A Semester Tracked In Eight Hours

Nov 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Tim Hall

MTSU STUDENTS GET A CRASH COURSE IN PROFESSIONAL RECORDING

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Williams with grad student/engineer/writer Tim Hall.

Williams with grad student/engineer/writer Tim Hall.

At a chance meeting at our Mix Nashville event in May, we learned of this real-world recording project going on at Middle Tennessee State University. We asked graduate student Tim Hall to write about it for Mix's annual audio education issue.
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It was just another day at MTSU until 4 p.m. rolled around and 40 students, a string section, a drum corps, bass player, improvised choir, vocalist, two Grammy Award-winning engineer/producers, a few camera operators and myself walked into Studio B with only four hours to record every element of a song our professor, Dick Williams, had chosen to release internationally. None of us had met or rehearsed together, and we didn't know exactly what we were about to record.

But we had a student in the class with a great voice, Hannah Phillips, lined up to do vocals, one of the school's string sections to perform strings, Lalo Davila and his drum corps to lay down the beat and a pseudo-band pieced together from the rest of the class ready to put down some tracks. At one point, Dick announced that he wanted to record a choir. We didn't have one, so he asked the class, “Who can sing?” At least eight people raised their hands; Dick told them that they're our new choir and to get ready to record.

The vibe going into the session was an interesting mix of excitement and confusion — with a hint of the frantic from my end. Thankfully, industry pros John Lawry, John Jaszcz and Grant Greene were there to coach us — all I had to do then was to set up the console for tracking, show Grant and John Jaszcz how everything worked, do the patching and then come up with a guitar part for the song while setting up to record it. Did I mention we started out with only four hours of studio time? We had to keep reminding ourselves that this was a class.

It all began when former VP of promotions at EMI Dick Williams came to teach a record label course at Middle Tennessee State University and decided to focus on international synergy. He had been a guest speaker the year before, and it got him thinking about giving back to the industry. After meeting with Chris Haseleu, chair of the Recording department, he signed up for the year, working pro bono; actually, they did pay him a dollar. His goal was to bring real-world experience to the classroom and to put out a product on the relatively new MTSU record label. He had the student and industry talent lined up, but he needed a song.

“I was channel-surfing one evening and stumbled upon a rerun of the movie American Beauty,” Williams recalls. “In a poignant scene, Annie Lennox sings the Neil Young song ‘Don't Let It Bring You Down.’ The song was stuck in my head for several days. Lyrically, it was an accurate depiction of the direction our economy was headed. And, musically, I could hear a similar arrangement, with some embellishment by incorporating the drum line from the university marching band and the string section from the school's orchestra. Most importantly, a Canadian artist wrote it. So it would fit the criteria necessary to demonstrate international synergy.”

Once he had the song, Dick still had to get the players, and he found that it's not always easy to get every department at a big university working together. “I was naïve to university protocol and idiosyncrasies,” he says with a laugh. “I'm a businessman, and when I see something that needs to be done, I figure out a way to get it accomplished. So I e-mailed Chris Haseleu to secure the musicians from the drum line and string players. He put me in touch with George Riordan, the director of the School of Music. George couldn't have been nicer, and was a great help. He connected me with Lalo Davila, the percussion instructor for the drum line and provided me with the necessary string players. We made up a choir out of our class members, and we got Tim [author] and Michael Dinse playing lead and bass guitar. In total, 40 students from the university performed on the track. It may have looked like an overly ambitious endeavor at the onset, but it was just another day at the office for pros like John Jaszcz, Grant Greene and John Lawry. I was very grateful that faculty member Cossette Collier and grad student Eric Jackson filmed the recording, which can be seen at our Website, www.mtsurecords.com.”






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