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How to Make Your Final Project Stand Out

SAE sat down with one of our many talented master’s students, Joe Osborne, to talk about his excellent work and his experiences at SAE.

What made you want to do a masters at SAE?

Once the pandemic hit the UK in March ’20, our audio/visual company Lumen Arts lost all of our planned work overnight and we were immediately furloughed. There was also no sign of me being able to do any freelance audio recording in the near future. So after about 6 months of us all stuck at home; myself, my wife and our two young children who were 18 months and 3 years old at the time, I was really ready to embark on something new to put it mildly!!! Also the pandemic was showing no sign of letting up anytime soon. The SAE master’s degree course, ‘Professional Practice in Creative Media Industries’, was the only course I could find that was entirely online and was very self-directed in nature, which suited me to a tee at this point in my career and age, and with the ongoing pandemic of course. I already had an idea of an aspect of audio production that I wanted to explore further and an academic framework would really help enable me to do that, so it felt like a logical step forward in my career to help me potentially move towards being able to lecture in the future. I’d known about SAE for a long time since I used to read the magazine Sound on Sound avidly when I was at college over 20 years ago studying music technology and I knew it had a good reputation. Coincidentally, which I had almost forgotten, I’d visited SAE Berlin back in 2007 and had a meeting about the master’s programme with a lecturer there, but I came away thinking I was too inexperienced and not mature enough for that sort of course at the time. Fast forward 15 years and I am now doing it!

Development module - artist Andrew DR Abbott performing baritone guitar at St John The Evangelist Church, Upper Denby

Can you talk me through your final project? What inspired it?

I have been recording lots of different types of music for over twenty years now; both personal projects and commercial. From field recording on an artist residency in north west Greenland, to recording punk bands in warehouse type spaces in Leeds, UK, and recording more folk type/acoustic music in village halls, to producing purely electronic music with electroacoustic elements at Cyprus College of Art, amongst lots of other different experiences. All whilst at the same time being a performing musician myself all around Europe. So what really interests me is the sound of spaces we exist in and ultimately perform music in, and therefore what we call ‘ambience’, whatever that ambience may be. I’d been experimenting with capturing real-time musical performance ambience during recording for a few years and I was keen to explore this aspect of audio production further, so I already had a good idea about what my final project might be before I started the course. The course then gave me the academic framework to explore the ideas.

 
The idea for my final project is to create two different digital audio recordings of an artist’s music – each recording of the same material featuring different and contrasting ambiences. One ‘wet’ recording/mix which utilises only the inherently occurring reverberations of the specifically chosen recording space, augmented by impulse response capture of the recording space itself. And secondly a ‘dry’ recording/mix which creates an ambience through the use of various digital audio effects in post production only. The ‘wet’ recording space will be selected by the artists and myself, and will be chosen for the quality of its inherent acoustics that we collectively think will suit the character of the music we will be recording. The ‘dry’ recording will be conducted in an acoustically treated professional recording studio with minimised sound reflections. Once the recording and mixing of the two recordings is complete, the artists will then be able to choose their preferred audio mixes for commercial release.
The artists I choose to work with are called FailYer (https://failyer.bandcamp.com/releases); a three piece, synth based alternative band with acoustic drums with plenty of contrast within their music. For the ‘dry’ recording we choose to record with audio engineer Ross Halden at Hohm studio (https://hohmrecordingstudio.com), Bradford, UK; a professional, well acoustically treated recording studio. Four songs were recorded as acoustically dead as possible with no room mics. For the ‘wet’ recording it took a long time of searching to find an appropriate and available space with an interesting ambience to perform and record the music in. In the end we settled on a punk music venue BOOM (https://www.boomleeds.com) in Leeds, UK. The venue is a concrete and red brick basement within an old textile mill with no acoustic treatment. And so it most certainly has an ‘ambience’! That ambience is a reverb of about a second in length. Again, four songs were recorded (three of which are the same songs we had already recorded in the studio) capturing the ambience of the room in real-time during the performance, using two types of stereo microphone arrays in addition to all the close mics on the instruments. When you record all together in a space like this, it’s chaotic and you never quite know how well it will turn out on playback, but I am very happy that it sounds fantastic, lively and bright, without any nasty resonances. And it sounds so completely different to the studio recording with a very different energy. All we had to do was survive the freezing cold temperatures in January in England; even with three heaters going all day it was icy cold! A mic clip even randomly snapped on its own due to becoming so brittle. So now I’ve got to get these mixed ready for my final submission, along with my written paper accompanying and comparing the recordings.
For my previous module, a professional development module, I devised a practical project that readied me for my final project by researching, learning about and putting into practice differing stereo microphone arrays for capturing ambience. I chose to record artist Andrew DR Abbott who plays a baritone acoustic guitar in a local church next to my daughter’s school. He composed a 12 minute piece with contrasting sections specifically for the church performance. As well as the stereo pair on the guitar itself, I set up six differing types of stereo mic pairs (including Gerzon, which I had never heard of until I started researching) in different positions within the church to capture the ambience of the church during the musical performance. I could then compare and contrast these different pairs and blend them to ‘re-create’ the ambience of the church. It was a really illuminating experience and I personally loved the feeling of being within the church space and trying to capture the space the best I could. This got me thinking a lot more about spaces in general. I’m sure I also captured the sound of a ghost on one microphone at one point! By way of contrast for the module, I also took the close mic pair on the guitar (which was surprisingly dry) and applied different audio effects plugins to generate an ambience. Maybe unsurprisingly, in mine and the artist’s opinion they couldn’t match the actual sound of the church, however we both agreed there was a certain familiarity to the artificially created ambiences.
The blended final artist mix of the recording can already be heard at the following link as it has just been released on vinyl already: https://andyabbott.bandcamp.com/album/live-from-clover-hill. You can also hear individual tracks of the church ambience here: https://soundcloud.com/user-369655923/sets/mpp704-item1-church-recording-audio-files and the artificially created ambiences here: https://soundcloud.com/user-369655923/sets/mpp704-item2-ambience-creation
Development module - differing stereo microphone arrays for capturing ambience at St John The Evangelist Church, Upper Denby

