osu's MUSIC TECHNOLOGY & PRODUCTIOn program Turns Resourceful to COMPILE 'HomewArd' EP
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
Jonesing for a well-curated collection of Oregon State University student music without paying admission, finding babysitters plus on-campus parking, or dodging an endless, ping-ponging pandemic? Look no further than Homeward, a genius marriage of talent and skill produced and released by the College of Liberal Arts’ Music Technology & Production program.
It's the brainchild of Dr. Jason Fick, the department’s assistant professor and coordinator since 2016. The Baltimore-bred Fick's devoted his adult life to his craft, graduating from the University of North Texas with a Ph.D. in Music Composition and specialization in Computer Music. And let’s not forget the Master of Music in Intermediate Music Technology from the University of Oregon, the Master of Music in Composition/Theory from Penn State, and the Bachelor of Arts in Creative Music Technologies from LaGrange College. (’scuse me as I retire home row.)
Music and academia dominate his household as well: His wife, Kimary, teaches music history at the college and plays traverso flute with the Eugene-area Oregon Bach Collegium, a collective that performs in concert on historical instruments. (Interestingly, I profiled her and them for The E in 2020.) “I do the new stuff; she does the old stuff,” he cracks.
Before landing at OSU, Fick worked in Alabama and Texas studios, and dabbled in concert recording, mixing, engineering, and independent releases. “I do a lot of beginning stages of stuff,” he says. “My specialty is mic-ing technique and working with developing artists. I’m really passionate about trying to put people together and teach them these tricks so they can go out and do it their own way. I’ve devoted my career to that, over my own creative art.” Which, naturally, makes him perfect for a teacher given to brainstorms that put his students in creative control.
He debuted this concept — what he calls the “first round” — in 2019. The department had just acquired the perfect equipment to entice hopefuls: an Audient ASP8024 Heritage Edition console in Snell Hall, upon which to produce professional recordings.
“It’s so important for fine-arts students to get career kind of experience, the extra outside-the-classroom experience, the hands-on entrepreneurships,” Fick says. “We teach a lot of things in our area, but we’re so remote in Oregon, especially in Corvallis. So my idea was to get them a startup project so that they could be working on a record.”
The inaugural edition attracted “all music majors and a couple of their fraternity brothers,” according to Fick. (Its descendants would cast a wider net.) But 2019 seems like a lifetime ago. The pandemic quashed plans for 2020, and with pesky restrictions still in place a year later, the studio was off-limits.
Nevertheless, Fick moved ahead. As he says, “We’re not a field that falls apart during COVID.” A year into the malaise, all aspects of entertainment have been forced to evolve to survive — and recording technology's no exception. In fact, it’s a welcome challenge: Can you produce an album under varying conditions without the consistent, controlled environment of a professional studio? Turns out that answer is “yes.”
Discussions for Homeward began with the program’s majors in the fall, and a call for submissions went out as winter term commenced on Jan. 6, 2021. Twenty- five demos rolled in before the Feb. 5 deadline; seven were eventually selected by the project’s five student producers, who then collaborated with the artists to create finished, polished tracks using various means of transmission and communication: Zoom, Discord, FaceTime, and other platforms. In an odd way, it’s a belated return to old-fashioned recording, albeit with current tools.
“I grew up in the ’90s,” Fick says. “If you listen to [Nirvana’s] Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam, you really analyze all the details of the vocals. It’s not Auto-Tuned and perfect, If you make a tempo map of Nevermind’s tracks, it changes speed so much periodically. But that was part of the music’s beauty. It didn’t have the same standards and expectations that a lot of stuff does today. I appreciate stepping back a little bit. We have found a way to make this work. So initially it was a little awkward to take a step back. But I’m really pleased with it.”
The completed EP makes its debut during a free event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 18. Members of the university’s Music Technology & Production program will discuss the process of assembling the album, from genesis to birth, at http://beav.es/3Ty. It'll later be made available to hear in full via Bandcamp and YouTube.
Fick and music instructor Aaron Barnhart served as Homeward’s faculty advisors. OSU Music Technology Facilities student worker, KBVR audio technician, and musician Alissa Liu managed the overall project. Fick calls the double economics major a “master taskmaster. She’s leading it, organizing it, communicating with the artists, working on contracts. She wants to go into the business side of music. That’s her gig with this project.”
Fick tapped one of his music tech assistants, Bobby Harris, as lead producer. “Bobby’s just really good,” he says. “Honestly, he’s one of the most talented students I’ve worked with in the five years I’ve been here. And he’s willing to do it. He’s got 8,000 things going on, but he’s still willing to take on another job, and he does them all well.”
Harris, a third-year student (this, he says, however, is his last), took a somewhat roundabout path to his music technology and production major. The multi-instrumentalist was already versed in sound, beginning eight years ago when the California native, who grew up in downtown Portland, began handling live audio for theaters. However, he first came to OSU to study zoology and become a veterinarian.
