Education Sounds Like This

I sit here in this brightly-colored classroom, as my teacher pulls up a file on his computer screen and suddenly he asks, “Do you see that big phallic thing at 200?”  My eyes focus on the projected image before me. “Yeah, we gotta get everything out of its way.”

That’s when I realized this was no ordinary classroom.  This was what the guys at FyouNK Collective in Royal Oak call a “Meat & Produce” session: an event in which musically-minded people come together to discuss the production process.  As the Facebook page says, “Producers of any genre are welcome – electronic, hip hop, pop, rock, etc., as long as you are open-minded.  Musicians, singers, and rappers who are looking to collaborate are also very welcome to join in on the fun.”  Essentially, as the men in charge state, “Anyone with a dedicated interest in music production is welcome to join.”  Such a vast invitation can properly explain the fact that when I walked through the doors at FyouNK Collective, the place was pretty nearly packed.  And rightly so.

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The professors on the eve of the twenty-first day of October were some of my favorite musicians in Detroit, so I simply could not miss my chance to explore this learning opportunity for myself.  This faculty included Detroit’s very own guitar-driven-bass master, OCTiV, the Detroit-raised beat manipulator, Freddy Todd, and the electronic mastermind/party-starter, ill.so.naj.  I was a little late for class and I dropped my pencil twice, but my teachers made me feel right at home and worthy of their profound lessons.

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First, OCTiV came up to the desk at the front of the classroom and told us all about the importance of equalization, or balancing sounds in music.  He summarized much of this tweaking mechanism, saying that what was most important was “getting unnecessary things out of the way of stuff you want.”

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He then explained that, though some sounds need to be made less powerful for the sake of more important ones, all is not lost in doing so.  In fact, often times those sounds that are diminished for the sake of others can still be felt in the song and have an enormous presence in the overall vibe of the piece. Thus, OCTiV showed the importance of knowing the difference between hearing sounds and feeling them.  As OCTiV revealed, however, extra sounds can sometimes be distracting.  “You need to make sure people can pay attention,” he declared, reminding composers to make cuts whenever necessary for the listener’s benefit.  Of course, it is okay to be sad about these cuts for a bit.  I mean, we are all still mourning for those sounds which were demolished by the aforementioned “phallic thing.”

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After OCTiV offered a new perspective on making positive changes to songs, Freddy Todd took the reigns.  The musician began by highlighting his philosophical approach to music, a quality which separates him from many of his composing counterparts.  Todd told his students that when you are creating music, “step one is your brain.”

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For Todd, focusing on one’s mindset is an essential part of what he called, “starting right and starting proper,” and it is a step in the music production process which simply cannot be skipped.  Todd then detailed what that meant for his own music, telling us that he needs to be inspired and in a clean room when he begins to create his sounds.  He encouraged students to develop their own rules for getting in the correct music-making mindset.

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Todd admitted that producing quality music, however, ultimately requires more than just a positive mental state.  “You can get inspired and write a whole track on your headphones, but typically if you want to put out an album you need a good pair of studio monitors.”  Thus, while the mind is the strongest tool at a musician’s disposal, it is also critical that he or she has the necessary tools available to them and knows how to use them properly.

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After explaining the process for beginning a song, Todd left the floor open for ill.so.naj to give some technical advice for the later parts of production.  The electronic artist focused his lesson on the idea of personalizing the musical experience.  He did this by showing students how to use programs, such as Ableton Live, to make improvised edits to tracks.  He encouraged everyone to take their iPods, iPads, or other beloved gadgets and “then assign them customized ‘MIDI mappings’ and touch screen layouts, creating unique ways to trigger effects or blend sounds.”

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This process allows performers to create their own unique set-ups, which cater to their individual needs and styles.  Ill.so.naj told us that, with these tools, he was even able to use a Guitar Hero controller to perform his songs on stage at one point.  The musician proceeded to play many of his own clips for the students to give them an idea of where improvisational tools might be applied.  Though he emphasized using the computer programs to be prepared for any show, he declared that:

Most importantly you gotta leave room for those happy accidents to happen. That’s where the magic is.

Here, the artist’s technical approach highlights both the immense dedication required to produce such music, and the importance of allowing for freedom in its performance.  Ill.so.naj showed us that even this freedom, however, requires much focus and effort beforehand.

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The three musician/producers took their students behind the scenes into many aspects of their artistic processes, and it was truly an educational experience for all involved.  The teachers were able to reach both the dedicated producers in the crowd as well as the beginners who had just fiddled with their friends’ computers during study hour.  In fact, each speaker made the intricacies of his musical processes seem approachable and comprehensible, even for any woefully ignorant music journalists in the building.

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All of that, of course, is to say that the environment at this Meat & Produce event was ideal for many different people with vast ranges of experience and interests.  Obviously October’s teachers brought a great deal of information to the table, and for that we were sincerely grateful.  But I know for sure that all other producers who take the time to share their wisdom in the future will do so just as admirably.  For my part, I know that I will be back at the FyouNK Collective often for more music education, and I am certain that the seats will fill just as quickly with musicians who are eager to learn.

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