achieve the required performance, a detailed analysis of all the rooms was carried out for each space, including background noise, reverberation and, where appropriate, design of the monitor systems and Dolby cinema sound requirements. These were submitted with a full set of design details. Acoustic panels were designed specifically for the project and built locally by the main contractor. Weekly online team meetings were held, which could be challenging due to the 12-hour time difference between Europe and New Zealand, but were vital in conveying anything that might affect the final performance.

‘Throughout the project, Munro Acoustics worked closely with Athfields, so they could incorporate our design into their overall vision for the building,’ explains Munro. ‘I would say the bulk of our design involvement and cooperation was through their design team.’

The final design set out three distinct zones or clusters inside the renovated building. On the ground floor, cluster one – at 500m2 the largest space – comprises a 225m2 recording studio with a 1.5s reverb time and space for an orchestra and technical rigging for broadcast applications. Two control rooms, each with separate overdubbing rooms, open onto the studio, and have been installed with a 72-channel Neve VXS analogue console and 48-channel SSL Duality, respectively, with Avid HD I/O converters. There is a huge range of available outboard equipment thoroughout both control rooms, including AMS Neve 1073DPX, Chandler TG2, Focusrite and API 512c mic preamps; GML 8200, Buzz REQ2.2, Chandler Curve Bender TG12345 and Pultec EQP-IA3 equalisers; a range of dynamic units from Crane Song, API, Manley, Universal Audio, Teletronix, Empirical Labs and Drawmer; Lexicon, Eventide and Bricasti stereo effects units; and Genelec 8351A nearfield monitoring.

The dubbing theatre with an Avid S6 
(Image courtesy of Virginia Ghiglione)
The dubbing theatre with an Avid S6 (Image courtesy of Virginia Ghiglione)

As well as acting as an acoustic consultant for Massey, Munro Acoustics also custom-built the main monitors for these two control rooms as well as the main control room in cluster two and the mix theatre. Main monitoring in both control rooms in cluster one are 5.1 systems comprising Dynaudio M4 monitors with custom M4 subs – the same systems that can be found in leading London studios including Abbey Road and Air. ‘The university required a level of consistency in the sound throughout the project,’ says Munro.

Cluster two on the first floor is a conventional, self-contained music studio complex. In common with all the facilities, this has a control room large enough to accommodate students and lecturers. ‘Each control room has numerous studios attached to it, which means students can work in studios without using the control room and vice versa, but that means that all the isolation between all of the control rooms has to be really good as everyone is working on different projects,’ explains Munro. ‘So, in some respects, the level of isolation is probably the highest we’ve ever provided. It’s a heavily engineered project and one of the most complicated we’ve ever done.’

This teaching control room has been installed with a 24-channel Audient ASP8024 console, another comprehensive array of outboard equipment and a 5.1 Dynaudio M3/M10 system. Two main recording areas are attached to the control room of cluster two, together with several booths for different activities, and three further teaching control rooms are also installed with Audient ASP8024s, while a Mac lab features 25 Audient ID22 audio interfaces.

Also on the first floor, cluster three is a dedicated audio postproduction theatre with Dolby certification and ancillary ADR. Pride of place in the 30-seat dubbing theatre is a 48-fader Avid S6 console, and here the speakers are the film version of the M3, the M3F film monitors in a 7.1 configuration with MA15 surrounds and custom subwoofer. ‘These are similar to installations that we’ve done at Shepperton and Pinewood film studios in the UK,’ explains Munro. ‘Because you’re working further away from the loudspeakers, a more directional sound is required.’ A 4K Canon projector has been installed into the theatre to cater for the school’s 4K film and TV workflow standard.

Local band Cumbia Blazera in the main studio 
(Image courtesy of Vanessa Rushton Photography)
Local band Cumbia Blazera in the main studio (Image courtesy of Vanessa Rushton Photography)

A second dubbing suite has been installed with an Avid Icon console and a Genelec 5.1 system with 8050 monitors and 7271 subwoofer. Six 4K postproduction edit suites in cluster three have been equipped with iMac pro computers with HP DreamColour displays, Da Vinci Resolve colour correction, visual effects and audio postproduction software and mastering panels.

Massey University now offers a world-class teaching facility for music technology and creative media production, which any student would be keen to attend, as well as adding more cutting-edge commercial studios to this creative region. Additionally, in keeping with the university’s brief to provide a commercial facility, the studios have been used for film scoring and recording by a number of clients including New Zealand mastering engineer, Mike Gibson; orchestra engineer, Graham Kennedy; dub roots reggae band, Salmonella Dub; and music collective, Congress of Animals.

‘The project was a bold concept, with music studios modelled on the best in the world and mixing and postproduction facilities on a par with anything that can be expected of a top facilities company,’ concludes Munro. ‘The sound systems we designed and provided for the music facilities are the same as at Abbey Road and Air studios, where some of the most famous and demanding recordings have been made for decades. I cannot think of any music school that is better in this respect. The two performance spaces are exceptional in their flexibility for both recording and live performance.

‘Andre Ktori had the vision and persistence to carry this project through with as little compromise of the original concept as was reasonably possible. The use of traditional analogue technology alongside digital and electronic hardware is what makes good sound really work and that is what aspiring musicians, producers and tech students will learn to appreciate.’

With the arrival of Massey’s new facility, it seems Peter Jackson is not the only one raising the bar in Wellington, New Zealand.

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