Academia electronica: Performing Arts Technology majors learn the art of hearing

By Sharon Jacobs, Assistant Arts Editor
Published September 19, 2010

On a Thursday, the eight students in School of Music room 2057 all face the wall. Each one sits at a workstation outfitted with a Korg Triton synthesizer connected to a speaker, a Mac desktop and a recording console that’s littered with buttons and knobs. This is PAT 201, “Introduction to Computer Music,” and the students are about to write what, for many of them, will be their first high-tech composition.

For Professor Jennifer Furr’s first assignment, students will fashion a short piece using Logic, the Apple, Inc. music production program preferred by the Performing Arts Technology department. Besides having to comply with some basic compositional rules (six or more tracks, “quantize” — artificially aligning the notes using Logic — where necessary), the students get to show off by picking from a list of specific techniques to apply to their compositions and must integrate some sort of synthetic “sweeping gesture,” Furr explained.

“It basically introduces students to electronic music, a little bit of historical survey — important pieces of electronic music over the past 50, 60, 70 years — and gets students working on their own projects,” explained Associate Professor and PAT Department Chair Jason Corey.

As complex as it seems — especially to the non-PAT students, for whom this is among the only courses of its kind available — PAT 201 is only the tip of the tech-arts iceberg.

In Corey’s “Contemporary Practices in Studio Production I” course, advanced PAT majors delve into the ins and outs of recording and mixing methodology. In a timbral ear training class, they learn to distinguish slight changes in frequency. And in Assistant Professor Georg Essl’s “Performance Systems,” the instrument of choice is the cell phone. By the end of the semester, students will actually perform a 100-percent cell-phonic piece that they compose themselves.

“Traditionally, there’s, ‘Here’s the instrument builder, here’s the performer, here’s the composer,’ ” said Essl, who has a joint appointment with the School of Engineering. “But (in ‘Performance Systems’) we’re kind of saying, ‘You know what, defining what an instrument should look like is like composing.’

“So we kind of break down those barriers and say, ‘You’re a little bit of an engineer, a little performer, a little bit of a composer, and we don’t have to honor those traditional roles.’ I think that’s kind of a PAT thing.”

From Garage to Studio

Many PAT majors were introduced to their future course of study by a technology hardly more professional than a cell phone: that irrepressible anyone-can-be-a-musician program, GarageBand.

“I started playing in a band my junior year of high school,” said PAT senior Peter Raymond. “After I started with the band, I realized I had GarageBand, and I had one microphone from connecting to a digital piano. So we originally just used that one microphone to record everything that we did. And then from there, I just started reading more about recording, and I decided that was really what I wanted to become involved in.”

Raymond decided to go out for PAT on a whim, after having already been accepted to LSA. For the application, he had to send in a portfolio with one stereo recording (two channels of sound), one multitrack (multiple mics picking up different musical parts, not necessarily at the same time) and a performance piece of his choosing.

“I didn’t have any technical training,” Raymond said — but he did read into the subject, and he did have Pro Tools (“kind of the big name in the recording industry,” he explained). Able to quickly compile the requisite pieces from his personal computer noodlings, Raymond applied one month before the MT&D deadline and was accepted.

That sort of gradual and casual introduction into the music production world isn’t specific to Raymond. Macklin Underdown, a PAT sophomore, also fell into recording on his own, and has yet to experience a more polished production style.

“I’ve never personally recorded in a studio or been at a recording session at a really nice studio — all the stuff I did growing up was in my bedroom,” Underdown said. “I bought a computer and some software and a microphone and was just kind of doing my own thing.”

Some PAT majors start off with even less in the way of state-of-the-art technology — although Raymond pointed out that nowadays, recording equipment is cheaper than ever before.

“Once (recording techniques) switched from analog to digital, it was a lot more accessible to a lot more people, because the prices came down,” Raymond said. “Everybody can have a MacBook with GarageBand and get started that way, just like I did, and you don’t really have to own anything to do something in GarageBand.

“I definitely think that it’s tougher if you don’t have the resources to get started on, but there are kids who have come here that don’t own any equipment, or haven’t owned any equipment.”

What Raymond, Underdown and many other PAT majors did have, however, was a solid background in math and science, and a desire to integrate practical academics into an artistic course of study.

Getting technical

Underdown and Raymond both expressed pride in being part of the University’s PAT department over similar programs at other colleges and trade schools because of its position within a larger, well respected university.

“I’m still getting a full degree from the University of Michigan, and so it’s a little bit more well rounded than just, ‘I went to a trade school, here’s what I learned,’ ” Raymond said.

Underdown pointed specifically to the University’s four-year bachelor’s degree program as a reason to choose PAT; smaller recording technology programs tend to offer two-year associate’s degrees.

“There are a few schools that have electronic music degrees, or they have sound recording and production degrees,” Corey said. But the University’s program means more.

“What really makes it unique is the fact that it’s interdisciplinary, and that it’s where we’re situated — the fact that we’re on the Michigan campus, the fact that we’re in a school of music that has 1,000 students, and that (PAT) students get to take classes in Engineering and Screen Arts & Cultures and Art & Design.”

Though Performing Arts Technology majors cross disciplines in their studies, they don’t all go about it in the same way. PAT is divided into four tracks, each with its own focus and set of expectations — prospective freshmen apply to one track specifically, but it’s possible to switch once accepted.

