TCU, My New Job, and Why Hardware Synthesizers (It will make sense if you read the post)
Updated: Jul 16, 2019
The past year has opened up a whole world of new musical possibilities to me. These musical possibilities came to me after I was awarded a fabulous new position at TCU, Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth Texas. The position that I won was a brand new position, Professor of Music Technology and Music Theory/Composition. While the position is a mouthful to say, it keeps things interesting and fun for me. I get to teach a wide variety of classes that range from music theory to composition, but the main reason the TCU School of Music hired me was to teach music technology classes and to start building a world-class electro-acoustic music program. This is both exciting and scary. I have dreamed of a position like this but was never sure I would win a position, as they are few and far between, and there are many qualified people out there to teach these classes. Over the past year at TCU, I have received an overwhelming amount of support from the Director of the TCU School of Music, Richard Gipson; the Dean of the TCU College of Fine Arts, Anne Helmreich; from the Provost of and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at TCU, Nowell Donovan; from my colleagues (I mean every single one of them); and from the amazing staff that work in theTCU School of Music Office (these folks run the place, and it is a well oiled machine). With all of this support, I know that I will be able to achieve the goals I have for the electro-acoustic music program at TCU. I know that it will take time to develop, but I know I will succeed.
My academic year at TCU began last year with a startup. I have never started a position where I was given a startup budget that was for me to buy the gear I needed to do my research. This level of support
was not expected but was hugely appreciated. I finally have had the ability to purchase analog hardware to create music and to teach with. When I was teaching at Harford Community College I discovered LittleBits. LittleBits were created by Ayah Bdeir. Her invention is electronic circuits and modules that fit together by using magnets. Her company partnered with Korg to create the LittleBits Synth Kit. This synthesizer kit comes with the modules on the left. These are the basic building blocks to a fully functional and incredible sounding modular synthesizer. I began using these as a learning tool for basic synthesis with my Introduction to Electronic Music Class at HCC. When I started working at TCU, I brought my personal LittleBits Synth Kit to the Director of the School of Music's office to show him what they were and how I wanted to use them in my electro-acoustic courses. He told me to order them, and he would cover the cost. (After this conversation I was positive that the director understood my vision for the department, and that he was willing to help me achieve our shared goal of having the TCU School of Music to be known for its electro-acoustic music department.) The LittleBits Synth Kit is a great way for students to learn what the individual parts of a modular synthesizer are and how they function. Students love playing with these synthesizers and they gain so much knowledge from making their own discoveries. For instance, when they plug one oscillator into another oscillator they are using FM synthesis, and they can create out-of-this world sonic possibilities with just 2 oscillators, a power supply, and a speaker. Playing and learning with this synthesizer helps students to understand electronic signal flow and helps to demystify what all of the knobs, switches, and patching is on other analog synthesizers like the Moog Mother-32, Minimoog Voyager XL, Moog Sub 37, and the Arturia MatrixBrute. (This guy is not in my studio yet, but it is pre-ordered. I hope it ships soon!)
Why would I have so much analog gear in my arsenal to play and teach with? Well, in teaching I think there is something magical that happens when a student can touch something to create a sound. I also think that there is something about the sound that comes out of a hardware synthesizer that is different from the sound that comes from a software synthesizer, soft synth. I am not going to make a value statement between the two. I feel that both have their own unique qualities and there are many pros and cons with hardware synthesizers and software synths. In a hardware synth the sound is created with electricity. The electricity moves through circuits and is sculpted by oscillators and filters and the end result is a noise that is created synthetically by the electricity running through the machine. With a soft synth the sound is created by a computer program or application that is coded to sound similar to the electricity moving through oscillators and filters of a hardware synth. So series of 1s and 0s are creating the sound in a soft synth. The sound is different, and there are many soft synths that I love.
Pedagogically, I like to use the hardware first. I like to start with the LittleBits synth kit and have students create sounds, and then we record the synthesized sounds the students make with the LittleBits USB I/O, which comes with the LittleBits Synth Pro Kit, at the end of the synthesizer signal chain. We record the sounds into a DAW. I prefer to use Reason for this because of how my course is structured, but any DAW will work. The students then use basic audio-editing tools to make a 2-minute project based on the sounds that the whole class created on their LittleBits synthesizers. Students are now prepared to use the other analog hardware we have in the studio and understand how the sound is sculpted through the use of these analog tools. Now students are prepared to use a DAW like Reason with little instruction because they understand signal flow and better grasp how hardware works. All DAWs are based on analog gear. The DAW Reason has the user put synthesizer, drum machines, and effects modules into a hardware rack. This is what electronic musicians, producers, and engineers had to do back before we had computer versions of electronic devices. Reason goes even deeper into making their GUI, Graphic User Interface, modeled on old studio hardware practices. When modules go into the rack you have to use patch cables to connect pieces of equipment together, as seen in the picture below.
The mixer is modeled on a SSL 9000k analog mixing desk, as seen below. The SSL 9000k is an industry-standard mixing desk and the sound of the Reason model is very close. Each channel has the same gait, compressor, and equalizer the SSL channels have. The Reason model of the SSL has everything the original has and also some additional features. One of the upsides to the computer music-making world is that with some additional code you can add new and exciting details to devices to further shape and sculpt the sound the way you want it.
My new position at TCU allows me to teach students in a very holistic way. They will be able to create sounds on analog and computer technology. (In a future post I will discuss recording technology.) Having students create with analog gear before they create in the computer helps them more quickly see how the computer technology works and how the it is modeled after analog gear, not just in Reason, but in other DAWs and music making applications. I am so happy to be teaching at an institution that feels what I do is important and that the skill set I bring to the faculty and the university is worth investing in. It is a dream come true, and I am ready to begin my second year after creating and relaxing over the summer months.