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The last time we caught up with Belmont University’s Michael Janas (Chair, Audio Engineering Program and Instructor of Audio Engineering Technology), was soon after Vintage King had outfitted the prestigious Nashville institution with two SSL Origin consoles–one for the Robert E. Mulloy Student Studios, and the other for Belmont-owned studio Ocean Way Nashville.
For our 30th Anniversary celebrations, we sat down with Michael again–he gave us an update on the SSL, told us what he appreciates most about Vintage King, and shared the core goals that drive the world-class audio program at Belmont.
How has it been, working with the SSL Origin console, and what has been the standout feature for the students?
Having the SSL in the studio has really helped streamline and change the curriculum. It's so much more straightforward to use, it doesn't seem like there are nearly the same sorts of idiosyncrasies we dealt with on some of our previous consoles, and it's just a much more straightforward desk–there are a lot of great features on it.
When using it for tracking, one of my favorite things is the Cue/Foldback system, which is straightforward, very fast, and has a great sound to it. We’re using the same headphone system that we used when we had the previous console and the Cues are just so much better sounding on the SSL. The transient response also seems to be much, much faster.
As far as the mixing side of it goes, we’ve found that it's very flexible. When we come out of Pro Tools we can demonstrate to people how they can bring out things not only to individual channels, but also to the stereo faders–those eight patchable faders–and we use that a lot. Most recently, we had a 3-week class that I taught on the use of analog tape in music production where students learned to use a 24-track tape machine–we used the Otari MTR-90 MKIII. We were tracking on the SSL and the students took some of what they had learned previously in working with DAWS–making subgroups, parallel processing, and those kinds of things–and applied it to the console; those concepts go back and forth really well.
Also, having the tactile part of the console really helps set things in your mind: if you're just clicking and dragging with a mouse you always get that little bit of latency, but with an analog piece of gear, you're moving a knob and hearing things right away and that really helps. One of the things students will always say is, “It's so cool to not watch a screen–we're just listening”; they interact with the music quite differently.
How did you first become aware of Vintage King and what was your first experience working with us?
We've been working with Vintage King for about 15 years now; I’m guessing the previous Chair of the department got quotes for equipment and that’s how it began. I've really enjoyed working with the VK office here–James Good is who we work with. I think one of the things that I always look at is the service side of it and James is always a really good liaison between the gear manufacturer and the University–everybody just wants to get things done and have everyone be happy with it.
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you have purchased from Vintage King?
The SSL Origin is by far my favorite piece of gear that we’ve bought from Vintage King! This was back in March 2020, right before the lockdown–I went over to VK, when they were in the Berry Hill office, with a couple of projects that I had done for commercial clients and a couple of student projects as well. We listened to them and I kind of immediately knew this was going to be a really great-sounding desk, and that it was going to be very good for teaching on, as well.
It is just a fantastic sounding desk; it’s got a great transient response, ease of use, the EQs sound really good, the mic pres sound good–that is my favorite piece of gear that we’ve got from VK. I looked at it and then I called up Joe Baldridge at Ocean Way, and he looked at it at a different time, and we both said, “We have got to get these because this is going to change how we teach.”
We bought two SSLs–one of them is over at Ocean Way Studio B, and one of them is at the REM Studios. I'm very familiar with the REM one because that's where I teach and we have not had an issue. We have not broken a button–and there's no one like inexperienced students to test a piece of gear! So, to any manufacturers out there, if you want a really robust test, we'll be happy to beta-test your gear for you with some of the most significant use it will ever see. [Laughs]
What are the criteria you look for when buying gear for the studio?
I'm not ever really going to look at a small manufacturer for something important like a console, A/D converters, DAW interfaces, or any of those kinds of things. The reason is, I know things are going to break and I want to be able to get it serviced. It's got to be as reliable as an SM57, it always has to work and it has to be as straightforward as that particular piece of gear can be.
There have been some really incredible-sounding vintage pieces that I took out of the studio just because they were too esoteric or too complicated for that particular stage of learning. If students have a limited amount of time, if they've got a 3-hour session to mix, they're not going to turn around to, for example, a Super Prime Time that they haven't really looked at before–they will use something like an AMS Delay. There are always going to be gear in which you've got to learn the idiosyncrasies, but at the same time, we're not a program that has 100 people in it–I have to accommodate about 1,000 students a semester in the studios, the classrooms, and the labs, and I have to have gear that is reliable.
