Unusual Career Moves

Career profiles of Mike Cohen '76, head of Google's speech recognition team; Director of the Massachusetts Film Office Lisa Strout ’79; and forensic audio and video expert witness Frank Piazza '82.
February 1, 2016

“Since my childhood, music and science have been dual interests, ” Mike Cohen ’76 tells me in his office at his Silicon Valley home. “I was passionate about both, and they weren’t such separate things for me.” Over the course of a remarkable career, Cohen dove deeply into music, even deeper into technology. Now he’s focusing his formidable intellect on a new educational enterprise. Along the path as a cofounder of Nuance Communications and later as the head of Google’s speech recognition team, he pioneered technologies that millions across the globe use daily.

Mike Cohen '76

Originally a New Yorker, Cohen attended high school at Brooklyn Tech, studying electrical engineering. “They had one computer that filled a room,” he recalls. “We learned Fortran [a computer programming language] and punched the cards ourselves.” Simultaneously, Cohen played in a rock band and studied jazz guitar. “My teacher began by teaching me about coincident harmonics as the basis of harmony and music theory,” he says. “It connected to what I was learning in school about Fourier analysis and how waves divide into frequency components.”

Looking toward college, Cohen wanted to study both music and science. “I started out at Stony Brook University where I studied counterpoint and got a good grounding in the sciences,” he says. But after two years there when it came time to select a major, he chose music. “It was difficult choosing, but I decided on music and transferred to Berklee. It seemed like the only place to go to seriously study guitar and jazz.”

After earning his degree in composition in 1976, Cohen became a full-time musician and taught guitar, played gigs, and wrote horn arrangements for Boston-based Haitian artists, among others. He also took neuroscience and computer science courses at Boston University. “I started finding excuses to do engineering and technical things in addition to music,” he says. “I thirsted for those things. In 1981, I got a job at New England Medical Center as a programmer and worked with brilliant scientists and brainstormed about algorithms.” He later applied to and was accepted for a Ph.D. program in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Cohen did a summer internship at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) just as the institute was delving into speech technology research. “After that summer, I decided to do my Ph.D. thesis work in their lab,” he says. “When I finished, I wrote a grant proposal that got funded, and I led a project on aspects of speech recognition and neural networks.” Cohen worked at SRI for 10 years. He’d spent seven years as a musician and then devoted the next 28 to speech recognition. The relationship? “Speech is the other acoustic signal—besides music—that humans have evolved for communication and expression,” he says.

In 1994, Cohen and three colleagues left SRI and founded Nuance Communications to develop commercial applications of speech recognition technology for over-the-phone interactions with client company databases.

Their first account, the Charles Schwab brokerage firm, wanted an automated system to provide its customers with stock quotes and stock lists via telephone. “At that time, there were about 11,000 companies,” Cohen says, “and a caller might ask, ‘What is IBM selling for?’ or ‘What’s the price of International Business Machines?’ There were lots of ways of referring to these things, an enormous vocabulary—much more than anyone had previously been able to deploy reliably over the phone.”

The day they launched the system, Cohen and his staff listened as calls came in. The system got things right only about 50 percent of the time. Not acceptable. After Schwab provided it millions of recorded calls, Cohen’s staff retrained computer models with the huge variety of vocabulary and expression in that data. Within weeks, the system got things right 96 percent of the time. “It was a big success for Schwab and other brokerages started signing up for a system,” Cohen says. “Next, we created a system for American Airlines to book flights. That spread to other airlines and then to other industries.”

By 2004, people were depending on the Internet for information and mobile phone use was mushrooming. “I felt that creating speech recognition for people using mobile phones was the way to go,” Cohen says. “Nuance wasn’t ready for that, but larger companies were.” That year, Google hired Cohen to develop its speech technology. In 2007, they launched Goog-411, which enabled mobile phone users to search the Web for local addresses and phone numbers via voice command. Ultimately, they developed the capability for seemingly unlimited voice-prompted Web searches.

Cohen left Google in 2012 and, in 2014, began developing the education startup Cignition. “I’d been thinking about education for a long time,” he says. “Helping my kids with their homework, I’ve felt that there is a better way to teach mathematics.” Cignition’s product will complement the Common Core Curriculum to foster critical thinking skills by combining the neuroscience of learning, pedagogy, and video-game techniques.

