New Recording Studio Hits All the Right Notes

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By MICHAEL LAFLEUR

LOWELL- The UMass Lowell Music Department's new Critical Listening and Recording Studio is a state-of-the-art addition to the school's unique sound-engineering program.

Its grooved, wood-paneled walls and baffled ceiling, pitched to reflect and absorb sound, hide a sound system that is both thundering and precise. It's a space even professional sound engineers could envy.

Matthew Azevedo, a 1999 alumnus of the university's Sound Recording Technology Program and a sound engineer at a well-known Boston area mastering studio, certainly does.

'They played it for me, and my first reaction was, 'I'll bring all my equipment by, say, Tuesday, and I'll just record out of here,'' he said. 'My time goes for $100 an hour, and I would have no reservations at all about working in that room.'

The new, $500,000 studio located in Durgin Hall on the university's South Campus was completed over the summer and incorporated into the curriculum for the first time this fall. It was nearly 10 years in the making.

'This room doesn't just represent state of the art,' said Bill Carman, the program's associate director, who oversees program facilities. 'This room really defines the new state of the art.'

One thing that makes the new studio unique is that it can serve as both a recording space and a laboratory for 'critical listening.' Critical listening involves asking students to identify and quantify, by ear, specific aspects of sound, a necessary component of recording any piece of music, whether a complex orchestral score or a television commercial jingle.

Professor William Moylan, who chairs the Music Department, called it 'being able to listen to sound and describe it in a way that addresses the substance of the sound.'

The original critical-listening lab was a 600-square-foot classroom with a pair of speakers at one end. Before the new studio, recording was taught in a small orchestra rehearsal room. Neither room was what Carman describes as 'acoustically accurate,' meaning their contours and other properties altered the sound quality of, for example, a guitar being strummed or a voice hitting a note.

'When we're recording in this space, it's a very neutral space, acoustically,' Carman said. 'It's not going to color or change the sound characteristics of the instruments as they're being recorded.'

At UMass Lowell, sound-engineering students receive a music degree, which makes their program unique. They must demonstrate competency in music and a musical instrument while mastering advanced calculus, upper-level computer-science courses and the physics of sound.

'In our case, we need people who have a firm grasp on both sides of their brain,' Carman said. 'The relationship between technology to the music and what you're trying to achieve artistically, it doesn't get overlooked here.'

The academic rigor prompts a high turnover rate. Each class generally starts with about 140 freshmen, said Moylan, who also is program coordinator. On average, only about 25 graduate.

'You get a lot of kids who are great musicians who can't hack the science,' said Azevedo, himself a saxophonist. 'You get a lot of kids who are science-minded who can't handle the musical requirements. There's tremendous attrition.'

The new studio gives students a better opportunity for hands-on experience combining those aspects of the program.

'Being able to have a quality playback environment so you can really hear how the reverb is on the high hat, for example, that's a very big thing,' Azevedo said.

'It's much more like a top-end commercial studio. I've been to studios that claim to be professional studios that don't have a room that good to record in.'