Berklee College of Music: Cyber Funk U

This music school has seen the future and it wants you to write the score

Berklee College of Music Credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

IF YOU WANT TO FIND Torbin Harding at Berklee College of Music, head down to the glass-enclosed music-synthesis labs on the first floor of the school's Massachusetts Avenue building, in Boston. Harding, a 22-year-old senior from Shrewsbury, Mass., who aims to be famous, spent virtually every free moment last semester in the labs, up to his shoulder-length hair in computers and synthesizers, software and samplers. "A hundred and thirty hours in the lab last semester, every night from 7 to midnight, and that's outside class time," Harding says. If the school had let him, Harding would have camped out among the technologies and never left. In these electronic wonders, Harding sees a path to stardom, a chance to change the music world. "I want to use technology to push popular music to a higher level," he says unabashedly.

In the lab, Harding experiments, improvises, writes new music to accompany his poetry. The software and synthesizers hand him a freedom he had dreamed about. "I found I was able to make rhythms that were new and exciting," he says. "I could write whole songs starting with a drum beat."

He started a new band at Berklee called the Secret. He and his keyboardist, Steve DiGregorio, share a two-room apartment on Commonwealth Avenue, where they use the kitchen as a bedroom and write songs rather than cook. The band hasn't started to gig yet, so Harding subsists on $1.25 slices of pizza from Little Stevie's, near Berklee, and lets others worry about his tuition.

"My parents consider me an investment," Harding says seriously. "They don't say that to me, but they've joked around. They know I'll be working hard at music for the rest of my life, and that music has the possibility of a big payoff. Plus, I have a lot of confidence in myself." The discovery of music synthesis fueled Harding's hubris.

When Harding, the son of a Worcester, Mass., pediatrician, arrived at Berklee in the fall of 1990, he was a self-proclaimed Deadhead, a guitarist just back from an exciting but short-lived East Coast tour with the Tribulations, a rootsreggae band. He had come to Berklee in hopes of reviving his music education, which he had put on hold when he dropped out of the University of Hartford's music program a year earlier to load trucks. "A teacher told me I wasn't ready to learn Bach and Beethoven," Harding says. "He was right. I wanted to play frat parties."

At Berklee, he hoped to meet some new players, start a band, expand his guitar skills, resuscitate his passion. Since he's arrived, Harding has shaved the sides of his head and discovered the brave new work of cybermusic. He views himself as an outsider, a pioneer who believes he has insights into new avenues of musical expression. He has no time for girlfriends or socializing. His music consumes him.

Harding first enrolled in Berklee's guitar program, taking lessons with Berklee's guitar-department chairman, Larry Baione, who, Harding says, encouraged his individualism: "He brought out the me in me." And then Harding promptly transferred.

"I realized I was a freak among players," Harding says. "No one else there was influenced by roots reggae, the Grateful Dead, Stravinsky. I had a hard time finding players who were into the music I was writing."

Harding's eclectic vision is a fusion of hardcore rap, heavy rock, tribal rhythms and what he calls "conscious composition." He is influenced by the serial music of Arnold Schoenberg and finds inspiration in the classical masters. He has also attended all three Lollapalooza concerts. "That says something about my tastes," he says.

He had no intention of majoring in music synthesis, Berklee's haven for the nerds and techies. Music created with samplers or drum machines pissed him off. It was, he believed, a rip-off of other people's efforts. "I liked real people playing real instruments," Harding says.

Then he met Elaine Walker, who served as a synthlab monitor at Berklee, during his year off and told her of his disappointments. Walker immediately spotted a candidate for conversion. "The work she was doing was completely cutting edge," Harding says. "She kept telling me to check it out, that using the technology, you can do everything yourself, the composing, production, the recording. Now I feel like the music I write is pushing the boundaries. It's a really exciting time to be a musician."