I have gear that I know they're going to seek out in the real world. Now, a lot of students will buy that esoteric stuff or that odd plug-in and that's fine because then they're taking the knowledge that we're teaching them and they're transferring it onto those things. That’s what we want to do–we want to teach them how to think and transfer that knowledge onto something else.
What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?
Ever since I began working in Nashville in studios, back in the early ‘90s, what I’ve always looked for is service–that's my number one thing because things are going to happen and sometimes they need to happen quickly and I like having a personal relationship; I like the thought of knowing that whoever I'm working with, we have this personal relationship that goes beyond an invoice and a paycheck. I've really enjoyed working with the Vintage King local office; it’s just been easy!
How has the industry changed and how have you adapted to those changes?
The single largest impact in the audio industry, as well as in audio education, has been the implementation of the computer as your primary focus in the studio–it's changed everything. Back when I was working at the Castle Recording Studios, we had large format consoles, analog tape machines, discrete digital hard disk recorders like RADAR, and open-reel digital tape machines, but we also had Pro Tools, and it took a long time for people to really trust it. It wasn't necessarily about trusting Pro Tools specifically, or about the Apple computers that we were using, but sometimes that combination didn't work. It took a long time for people to really trust that if they go into a room–and are paying eight session players, at least one assistant engineer, the artist, the lead engineer–all of that money that's paid per hour is not going to be thrown into the waste bin simply because Pro Tools crashed. That doesn't happen now; it seems to be very much a rare event, so I really think that's the biggest impact.
When I began working for Belmont in 2002, we were teaching Pro Tools, but it wasn't as much multi-track–we would track on analog, use large-format consoles and outboard hardware, mix to quarter-inch, and really study the idea of the discrete tracks and the signal flow; then we'd take a quarter-inch and transfer that to a 2-channel Pro Tools system. In our upper-level classes, they were doing the same thing–they would track on analog and then dump it into Pro Tools, then edit and mix from Pro Tools and maybe overdub. Now, analog is the boutique thing that we teach just one time a year as opposed to in the past, where it was the mainstay.
That's really the biggest thing because it's opened up greater opportunities for students. Once they get used to using it, once they really understand the signal flow of a DAW and how it compares to a large-format console, that can then be applied to live environments, it can be applied to post-production environments extensively, and then they can start learning the networked audio portion of it too.
Looking back on the last 30 years, what are you most proud of or excited about in terms of your audio program’s history?
Our music business program started 50 years ago this fall, and by the second year of the program they had started introducing some studio classes and things like that as well, so we’ve been at this a long time. One of the things Belmont has done is been incredibly stable as far as being able to properly teach production techniques for audio.
The AET program started about 15 years ago and what that allowed us to do is branch out from not only teaching audio production, to also teaching the physics of audio and that's really made a significant difference to a lot of students because it really widens the scope. So we're not only teaching studio production but also a very significant live event production curriculum; we also have students that go out and start working for plug-in manufacturers and things like that because of the computer programming side of the program, so I'm really pleased with how the program grows and how we branch out and start meeting new needs.
What are your plans for the future of the audio program and the studios?
At the moment, we're looking forward to installing two more SSLs! We just put an order in recently and in our two studios, where students first start learning large format, we will have SSLs by next summer. One of my goals for the studio curriculum has been to have the same console in all four of the main recording rooms–we haven't had that in 20 years.
I think one of our standout features is the way we think about our facilities–we really want to have student facilities that are the representation of what they will find on a professional level. So that is really our goal and it might be simplified at first: when we start out in our initial classes in multi-track, using a large-format console, we're really trying to get them to focus on the signal flow in the console and how that compares with the signal flow in Pro Tools.
Each time they move up, we add more and more layers of complexity so that by the time they're taking, for example, the Master Mixing Techniques class with Joe Baldridge over at Ocean Way, they're using some very complicated techniques. It's not like they start on an 8-channel console and work on that for a long time and then all of a sudden they're thrown onto a big Neve or something. We actually keep them working on those similar things and so by the time they get to their senior level, they're used to the large-format desk, they're used to the way professional studios run, and that way we can focus less on teaching new gear and more on teaching technique.