A New Studio

I got a grant from WARF (more later about that) to set up an electro-acoustic studio at the School of Music.

What??

The music that I wrote and recorded on my CD, about which I blogged at length (and which is called Air Names and is released on the Summit Records label), is electro-acoustic music. While I am certainly open to anyone’s buying that CD, it is also available to listen to on Spotify if you use that app, and on youtube (start here). Electro-acoustic music is played by “regular” instruments but applying computer sound processing, and by electronic instruments that are played by a human (as opposed to being played by a computer), and by instruments whose sound is altered by pedals (think electric guitar).

As some of you may know, I acquired some equipment when I got to my job at UW five and a half years ago. The basic process of creating music with it, for me anyway, isn’t that complicated. I play my horn into a microphone. The mic is connected to a fancy piece of equipment called an interface, which basically converts what I play into zeroes and ones. From there, the sound goes to the computer, where I have several programs that process sound in various ways. From there (in the most basic setup) the sound goes out to some speakers. The computer can also record the sound, track by track.

Other instruments could also be patched into the setup. For instance, an electric piano can also be connected. It already speaks in zeroes and ones, using a music language called MIDI. Interestingly, unlike most things dealing with the computer, MIDI hasn’t really changed since it was created in the 80s. Mac computers have been through at least 500 kinds of cables – it seems like every new computer you get is connected to its peripherals with a new kind of connection. Meanwhile, MIDI jacks have been the same for 30-plus years, and they look it.

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But I digress. An instrumental setup can include, really, unlimited instruments, both MIDI and acoustic. On many of the tracks on my CD, for example, I have several horn tracks, a few tracks with other instruments I invented, and a bunch of tracks of drums, plus a bass track. Think of a mixing board, like you might see in a picture of a recording studio (it looks a little like the transporter controller in Star Trek), where each row of sliders and dials controls one track.

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The computer has a digital mixing board with pretty much infinite tracks.

OK, so about a year and a half ago, all UW faculty were sent out a notice that money for the acquisition of large equipment was available from WARF. WARF is the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The foundation funds research projects at UW, and is technically autonomous and therefore not subject to any kind of state budget cuts, of which we have had many. WARF has a $2 billion endowment, and the funding for research here at UW is generous, to say the least. Many science departments have need of large sums of money for equipment such as electron microscopes. The idea behind the current round of grants was that cooperation was encouraged: the chemistry department could team up with the plant biology department with plans to share a million dollar microscope, and that way only one such scope would have to be funded.

This round of grants was opened up to the humanities departments for the first time. As at many universities, the STEM fields often eat up the equipment funding, but a clear-thinking Vice-Chancellor realized that the humanities have needs, too. I decide to put together a grant to create a whiz-bang electro-acoustic studio, that could function as a comprehensive research facility for our faculty and students. It would have to have all the newest and best technology, so that it would have the flexibility to accommodate performers with many different interests. At this point, there are only two faculty members doing the kind of music I’m doing, but the equipment could facilitate all kinds of other projects, from straight up classical recording to the production of high end hip hop, and everything in between. I lined up 15 School of Music faculty collaborators, got suggestions for useful equipment, and put together a huge wish list of stuff. I emailed people at other schools who had similar studios and got more ideas. Everything went into the grant application.

Long story short, I got my whole wish list.

This led to a new phase of learning for me. How do you go about purchasing stuff at a huge and bureaucratic university through a grant? Turns out the answer is “it’s complicated.” I had arranged with the Director of the School of Music that a room would be converted for our use (and our use alone). Now that the grant was a reality, we had to select a room. We found the perfect classroom and took it off the rehearsal and class grid. But it needed to be secured with a heavy duty lock, and then renovated into an appropriate (and nice looking) space. I could only acquire so much equipment before the room was ready.

This put me in a timing bind. Once the lock was on (that happened right before the winter holidays), I could theoretically start buying all the equipment. My office had become even more overstuffed than usual, with electronics in boxes everywhere. But I figured that it made more sense to wait on further acquisition until after the renovation – otherwise, all the equipment would have to be taken back out and stored during the renovation, then put back in yet again.

To bring you to the present, we met with the renovation team yesterday. The work will take place this summer. So yes, I will acquire everything, and we’ll store it in our empty classroom, moving it to “an undisclosed location” during the renovation. Midsummer, I’ll spend a week or two in the renovated studio, setting up everything, which will probably be one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever undertaken. We’ll open in September. Some of the stuff we’re getting is pretty amazing, and hard to describe (a Moog synthesizer, a theremin, a Reactable, an Eigenharp, and way more). But right now, the room looks like an empty classroom built in the 60s, with some boxes in the corner. The word “desultory” comes to mind.

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Today I got in touch with the recordings producer at NYU’s new zillion dollar studio, and got advice on how to store microphones and cables (we’ll need to build or buy all kinds of storage). In the weeks to come, I will need to comply with UW’s arcane purchasing system as I go on a buying spree. I aim to keep you all posted, trying not to be boring, as the process moves forward. And I’ll hope to see you all in September for the grand opening of the Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS).

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2 Responses to A New Studio

  1. Meg Lamm says:

    Yeah!

  2. Congrats! This is such a great story! Also EARS ftw.

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