As Berklee College of Music celebrates its 60th anniversary, another landmark has been reached by one of the college’s more protean academic areas. The Music Synthesis Department celebrates 20 years of high-caliber instruction in the powerful mysteries of electronic music making that encompass sound design, sampling, sequencing, computer music, software design, and composition. Berklee’s administration were quick to acknowledge this emerging musical force and have continued to invest in its emerging technology and support student and faculty exploration and discovery.
Electronic musical instruments of various descriptions had been in existence for several decades by the time the Switched-On Bach album by Wendy Carlos was certified platinum in 1968. Carlos’s brilliant use of the Moog Synthesizer brought the sound of that instrument to the attention of a larger audience than the experimental classical composers and academics working in college campus electronic music labs. The growing interest in synthesizers caught the attention of Richard Bobbitt, who was Berklee’s dean during the 1960s and 70s. Bobbitt sensed that synthesizers would become very big in the future and sent Michael Rendish, then the chair of Berklee’s Harmony Department, down to Catholic University in Washington, DC, to see what H. Emerson Myers was doing with the university’s electronic music program.
“I spent a week taking a course with Myers and was amazed at how much I absorbed,” recalls Rendish. “The emphasis at that time was on how different electronic music was from mainstream music. I didn’t share that view, but felt we should investigate the idea of music being created by instruments that didn’t sound like trumpets, saxophones, and other acoustic instruments. After working with Myers, I could see how electronic music would have an impact at Berklee and how we would do things differently from other colleges. I wrote up a first semester electronic music course on my flight home from Washington.”
Rendish assembled a lot of information and made a presentation to Bobbitt, Provost Bob Share, and President Lawrence Berk. “In particular, Larry was very excited,” says Rendish. “I’m convinced that he recognized the potential in this, and he told me to write up more courses.” The college bought Arp 2500, 2600, 2800, and Odyssey monophonic synthesizers and set up its nascent electronic music facility in the 1140 Boylston Street building.
Explosion of Interest
Rendish offered the first courses in 1971. Chris Noyes and Jack Weaver were among the early faculty members who soon joined Rendish in teaching a growing number of students. No one foresaw the explosion of interest that would occur in the coming decades as the synthesizer technology blossomed, but early on Rendish realized that running the Harmony Department, the Ear Training Department, and the electronic music lab was too heavy a load. He stepped down as chair of the Harmony Department to concentrate on electronic music.
Berklee’s approach was very different from that of the electronic music departments at Dartmouth, Peabody Institute, or Yale. The focus was on making music that was closer to the mainstream of popular and jazz music. Early course offerings covered the nature of sound and subtractive synthesis, and student projects were realized on tape. “Our students were learning how to create sounds from scratch using the analog subtractive synthesis method,” says Rendish. “We would begin with a waveform that was rich in harmonics and then use oscillators, voltage-controlled filters, envelope generators, and reverberation to shape the sound. It’s analogous to taking white light and using colored filters to subtract colors from the source to bring out the colors you want. This was the ruling process for many years in the beginning. The students used two-track tape recorders that allowed them to do a basic type of multitrack recording by bouncing material from channel to channel. It was really a primitive form of sequencing. We were coming up with some creative stuff.”
At the end of the first semester, Rendish and his students presented a concert blending synthesizers and traditional instruments together. “In November 1971, we gave Berklee’s first electronic music concert titled ‘Interplay,’” says Rendish. “We created a bed of electronic sounds to which the musicians onstage played. The drummer, Joe Hunt, wore headphones connected to the tape machine and we played to his beat and the electronic track that was coming out of the house speakers. It was the first time Berklee did anything like that.”
Synthesizer technology changed rapidly during the 13 years Rendish directed electronic music studies at Berklee. “Different processes came into use,” Rendish says. “FM or frequency modulation synthesis came in with the advent of the DX-7 synthesizer followed by digital technology where you could generate wave forms mathematically using the computer.”
The use of synthesizers in a range of pop and jazz groups prompted Provost Bob Share in 1982 to invite faculty member David Mash to develop courses emphasizing the use of synthesizers for live performance applications in addition to existing courses focusing on composition and sound design offered by the Electronic Music Department. Once sampling technology began to appear and the MIDI standard was adopted by all synthesizer manufacturers in 1983, the doors opened even wider for live and studio performances utilizing drum machines and synthesizers. In an effort to stay up with the new technological advancements, the college sought to create additional curricular offerings.
“Bob Share asked me to help develop a new synthesizer performance program in addition to what was offered in the college’s Electronic Music Department,” says Mash. “I did quite a bit of research and determined that we should try to implement a hands-on instructional approach that would utilize a multistationed lab facility to allow students to work on techniques during class time and to provide after-hours practice time as well. The idea would be to combine classroom instruction, lab use, ensembles, and concert experience to provide a complete approach to playing synthesizers. Originally, this was proposed as a performance synthesis program that would be part of the Performance Division.”
