Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recording as Therapy

I came across an article on April 25, 2010 titled “‘American Idol’ judge Kara DioGuardi hosts charity golf outing for Phoenix House.” It contains excerpts from an interview with Kara DioGuardi from Golf Digest. She speaks about how she partnered with Phoenix House, a substance-abuse organization, to build music-recording studios for teens and women in recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction.

Ms. DioGuardi says, “I have seen the impact on kids who've had trouble divulging things in normal clinical therapy. When they go into the studio instead, it's the kind of safe haven that allows them to talk about things that they wouldn't otherwise talk about. It's very helpful to their recovery.”

I wanted to find out more specifics about how the recording process helped in recovery and so I contacted the Phoenix House.

Since 1967, Phoenix House has grown to become a leading provider of alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention services operating over 150 programs in ten states. Currently, the organization cares for a case load of more than 7,000 through residential drug treatment for adults, residential Phoenix Academies combining long-term drug treatment and schooling for teens, outpatient care, after school, and day programs.

Arleen Kropf, Deputy Director for Marketing & Communication for Phoenix House Foundation in New York, got me in touch with Brian Edwards, Deputy Director at the Los Angeles studio and licensed therapist and John Morabito, the engineer at the studio.

Both are from the Phoenix Academy of Los Angeles located in Lake View Terrace in California. The Phoenix House there deals with youths, 13-18 years old, with serious substance dependency issues. Most come out of the California juvenile justice system where 70% receive residential treatment, 20% medical treatment and 10% treatment from private pay insurance. Phoenix House provides residential treatment for these youths. There are about 100 kids at any given time at the site who can stay up to a year.

American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi originated the idea of building a recording studio for Phoenix House 3-4 years ago. It was her way of giving back to the community. She was interested in building an effective facility that yielded results. The first studio was built at the Lake View Terrace location.

The program integrating recording activities has been refined over the years and has been running in its current form for the last 2-3 years.

Music has played a key role in reaching troubled youths to get them to open up about what is really troubling them. When kids come in, they are offered several different kinds of programs to engage them ranging from music appreciation of all styles of music to guitar instruction, vocal choir coaching and the recording program. Personal interests and preferences are taken into account when proposing an activity for each person. Each activity takes up a block of 2-3 hours at a time, typically in a group setting.

In the recording program, almost all the kids have never handled a microphone or know how it works, yet most are willing to give it a try. The idea of spending time in a recording studio is intriguing.

The studio is equipped with an Apple computer with Apple Logic as the main application program. Much of the gear such as the Rode tube mics, AKG headphones, and EVENT speakers were donated by each manufacturer. Kara, along with West L.A. Music donated equipment as well. The computer is loaded with over 100,000 beats, courtesy of one of the main sponsors, Big Fish Audio.

Typically, 8-10 kids are involved at a time per session in the studio. The recording space is small but sufficient to accommodate these kids, recording engineer and staff members. Before a session, kids are given 6-days to put their “heart on paper” and tell their stories. The living quarters that these kids stay in offer communal interaction. During the writing stage, peers act as sounding boards and aid in the creative process. They are focused on writing so they help each other despite their differences, even when they are from rival gangs.

99% of what is recorded is rap. On the day of the session, the engineer plays an assortment of beats until one of the beats catches someone’s fancy enough to try to rap what they’ve written down to that beat. Each person takes turns in rapping to the selected beat and then after a few tries, records the performance.

There is no vocal booth. The recording is done with everyone in the same room. This setting keeps everyone engaged. They listen to their peers rehearse as well as to the stories being told, provide suggestions and comments, stay quiet during the recording and think about what they are going to say when it is their turn. This is when the magic happens.

According to the engineer, John Morabito, the high point is watching the faces of the kids light up when they hear themselves on play back. “You have to understand that these are kids who have never used or even held a microphone before. They did not even know that they had it in them to be able to accomplish this (one) feat.”

Many kids who have trouble adjusting to treatment have found the music program to be their emotional outlet. They come out of their shells and become open to change. The staff has seen many challenging kids, who have had years of difficulty dealing with their emotional issues and substance abuse issues, become more involved in the treatment process via the music program.

There is a girl, a Ms. L, as tough as they come, who upon going through this process, opened up (during the session) and rapped about her relationship with her mother. The experience had a lasting effect. Even after graduating a few years ago, she still talks with some of the staff members on a weekly basis.

Another boy, a Mr. J, who had never rapped in his life prior to the program, completed 26 songs during his stay. His parents were so impressed, they came to the studio and asked what they could do to help their son continue. Upon receiving some advice, the parents bought some studio equipment a year ago and Mr. J converted his closet into a booth and continued to write and record songs. He has been clean to this day avoiding any cigarettes or alcohol.

Hundreds of recordings have been made ranging from just one verse of a well-known song to completely original songs showcasing hidden talent. The kids leave with their own recordings as reminders of their experience during their stay and as something they can point to as their own accomplishments.

