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Music Production in Plymouth 2024: dBs reaches out to communities

Plymouth is a hotbed of music creativity, however what opportunities are out there for individuals and communities to experience the magic of music production in 2024? Well, there are plenty of opportunities this year, thanks to the city’s dBs team. Made in Plymouth Community Reporter, Matt Fleming, went to find out more.

Matt Mills, head of campus at the dBs Institute in Plymouth, says the organisation — which runs courses for all ages in sound engineering, sound design, music production, game development and more — is stepping up its outreach programme this year to ‘create more opportunities for the city’s communities’.

Thousands of bands, DJs and other music acts have been homegrown in Plymouth over the decades, however its place as a hub for music production in the South West has been slowly growing in the background. With organisations like Plymouth Culture recently exploring funding and growth opportunities for the city’s music and arts sectors, it’s been ‘a perfect time to be involved in these exciting opportunities’, says Mills.

The institute has been reaching out to community groups, schools and people of all ages in a bid to ‘get more people interested in and inspired by music production so we can help bring more creative opportunities to Plymouth people’, claims Mills. One way that dBs has been doing this is ‘through its outreach and events team’, which includes Alex Kearney — a local music producer and sound artist who’s well known in the city’s music scene. He attends as many events, workshops, schools and community group sessions as possible.

Kearney says he has been ‘working hard to get out there and get people involved in music production for the past six months — and that includes anyone with even a passing interest in music’. He is moving on from the role in mid-June 2024, with opportunities for two new outreach officers available (these full and part-time roles are being advertised right now). 

Engaging with Plymouth’s communities

Mills tells Made in Plymouth: “This year, we are getting into the communities across Plymouth much more and what Alex has been doing is engaging with all sorts of local community arts projects, looking at how different disciplines interact. A lot of music these days is not just audio. It’s often a visual or even immersive experience too. So we are looking at opportunities to collaborate with organisations, talents, groups and movers and shakers who we can support in their creative endeavours.

“We are trying to bridge the gaps between what’s happening in the community in terms of creatives, art and culture and bring our cutting-edge technology and new avenues of music to those aspects of Plymouth culture — we are finding the pockets of communities that are underrepresented or haven’t had the chance to be exposed to some of the opportunities that we and other centres provide.

“Of course, we have an outreach programme because we want to promote our courses to people who may be interested but there’s also an energy in the city right now and I think that the community needs us as much as we need them. The more that we can give communities a voice, a vehicle, an outlet and new things to do, the more that we can engage with and create new opportunities for them — and, in doing so, we create new opportunities for ourselves too.”

Mills, who hails from Brixham originally, got into music production when ‘some of my friends went to the US in the early 2000s and made music using tech I didn’t know was possible’ which ‘blew me away and led me into music production’. He noted, however, that there weren’t many music production courses in the UK at the time so instead he studied business and management at university, focusing on the music industry in his dissertation.

Mills landed a role at South Devon College as a music business teacher in 2007, becoming a full-time teacher for a few years before applying to teach at dBs. It wasn’t long before he became the head of dBs’ Further Education department and, four years ago, he was promoted to head of the centre.

Birth of a brand

In 1999, dBs — then known by its full moniker, Deep Blue Sound — launched in Plymouth and it’s been growing steadily over the past 25 years. In 2021, leading education group Access Creative College took over the business after dBs ended its partnership with Cornwall College, The firm was then able to award its own further education qualifications alongside the higher education qualifications it awards in partnership with Falmouth University.

There are 20 staff based at dBs Plymouth, however there are also now dBs centres in Bristol and Manchester, plus there are Access Creative College centres — which deal more with the further education offerings — in eight other locations across the UK. Degree and A-level equivalent courses in music production and sound-related subjects are available.

Mills says: “Over the past couple of years, we have tried offering experience sessions for anybody in Plymouth — adults, professionals and young people leaving school. We do a lot of school visits as part of our outreach programme, especially sixth forms and careers talks.”

Kearney has been the outreach and engagement officer for the dBs Institute for the past six months after joining the organisation a decade ago as a student and becoming more and more involved in the business over the years. “I do anything from going to career fairs to hosting workshops in schools and colleges in Plymouth and beyond,” he says.

“If someone wants to be a music producer or work in the industry then these workshops and events are vital because they can get a taste of the industry and I can show them what tech they can use, what opportunities there are and how they can be involved, especially via a course with dBs. These sessions give people context,” notes Kearney.

He continues: “Any adult can apply to join a course at dBs. The main two courses that I make people aware of are the music production sound engineering and the electronic music production degree courses. I actually did the EMP degree myself and I’m now studying for a master’s in the subject, so I’ve been in a unique place to help others find their path while still studying myself.

“When I started at dBs, it was more like a college or education facility with courses. Now it’s a proactive organisation that wants to help Plymouth’s music scene, communities and young talents. That’s why I’ve been the outreach officer, in fact, so I can help in that mission.”

Down to the CORE

One interesting project Kearney has been a part of over the past few months is CORE, which saw a sound and vision artist head to a quarry in Cornwall to record the natural noises in the air. The artist then gave the samples to young musical talents in Devon and Cornwall who turned them into dance tracks before they all went to a ‘rave’ at the quarry to play the tracks.

Kearney says: “Some people from Plymouth couldn’t make it to the quarry so there is another rave at Cosmic Kitchen on Friday 7 June 2024 for them to celebrate this art-meets-music event. I will be there too as I am playing a live modular/DJ set.

