Recording music in a state-of-the-art recording studio can cost upwards of $500 a day, if you talk to the right people. A typical package might include a know-it-all sound engineer, a soundboard filled with hundreds of color-coded knobs and a recording room installed with the most up-to-date microphones and audio equipment.
The amount of money a person needs to pour into recording a few audio tracks seems counter-intuitive, considering the fact that most musicians aren’t, well, affluent. But there are options for musicians looking to make headway in terms of recording music: free audio recording software like Audacity, the microphone that comes built in the screens of most Apple laptops, a mostly-empty dorm room and some musical chops.
The University offers another option, though. It may be a little-known fact outside of the School of Music, but North Campus is home to a state-of-the-art recording studio, fully stocked with the latest equipment and a recording label called Block M Records.
Every year since its inception in 2005, the label asks aspiring musicians to submit their homemade tracks to what’s called the “New Music on the Block” competition. Artists are judged by a panel of innovative, creative and highly acclaimed judges, including Sid Meier of Firaxis Games, which developed games like “Civilization” and “Pirates!” and John M. Storyk of the Walters-Storyk Design Group, which designed recording studios for Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys, among others. The winners receive a recording contract with the University to record in the studio, as well as the opportunity to have their music distributed on iTunes.
According to Mary Simoni, associate dean of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance and supervisor for Block M Records, “The term ‘new music’ in ‘New Music on the Block’ does not imply a musical genre, instrumentation or production technique,” she said. “‘New music’ means that the music is newly composed, created and performed by University of Michigan students.” The broad definition allows more creative space for students, she said, allowing them to follow their instincts when it comes to music composition.
Unsurprisingly, the 2008 “New Music on the Block” contest winners’ music varies as much as the song selections from grab-bag AM college radio stations, where blues music, classical composition, hip hop, electronica and prog rock all come together in one evening’s worth of air time. All of the winners will be performing their music in one night as well, at the Duderstadt Digital Media Studio in an iTunes release concert this Friday at 7 p.m.
The musical styles in these pieces are representative of the musical influences and histories of the artists themselves, whose experiences as University students are diverse.
School of MT&D sophomore William Zuckerman’s piece “Current, Deep, and Cool” showcases a saxophone quartet playing discordant notes reminiscent of the brass wind “cars” imitated in George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”.
“It sounds like if John Coltrane were to meet ‘West Side Story,’ ” Zuckerman said. “I was looking to integrate different genres in the most subtle of ways into my piece.” His piece also attempts to stretch the idea of genre. “Modern acoustic music is often typecast into a ‘contemporary classical’ genre, but my music strives to embrace elements of popular genres,” he said.
Similarly, School of MT&D freshman Vicki Huang mixes musical styles by integrating elements of acoustic music with electronica in her prog-electronica hybrid piece, “Long Term Effects of Familiarity.”
The composition of this atmospheric piece was the result of circumstance, improvisation and a last-minute fever. “I was … sick, but I wanted to get the song done. I couldn’t put in the electronic parts until I recorded the guitar part, so in my delirium, I made up the guitar part and added in effects on Reaktor (music-synthesizing software).”
The product is a three-minute piece that uses heavy reverb behind delicate plucking on an acoustic guitar, an organic sound that gently slides into glitch-heavy electronic ambient rhythms. The music itself is reminiscent of guitarists like Kaki King, and it sounds like Nick Drake backed up by trance music.
Ching-Mei Lin, a PhD candidate in Musical Arts in Composition at Rackham Graduate School, derived her piece from her discontent with Michigan winters.
“The piece consists of two movements. The first movement is ‘Bitter Chill,’ which describes a violent Michigan winter with fast and restful musical gestures,” Lin said. “The second movement is ‘Sun on the Snow,’ which represents the visually content picture after a harsh winter with slow, harmonic sounding.”
Lin’s piece is more classically-based (versus pop-based) and makes use of the alto saxophone and marimba, instruments that produce both tense, quick-tempo rhythms and longer, more drawn-out sounds.
Jack Stratton, School of MT&D junior, spits out some pop-tunes in “EZ Mac,” a song with Fresh Prince of Bel-Air influences and witty, ironic lyrics.
“I wrote the entire flow in a freshman anthro lecture over five weeks,” he said. “There’s a little Afro-Cuban-meets-hip-hop going on … It was all original even though it has an old-school sampled feel.” The song itself uses complex drumbeats and choruses imbued with keyboards tickling out minor-based melodies. Stratton is a three-time “New Music on the Block” winner.
Other winners include Stewart Randolph, School of MT&D senior and Kevin DeKimpe, School of MT&D junior and a cartoonist for the Michigan Daily.
Huang described the competition as a “good opportunity to showcase … my music,” and get a recording deal in the process.
It’s a little-known fact, but all students can become certified to use the recording studio on North Campus after registering for multi-week studio orientations at http://www.dc.umich.edu/training.htm. Simoni also recommends that students register for PAT 201, Introduction to Computer Music.
There are a lot more recording options for musicians than to lock themselves “in an air tight isolation booth in East Quad,” which is what Stratton did, or in a semi-private dorm room. Making use of the University’s recording opportunities can help burgeoning artists create award-winning music — artists who, unlike Kanye West, are pinching pennies and just beginning to hammer out their catchy beats.