Going through the recording process peaks their interest and appreciation for other forms of musical expression. The kids get the opportunity to attend concerts and to be exposed to different kinds of music. Recently, they were invited by MusiCares to attend the Grammy Awards show rehearsals and non-alcoholic gatherings to talk to people in the music industry.

There are now recording studios in Los Angeles and Yorktown, New York with plans to build more in Austin and Florida. Future plans include the addition of a DJ’ing program due to popular demand. The studios need more guitars and Discmans (when kids are going through difficult times, Discmans are given to them with music of their choice to help them get through the rough patches).

It is a wonderful thing to be able to operate a studio when you know that each recording has the potential to change someone’s life in a big way. Now, that’s a studio worth running!

NOTE: Special thanks to Arleen Kropf for arranging the interview and providing photos.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Raising the Recording Literacy of Musicians

In the June 2008 issue of Mix Magazine, Humber Recording Studio was among a number of new facilities that opened and qualified as one of "The Class of 2008". It was opened in September of 2007 as a key piece of a brand new Bachelor Degree music program offered at Toronto's Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning. The studio featured a 30x30-foot main tracking room with two iso-booths and a 30x20-foot control room equipped with a SSL Duality console. The live room was designed for recording great horn sounds.

As great as the room is, it is only half the story. The new four-year Bachelor of Applied Music – Contemporary Music program as well as the new recording space is the brainchild of Ian Terry, a seasoned engineer / producer who now teaches at Humber, in collaboration with Program Head Denny Christianson and existing faculty.

Ian Terry has over 30-years of experience in audio recording (includes working in the recording scene New York for 14 years) and has engineered and produced over 400 records. Ian also ran a studio in Montreal called Studio Tempo From 1976 to 1996. Artists he has recorded include David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion, Diana Krall, Oscar Peterson and countless others. (He also served as Director for five consecutive years on the executive board of SPARS in the ‘90s). Ian is currently the Head of the Music Production Department at Humber and teaches Aesthetics in Recorded Sound and Master classes in Music Production among other courses.

It is the intent, the philosophy around how the new curriculum was put together that is truly visionary. Consider the fact that there are more people than ever creating music than any other time in history. There are simply not enough trained recording engineers with the right kind and depth of knowledge to properly take care of every artist’s recording needs.

Recognizing also that artist and musicians now have access to a lot of powerful recording tools and basically call the shots on when and where to record, Ian wanted to design a unique curriculum to raise the recording literacy of musicians as one of his main design goals.

It was important for Ian to raise the knowledge level of musicians so they take the responsibility for how their art is produced. The aim of the program is NOT to train musicians to become engineers and learn another craft, but to be able to make informed decisions on where and how to record and the right “who to hire” to get their projects done. Understanding the limitations of what one can do and knowing how to ask for the right kind of help are two important ideas Ian wanted to instill.

Statistically speaking, not everyone has the aptitude nor the desire to be a great musician AND a great recording engineer. Yes, there is that rare person, perhaps one in 10,000, that can do both extremely well, but the focus of the program is being a musician first.

As part of the recording literacy curriculum, students learn the difference between MP3 vs. WAV files; why bit depth of 24-bits and what that means; what is the difference between 96k vs. 192k sample rate; what is mastering; how does mixing in the box compare to mixing using an analog summing box; what do you look for in a studio; what do you look for in an engineer; how do all these factors affect how the music actually sounds?

In order to teach all these concepts, they needed a room to be able to demonstrate and have students hear and experience firsthand what it means to record in a quality facility.

During the first two years of the program, students focus on musicianship and performance. In their third year, students begin taking engineering and production related courses. All students in this program must complete a recording project / portfolio in their fourth year. For the recording project course, 70% of the effort is focused on one’s own recorded performance as an artist and 30% on producing an artist other than themselves. A professional recording engineer is brought in as well as a mastering engineer to finish each of their projects in the form of a final recording. This professional-quality recording, along with a complete press kit and other promotional materials, become part of the assembled portfolio, which will function as a student's calling card for entrance into the music industry upon graduation.

The program is in its fifth year and the second graduating class has just finished up. As the relatively new curriculum solidifies, Ian has seen a marked improvement in the quality of project work from increased focus on recorded music production. With 75 students and only one room available, students must complete 3-4 tunes in 16-hours. The limited resources force students to make the most efficient use of time both in and outside the studio, simulating real life situations. Pre-production becomes a much more critical part of the entire process.

Ian states it in another way: “If you have a $5,000 recording budget, the artist has to make intelligent artistic decisions to figure out how to allocate resources and to consciously know what quality level to shoot for. That translates to knowing when to go into a studio and when not to and make deliberate decisions on which particular audio set up and gear to use.”

The program has proven so successful that it has attracted a lot of notice and talent with 1,100 to 1500 applicants vying for just 100 openings each year.

A tagline used by a clothing and shoe retailer called SYMS, states that “an educated consumer is our best customer.” This is holds even truer for recording studios.

** Thanks to Don Wershba at SSL for introducing me to Ian Terry.