Music and Technology

A Lesson in Equalization

Michael McCoy

Professor Michael McCoy leads his freshman engineering class at NYU. Ned Wharton/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ned Wharton/NPR

I can't hear well. I also can't sing. More about the latter in another post during our November music and technology series. This is about my hearing, or lack of it.

Tuesday afternoon, I went back to school. The Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University trains students for the music industry. I'm sitting in the back of a classroom of about 13 students. Michael McCoy is sitting at the mammoth console and giving a lesson in equalization. He had set up two microphones over a drum kit and recorded a rhythm track. He plays it once as it was recorded. Then he punches some buttons to eliminate hiss and hum, and others to enhance the sound of the drums. McCoy asks the students to listen to - and analyze - the differences. I can't hear many of the changes. My ears are old, and have spent too many years in headphones and in front of big amplifiers in my youth. These young students don't miss a thing.

This class takes up a three-hour block of their time. They've been working with what's known as "cadavers" - random computer files of instrumentals, beats, melodies, harmonies and effects. It's like the high school band closet, only digitized. The students have been divided into teams and each team is to compose and arrange a piece of music with these files. The cadaver analogy refers to medical school, where prospective doctors practice on dead bodies. These NYU students are practicing on pieces of music that they can't ruin if they make a mistake. They'll be working with real musicians later in their education here.

There is no notch filter for the buzz and hum in the narrow hallway decorated with Polaroid pictures of each graduating class. Students compare notes and sign up for tutorials. Some are having lunch. Others are seated around the coffee table in the lobby. By the time they graduate, they will be well equipped to try to make their way as producers, performers, and entrepreneurs in the music business.

Senior Caitlin Pasko is on her way. As we get on the elevator to leave, she joins us. The seemingly shy woman is carrying a shoebox full of CDs for her band, Lacrymosa. Each is encased in brown cardboard. The name of the band and the title of the CD (Hyacinth Girl) are written in lilac magic marker. Just before we get off, Caitlin gives a CD to me and producer Ned Wharton. I have to admire her spunk. Not too many people can put their music directly into the hands of someone at NPR.

I listened to it when I returned to my office. Not bad - lots of variety, a little raw. But Caitlin can sing well, without a lot of acoustical enhancement. As I said at the beginning, the one thing I learned this week in a recording studio is that I can't sing. Later in our music and technology series, we'll broadcast the session when I record the Eagles' tune "Take It To The Limit". You'll hear a demonstration of how my pitch can be controlled. Unfortunately, it can't save the song.

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