For a kid who'd started playing in garage bands at age 12, who'd consciously eschewed soccer and tennis to pursue a music career, Harding felt a synergy with the technology, as if he'd been headed in this direction all along. "It gives you more options, makes you want to experiment more," Harding says. "It's about choices."

Harding's choice says a lot about the metamorphosis engulfing Berklee today. The old rules are finally giving way to a shifting paradigm. What's happening isn't brand-new. The music-industry shift from analog to digital electronics has been underway for more than a decade. But now, more than ever before, immersion in the technology dictates future success. The music business simply no longer accommodates the Luddites who cling to the old methods of arranging, producing and recording. And while other schools watched from the sidelines, Berklee bet its future on technology 10 years ago, and now with the table stakes higher than ever, the bet is a clear win.

AN OUTSIDER ON CAMPUS might not notice dramatic changes from a decade ago. On the stoops of the college's nine buildings — the converted movie theater, apartment buildings, former hotels and bank that dot Boston's Back Bay — the chain-smoking, leather-clad neophyte musician crowd continues to congregate. But here on Mass. Ave., the information age vibrates with the sound of digital music. The glass-enclosed music-synth labs, crammed to bursting with the latest computer and synthesizer technologies, are crowded with students waiting to get at the workstations to compose, score or simply experiment with new musical forms.

American students sit shoulder to shoulder with Japanese, German, Belgian, Filipino, Taiwanese, Canadian and French compatriots at the Apple Macintoshes and Korg synthesizers. Berklee's global reputation has drawn 33 percent of its students from overseas, one of the highest percentages of any American college.

Professors like Richard Boulanger, an award-winning computer composer, experiment with such new technologies as the radio baton, a microprocessor-based device that looks like a pizza box and timpani sticks but is really a controller that allows a listener to interact with recorded music, stretching codas, adding vibrato and controlling volume.

Though it is well known for its acoustically superior performance center, Berklee has quietly taken a lead in incorporating technology into music education, producing some of the industry's best-trained and most widely sought young professionals. For example, Abe Laboriel Jr., the school's hottest young drummer, graduated in May and by August had signed on with guitarist Steve Vai's band for a U.S. and world tour. Interestingly, Laboriel graduated as a music-synth major.

Make no mistake: Berklee has not abandoned the traditionalists. Most of its students can still be seen prowling the Back Bay campus with electric guitars, trumpets or violins. But even for them, the computer has wedged its way in, dramatically changing the way they are taught. The school has spent more than $10 million on computers, synthesizers and other electronic equipment over the last 10 years, far outspending its competitors. This year and next the school will spend nearly $2.5 million updating its technology and facilities.

In August, Berklee finished work on its new multimillion-dollar multimedia technology lab, the country's largest and most sophisticated such facility, with 40 workstations integrating Macintoshes, Korg synthesizers and the latest in music and graphics software from pioneering companies like Opcode and Digidesign. Starting in September, every incoming Berklee student will be required to take an introductory course in technology and get their hands on the keyboards, both musical and digital.

Thus the world's largest independent music school, with 2,550 students and 300 faculty members, has grown well beyond Lawrence Berk's vision in 1945. What began as a Saturday afternoon music-theory class with three students has evolved into a world-class industry farm team, sending the likes of Quincy Jones, Bruce Hornsby, Jan Hammer, Donald Fagen, Gary Burton, Al Di Meola, Aimee Mann and Branford Marsalis into the big time.

Berklee's mission has always been pragmatic rather than lofty: to prepare its graduates for professional music careers. The curriculum mimics the real world, tracking new job titles with graduates who can demonstrate hands-on experience before they hit the pavement. The course catalog offers II majors, from performance and film scoring to commercial arranging, and hundreds of courses in everything from the music of John Lennon to songwriting and ear training.