Mash submitted his first proposal for the new courses in October 1983. By the time the proposal was augmented with equipment and facility requests in early 1984, the College Education Committee was leaning toward merging this new program with the Electronic Music Department. It was decided that the Electronic Music Department and the new performance synthesis program would share the proposed synthesis lab and ensemble facilities. Construction of the facilities was completed during the summer of 1984. It was around this time that Rendish decided to leave the Electronic Music Department for an opportunity to become the assistant chair of the Film Scoring Department, an area of longstanding interest to him.
Music Synthesis Major
In fall semester 1984, the first three courses of the new performance synthesis program were offered, and they were completely filled when more than 90 students registered for the classes. Mash was the sole teacher for the courses, and quickly began designing follow up courses. “We immediately began working on logistical support, and created a new lab monitor role for the spring 1985 semester,” recalls Mash. “The College Education Committee asked me to draft an outline of what a combined electronic music/performance synthesis program curriculum might look like, which I did in February 1985. After some discussion, it was determined that we would build a new Music Synthesis Department and offer a Music Synthesis major that would replace the Electronic Music major.”
In June of 1985, Mash became the founding chair of Berklee’s new Music Synthesis Department. Rendish and Mash worked closely to facilitate the transition for the existing electronic music majors to enable them to graduate with degrees in either major, depending on the progress they had made in their current program of study.
From the outset, the Music Synthesis Department grew quite rapidly, and Mash sought additional teachers to help build the program. “I was fortunate to attract some great new faculty members to the department,” Mash says. “In 1986, we added Mary Simoni, Michael Brigida, and Richard Boulanger. In 1987 Tom Rhea came aboard as assistant chair, and later became a member of the faculty. We also added Kurt Biederwolf as a full-time faculty member. In 1988, we hired Jeff Pressing and Jamshied Sharifi, who were instrumental in helping the department craft the performance track within the major. Other faculty members developed the production and sound design tracks. The three new tracks within the major were initially offered in the fall of 1989.”
As computers started to become an integral part of the synthesis process, Mash found himself becoming increasingly more involved in exploring how computers could be used to support teaching and learning across the curriculum at the college. In June of 1990, Mash was named assistant dean of curriculum for academic technology. Dennis Thurmond, formerly the assistant chair of the Piano Department, became assistant chair of Music Synthesis in 1989, and served as acting chair of Music Synthesis in Mash’s place. Thurmond became the department chair two years later.
Under Thurmond’s leadership, Introduction to Music Technology became a required course for all first-semester students. This was a significant development at Berklee in that the college recognized the need for every student to gain a basic knowledge of music technologies applicable to their specialty. Thurmond led the department for two years before accepting a post at the University of Montana in 1993.
Kurt Biederwolf, who was among the first graduates of the Music Synthesis Department and had studied under Rendish and Mash, had been a full-time faculty member since 1987 when he took the reins in the transitional period following Thurmond’s departure. Biederwolf served as acting chair of Music Synthesis until January 1996. “During those years, the number of majors grew, and more faculty and staff were hired,” says Biederwolf. “The emerging technologies becoming available to us deepened and diversified faculty and student interest in composition, production, sound design, and live performance systems that provided new forms of expression.”
Jan Moorhead, whose résumé lists credits as a jazz performer, composer, educator, and music technology author, was named the new department chair in 1996. The Music Synthesis curriculum continued to mature and the number of faculty members multiplied. After six years at the helm, Moorhead took a faculty position in the Contemporary Writing and Production Department.
In 2002, Stephen Croes was named dean of the Music Technology Division and Kurt Biederwolf accepted the position as chair of the Music Synthesis Department. At that time, the college established the laptop initiative requiring all entering students to purchase a Macintosh laptop computer. Certain tech-heavy majors (such as Music Synthesis) required purchase of bundles of additional hardware and software to integrate with departmental curriculum. The laptop initiative also paved the way for a redesign of the Intro to Music Technology course, making it much more project-oriented and integrated with other core courses.
Associate Professor Michael Bierylo, who joined the faculty in 1995, recalls that previous to the laptop initiative, very few students owned their own equipment. Most of their coursework was done in Berklee’s lab facilities. Once all new Berklee students began coming in with laptops in 2002, Music Synthesis majors began doing more of their work with their own equipment. “This democratization really changed the profile of our students,” Bierylo says. “Now when they apply to become Music Synthesis majors, we expect to see some prior experience in music technology. These days our students are probably more savvy with regards to the technology then at any time during the department’s history. This, in turn, provides us the opportunity to focus more on musical applications and higher-level technical instruction. In reality, many of the students who earn their bachelor’s degree in the Music Synthesis major leave here with a graduate-level education.”
“It’s easy to make the case that our curriculum changes much faster than that of any other major at the college,” says Biederwolf. “Throughout the 20-year history of the Music Synthesis Department, we have made quick adaptations to new and emerging technologies while still maintaining the fundamental concepts that transcend cyclical and linear progressions of various synthesis technologies.”
