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Learning to Master Innovation: An interview with Stephen Webber

Learning to Master Innovation: An interview with Stephen Webber

Stephen Webber

Can the ability to innovate be learned?

Certainly a useful innovation requires a creative spark - the ability to add 2 and 2 to get 1,000. But, it also requires an analysis of a market and what people need, and the skills to follow through on a plan in a timely manner. And if you are in a music related industry, the ability to speak the language of music.

Many are called by the desire of a career in music, but not all end up as performers and composers like Berklee grads Quincy Jones, Joe Zawinul, Steve Vai, and Alan Sylvestri. Here's a list of Berklee Grammy winners. At the same time it's a pretty cool thing to be in a class next to Jan Hammer or Esperanza Spalding, and perhaps be part of the instruments they might use, or the way that their music reaches your ears.

Berklee College of Music believes that a strong background in music and music-related topics can help inspire the products and services of the future that these offerings will in turn will help to fuel the music of the future. And they're backing up this belief by opening a new Masters program in their Valencia Spain campus and assigning the task of organizing it to one of their best and brightest.

Stephen Webber is the Director of Berklee's new Music Technology Innovation Masters Degree, which is starting up this fall in their campus in Valencia Spain.

Let's start with the beginning. What was your musical background? Were your parents musicians?

Yeah, my mom played the piano and my dad played the tuba, and he also directed choirs and bands and things. I took eleven years of classical piano as a kid and used to play in the Piano Guild of America competitions. I had a super-strict teacher, who used to whack me with a ruler when I didn't play things perfectly.

Did you do it by choice?

Stephen Webber Pickin'

I wanted to learn music and my parents put me into these strict piano lessons. The deal was that as long as I kept up my piano, I could also study guitar. So I started out on an old Spanish guitar and eventually got an electric guitar. As a teenager, I got into bluegrass, so I played acoustic guitar, five-string banjo and mandolin. I kind of have a short attention span, and I really like the juice of picking up new instruments.

To me, all of the different instruments relate to each other in certain ways. And if you're spending time on several different instruments rather that just one, you might be taking away from the possible depth of technique you'd have on one, but you're bringing something unique to all of the instruments that you play because you approach each instrument a little differently.

Do you learn some basic technique on a new instrument, or do you just start by learning songs?

Often, I'm drawn to an instrument because of something I've heard, an artist or a song that's turned me on. So right away you're after what it was that turned you on about the instrument, so you're trying to recreate that, which gives you a goal.

What about learning to use new technology products?

I think I got my first tape recorder in the third grade. I sold address labels door to door to be able to buy a tape recorder with three-inch reels.

Next I gained access to a Sony sound-on-sound tape recorder, which is one of the classic reel-to-reels where you'd have to erase the second track in order to do an over-dub, so you'd record on one track and play along with it, and then record both the live and previous take onto the second track, and once you were ready to record a third part, you'd have to erase the first track. And you'd have to ping-pong back and forth. I learned so much by having that limitation. You had to plan which musical parts needed to be presented in the best fidelity and record them last, because whatever you recorded first would have been bounced back and forth the most.

Later I learned that Les Paul made all of those records with Mary Ford that way, before the advent of the multi-track recorder. By the time I was bouncing things back and forth, multi-tracks were around, but I couldn't afford one as a junior high school student.

What inspired you to take up turntable?

It was just one of these "a-ha!" moments. I was actually teaching Wayne Wadhams' class in remixing at Berklee. When he wrote it, the term "remix," meant that you had handed the mix into the record company and they said, "No, this isn't ready yet." While I was teaching that class, the term remix turned into "REMIX!" and it meant you took the thing and you stripped out the rhythm track and came up with a totally new treatment to give the song an entirely different life as a dance track.

And it was in one of these classes that I first saw a video of a DMC DJ competition. It was like seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It was one of those moments where I instantly thought, "I want to do that!".

So I bought some decks and went to the basement and, much to the chagrin of my wife and daughters, started spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to become a turntablist/DJ. At that point there were no books out on the topic.

So you wrote one….

Stephen Webber Scatchin'

Yes, I wound up writing Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ, the first book to teach the turntable as a musical instrument.

