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Why I Love... Teaching Music Technology

Simon Paterson
By Simon Paterson

Why I Love... Teaching Music Technology

"Teaching this stuff has empowered me to really learn to master the studio so that I can teach it better."

"To master, teach." In accordance with this Hindu proverb I bear witness that teaching music technology is helping me to become a better, more rounded sound engineer and musician.

Connected by a shared love for music, my students are amazingly diverse. I love learning about their musical worlds, then I greedily feed off their musical tastes. For each module I teach I set up a collaborative playlist so, whenever I discuss a particular topic, not only can I add tracks on the fly, I invite students to offer up their own. By the end of last semester, the playlist for my lecture-based 'Aesthetics of Electronic and Computer Music' module had accumulated a whopping 322 tracks! I blatantly use this as an excuse to parade my über-cool musical tastes and I particularly enjoy the discussions and reactions when I play, for example, some dark, obtuse '70s electric Miles Davis to demonstrate creative tape splicing, or Flying Lotus to show how experimental electronica producers gloriously abuse side–chain compression. Unwittingly, I once made a student cry (sorry, Amber!) when I played a particularly melancholic Radiohead track to demonstrate the sound of an Ondes Martenot. But far worse than this, and most regrettably, was the time I literally caused someone to involuntarily dry heave and had to swiftly stop Stockhausen's Studie No 2 (sorry Mitzi!) for fear of having to clear up electronically induced vomit. When jazz musician Albert Ayler once said that "music is the healing force of the universe", he'd clearly not considered the sheer discombobulating power of elektronische music.

My training was purely in music, but I've owned a recording studio for over 20 years. I often wonder: unless I actually had to teach it, would I really know how to set up a compressor or explain why I'd choose one mic array over another? No way! I'm far too eager to get on with actually making music. I know from experience that when you have a guitar strapped around your neck and you're itching to crack on and play the take of your life, nothing kills the vibe more than some nerdy explanation of how to notice subtle differences in impedance settings. Of course, the cumulative effect of intelligently tweaking a panoply of parameters makes a superior final product. More importantly, I try to show that the producer's duty to both cultivate and capture the spirit of music is not even about the equipment; that, just as learning scales can allow musicians' ideas to flow freely, the studio is merely another instrument whose techniques should be embodied.

Teaching this stuff has empowered me to really learn to master the studio so that I can teach it better. And make better music — I have written albums' worth of material purely because I had to improvise something on the spot to demonstrate a particular topic or technique. And so, the cycle continues.

Finally, what better reward than hearing completed portfolios of new music, demonstrative of how students have learned to express themselves in the studio?

Published July 2019