The nearly $20,000 tab for tuition, room and board for two semesters and 16 credits is not cheap but remains lower than that of any of the major music schools like Miami, Oberlin or Juilliard. And here, music students are apt to find more acceptance for the unusual, the out-of-the-mainstream view. While snooty conservatories turned up their noses, Berklee welcomed jazz as a worthy discipline. As far back as the 1950s, the electric guitar and later the synthesizer were welcomed as instruments of choice in its mainstream curriculum.

But the shift toward synthesis has also brought with it a dilemma or two. "A lot of Berklee grads I've met tend to produce overwritten and busy music," says one West Coast music educator. "It tends to be all chops and no soul." There is real concern that the general level of musicianship has gone down as young students, adapting to electronics, are more and more unwilling to pay the price for virtuosity. "If I can produce fantastic sounds using a synthesizer, why devote years to a single instrument?" young musicians now say. The days of long lessons and endless practicing on acoustic instruments may be giving way to the perceived shortcut through the computer keyboard, a trend members of the Berklee faculty actively fight.

"We all realize that the bottom line is you've got to be able to play well," says John Bigus, a music production and engineering major. "The music is still the music."

The push into technology has been a tough sell. Analog vs. digital wars abound in the school, resistance remains high, particularly among faculty who can't abide by the notion of synthetic sounds and computer software replacing tried and true methods of teaching. But nobody at Berklee is talking about turning the clock back anytime soon.

"This is the only school in the world with this kind of facility and this kind of training," says Marcel Hamel, a 33-year-old songwriter and educator who took a two-year leave from a small college in Edmonton, Alberta, to study music synthesis at Berklee.

Students like Bigus and Scott Rouse, a music-synth and film-scoring major, left other professions to come to Berklee and find careers in music. "I had no computer background at all," Bigus says. "But I always wanted to get into the production studio. When I saw the music-synthesis lab at Berklee, I was totally blown away. In three years, I've learned a lot of technology."

WHEN APPLE COMPUTER produced a slick 30-minute MTV-like video a few years back to tout the musical prowess of the Macintosh, the producers enlisted artists like Laurie Anderson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana for on-camera testimonials. Computer neophytes, they all described the wonders of technology that had metamorphosed their creative process.

Sandwiched in between these superstars was a quiet, bespectacled and very unfamiliar face named David Mash, whose bookish countenance called to mind a computer programmer rather than a rock star. But Mash may well be the industry's leading evangelist for the marriage of music and technology, and it is Mash who is most responsible for Berklee's foray into computers and music education. He literally wrote the book — Computers and the Music Educator — and has become a familiar figure at music-education conferences and seminars around the world.

Mash, 41, an accomplished jazz and classical guitarist, is assistant dean of curriculum for academic technology at Berklee. For the past 10 years, he has steadily pushed Berklee harder and harder against the envelope, gradually building an unparalleled foundation of synthesizers, software and computers. Those in music education call him a visionary.

"If you have one person with a creative vision, then it will happen," says Robert Moog, an instrument designer and an inventor of the electronic synthesizer. "Dave is the leader."

"David is really a pioneer," says Liz Gebhardt, who was Apple's music market manager in the late '80s and who established the first contact with Berklee. "When MIDI [musical intrument digital interface] came out in 1984, a lot of people thought, 'This is only for propeller heads, it can't possibly be for popular music.' David really disproved that way of thinking."

While others, such as current President Lee Berk (the college was named after him, backward, by his father) and Grammy-winning vibist and Dean of Curriculum Gary Burton, have enthusiastically supported the effort, it is clearly Mash who has set the tone, both for students and faculty, at Berklee. It was Mash, for example, who began teaching performance synthesis at Berklee in 1982 and two years later created a four-year synthesizer major at Berk's behest.

Mash also tackled perhaps the more imposing challenge: getting the faculty on board. Students who have grown up with Nintendo and computers at home are an easy touch compared with middle-aged professors who can't stop their VCRs from flashing 12:00. Having spent lifetimes entrenched in traditional musical genres, they think of technology as a sophisticated form of cheating. Mash built a special lab for faculty members to come, unintimidated, and find out how to make use of the wizardry in their classrooms.

