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Boston Professor Prepares Aspiring Music Producers

The Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts is the world's largest independent music college, and specializes in the study of jazz and popular music. The school's alumni includes such talents as composer-arranger Quincy Jones, Steely Dan lead singer Donald Fagen and jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton.

Berklee's students come from more than 77 countries the largest percentage of undergraduate students from outside the United States at an American college. In addition to a vast array of instrumental and vocal courses, the curriculum includes such specialized classes as music production.

One way you can tell you're near the Berklee College of Music is that many students appear to have a thin object wrapped in black cloth sticking up from behind their heads. They are among the 1,000 students at Berklee majoring in guitar - who find the easiest way to carry their instruments is with the guitar body on their back with the neck sticking up. Of course, they also carry book bags like regular college students along with musicians whose "instrument" is a recording studio.

In Stephen Webber's advanced music production classroom there are seemingly endless switches, levers, meters, knobs and lights on control boards just like a professional recording studio. A small group of students are listening to, then critiquing, the work of their classmates.

They are learning the complex world of recording an artist and mixing the singer's voice and accompanying musicians just right to make a compact disc. The classroom discussions are peppered with terms such as "peaks at 2K" [an audio frequency of 2,000 hertz] and phrases such as "watch the levels here!"

Professor Webber, who has won an Emmy Award for his sound production work, says the students in his class are fortunate to have a huge reservoir for making their student recordings - their fellow Berklee students studying vocal and instrumental music. "I don't think this degree would be possible any where else because we have the largest pool of talent for the [students] to produce [music]," he said. "They figure out the relationship between a client an artist, producer and the engineer. How does it work? How can it teeter out of control? These kids are working on it 24 hours a day. The studios are open until six in the morning."

Mr. Webber says it's not unusual for his students to "burn the midnight oil" while producing their "final projects." Professor Webber said, "I know that everybody in the business learned in the dead of night. For me, it was when the client went home. Once the client went home, the deal was you could work on your own stuff and play with the gear. I can't tell you how many times I worked until seven in the morning and watched the sun rise. It seems that even if you have a school to do [your work], it winds up being this way. Some of the students would be doing it anyway. We can't get them out of the studios. We actually began closing them earlier, but it was the students who [complained] 'What are you talking about? There's still time left! I'm still breathing!'"

Berklee Professor Stephen Webber says a major change in his classes over the past several years is the increasing number of women students entering what had been a male domain. "It has totally been a 'boys club.' Absolutely," he said. "It's changing slowly. There are a few women right now in mid-career in their 30s and 40s who are doing really top-level work. They're the first generation of women who have been able to break through. It is tougher for them. It has been a boys' club so long that it's more difficult. I hate to say this, but especially with male artists and male bands, they [women] have had a harder time."

Mr. Webber adds that the changing gender of music artists over past decades has also helped female music producers. "My hope is that [it improves] with the rise of the female artist," he said. "When I was their age, there were only a couple or three women artists even. There was Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. All the bands had guys. Most of the performers were guys. I think one of the most exciting things is that we're in a revolution as far as women's roles in the industry. [But] I know there are a lot of people who are surprised when they see a woman behind the console 'just taking care of business' [doing a good job]."

Although the complexity of the electronics and instrumentation in music production may seem daunting, Professor Webber urges his students to concentrate on the art of creating the best sound from a performance. "If we teach [students] which buttons to push," their education has a six-month guarantee. The 'boxes' [electronics] are all going to be different in six months. But if we teach them why it's important to push that button, if we teach them how to move air molecules, create sound waves, and elicit an emotional response from another human being, they're going to have a career. If they can do that, it doesn't matter what the tools are. They can learn about new tools every year. It's not about the technology; it's about conveying emotions - about telling a story, those timeless things they'll do fine."

Professor Webber says the broad, liberal arts education that Berklee provides also helps his budding music producers to create the right sound. "We're a college," he said. We're not just a trade school. It's not an 18-month diploma. I look at our department as a liberal arts degree [specializing] in recording. We still want you to be thinking, being an interesting person and know about art and literature and all that."

Throughout his classes, Stephen Webber provides practical advice for his students, many of whom will soon be trying to break into the tough world of the music industry. "These kids have dreams of what they want to do in a career," he said. "If you can focus on that while you're going to college, then why not? A lot of professors here we look at what we didn't get in our education, the stuff that's most important to [the students] is the stuff all of us feel, 'I wish someone had told us when we were 20.' They didn't, so it's hugely important to be thinking about your career - alongside your art."

Professor Stephen Webber teaches aspiring, young music producers at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.