For almost three decades, Peabody has trained the recording engineers of the future—graduates who are taking the capture of sound to new heights and surprising venues.
By Richard Byrne
Photos by Will Kirk
When Sara Brown and Yang Xu entered Studio A at the Peabody Institute on a gray December afternoon, they thought they’d be assisting faculty member A.T. Michael MacDonald with a recording session. But MacDonald had a surprise for the pair of second-year master’s students in Recording Arts and Sciences. “I said the engineer called in sick,” he says.
That meant Brown and Yang would be in charge of an entire recording session booked by a local jazz organ trio, with a mere hour to set up microphones and test various sonic approaches before the players started laying down tracks.
In Studio A, Recording Arts and Sciences program director Scott Metcalfe (top) confers with fifth-year student Gabe Slotnick on Peabody’s newly acquired Neve 88RS console.
Once their lickety-split preparation was done, Brown and Yang took a seat behind Peabody’s brand new Neve 88RS recording console, which blinked bright reds and yellows, blues and greens, as the trio (guitar, drums, Hammond organ) settled into a warm groove of Manon Maintenant.
MacDonald kept up a steady stream of questions, suggestions, and anecdotes as Brown and Yang logged in various takes, tweaked recording levels, and monitored the session. “I’m looking for how they interact with what’s happening out there,” MacDonald says. “I’m making sure that there’s rapport, and that they keep the session flowing.”
Brown and Yang will soon graduate from one of the nation’s most unique academic programs. Peabody’s Recording Arts and Sciences program is an intensive mix of music, recording, and engineering classes bolstered by countless hours of time spent actually recording music. Students who enter the five-year program must possess both high math scores on standardized admission tests and the performance or composition skills required to gain entrance to Peabody. The potential pool of students is a select one—each year numbering only about 1,500 students across the nation.
Recording Arts and Sciences students balance the Conservatory’s rigorous music classes with a course of study in electrical engineering at Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. And then there’s all the time spent in the Conservatory’s state-of-the-art recording studios. When they finish, they have earned a dual degree both in music or composition specialization and in recording arts and sciences.
“We’re excited by the challenge of working with students who are top-notch musicians and who quickly become top-notch recording students,” says program director Scott Metcalfe.
Peabody’s dual degree approach—and its emphasis on producing recording engineers with deep musical skill and knowledge—has proved to be a virtual guarantee of employment in the audio field.
But the dual undergraduate emphasis (and the advanced studies available to students in the Recording Arts and Sciences master’s degree program) also means that its alumni can be found not only in top recording studios and on Hollywood sound stages but also in the wider worlds of acoustic research, architecture, and the burgeoning video gaming industry.
Tony Warner (BM ’98, Trombone, Recording Arts and Sciences), who manages the audio/visual design group at renowned architectural firm RTKL and teaches in the program, says the three-pronged course of study is key. Graduates don’t just know how music is made and recorded, he observes, but they know the science as well. “It’s sometimes hard to see the correlation when you’re a student,” observes Warner. “But the program as whole gives you a wide and diverse technical foundation. You know the theory behind the trade.”
James E. West, a research professor at the Whiting School and inventor of the influential foil-electret microphone that revolutionized the recording industry in 1962, says that he is impressed by the Peabody Recording Arts and Sciences students who work in his lab—many of whom also end up doing engineering research.
“I find the students extremely knowledgeable,” says West. “Many schools do not talk much about the physical aspects of sound,” he says, “but understanding these factors is important in making successful recordings.”
Peabody’s undergraduate program in Recording Arts and Sciences was created in 1983 by Alan Kefauver, who had been director of the recording and audio-visual services since 1970. The program had its roots in a two-credit course that he offered in “recording technology.”
“Alan always encouraged us to try and remove that shroud that seems to exist between the actual experience and the recording,” says Neil Tevault (BM ’98, Trombone, Recording Arts and Sciences), who works as technical director of Studio 4A “such as a change to a specific frequency or effect, and make an adjustment.”
Rob Byers (MM ’05, Recording and Production), who now works as technical director of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media, says that the skills he learned at Peabody are directly applicable to the high-pressure world of radio and live broadcasts.
“Students come out of this program and already have the skill sets that most people develop in the first decade of their careers.”
—fifth-year student Gabe Slotnick
“The studio experience is all about compromise,” Byers observes. “You have to be able to get a good sound and get it fast. Add to this the pressure of a live broadcast and you find you also have to be able to make decisions quickly in order for the on-air product to remain flawless.”
The skills that Peabody Recording Arts students carry with them after graduation don’t always lead to work in traditional recording studios.
Katie Walker (MM ’09, Audio Sciences) is a senior research technician at ExxonMobil, who uses her training in acoustics and recording to detect pipe and drum corrosion and tackle other related problems in the company’s refineries. “There are a lot of setups here that involve the same signal flow as a recording studio and require adjusting for the same nuances,” she says.
She came to Peabody as a graduate student, after taking a double major in math and physics at Towson University. She was originally seeking an acoustics program, but ended up being intrigued by the recording program as well. “I guess you could say I saw all the big toys, and I added on as many recording classes as I could,” she says.
Tony Warner has also trod a different path with his Recording Arts and Sciences degree. He is the leader of the audio/visual design division at RTKL. His work involves making large public spaces—hospitals, hotels, and museums—ready to take advantage of innovations in communications technology. Warner’s group also helped RTKL tackle the renovation of the White House Press Room, which transformed one of the world’s most visible political stages from a cramped, chaotic, and technology-challenged space into a sleeker and more media-friendly environment.
“Audio is rarely separated from video these days,” notes Warner. “They go hand in hand.”
That merger of sight and sound is also a key element in the work of alumnus Geoff Knorr (BM ’07, Recording Arts and Sciences; MM ’08, Composition), who has found success in the video game industry. Among his recent projects was to orchestrate the sound design for Firaxis Games’ wildly successful Sid Maier’s Civilization V project. (Metcalfe was also involved in the Civilization V project, editing, mixing, and mastering the game.) Knorr’s work on the project ranged from composing and recording sound effects and music electronically to preparing scores and supervising a recording session in Prague with a full orchestra.
His degrees in Composition and in Recording Arts and Sciences, Knorr says, “were the best combination I could have chosen for the work I do now.”
Exposing Recording Arts students to the variety of career paths available to them has been a key element in Metcalfe’s approach to directing the program—a task he believes is just as important as staying ahead of the quicksilver changes in recording technology. For instance, he has brought in faculty members with backgrounds much different from Peabody’s classical and jazz base, such as Baltimore-based producer Drew Mazurek (who has recorded huge rock acts such as Linkin Park, as well as indie rock classics such as Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart).
“You want students to be able to record anything,” Metcalfe says. “Pop and rock as well as classical and jazz, and be able to cross over tools and techniques when appropriate.”
Metcalfe is also developing shared classes with other divisions at Hopkins, including a forthcoming class that will bring together Peabody students in composition, computer music, and recording arts and sciences with film and media studies students from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. And he has lured alumni like Warner and Knorr back to Peabody to teach classes on audio/visual design and the gaming industry to advanced students in the program.
“I don’t just talk about how to do what I do,” says Knorr. “I teach one whole class about what the gaming industry is like: how you get into it. The volatility of it.”
Warner’s class on audio/visual design is also available to upper-level students who have mastered all the fundamentals and are looking for their career paths.
“Scott is really looking forward to what careers are going to be in the future,” says Morris. “And there’s nothing like [having] fairly recent alumni talking to students and prospective students about that.”
Richard Byrne is a freelance writer and editor of UMBC Magazine.