In video-game fashion, students will help to create a world where math is integral to what they are building. “The structure of that world reinforces the underlying concepts of whatever they are learning. Students will learn to think critically about solving a problem, not memorize a process,” he states.

Looking back, Cohen says, “People might view me as having moved around a bit in my career, but the way of thinking has not been that different. I spent years focused on speech recognition from basic research to founding a company to building a team at Google. Neuroscience has been involved with music, speech recognition, and now for learning and memory. The neuroscience, pedagogy, and game play stuff has been really interesting. I’m enjoying a new field after such an intense focus for so long.” As time permits, he still plays guitar and composes.

Location, Location, Location

Lisa Strout '79

“After working on The Verdict, I fell in love with film work,” says Lisa Strout ’79 the director of the Massachusetts Film Office. Strout’s job is to help make the case that TV and movie production companies should shoot their projects in Massachusetts. In 2015, 26 companies shot here. Notable recent films such as Black Mass, Ted 2, Joy, Spotlight, American Hustle, and Captain Phillips are among the many that have used Massachusetts locations for a portion of their shooting.

Movies, however, weren’t Strout’s first creative outlet. “Music will always be my first love,” she says. “I hope someday to teach.” Strout, who grew up in Lexington, MA, came to Berklee during the late 1970s, a piano player and music education major. After graduating, she traveled for a few years as an international tour guide. But something clicked when a friend got her a job with a crew shooting a commercial.

“It was a great way to see all the crafts involved,” Strout says. “I helped with wardrobe and continuity, and even loaded trucks. Then I got called to work on the Paul Newman movie The Verdict.” She was hooked.

Strout became a location scout, then an assistant, then a manager. The creative aspects of location work involve helping the director bring life to the film with the right setting. The logistical part includes moving the company around efficiently, obtaining required permits, working with police and fire companies, and more. Strout subsequently move to Los Angeles and continued doing location work as a freelancer for 13 years.

“I ended up having a reputation for being able to double a location,” she says. “Downtown Los Angeles is the only part of the city that has older architecture. We’d shoot there trying to make it appear like New York or Dallas. For one film that needed a place to look like Beijing, the company built a huge set at a former Howard Hughes facility in Santa Monica. You have to find places that will look believable to the audience.”

In 2000, she went to Santa Fe, NM, to take some time off and try her hand at writing screenplays. But fortune smiled when an opportunity to work with the state’s film office arose. “I moved up the ranks to become film commissioner under Governor Richardson for eight years,” she relates. “A lot of film production had been moving out of the country to Canada because that country offered tax incentives for film companies. That drew lots of activity called ‘runaway production.’” In 2000, Louisiana and New Mexico became the first two states in America to offer tax breaks to movie companies to attract them back to work in the United States.

“We were insanely busy,” she says. “We had to grow the talent base there to keep up with all that was happening. Infrastructure—developing a whole production center—came with that growth.” Soon, 40 states (including Massachusetts in 2005) began offering tax incentives to film companies. When changes in New Mexico’s statehouse came in late 2010, those in the film office were let go. Strout returned to Massachusetts to accept the job as the film commissioner.

Under Strout’s leadership, the Massachusetts Film Office has built a database of 67,000 photos of locations across the state to entice production companies. The organization’s coffee table-style book features attractive sites from the scenic French King Bridge in Erving, MA, to historic locations in Boston to Cape Cod’s marshlands. “We think everyday about what might be missing,” she says. “Someone asked us a few weeks ago what we had for psychic shops. That was a new request, and there are a lot of those in certain towns and cities.”

A hit movie or TV series that is shot locally can benefit residents. “The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. was shot in Shelburne Falls,” Strout says, “and that changed things for people there in terms of tourism.” But she also keeps an eye on the —ahem—larger picture. Movie companies provide short- and long-term job opportunities for trades people as well as those in the arts. “For a TV series that runs for years, there are a lot of local hires and it’s a great way for local actors and other talent to be involved.”