Dave Johnson, a 46-year-old Berklee professor, is a convert. The 13-year teaching vet and die-hard be-bop bassist and trumpet player had never touched a PC. Three years ago, students in his advanced modal-harmony course asked for some interactive software to help them understand the complex concepts.

"My first thought was 'I'll never figure this out,' " Johnson says. He approached Mash, who set him up in the faculty lab. Within a few days, Johnson was using HyperCard, a modular programming environment for the Mac, to create his own teaching software. He built lessons into a video-game-like program, and the students embraced it. Johnson was hooked.

Now he is using sophisticated software such as PG Music's Band in the Box, which allows him to create music for his lessons in the classroom. He can suggest switching a chord — F major 7 to a G7 — and, with a click of the mouse, hear the music instantly. "It is like having a real band playing the music, which is far better than me banging on the piano," he says.

Many faculty members have paid only lip service to the technology, however, and won't devote the time or energy to making use of it. Mash remains undaunted.

"David has done this gradually, making sure it all works," says Don Muro, a leading music educator from St. James, N.Y., who is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "He's done a good job of nursing it, letting it grow but not too quickly."

Mash himself is a Berklee grad, with a 1973 degree in jazz guitar. As a child in Detroit, he gained a solid grounding in classical guitar, played rock gigs starting at age 11, yet never considered music a career path. He assumed that he'd end up in medical school. Still, he couldn't escape his passion for music. He played in rock bands and taught guitar to put himself through college.

Mash, abandoning his mother's dream of having a doctor in the family, began teaching at Berklee in 1976. After convincing the school to buy one of the first Kurzweil 250s, Mash discovered an intuitive feel for the complex machine. "It had 30 buttons, each with 200 functions," Mash says. "Students were calling me at 2 a.m., asking how to work it." He was so adept at its dizzying functionality that he wrote a 300-page manual on its use. After that, he made technology a priority.

"My vision for technology at Berklee is that it should be totally transparent to the students and teachers," Mash says. "I want them to be so comfortable with technology that they can use it to get in spiritual touch with their music."

Johnson is more succinct. "There will always be a place for traditional music teaching," he says, "but the way the music industry is going, if you don't get into the technology, you'll get left behind."

Abe Laboriel Jr. isn't likely to get left behind. The 22-year-old drummer has already toured with the likes of Joe Sample, and now that he is signed on for Steve Vai's world tour, he has left behind the job-hunting woes of most current college grads.

Laboriel, who got his first drum set at age 4 and decided he'd be a professional drummer by age 10, came to Berklee with a solid grounding in technology. While most kids in Woodland Hills, Calif., were frequenting Southern California's surfing beaches, Laboriel was a fixture in some of the hottest Los Angeles music studios. His father, Abe Sr., is also a Berklee grad and one of the most highly sought after studio bass players in Los Angeles, performing on countless albums and movie scores.

Young Laboriel grew up around music synthesis and sequencers and knew, going off to Berklee, that it would be more important to major in technology than in drumming, a skill he seemed blessed with from an early age. "When I first got here, I thought about just playing, but then I thought about the future," Laboriel says. "When I thought about the avenues to express myself, I thought technology was a good place to start."

Laboriel had used drum programmers and sequencers in his father's studio without reading the manuals; Berklee seemed the ideal place to hone these skills. "It complemented my drumming and helped me think of music from a different point of view, more from the production side, understanding what the sound waves do," Laboriel says.

He says the music business is too weird to typecast, that being in the right place at the right time still counts the most. "I heard about the audition for the Vai tour the night before while I was playing somewhere else," Laboriel says. "If I hadn't been there, I'd never have heard about it. I had to beg them to let me audition because it was by appointment only."