What were the three biggest challenges you faced during your masters? And how did you overcome them?

Wow, well about a week before my SAE master’s course was about to start in January 2021, they announced the closure of British schools due to the pandemic. My daughter had only just begun school 4 months earlier, so this was basically terrifying! My wife had also started a master’s degree in fine art, so we really didn’t know how we were going to cope. I was immediately launched into homeschooling my daughter with the help of an iPad; I basically taught her the beginnings of reading and writing, so I am quite proud of that now. But this responsibility coupled with starting a master’s degree was really, really daunting; I didn’t think I could do it. The first trimester of the course is a dual module of project planning, learning about researching and theoretical writing. It was really tough and I was expecting it to be tough, but I still felt unprepared for the level of work involved; I got through it by reading as much as I could and taking it all in, even though it was quite overwhelming at times, particularly after being out of education for 20 years. It also meant I re-read books I’d read in my twenties, such as works by Marshall McLuhan and Herbert Read, whilst being introduced to other philosophers such as Adorno and Gell, and also learning about research methodology and undertaking my own research about the history of audio recording. It was one of the most difficult, but rewarding times of my life and I’ve had few to compare it to! When I received my feedback and grades back for the first modules, they really reflected how much work I put in, so it then gave me the confidence I needed to keep working in an academic direction.

Development module - Joe adjusting stereo 'Gerzon' microphone array at St John The Evangelist Church, Upper Denby

What were the three most rewarding moments you experienced during your masters?

I’ve not quite finished the course yet; I’m doing final project right now, but so far the most rewarding things have been getting consistently good feedback that has reflected the amount of effort and planning I have put in to each module, being able to devise practical projects where there aren’t the usual pressures on time like there are in commercial recording projects and constantly acquiring new knowledge; making connections between different things.
Final project 'dry' recording at Hohm Studios, Bradford

How do you think doing a masters degree at SAE will help your future career?

Besides giving me the time to develop aspects of my recording technique, it has given me the tools to approach things in a more academic manner. With all this personal development, I hope to take it into further study and hopefully begin to lecture at higher education level in the future. Alongside continuing on with my professional audio engineering work.

Final project 'dry' recording with engineer Ross Halden at Hohm Studios, Bradford

What skills did you learn through your masters at SAE?

Becoming better at writing and more academic, learning about research methodology and how to research properly, and specific new skills from practical projects such as learning about and practicing many types of stereo microphone arrays.
Final project 'wet' recording at BOOM venue, Leeds

What advice would you give to students for making the most out of their masters at SAE?

You’ve got to be really rigorous in creating and using time to do your master’s degree work properly. I’ve had to switch from full-time study to part-time study for my final project, as I knew I simply wouldn’t be able to do my final project properly now I am employed again since the pandemic’s demise, I have freelance audio projects on the go and two young children at home. Luckily the SAE course is flexible enough to do this. And oh yes, a good piece of advice would be; there’s always more that can be read!
Final project 'wet' recording with Blumlein pair mic and distant spaced floor pair of mics at BOOM venue, Leeds

What would you say to someone considering applying to do a masters at SAE?

Personally I think you’ve got to be really ready for a master’s course at SAE; it is highly self-directed and you’ve got to work hard if you want to get the most out of it. I think it also helps that you have a good idea of what you would like to do in your final project before you start the course. With this personal approach I think the course offers you a lot of freedom to get what you want from the course, with a lot of helpful guidance from your supervisor and the programme coordinator.

Interested in doing a master’s at SAE? Get more information here!

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