Perhaps alluding to her life experience, Strout says, “It’s heartening to see some young person who didn’t know what they would do with their life and just happened into this business. For some, this is in their blood, just like music is for musicians. We’re trying to create something sustainable here so these people—and kids coming out of the film schools—will stay.”

An Expert Witness

Frank Piazza '82

For Frank Piazza ’82, an early interest in songwriting and audio recording unfolded into a career he never imagined. These days, in addition to operating a small commercial recording studio and teaching voiceover techniques, he is the president of Legal Audio Video, doing forensic work for the US Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the DEA, a host of high-powered lawyers, and international clients. He has served as a forensic audio and video expert witness in the courtroom, and has been featured on CNN, Fox News, and other media outlets explaining his analyses of audio and video files that he has enhanced. Since 2000, he has been the go-to guy to unlock evidence buried in recorded interactions.

Piazza’s post-Berklee career began like those of many alumni. “At Berklee, I studied composition, audio engineering, and voice,” he says. “I sampled a little bit of everything in the two years I spent there. Then I got an opportunity to go on the road with [cover] bands.” It was his interest in songwriting, however, that ultimately led him into audio recording during the late 1980s.

“I found I could write songs, and signed with a publisher,” he recalls. “But the process of recording demos of your songs back then was expensive and involved going to a studio and hiring your friends to help you record them. I found myself in demo studios spending my money while the engineer learned how to punch in or do some other thing. I thought, ‘Why am I paying for someone to cut his teeth on my project when I could do it myself?’” Piazza purchased some of the then-emerging home recording gear and started making his own demos in his Manhattan apartment. Soon, he was doing demos for other songwriters. In 1996, he set up a small MIDI suite for writing and demoing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. An inheritance from his grandfather provided funds to begin developing the space’s other rooms. By 1999, he had established AudioPaint, an independent, midsized, digital recording facility. Since then, Piazza and his small crew have worked on a range of projects for artists, songwriters, ad agencies, music and book publishers, and record labels. The Broadway cast album for Nice Work If You Can Get It was mixed by AudioPaint’s chief engineer Charlie Martinez and nominated for a Grammy in 2012.

Piazza began doing legal work In 2000 after a friend connected him with a top defense attorney who needed 1,600 hours of FBI cassette recordings of wiretaps and body wires converted to digital files. “My business partner and I were interested,” says Piazza. “They brought us [huge amounts] of cassettes. The timing of Pro Tools, multitrack recording, and WAV files all fell into place. We bought 16 cassette decks so we could do 16 tapes at a time.”

Much of the work was done at AudioPaint, but some of the original recordings couldn’t leave the custody of FBI agents. “We had to bring our decks and desktop computers and monitors to the U.S. Attorney’s office or to the FBI office so an agent could be present as we worked,” he says. “Sitting in a room all those hours with these agents, you start talking and getting friendly.” That led to AudioPaint being hired to work on the evidence that would be shared by both the prosecution and the defense. “We databased the recordings and saved everything to hard drives and finished it within six or eight weeks,” Piazza says. It occurred to him that this could be a lucrative addition to his music work.

Piazza expanded from making tape transfers to enhancement of audio on tape for various state and federal agencies as well as lawyers for white collar, organized crime, gang, and drug cases. “There would be the sound of an air duct or forks and knives in a restaurant getting in the way, or whispers that needed to be louder,” he says. “The very first time I listened to a recording of a body wire, I heard [an undercover agent being told], ‘Don’t worry, if you get in any trouble it will be fine, we have guys in the restaurant.’ Then the ambiance changed when he went inside, and conversations followed. Hearing this gave me the feeling that I was right there, and was the biggest rush I’d ever had. I was hooked at that point.”

Piazza founded Legal Audio Video (see legalaudiovideo.com) and has since logged 15 years of experience providing enhancement and forensic analysis of video and audio recordings. He has worked on more than 750 cases. One was a multibillion-dollar suit brought by the government of Ecuador against Chevron Corporation. Unmuting channels in documentary film footage revealed conversations and yielded a ruling in Chevron’s favor. Another was for a company licensed for U.S. distribution of certain Beatles songs. A British company released the same songs in America claiming they were alternate takes. Piazza’s analysis of studio environment, mixes, production techniques, tempo, and song length revealed that many of the supposed alternate versions were the originals.

