Two For Tech
By Mark Small
Steve Oppenheimer (left) Larry "The O" Oppenheimer (right)
Photo by Valrie Massey
After separate odysseys, brothers Steve and "Larry the O" Oppenheimer have landed choice careers in the world of music technolgy.
After finishing their studies, many alumni leave Berklee aiming for a career on the stage. After some time passes, a portion of them often migrate to different parts of the music industry and into careers they were unaware of before entering "the real world." Brothers Steve Oppenheimer '77 (a pianist) and "Larry the O" Oppenheimer '77 (a drummer) are cases in point. After years of playing professionally and moving around the nation and the music industry, both now occupy key posts in the high-tech quarters of the music business in San Francisco.
Not surprisingly, as the brothers followed their individual paths, they have seen their educational and professional pursuits intersect at several points. Steve currently works for publishing giant Primedia Business Magazines and Media as editor in chief of Electronic Musician and Onstage magazines. Larry recently became audio director for Electronic Arts, the world's largest producer of electronic games. For the previous seven years, Larry was at LucasArts Entertainment where he worked on the best-selling games Rebel Assault 2, Escape from Monkey Island, and Star Wars: Bounty Hunter. While their current positions require highly specialized skill sets, Steve and Larry readily testify that the education and experience they gained in the music industry and elsewhere qualified them for these unique positions.
Lured into Music
Not unlike other members of the baby-boom generation, both of the Oppenheimers were lured into music in their youth. After high school, Steve and Larry headed to separate universities. Steve bounced in and out of several colleges, ultimately earning a degree in anthropology at the University of Maryland in 1979. Larry majored in percussion at the State University of New York at Albany. In the late 1970s, they were both enrolled at Berklee, where, in addition to formal music training, they received an introduction to music technology. Both took courses in electronic music with Michael Rendish (now assistant chair of the Film Scoring Department), and audio recording with Joe Hostetter (former faculty member). They also spent countless hours in Berklee's then-developing recording studios.
While honing his piano chops as a Berklee student, Steve had some choice encounters with jazz piano-greats. "I had this friend who knew a lot of jazz musicians in New York," Steve recalls. "She took me to meet Roland Hanna at his New York apartment. I ended up studying with him for a few days and sleeping on his couch. During the same trip, I met Nat Jones, who invited me to sit in with his trio at the Bottom Line. That experience was one of those that affects you deeply." After leaving Berklee in 1977, Steve freelanced as a keyboardist, arranger/composer, recording engineer, and sound designer.
Soldering up a Storm
Simultaneously, Larry was active as a professional drummer but also was beginning to explore the fundamentals of electronic music. During the infamous blizzard of '78 that had the Northeast socked in for several days, Larry experienced a career-defining moment. "I was trapped in my house for a week and began putting together an Aries Modular Synthesizer from a kit," he says. "That was when I learned to solder circuit boards. Later, when I applied to Lexicon for a job as an assembler, they gave me a soldering test and I aced it. I started to work there just as Lexicon was unveiling their 224 Digital Reverb and the Prime Time Digital Delay. That job launched my career in the industry and continued the education I had begun at Berklee in music and recording engineering."
Larry later earned an associate's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Lowell Institute School at MIT. In 1980, he founded Toys in the Attic (TIA), a music and technical services company that he still operates as a sideline. Under the moniker of TIA, Larry has undertaken a dizzying array of projects, including writing technical manuals, repairing and renting musical equipment, producing and engineering recordings, and doing sound and music editing for feature films and television shows.
In 1987, the Oppenheimer brothers' career paths intersected when Steve, burned out after spending years on the road playing concert dates, nightclubs, and other gigs, decided to leave Ashford, Washington, for Sacramento, California. By 1985, Larry had settled in the San Francisco Bay area and was involved with a variety of things with TIA and was writing articles for Mix, America's foremost recording magazine. He served as contributing editor at Mix for seven years and was instrumental in Mix's acquisition of Electronic Musician (EM). When Steve made a chance visit with Larry to the Mix offices, it provided an opportunity to get his foot in the door and ultimately led to his future career.
"For my birthday in 1987, Larry invited me to come down to San Francisco to go out to dinner and then to a Grateful Dead concert," Steve recalls. "On the way to the concert, we stopped at the Mix offices so Larry could pick up his check. He took me around and introduced me to a bunch of people including George Peterson, who at that time was the magazine's associate editor. I thought it seemed like a cool place to work. On my way out, I stopped to talk with one of the proofreaders. I looked over his work and started thinking that I'd be good at that kind of thing. Larry told me who to talk with about a job, but otherwise stayed completely out of the process." Steve sent his r?sum? to the magazine's general manager, who then invited him to take a proofreading test. Not only did Steve catch grammatical and punctuational errors, but he corrected technical mistakes that the author and editors hadn't realized were there. Steve was summarily offered a job as a freelance proofreader.
Out of the Footlocker
He started off working only two days a week at $5.00 an hour, which supplemented the income from a temporary day job he had taken at a Foot Locker shoe store. Within a month, Mix Publications saw the depth of his abilities and offered him a full-time position as an editorial assistant for both Mix and EM. By mid-1988, he was working with the EM staff exclusively. Over the next several years, Steve was promoted through every editorial position at EM, becoming the magazine's editor in 1997.