“We are really trying to join the art and music communities in Plymouth,” continues Kearney, “which is something that organisations like Plymouth Culture are also trying to do. It shows how Plymouth has changed over the past decade — big organisations are not afraid any more to get out there, support the arts and music communities and to experiment with ideas to strengthen our city’s cultural and artistic offering.”

Kearney says his outreach work for dBs has been about both ‘spreading awareness of what we do and inspiring people to be creative’. “We want to grow the music community in Plymouth,” he notes, “and we want to see much more music-and-art crossover. My workshops are an alternative to, say, a formal music lesson. I take a laptop, a mic and a MIDI controller and I get people to record sounds, make samples and see what it takes to produce music. They always get video and audio recordings to keep too. It’s a great gateway into this sort of career.”

Mills agrees. “We are also looking to engage the local industry in Plymouth,” says the head of campus. “We have a modular research group, for instance, because modular synthesis has had a huge resurgence over the past few years. It’s an expensive thing to be involved in but we have some real specialists here and one of our staff owns a business that creates modules for modular synths.”

Modular synthesis is the method of using electronic musical instruments that consist of a multitude of components — or modules — that are used in combination to make innovative electronic music sounds. The method means that users can build their own synths from scratch and can create effects and sounds pretty much without limitation.

“Immersive audio has also been a big thing for us over the past couple of years,” continues Mills, who cites the 15m Immersive Dome at Market Hall in Duke Street, Devonport –– the first of its kind in Europe — as a ‘great example of what can be achieved in terms of immersive sound in Plymouth’. “Actually,” he says, “this academic year we installed a Dolby Atmos system in one of our studios that allows you to mix via 72 channels of audio so that you can create something that you feel really part of and that you can interact with like a virtual audio environment. It’s an exciting time for sound technology.”

“We want to work with all sorts of people”

Mills says: “We want to work with adult groups, youth groups, unemployed people, people looking at niche passions and interests, and also people who are quite technologically advanced and are looking at AI and how things are going to develop in the future and how they can be part of that — basically, we want to work with all sorts of people out there in Plymouth’s various communities.

“The main way for any person or group in the community to get involved with us is to give us a call or put an enquiry on the website. Or come to an open event and talk to our staff — we are actively involved in the quarterly music sector forum meetings with Plymouth Culture so I would advise that anybody interested should go along because we are always there.”

Mills says that there’s a ‘drive to get funding and more opportunities in music and the arts in Plymouth’ right now and he highlights the ‘work that Plymouth Culture is doing’ as an essential component in this movement. “Any large-scale music, film, media or games project is a culmination of different artistic institutions coming together and we see this as crucial in this drive for more opportunities in Plymouth,” he says.

“There are various things I’ve seen,” continues Mills, “like installations from Arts University Plymouth that might have a visual element but lack an audio element — and similarly for us, we may be doing audio installations that lack a visual element, so forming a strategic alliance and consolidating and concentrating that creative energy is a great way to showcase what Plymouth’s capable of. When the city’s artistic disciplines come together, the output is going to be so much more impactful and I think Plymouth could be quite ambitious about what it creates and cultivates independently.

“There’s a lot of ambition here and a lot of cultural capital, so the sky’s the limit in terms of what the city can create. We want to be a part of that — we want to fuse those opportunities together so that we can be one of the important vehicles that brings artistic projects in the city to fruition.”

Plymouth: a hub for music production
Mills says that Plymouth ‘can absolutely become a hub for music production and even game development in the South West’ too. “We are just expanding our curriculum to include game development,” he mentions. “Big game development companies have studios across the globe and Plymouth is an untapped source of that creative power and capital. Bristol and Manchester are saturated markets but there’s a lot of opportunity down here in terms of scenery, space and a workforce that’s untapped.

“It is an exciting time for music and arts in Plymouth. What doesn’t exist yet is the real exciting thing, though — people who are going to university now are going to be finding new jobs and new opportunities to create music that simply don’t exist today. It’s exciting to be part of that.”

Tony Macleod, who is preparing to start his final year of a BA (Hons) degree in music production and sound engineering at dBs in Plymouth, says he would ‘recommend this centre to anyone who has similar interests and aspirations’. He says that ‘open days and experience days’ give people who are interested in music production ‘great access to some state-of-the-art studios’ while also giving them ‘the chance to meet experienced tutors and staff’ who have worked in the industry and are ‘without doubt some of the best in the country’.

Hannah Harris, Plymouth Culture CEO, tells Made in Plymouth: “Plymouth’s 10-year culture strategy sets out a vision for the city in terms of the arts and organisations like dBs are helping us to deliver this vision.

“Our ambition is that culture in Plymouth should be for anyone and everyone, so any outreach programme like this from arts, music and culture-related organisations in the city is welcomed with open arms. It’s all about providing opportunities for people and dispelling the belief that art and culture is only for certain individuals.

“What dBs is doing by engaging with Plymouth’s communities is the embodiment of our strategic ambition to take opportunities and conversations into communities. We hope more businesses and organisations will follow suit in the near future.”

Cosmic Sessions: CORE with Beelzedub, Seamouse, Oh Mr James & Unterwork is on Friday 7 June 2024 from 9pm until 2am at Cosmic Kitchen in Palace Street, near the Barbican. Alex Kearney is performing a hybrid live/DJ set at the event, which is open to anyone over 18 years old. Entry is £5. For more, see: here.

dBs Institute is based at 6 Elizabeth Court in Higher Lane, Plymouth. For contact details and to find out more, see the website: here.

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