But Laboriel, who seems destined for stardom, says Berklee provided the perfect balance of music and technology. "If you are a super programmer with no musicality, you're only copying other people's sounds," he says. "Berklee really allows people to be innovative, to try new things."

Those working in the business today acknowledge that technology has changed the rules completely. Songwriters once waited weeks to hear the music they'd jotted on paper; feedback, through sophisticated software and computers, is now instantaneous. The studio itself becomes the instrument. Talented musicians, working alone in basement studios, can now produce entire CDs without ever incurring astronomical studio or musician costs.

"Students better have the technical knowledge and ability to adapt, because in 10 years, everything will be completely different," says Joe Mardin, a successful producer and arranger in New York and a 1985 Berklee graduate. "If you're the next Aretha Franklin, you don't need to know about synthesizers. But everyone else does."

"If someone is trying to peddle songs or be a film or television composer, they've got to sound great; the pianovocal demo doesn't fly as it used to," adds Jeff Rona, a music and technology educator at UCLA and a successful film and television composer. "Can people work in the business without a technology background? Less and less all the time."

In Berklee's music-synth lab, the new reality is evident. Each student sits at a state-of-the-art workstation, a Macintosh keyboard astride a Korg or Kurzweil synthesizer. Each has a sampler, an analog-to-digital converter, digital audiotape machines and a variety of mind-boggling music software loaded into the Mac's memory. You want a sound, you program it. No strings, no ivories, everything is stored on a hard disk. The nerds will even write you a keyboard, all carefully crafted in software code called Csound, a musical software language.

"We're not just using the computer to control an outside instrument," says John Burkhardt, a recent Berklee grad whose father, Henry, is a computer-industry legend (he co-founded Data General Corp., of Soul of a New Machine fame). "We're exploring the computer as its own medium."

Barry Vercoe, the MIT professor who created Csound in 1985, believes the synthesizer is headed the way of the buggy whip. "In a few years, you won't need synthesizers, you'll do everything on a fast desktop computer," Vercoe predicts. "All the neat new sounds will be software driven."

Berklee is ready, if Vercoe is correct.

"Most people would never think of this at a pop school like Berklee," says Boulanger. "Students here are thriving on it, finding ways of putting these sounds into commercial recordings. I have students working for Fresh Prince, Warren Hill and Marky Mark."

Dow Brain, a 26-year-old Berklee music-synth grad, took his skills and turned entrepreneur, opening his own studio, Underground Productions, in Allston, Mass., one year after graduating, in 1988. Working with Danny Wood from New Kids on the Block, Brain wrote and produced several songs for Marky Mark's You Gotta Believe album and just finished similar work for Raven-Symoné's new CD, Here's to New Dreams. Brain credits teachers like Boulanger and Kurt Biederwolf at Berklee for instilling skills that enhance his creativity in composing and production, skills the average music grad clearly lacks.

"With Dr. Boulanger, we got into new sample processing, taking digital recordings and manipulating them into something completely different," Brain says. "We created all sorts of sound textures, which I've used in these productions, to create mood and add tension."

A keyboard and piano player, Brain continues to perform, recently completing a tour with Brian McKnight. He says his courses with Biederwolf focused on performance, controlling synthesizer sounds, manipulating them to add more life and enhance the quality of the music.

For Mash, Boulanger and the rest of the technology enthusiasts at Berklee, the toughest task of all may be finding a balance in the world of cybermusic.

"Students won't want to spend time on a single acoustic instrument when — electronically — they can make the sound of 20 instruments," says Muro, the music educator. "Younger students don't want to spend two years learning to finger a violin. It's a big problem with no easy answer."

Torbin Harding disagrees. After his initial skepticism, he has become a staunch believer in the power of the technology and feels that serious musicians will see it as a tool of enhancement. "The technology makes acoustic musicians work harder," he says. "If you're playing a rhythm track with a drum program, you better be in tune with it. The technology has to be embraced. If Beethoven had had it, he'd have used it, too."