Curriculum A requires that its students take lessons in voice or some classical instrument. It’s the only PAT track to award graduates with a bachelor of music. Tracks B and C both give bachelor of fine arts degrees.

“B and C have quite a bit of overlap, except that I would say B concentrates a little bit more on music and C lets students have a little more flexibility in what they can concentrate on,” Corey explained.

“It’s not just music as performance art, it’s any interactive art that you can think of: installations, media art, stuff like that,” Essl said of track C.

PAT D gives a bachelor of science in sound engineering degree and is a popular choice among aspiring music producers and audio designers. Raymond is in track D; Underdown is in B but hoping to switch to C.

Combined, the four PAT tracks have just 80 students, but the gender ratio is heavily skewed.

“It’s probably 15-percent female to 85-percent male,” Corey estimated, but “my sense is that I’m getting more inquiries from prospective female students this year than before.”

Raymond gets to see a good cross-section of the PAT program outside of class. The chair of the University’s student section of the international Audio Engineering Society, Raymond noted that most attendees at AES-sponsored workshops are students in PAT.

The workshops Raymond helps plan give PAT students (and anyone else interested) the opportunity to learn more about the audio production world outside of school. Last semester, the club invited Michael Gould and Joseph Gramley, percussion professors in the school of MT&D, to speak.

“They came over and held a drum-tuning workshop in the audio studio,” Raymond said, “and talked about preparing drums for recording, and how to get the best sound out of them.” At other workshops, company representatives from Yamaha and Sound Studio Logic have showed off new products and features for the AES group.

AES is one way for PAT students to figure out where to go after graduation. As they will discover, there are lots of options out there waiting for them once they’ve earned their degrees.

Engineering a Job

Graduates with creative arts degrees often find themselves face-to-face with a fiercely competitive job market in which hiring decisions are based heavily on subjectivity. Rooted in hard science as much as art, PAT leaves its graduates with something more practical and career-applicable.

“Just listening and learning to listen, and to hear things and evaluate some of those qualities is a big piece of the whole program,” said Jeff Vautin, who graduated in December 2006 and now works for Bose Corporation.

After spending three years doing acoustic and electrical design on headphones, Vautin now works on audio systems for cars.

“In the PAT program I was looking at (music) from the compositional end of it — when you’re putting together a mix that somebody’s going to listen to, how do you want to present all that information,” Vautin said. “And now I’m looking at it from the other end. I’m looking at the playback — when somebody goes to play back a mix somebody’s made, how can we present it as accurately as possible. So it’s a very related challenge, but coming at it from a different angle.”

While there are certain PAT skills that Vautin uses daily at work — specifically from the timbral ear training class he took with Corey — he attributes much of his quick job-hunt success to his second major, electrical engineering. According to Vautin, electrical engineering was more attractive to employers because they got it — whereas with PAT, the subject and name of the department are both fairly new and specific to the ‘U,’ and thus confusing to companies.

“Until the sound engineering program, the Performing Arts Technology curriculum, is better understood, that will be a limitation of it — employers not knowing exactly what it entails and the similarities between it and its overlap with electrical engineering,” Vautin said.

Michael Eisenberg never had to face that limitation. Also a member of the class of 2006, Eisenberg found employment instantly, with nothing but a BFA from PAT C. Eisenberg, then in Raymond’s current position heading AES at the University, traveled to New York for an AES convention over spring break of his senior year.

“I was told to meet Abe Jacob, who was the man who kind of was able to get the title of sound designer to a theater,” he said. “And he wanted me to come to New York and work for him, so I made the move.”

Eisenberg now does theatrical sound design and engineering in NYC. Currently, he’s doing sound engineering for the drag-queen musical “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway and the Hitchcock adaptation “The 39 Steps” off-Broadway. As associate designer, he’s working on a revival of a Mamet play, “A Life in the Theater,” and a grown-up “Alice in Wonderland” sequel musical called “Wonderland,” which will begin previews on Broadway in March.

“The designer will say, ‘I want to do that,’ and the associate will say, ‘OK, this is how we do that,’ ” Eisenberg said, describing his various jobs. “The sound engineer is the one managing the crew and making sure everything happens properly.”

As with Vautin, it’s the general Performing Arts Technology mentality that Eisenberg finds most useful to him now.

“Michigan’s audio program doesn’t focus on anything related to what I do,” he said. “However, the principles in everything that they teach all wrap around and directly affect what I like to do. So it was great preparation to be able to go through all of (PAT) and basically know how to listen.”

Raymond and Underdown don’t know where they’ll be in a few years’ time. But they’ve got plenty of options: According to Corey, recent PAT grads have gone on to work in recording engineering, in website design, with the microphone company Shure and with the digital signal processing company Analog Devices, among other things.

“You can even go into the (video game) industry and make the, you know, squeaky sounds that you need for the games,” Essl said.

Back in Professor Furr’s classroom, LSA junior Adam Fink says he’d like to switch into the Performing Arts Technology program if possible. But most of Furr’s students aren’t bound for the video-game squeak industry or the behind-the-scenes Broadway life.

In PAT 201, they’re getting just a taste of what Raymond, Underdown and the rest of the PAT majors do every day. But as Furr finishes her explanation of the assignment and the class immediately starts fiddling with synthesizer keyboards and controls, it’s clear that while the students are still learning about computer music techniques, they’re completely absorbed in this tech-art hybrid of a subject.