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World class music course ready to roll at Massey

As part of Tertiary Open Day on Friday, the Commercial Music course at Massey University will showcase its brand new studio facilities packed with top-end gear in a music course that’s “shamelessly vocational”.

By Mark Cubey.Photos supplied, unless noted.

It’s hard to ignore the Neve.

No, not the Prime Minister’s baby, though Jacinda and Clarke displayed excellent music cred by naming their daughter after the mixing desk that is one of the most sought-after examples of music industry technology.

In this case, it’s a 72-channel Neve desk imported second-hand from Sweden for the price of a small house. Partnered with a 48ch SSL Duality analogue console, it controls 300 square metres of live recording rooms for the Bachelor of Commercial Music course at Te Rewa O Puanga – the School of Music and Creative Media Production at Massey University, one of two new three-year practice-based degrees. (The other is the Bachelor of Creative Media Production, focused on the digital production processes used in computer animation, digital video, game development, audio and sound design, web and mobile development and VFX and motion graphics.)

The dual control rooms are part of a large, exquisitely designed suite designed for the School by Wellington’s Athfield Architects and Munro Acoustics.

Leading UK studio designer Andy Munro, who started his career at microphone company Shure in 1972 and has worked with Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, helped plan the facility from scratch to a high-end spec, and it is a thing of beauty, ready for everything musical from live or studio recording, through practice, post-production, game and film sound-tracking – the works.

Commercial Music head Oli Wilson. Photo by Mark Cubey

Talking about the facility and study programme on a walk-through last Wednesday for local teachers and other interested parties, head of department Oli Wilson (above) is obviously proud.

So he should be. The multi-studio complex puts anything RNZ has to shame, with a huge studio that’s almost big enough to fit the NZSO all the way down to a bespoke foley room. All networked to form the most technologically advanced music production set up in this part of the world.

But all the riches housed here – including a 200 capacity theatrette, digital video studio, a motion and performance capture studio with green screen, digital audio lab, computer animation and games lab, rehearsal studios, web/mobile media lab, fabrication workshops, and a digital prototyping lab with 3D printing and electronics workshop – won’t be much use without great staff (we’ll get to that) and a visionary ethos.

And it gladdened my heart to hear early on from Wilson that the course is “shamelessly vocational”.

Students are encouraged to developing creative entrepreneurship through three interwoven majors – in music technology, practice and industry – under practitioner staff who have been hired to identify the skills required for students to survive and thrive in the industry.

The New Zealand music industry is small, with no big employers or institutes. Graduates will almost certainly be working on a contractor or sole trader basis, a situation little changed from 15 years ago, when I was rolling round the country with ARMS Ltd on the Sisyphean task of convincing musicians, theatre makers, writers, visual artists and other players in the creative sector that they should embrace business – or at least tolerate it.

These days, connection is ubiquitous and easy, and the means of production, marketing and distribution are not only widely available but cheap or free.

And musicians cannot expect to thrive unless they see themselves as business people. Surely everyone gets that – it’s not like it was at the start of the century?

Oli Wilson smiles: “For some people… it’s still like that.”

As a working musician – as well as running the course, and pursuing academic research into the impact new digital and communication technologies have on music culture in indigenous communities, particularly Papua New Guinea, he’s the keyboardist with The Chills and will tour the country in mid-September – Wilson knows the score.

And its taken three years to get the full course that he’s running up to full speed.

The new degree was established after Massey and Victoria University of Wellington parted ways on the New Zealand School of Music (NZSM) after eight years. The NZSM was a joint venture that combined the strengths of the former Conservatorium of Music at Massey, and Victoria University’s School of Music into a limited liability company, until the School transitioned to full Victoria University of Wellington ownership in July 2014.

It’s left Massey free to go its own way – and invest a lot into a course that covers all the bases: connecting students with emerging technologies and creative practice relevant to social, economic and cultural enterprise so that they can realise their full potential in today’s international media marketplace.

The practice stream is performance and composition based, focusing on original popular music, using an instrument or musical interface of choice, computer production and techniques, across a wide range of genres.

The technical aspects include study of software and hardware development, electronics, sound engineering and production, live sound and lighting, concepts for developing new musical interfaces, with students designing and building their own instruments.

Photo by Mark Cubey

Music industry knowledge includes artist development and management, label and distribution, music publishing, one-off and large-scale live events, and future industry trends, with students working on real-world projects like project managing live music for concerts, tours and festivals.

Commercial Music students will also collaborate (a word I heard many times) with other majors on music video production, web development, gigs, touring, recording and music media.

The walk-through last Wednesday was also the launch of the Sound Engineering Pathway within Music Technology course, which will start next year to equip students to operate a professional quality recording studio, recording and mixing everything from a solo artist to a full band, or engineer and light a live gig.

The will be run by sound engineering pathway coordinator Neil Aldridge, who worked as a sound engineer in London from 1990 on a number of pop music projects, before relocating here in 2003. He moved into the Welliwood scene as a dialogue and ADR supervisor and editor, mixer, and recordist, working on King Kong, Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin, District 9 and The Hobbit trilogy, among others.

His colleagues include Dr Bridget Johnson, a sound artist and composer whose main focus is designing new intuitive interfaces for musical expression, helping merge the digital and analogue worlds. As major technology coordinator she has a number of labs available to steer students in the design of custom-built music performance hardware and software, and the engineering techniques needed to realise devices that can further their artistic pursuits.

The school’s music practice coordinator, Grayson Gilmour, released his first solo recording at age 16, was a founding member of electro-rock band So So Modern and has released a number of solo albums, including No Constellation, his fifth, which was the first new release on the relaunched Flying Nun label in 2010. He sees one of his tasks as exposing students to an appreciation of all music, citing one who “was only into K-pop when they came here, now they’re a soundscape artist.”

There’s also a Flying Nun connection with Ben Howe, recent recruit to the position of music industry programme coordinator. He ran the relaunched Flying Nun, where he’s still a director, and is a 20-year music industry veteran responsible for starting Arch Hill Records, and helming key music festivals Laneway and The Others Way. He has “escaped Auckland” to bring his business know-how about records, publishing, festivals, eventing –  to Massey: “It’s time to give back.”

Warren Maxwell, whose band Trinity Roots will be performing their classic album True in its entirety for the first time around the county in November, is the undergraduate programme developer.

And I could go on; it’s a powerhouse team of experienced academics and technical staff, supplemented by visiting artists, producers and entrepreneurs.

Right now, the music industry is still based in Auckland. They have the big venues, the population, the labels, the radio and TV networks… But though there’s still much needed down here in Wellington (venues for one…), this course, and the facilities, people and vision that Massey has invested in, makes me excited and bullish about the capital’s future as a major music hub.

I encourage you to look for yourself.

Te Rewa O Puanga – the School of Music and Creative Media Production – will be open at Massey University for Tertiary Open Day tomorrow. The programme is here.