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Les Brockmann Music Engineering . Writing ON MUSIC & ENGINEERINGOn Music & Engineering

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What happened to my UCLA Extension class "Staying in Sync"?

From UCLA Extension catalog, winter term, 2006

The big catalog for the 2007 winter term of UCLA Extension just hit the mailbox, and for the first time in eleven years, "Staying in Sync" isn't listed. This was my choice. For those who may care, including all the terrific composers, musicians, engineers, filmmakers, and others who have taken the class in the past, or to those of you may have considered taking the class in the future, this may serve as something of an explanation.

A History

I first was asked to teach this class in 1995, taking over for increasingly busy composer Jeff Rona. He told me at the time that he would be happy to work with me, to help get me going, and provide materials that he had used when he taught it. I never heard from him again. So, I got busy and developed the class from scratch, creating not only the syllabus and lectures but a great deal of support material as well, including overhead projector slides, software files, equipment demonstrations, and (as any student who has taken the class can attest) an increasingly large library of informative articles about all sorts of aspects of the topic.

The class started out to be all about SMPTE time code, its structure and usage. The class has always been a technical elective class for students in the Film Scoring certificate program, and of course time code is an important tool for a film composer, especially those who, as is increasingly necessary, want to be able to deal with and understand the equipment that's part of their job.

Over the years I have constantly tried to update and keep things current. Time code is now a small part of the class; increasingly all aspects of digital audio have become a main focus. Although I have gotten students with all kinds of fields of interest and career goals, I have always tried to emphasize topics and techniques that would be useful to the film composer. Since the world of film, television, and stage music is where I spend most of my "real" job, I've been there for a lot of the changes in technology in the composers' world, most importantly, the increasing usage and sophistication of computers and digital audio.

The class has never been a huge draw (I never packed them in like rock star Scott Smalley did with his orchestration class, but then again I never had Jerry Goldsmith's thrilling music to offer) but each year there have been a steady 10 to 20 students enrolled. I feel privileged to have met a number of really nice and talented folks in the class over the years, including (here comes a scoop folks) one who, okay I'll admit it, a few years later I ended up married to. :-)

What it's like to work for Extension

Over the years I have generally felt good about working as a teacher for an organization that has seen many students go on to great success in composing and other fields. It's not my intention to burn bridges with the folks that run the Department of Entertainment Studies there, because they've been very nice to me and I wouldn't mind working for them again. But there have been a few aspects that were a challenge, which I will go into briefly.

You might be surprised to know, UCLA Extension (at least the part that I have worked for) is in some ways not exactly like a traditional college. For example, there is never been a meeting of the music or recording engineering faculty that I'm aware of. I have never met many of the people who teach classes that are in some way related to mine; we've never been asked to consult or work together to make sure that our topics and material covered coordinates in some way with each other or with some larger overall plan.

I assume someone in management looks over my syllabus each year and is satisfied that, in general, what I teach is appropriate and useful. But no one has ever called me up, asked for meeting, and said something like, "You know, such-and-such-other-teacher is covering basically this same topic, could you work together to make an adjustment somehow?", or, "What do you see as trends from your position in the industry, and how can we make sure we're offering students what they need to keep up?", or (in my dreams!), "What can we do to work with you to make sure this topic is as well presented and vivid to the students as possible?" Unless I initiated contact with Entertainment Studies management, with an email or call, I've been pretty much left on my own.

Maybe that's okay. I think most people understand that what you get out of an adult school such as UCLA Extension is not exactly the same as an undergraduate or graduate degree program in "regular" UCLA. It's more "education ala carte" — if you see something on the menu that you think would do you some good then you buy it. And certainly in the music and entertainment businesses, unless you're in academia, the value of a degree or a "certificate" of some sort is somewhat less than in other fields; what's much more important in the job world is simply the ability to do the work in a way that is competent, perhaps innovative, hopefully superior, that helps you stand out from the crowd. I'm sure people who take classes from the Extension catalog are looking for just such a way to get a leg up on their competition and careers.

Computers and Software

My class has increasingly been about digital audio, and more and more that means computers. For the past two years the class has been presented in one of the computer labs, in which every student has access to a Macintosh stocked with today's tools of the trade, such as Pro Tools, Digital Performer, and many other applications. The class isn't all a "hands-on" class, not how to use a particular piece of software, but we take a look at techniques and technical features, and the students are given a chance to explore and try out concepts we're talking about.