I wrote down all of the questions that I had as someone taking up the art form, and set out trying to answer them by getting in touch with DJs who would show me what I needed to know. Guys like DJ Qbert and Mixmaster Mike and A-Trak and Edan and Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmixer DXT; all of these cats were willing to talk to me, fortunately.

Because you'd learned so many instruments in your lifetime, you knew what questions to ask….

In a way, the fact that I grew up learning new instruments all of the time kind of got me ready to go at an instrument that didn't have pedagogy yet and help to develop some pedagogy for it. And hopefully this make it easier for people coming along to learn it themselves. My goal with the book was to be logical and methodical and get the reader up to speed in a way that was efficient and musical.

My second book, DJ Skills: The Ultimate Guide to Mixing and Scratching, took things further, exploring the origins of records and DJs, and getting in depth on the technology and the art of mixing.

Can you talk about Berklee's Music Technology Innovation curriculum? It's a one-year program?

Yes, it is an intensive one-year master's degree program, designed to provide students with a deep knowledge of innovations and contemporary developments in music technology, electronic musicianship, and music production. Courses include Hybrid Recording Methods and Stratagems, Electronic Production and Live Performance, Non-linear Structures for Real-time Media, Interactive Music Technology Applications, Music Video Production and Dissemination, and Advanced Studio and Interactive Performance Mixing.

There will also be live performance opportunities using various aspects of music technology, DJ tools and alternate controllers.

One of the anchor courses in the first semester is the Innovation Seminar, where we'll look at innovators in music technology and other areas as well. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci innovated in so many different fields; visual arts, music, he was a technologist. He made sketches of submarines and aircraft way before either was considered possible. He was just insatiably curious. That's the type of students we're after: the insatiably curious.

Who are some of the innovators you admire in the music field?

Certainly Beethoven, Les Paul, the Beatles, Bob Moog, John Coltrane. Imogen Heap is a great example today (Check out her Gloves Project). People who strive to bring elements together in entirely unique ways.

Do you know which applications you're going to use?

I want students to become Ninja level on a few platforms, including ProTools, the Ableton Live Suite and Max MSP. Virtuosity is important. Not just for production, but also for live performance and the use of various live controllers, and students will have the opportunity to design a system that speaks to their style of live performance and what their goals are there. We'll also be looking at HTML 5 for writing apps.

Students will also become comfortable working in a professional-level recording studio with a large format console, if they aren't already. We have a brand-new Euphonix System 5 digital mixing console in our flagship studio, and it's incredibly versatile.

How many young artists are actually working in large format studios?

Probably not that many. I mean, large format studios are where you get to go if you win the lottery or if you get a major label deal or happen to have an "in" somewhere.

Valencia Studio

Having said that, getting the opportunity to spend time in front of the $450,000 Euphonix S5 console, with 7.1 surround monitoring and all of the bells and whistles that come with it is pretty awesome. I think students make very important distinctions working in world-class environments; distinctions they'll carry for the rest of their careers. It's also going to be time spent gaining confidence, like, "I've seen the virtual version of this. Now if I get in front of the hardware version, I'm going to know that I've got my signal flow chops up, so I know that I can fly this thing".

I want the students who earn their Master's in this program to be able to record and create world-class projects with whatever tools they have. These days, my new laptop is more powerful than the Mac Pro and the HD3 system found in many professional studios. We now take it for granted that you can make records entirely in the box. And I want our people in the program to be able to do that, but I also don't want them to be afraid to walk into a studio with a large format console and be able to sit behind that console and make a record there as well. I want them to be equally confident doing both things, or to choose to work in a hybrid mode, bringing both paradigms together.

In the second semester, there's a class specifically in music video, which has become such a huge part of how we create music these days. Every student will create a YouTube channel and will be required to post something to it every week. They'll also be working on a high-production value video for their final project, where they'll learn storyboarding and lighting and editing and effects and all of those kinds of things.

What kinds of skills does a student need to have already to be successful in the program?

We're looking for musicians who love technology and want to spend a year immersed in it. They don't need to be fully formed technologists, but they do need to show a deep understanding of the technical side. Most of the people who've applied have at least one or two areas of technology that they excel at. Either a DAW or a music notion program or a beat-making program, like Reason or Ableton. And they also need to be a musician. It is a Master of Music degree. Most of the people in this program will have a Bachelors of Music.