New Role Models
“For much of our history, the students have really led the way for many of our curricular directions,” states Bierylo. “As electronic dance music genres proliferated in the late 1990s, our students showed fresh enthusiasm for experimentation with sound. The keyboard-playing performers like Joe Zawinul and Jan Hammer gave way to newer artist/producers like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. For these new role models, the computer and studio are the basis for their endeavors. We still have students who are keyboard players, but more and more, the computer has become their principle mode of expression. I think this has spawned a kind of renaissance in both the quality of our students and their work. Many students who strongly identify with the newer artists are attracted to the department because they feel that Berklee is the place to learn the skills their favorite artists employ.”
Biederwolf applauds the Music Synthesis faculty for being extremely open-minded with regard to musical styles. “We’ve never forced our students to apply their knowledge to a narrow range of electronic genres,” he says. “They cover a lot of ground between mainstream and the avant-garde.”
A Boom Time
The last few years have been a boom time for the Music Synthesis Department due to the pervasive use of electronic music in games, film, television, and recordings. Another factor is the arrival of music technology curriculum in public school systems. Music Synthesis faculty members are finding entering students who are better prepared coming to Berklee with the express goal of majoring in music synthesis. Consequently, the competition to be accepted into the major has increased dramatically in the last two years.
“In the future, we’ll continue to blend time-tested concepts with state-of-the-art technology, and always stress the creative, musical use of electronics,” Biederwolf predicts. “I’ve always maintained that the Music Synthesis curriculum prepares students to not only be imaginative musicians, but versatile, adaptable professionals equipped to transfer their skills to every segment of the music industry.”
Electronic Production Suite
When division dean Stephen Croes arrived, he brought an outsider’s perspective, one informed by an eclectic music production career that included mastery of cutting edge electronic tools. He began to study ways the department could further evolve while maintaining the core elements of its academic mission and providing a contemporary aesthetic context and career preparation for its students. “I immediately saw that the Music Synthesis Department was ready to take a big step,” Croes says. “It was not yet in a position to take full advantage of its own potential. While the multipurpose lab had worked well in the past, it was definitely time to improve the production values of students’ work by putting them in a professional studio environment.” In the spring of 2003, Croes developed a three-part plan that included curricular review for both the Music Synthesis and Music Production and Engineering departments, an untethering of the overlapping Music Technology Division classes that had kept both areas from pursuing greater detail in their coursewares, and construction of a dedicated studio complex for the Music Synthesis Department.
Former President Lee Eliot Berk and former Executive Vice President Gary Burton both supported the initial concept. Croes consulted with Los Angeles studio designer Todd Wilson to find ways to make the most out of real estate in the back hallways of the 150 Massachusetts Avenue building. Associate Vice President Jay Kennedy helped with space planning and facilities issues. Biederwolf went to work with faculty committees on the curricular review and new courseware design. “I knew this was the perfect time for the college to support development in this department,” says Croes. “There is enormous opportunity in this field and the tools are very compelling to young musicians.”
Three years later, in January of 2006, the department unveiled its eight-room electronic production suite featuring mixing, recording, and teaching studios, a multipurpose performance, presentation, and ensemble room, and technical support facilities. All of the rooms are linked with audio and video lines for distribution of interactive education events. Additionally, all studios feature surround sound and a variety of mixing control surfaces from Digidesign, Yamaha, and Mackie. The nerve center of the complex is a machine room bristling with a rich assortment of hardware, software, and libraries from leading-edge companies including Apple, MOTU, Logic, Digidesign, Native Instruments, East West, Garritan, Big Fish, Antares, Gigastudio, pcAudioLabs, Monster, Virsyn, Applied Acoustics, Dynaudio, and M-Audio.
Room for Experimentation
Things are heating up quickly in this new environment. Biederwolf and the department faculty crafted the new curriculum, revising existing courses, and continuing to offer an array of elective courses in all areas of music, technology, production, and design, all tuned to the realities of careers in the electronic audio field. The curriculum leaves plenty of room for experimentation and discovery and plans are being discussed for long-term audio research projects involving the Internet2 Consortium. An ongoing sampling project will develop an internally produced instrument and loop library for use college-wide. The visiting artist program that brought BT, Gary Chang, and Gary Garritan to campus last year, will continue this spring with the week-long residency of Richard Devine who will make presentations on such topics as songwriting, record production, Live DJ, and sound design. Berklee alumnus and Eargoo President Paul Goldman will also visit to discuss modern advertising scoring techniques and emerging post-production methodologies.
The story of the Music Synthesis Department’s history is typical of Berklee’s consistent interest in exploring new directions and expanding its offerings. “It’s clear that many talented and committed people set the stage for Berklee to keep in step with the next 20 years of music technology education,” says Lee Eliot Berk. “I’m pleased and proud to have been a part of it all by providing support for these creative and eminently practical educational endeavors. Music education at Berklee has always offered things that couldn’t be found anywhere else. The Music Synthesis Department has made a major contribution to advancing that tradition.”