Pro Tools and DP are my two example software platforms of choice for the class, because I think some awareness of both of those industry leaders is essential for film music composition students in particular and anyone else who works with sound for picture, and because in my regular job working with successful composers, those are the two that I see used the most in the pro world. (Yes, I know there are also Logic, Cubase, Nuendo, and a host of others, but as I said this is not about specific platforms; concepts taught would apply to any of these.)

As long as I have been with Extension I have tried to be an advocate for the students, trying to help them get the best, most up-to-date training and experience. In particular I have tried my best to insist that the computers always be stocked with the newest current version of the software, just as pros and students alike work with in the real world. This has not always been easy. In the bad old days when the classes were held on campus, we struggled with sad obsolete and outdated hardware and software. I'm grateful that things have gotten better since then.

This past year, upon arriving to set up to teach, I found that there was no working version of Digital Performer on any of the computers, either for the students or at the teacher's station. It seems the computer lab folks upgraded all the computers to the newest operating system (good) but left behind only an old version of DP that was incompatible with that OS and crashed on startup (bad). This was a problem because not only was a substantial part of my weekly lectures based on demonstrations in DP, but I was also looking forward to a special guest appearance of one of the west coast's most authoritative experts on DP, MOTU's local rep Matt LaPoint, and it didn't seem right for him to show up to a room with no usable software.

I expressed my concern to my faculty-liaison people at Extension, and requested the DP update. They balked, citing cost. I continued teaching, adapting certain techniques that I had intended to show in DP to Pro Tools (although there are certain things that DP does that PT won't do). Finally, at the last minute before my one crucial DP lecture anticipating Matt's scheduled appearance, and after some talk of canceling the class, I was able to persuade them to install just one new copy of DP in the instructor's computer. So, whew, that one crucial class came off okay. The following week I arrived to find that the new version of DP on the instructor's station had vanished without a trace; it was never seen again. Maybe someone on the staff loaned us their personal copy — if so, thanks!

An aside: It's too bad that Extension no longer offers any sort of training on Digital Performer, except for one online-only class which originates out of Berklee. This is in contrast to quite a bit of "Apple certified" training on Logic. Although I am not an insider on the matter, I'm sure a substantial part of the reason comes down to aggressive marketing on the part of Apple, and of course money. During last winter's discussion between the Entertainment office folks and MOTU, they weren't able to come to an agreement on an educational discount or group price for the upgrade. If this is really the case, it's kind of short-sighted, denying students who are interested access to one of the industry's leading products, and will lead to a whole generation of Extension-trained composers being exclusively Logic users. Bad for MOTU? Seems like it. And it's ironic, just as the new DP5 has added many features specifically of interest to film composers, including video streamers and punches, improved cue timing tools, software synthesizers, etc.

Conclusion and tributes

My decision to hit "pause" on "Staying in Sync" isn't just about being denied a particular piece of software; far from it. Do I want to just take a break, or move on to something different? Time will tell. (I did tell my supervisor there that if another class on some related topic in recording engineering or sound technology needed an instructor, to let me know.) If you'd like to take "Staying in Sync" sometime in the future, please let them know in the Entertainment Studies office (say hi to Dave Dominique or Judith Chlipala there). And if you have any comments you like to share with me about this or other aspects of professional education in the music business, drop me a line (click "Contact").

I do have a strong commitment to the value of a good education, regardless of the particular institution, ever since my own Bachelor of Music majoring in Music Engineering Technology at the University of Miami, where I learned from the famous engineer and wonderful teacher Bill Porter (whose clients included Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Rich). Here in LA, UCLA Extension has proved to be an excellent source for lots of folks to get good career-oriented training (where I've also enjoyed being a student as well as a teacher).

I'd like to mention that it's been an honor for me to be, as an Extension instructor, together on the same list with a lot of terrific and highly respected people, true leaders in our industry. From these pros and many others like them, I learned that teaching at UCLA Extension isn't just another gig, but a good way to "give back". A partial list: Christine Luethje, Charles Bernstein, Thom Sharp, Dennis Dreith, Stephen Scott Smalley, Don Ray, Bob Drasnin, Jack Fierman, and Jerry Fried.

Thanks to those who have been guest speakers in my class, including Christine Luethje (I'll still do your class, Christine, call me), Matt LaPoint of MOTU, and Jon Conolly of Digidesign, and to the folks in the office including Judith Chlipala, Dave Dominique, and Pascale Halm. I'd like to conclude by saying I did my best; there were a few obstacles in the way but overall it was a pretty good experience, and I am grateful for your trust.

I hope I'll be seeing all of you again soon.

This is not intended as an advertisement for any product. All products mentioned are trademarks of their various manufacturers. ©2006 by Les Brockmann

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