Drums, wires and the e-pulse

June 12, 1998

The rapid development of audio and music technologies has spawned a new specialism - and the need for specialised courses. Allen Brown describes one of them.

There are few areas of our lives that the digital revolution has not influenced, and the field of music has been affected more than most. Technology has changed not only the way music is reproduced but the way it is created and recorded. Music technology has become a multi-million pound business with applications spanning the whole musical spectrum from 13th century plainchant to late 20th-century acid house.

An effect of the digital revolution is the availability of low-cost, mass-produced technology which has high levels of complexity and flexibility. There are many tasks you can perform in the digital domain that cannot be realised with analogue equipment. Music technology has reached a level of sophistication where it warrants and demands a specialised education in its own right.

In response to this demand, the school of applied sciences of Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) at Cambridge offers a BSc honours degree in audio and music technology. The three-year modular programme caters for many students who intend to make a career related to music technology. Since it is a science-based course, the emphasis is on the technology of the equipment that is used for making, editing, recording and reproducing music whatever its origin. But students may also include music modules provided by the university's music department.

In a degree course like this one it is important for students to gain hands-on practice with the current range of music technology equipment. A significant amount of time is allocated to workshop practice. To support the degree programme, APU has a recording studio and several music technology workshops where the students can gain a high level of hands-on experience. They acquire a working knowledge of mixers, hard-disc recording, music synthesisers, recording techniques and sound enhancement techniques.

The PC plays a pivotal role in the learning and teaching processes. It not only serves as a controller for the extensive range of music technology equipment, but is the principal tool in composition, sound editing and creating CDs. The advent of low-cost, high capacity hard discs allows music tracks to be stored on a PC like any other data format. Add a low cost CD-R (CD-record) drive and it is comparatively easy to make audio CDs.

There are several software packages on the market designed to aid composition and editing. Each one of these has it own learning curve and forms an integral part of the students' learning experience. By the time they complete the programme the students have had considerable exposure to PC technology. This is a significant transferable skill. However, this is only part of the learning experience. Within the modular degree, several modules are dedicated to looking at the fundamental aspects of electronic design which underlie the current technology. For example, there are modules on microprocessor applications, digital signal processing, digital system design, audio electronics and digital sound synthesis. These modules are given in conjunction with others on sound recording and reproduction, MIDI implementation, acoustics and digital recording techniques.

Although the audio and music technology degree has only been running for three years, it has proved to be very attractive and is heavily subscribed. The subject can be taken as a single honours or combined with other options such as computer science or music.

We are often asked where the students are likely to find employment. Music technology is all around us on television, radio, film, video and other media, and employs thousands of technical personnel. When digital television comes on stream, even more opportunities will be available for qualified people. There are recording studios everywhere in the UK employing a considerable number of recording engineers.

In the new millennium, we are likely to see the growth of alternative means of buying music. Instead of purchasing CDs from a high street shop, there will be Internet sites where you can buy music tracks and download them directly to your PC. This is already happening to some extent with the MPEG Layer 3 technology which allows CD quality audio tracks to be transferred over the net. The potential of this market is huge and it will provide significant employment opportunities for the future.

Allen Brown is a senior lecturer in the school of applied sciences, Anglia Polytechnic University.

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