Piazza still produces music for himself and others in his studio; he can’t ignore his artistic side. He offers advice for those at a career crossroads. “For anyone who is an audio engineer and loving it, but not seeing things fall into place in the music industry, there are other opportunities. I am part of an industry that didn’t exist before, but it’s now discussed as a career.”

Songs from the Sounds of Life

Brian Schreck '03

Jeremy Kramer

Like the others in this story Brian Schreck ’02 is pursuing what most might consider an unusual career. But unlike the other featured alumni, he is following the path he was trained for at Berklee—augmented by his graduate studies at New York University and experience in the field. Working as a music therapist at Norton Women’s and Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, KY, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, OH, Schreck is expanding the perceptions of the role and value of music therapy. Beyond playing music with his patients who are critically ill—many of whom are young children—Schreck is creatively blending recordings of musical instruments with natural and man-made sounds to produce uniquely personal songs for his patients.

A while ago, Schreck saw a TV news story about Tara Storch, who lost her teenaged daughter Taylor in a skiing accident. Taylor’s heart was donated and ultimately saved the life of another mother. Longing to hear her daughter’s heartbeat again, Tara Storch sought out the recipient of the heart, Patricia Winters, who is a nurse. In an emotional meeting with the Storches, Winters allowed them to hear Taylor’s heart beating strongly inside her chest through a stethoscope. Schreck was struck by how therapeutic hearing the heartbeat was for all involved.

“That gave me the idea to do something with heartbeats,” Schreck says. “Using a lapel mic that fits into the tubing of the stethoscope, I began recording the heartbeats of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and those of other patients in the cardiac intensive care units. I wanted to take an approach that could be used with everyone. The heartbeat is the sound of life and it’s a beat.”

On his laptop, Schreck incorporates the recorded heartbeats, live instrumental and vocal performances, and other sounds into pieces of music in the style the patient or family members choose. “We can make things in the styles of heavy metal, prog rock, country, or hip-hop,” he says. “It is very specific and individual. We recorded all the sounds of one patient’s medical equipment. He liked electronic music, so we made kind of a dub-step track.”

For 14-year-old patient Dylan, who had a terminal condition, Schreck produced tracks incorporating Dylan’s heartbeat with some of his favorite music. After the teen’s passing, his parents listened to the music daily to cope with their loss. Schreck has also worked in perinatal hospice for mothers whose babies have been diagnosed with conditions incompatible with life. “We can record some of the sounds—maybe from the ultrasound—and use those to write a lullaby or put together music that will be meaningful to families,” he says. “It becomes something tangible—a thread for them. If there are siblings, the parents can use the music to explain that this came from their younger brother or sister.”

Schreck is part of the medical team working to help patients through the difficulties of a chronic illness. “This is not just something nice I’m doing,” he states. “Together, we focus on living and quality of life, not dying. I want the patients to get the most out of each day and change their mood. Music can do this when used in this way.” The process involves getting people to participate in the music making. “Some people tell me, ‘I can’t sing’ or ‘I don’t have rhythm,’” Schreck relates. ”I tell them, “You have a heart, so you have rhythm of some sort. We can take pieces of any sound and make a mosaic to create a rhythm. It may come from any sound that the microphones can pick up or sounds the patients make with their vocal cords.”

Schreck does most of the recording in the patient’s room with his laptop using GarageBand software. He may take some tracks home for editing and buffing up with other programs. The people he serves see the songs as treasures filled with memories of joy that are rewarding to revisit. “I believe that when you’re living with a significant illness, you remember everything—good and bad,” he says. “If we can interject joy into some moments, they will never forget them. Even when there is nothing else that can be done for a patient, I can still knock on their door. Music therapy can help, even if the patient just listens.”

A difficult part of Schreck’s job is seeing patients lose their battle. “There are people that I really connect with, and I can get sad,” he says. “But having the honor to walk with them during the hardest of times and creating music as a vehicle to move together through these times, is the best part of this job.”

This article appeared in our alumni magazine, Berklee Today Spring 2016. Learn more about Berklee Today.
Related Categories