We're also looking for people who have a sense of direction, who have an idea of where they want to go. A big part of the program is the execution of a culminating project that will bring together the student's interests and provide a catalyst to further develop their chops on the tools they've been exploring.

And at the end you have a culminating project that is actually complete, rather than when I did my Masters it took a couple of years for me to do the coursework and then I took another year to do my recital. People were just kind of in this mode of, "Yeah, I'm working on my Masters while I'm doing other things as well." This is more of a total immersion, that you're really going to be working 40 or 50 hours a week, immersing yourself in technology, mastering new tools, and executing a culminating project that you've chosen to hone your skills and sharpen the saw in a way that you feel is going to be especially meaningful for you, your art and your career.

What about recording engineers?

We are looking for people who are musicians and well as technologists. It's possible that someone who doesn't have a Bachelor of Music could find admittance to the program if they can demonstrate a high enough level of musicality where they could be admitted to a Master of Music degree program. I mean, let's face it, Yo-Yo Ma did a Bachelor of Arts degree at Harvard, so it's possible to be an advanced musician without a Bachelor of Music.

What kinds of elective courses are there?

Courses like Video Game Scoring Techniques, Music, Media and Society, Online and Social Media Management, Dramatic Electronic Composition, and Electronic Dance Music Composition. We'll also have courses in DJing and turntablism, and ensembles combining high-tech controllers and custom systems with traditional instruments.

Considering someone like Imogen Heap, who is into controllers and interactivity and musical applications of that nature; we want our students to think about new paradigms and going where nobody has gone before.

The computer is in its infancy in terms of being a musical instrument in that the computer itself is not a particular exciting instrument to watch somebody play. At the same time live music (as opposed to record sales) is more and more where a musician is going to make a living. I'm just curious where you think these things are going to intersect.

Scratch Ambassadors

One example is, we've had a group at Berklee that has been touring for years called the Scratch Ambassadors. The first incarnation was a Turntable Crew, with four or five turntablists. In more recent incarnations, we've combined DJs with other instrumentalists. We did a tour of China last October, and this incarnation had a the amazing Vanessa Collier on saxophone, EWI and vocals, Brian "Radar" Ellis and Nick "Iron Fist" Zeigler on the decks and emcee duties, and Aries "O'Plez" Deng scratching and dropping hardcore dubstep beats.

All Berklee students?

Performing in China

All except Radar who is Berklee faculty. We played at the Central Chinese Conservatory in Beijing, which has a reputation of being more conservative than Juilliard. So, the Berklee Scratch Ambassadors show up to play in this beautiful recital hall, with a gorgeous pipe organ behind us, and we started playing and everyone was still in their seats just looking at us with wide eyes, like, "What are these guys doing?" We were supposed to play for a half hour. By the time the half hour came around, everyone was up on their feet and half of them were standing on their chairs, fist pumping and clapping and screaming and recording on their phones---it was like a dam breaking. We wound up playing for an hour and a half---they wouldn't let us go.

Why Valencia? What is special about it?

Berklee's Valencia campus

I'm glad you asked. Valencia is a magical place. One of the things that I'm incredibly excited about is the facility that we have here. It really is like going to another planet. The Palau des les Arts (see right) is just this super futuristic place that we have access to for performances.

The new studios and labs that we've built here are the best that Berklee has ever built, and Berklee is pretty good at building studios and labs. Students and faculty from the other majors—Scoring for Film, Television, Video Games, Contemporary Performance and Global Entertainment and Music Business—provide incredible networking opportunities and collaboration opportunities for students in the Music Technology Innovation masters as well.

The campus feels like a global stage, being right on the Mediterranean in this environment at this particular point in history, and in this particular spot—we're an 18 minute plane ride from Ibiza, which is the DJ capitol of Europe. I'm taking a student group to perform at the Sonar Festival in Barcelona in a couple weeks, which is the largest electronic music festival in Europe.

We're looking forward to having a constant stream of visiting artists from all over Europe and the rest of the world the coming in to present and work with the students. And the whole idea too, I think, of a one-year Masters program where you immerse yourself for an entire year, will be invigorating for aspiring artists, technologists, and future innovators.





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