During his tenure, he has helped transform EM from what he calls "a small electronics hacker magazine" into a leading technical publication for musicians with personal studios. He facilitated the company's growth by recruiting an exceptional team of editors and freelance authors and by creating many of EM's file management and tracking systems and their editorial project-management systems. Additionally, Steve writes a monthly column, has penned numerous EM articles, coauthored and edited titles for EM Books, and was founding editor of EM's sister publications Onstage and Remix as well as the annual Desktop Music Production Guide and Computer Music Product Guide.
Looking back, Larry observes, "What influenced things the most for each of us was advent of digital technology. EM existed before digital technology was really big, but their business exploded with the personal studio revolution."
Larry's business also grew with the flowering of digital technology. In addition to the previously mentioned projects that Larry (a.k.a. Toys in the Attic) undertook, he contracted with manufacturers such as Ensoniq, Opcode, Sonic Solutions, Zoom Corporation, Digidesign, Inc., and others to do product design consultation, copyright research, provide technical services, and more. In 1993, he took a full-time job as lead editor and operations manager for WaveGroup, a postproduction facility employing ADAT recorders and Pro Tools software. At WaveGroup, one of the many projects Larry undertook was the creation of the soundtrack for a television animation series called Bump in the Night.
After two years at WaveGroup, some of Larry's colleagues recruited him to work for LucasArts Entertainment. "They told me that computer games were heading in the direction of audio postproduction and that LucasArts needed someone with the skills I had," Larry recalls. "At the time, the company was in a growth phase, and the people I knew there were composers and programmers, not audio guys. They realized that audio was going to start playing a larger part in the future. Ironically, I didn't actually make any sounds for the first four months I worked there. My first tasks were to rewire the studios, build a sound library, develop their network, and oversee construction of a new facility."
For the next seven-plus years, Larry served as sound development supervisor at LucasArts. He handled a range of chores including designing sound for games and assorted technical development jobs, contributing to several of the company's best-selling titles. The game field is intellectually stimulating and one that promises plenty of growth. "Working on games is exciting and a challenge," he says. "Games are becoming a bigger part of the entertainment industry. Internet gaming or multiplayer online games are starting to take off. The next generation, console platforms, is getting more powerful. This is a frontier, and there are very few of those around."
Early this year, when Electronic Arts made him an offer he says he couldn't refuse, Larry left his post at LucasArts. As the Electronic Arts's audio director, Larry has a role similar to that of an audio director in the film world. "Basically, I am responsible for everything that comes out of the speakers," he says. "Whether I create the sounds or direct the entire effort, there is a lot involved." Currently, he is working on the company's new James Bond game.
"Producing audio for games is different than working in a linear media like film and TV," Larry observes. "There, you have a story that progresses, ebbs and flows, and the energy goes up and down. A composer can tailor the music to it and put a lot of emotion into it. In games, the action is unpredictable because the game is interactive. You need music that can play for 30 seconds or for 5 to 10 minutes. It is more about mood than emotion. If the game player will be in one area for five or 10 minutes, you need to sustain the mood while the player is there. The composers have to write music that can loop. The music is a combination of linear compositions, loop compositions with ancillary parts, flourishes, and stingers. These are the musical components, but they are not the score. The music needs to change with the action, which is determined by how the game is going for the player. Somehow, all of the pieces have to fit together and make musical sense. Any good composer could learn to do it, but there are specific skills required for this kind of writing."
While everyone's career path unfolds in its own unique way, the Oppenheimers have thoughts for those keeping an eye toward the horizon. Steve suggests that aspirants approach learning a new business the same way they did mastering their instrument. "First, learn how to write," he says. "A lot of people who want to write for EM know the tech side of things but can't write. When I came to this job, I spent an unbelievable amount of time in my office teaching myself about word processing, database programming, and copyediting. The editor's job sometimes involves making a writer sound better than he or she actually is. But if that takes too much time and effort, we might as well just write the article ourselves. It is worthwhile to take classes in journalism or copyediting. If you were serious enough about music to spend hours a day in the practice room, understand that developing as a writer takes the same kind of commitment."
Good Times for Tech-Oriented Musicians
"If you are going to be in this world ," says Larry, "you have to be very computer savvy. You have to be unafraid to get in there under the hood. You might not have to program, but if you understand the language programmers speak you'll be able to make a much better-sounding game."
As for the future of their individual industries, Larry paints a rosy picture for the electronic games business. "This field has exploded. Depending on who you work for, there can be money in it. I see a bright future for musicians and sound specialists in games."
While Steve doesn't see the magazine business "exploding," he forecasts a steady future. "The publishing industry is not in the shape that Larry's business is in," he said. "People aren't reading as many books and magazines as they used to, and yet there are now more magazines out there than ever before. Magazines have been around a long time, and I don't think they are going away. There is something about a magazine that you can't get right now out of electronic media. Magazines are portable, you can take them with you and they are disposable when you finish reading them."
When asked for the long view of the digital- music-technology revolution that has fired up each of their businesses, they agree that it is a great time for technologically adept musicians. "When I was at Berklee, there was the performance side of music and the recording side," says Steve. "You could specialize in one or the other, and some people did both. These days, if you don't record or have a home studio, you're missing out."
"It used to be that there were plenty of performance venues but it was hard to get access to recording equipment," says Larry. "Now it's the opposite. Decent-sounding recording equipment is affordable for musicians. The old revenue model for record companies is crumbling, and it's now harder for big labels to make money from recordings." "Yes," Steve chimes in, "it is harder for labels to make a lot of money, but I think it is easier to make money in general from recordings now. Every day at EM, I get CDs from people who are making a living selling their own independent recordings. You gotta love the possibilities for musicians living in the digital age."