“As I was attending here my first year, I said, ‘This isn’t for me’,” he recalls. “I sing in an a cappella group, Outspoken. I knew a couple of people who were in Music Technology & Production, so I talked to them about it and decided it was something I wanted to do, because I was already producing stuff, anyway.” (He kept an animal science minor, as his advisor suggested.)
Harris has produced several artists (including himself), as well as the university’s various ensembles, and currently works on KBVR’s Locals Live program. Homeward would prove to be an exhilarating if arduous undertaking.
“We gave people quite a long time because everyone was at home and we were unsure how long it would take for people to actually see it,” Harris says. Submissions came, all of varying genres and quality, from simple phone recordings to produced tracks. The Homeward brain trust winnowed that batch to seven. The goal: diversity in sound and representation.
"We didn’t want an album that was one specific genre,” Harris says. “We wanted a very balanced mix of the types of songs that would be on the album, which I think we did achieve. We also didn’t want people who already produced stuff very well and were efficient at what they were doing. We were trying to take people who maybe didn’t have equipment at home because we wanted to play off taking phone recordings and very unconventional ways of taking audio and trying to make it all sound good.”
Producers were paired with material according to their own tastes and abilities. Ibrahim Syed and Isaac Smith oversaw two apiece: Jana King’s “Meant to Be in Each Other’s Space” and Buddy Anderson’s “In Time,” with Smith handling Ace Calcagno’s “Run Away with Me” and Jay Mitchell’s “Be the Man.” Jasmine Lumpkin took on Kjerstyn Jordheim’s “Coloring Book.” Lana Carey steered Logan Gianella’s gloriously titled “This Page Left Intentionally Blank.” Harris — who would otherwise be tasked with mastering the entire release — also took charge of a single track: Anastasya Hoffman’s “Vivid Dreams.”
Hoffman, a sociology and criminal justice major with a minor in music performance, sings with the university’s Powerchord a cappella ensemble. (Harris and Hoffman had known of each other prior to Homeward but were otherwise unacquainted.) She arrived in Oregon by way of Michigan and Alaska, graduating in 2017 from Service High School in Anchorage.
Hoffman’s lived and breathed music since her youth, beginning with musical theater in childhood. Around the time she entered Oregon State University, a school to which she applied on “a whim; there was no planning,” she began writing songs as she learned piano chords, experimenting and evolving as she discovered more progressions.
"I think I wrote my first song in the summer of 2017,” she says. “It wasn’t very good, but that’s when I started writing. I took a break, then I really got into it in the summer of 2018. It was just a lot of practice of finding different sounds and different melodies. My music is pretty spontaneous. Theme-wise, most of the songs are pretty downtrodden, expressing emotions I go through.”
Hoffman learned of Homeward through the three emailed fliers she received from friends. At first, she says, she wrestled reservations about participating. “Truthfully, I didn’t think I would make it,” she says. “Then once I decided to submit, I got excited about the idea of being able to not only work with a student producer and see that side of things but also to represent the school if I were to be selected.”
So she combed through her backlog and emerged with “Vivid Dreams,” a song she’d written in the summer of 2019. (“I don’t know if you have falling dreams,” she says, “but they feel really weird and real.”) Accompanying herself on piano, she recorded a demo with an earbud microphone, sent it off, and waited with anticipation for a response. “I knew my song needed some extra love, too, so I was curious to see how they perceived it,” she says. “Which is the coolest part of getting the feedback from the project that I can take with me as I continue to write and sing.”
Although assigned to the track, Harris saw the raw phone recording’s potential, later hailing its singer/songwriter vibe and likening it to a Taylor Swift ballad, “just a little more sad.” “I thought the central idea was really good and that I could take it further in the direction that Anastasya wanted it to go,” he says.
The two began communicating via email to trade ideas and coordinate schedules. Because they lived relatively close to one another, Harris and Hoffman met once to record "Vivid Dreams”’ lead lines in a pair of takes — observing COVID-19 protocols, of course. Harris used these to assemble the final track; vocal harmonies were delivered in phone memos (Harris added his own baritone for depth), and the producer used strings to bolster the chorus. Otherwise, the song differs little stylistically or lyrically from Hoffman’s voice/piano demo.
“It started with figuring out the basic idea that Anastasya had and how we could make it sound better for what would be a studio-produced version,” Harris says. “That meant moving a bridge or something to a different part of the song or changing maybe how the chords at the end may sound.”
“Vivid Dreams” joined the other completed tracks for mastering, a somewhat Herculean task considering that none of the songs were recorded in a single space. They came via different mics and setups (although producers worked with their charges on equipment and placement), from different rooms and atmospheres, and Harris had to transform these contrasting blends into a smooth, complete document.
“Mixing is making the music, recording it and balancing,” he says. “Mastering is making it sound ready for radio. I’m not even done mastering yet. Hardware and real studio equipment are a lot better to use in mastering. Being at home, my studio soundproofing isn’t as good as a normal studio’s. I’m trying to make sure I can make the album sound as cohesive as possible, so one sound’s not so drastically different from the other.”
He’s also designing the cover, a hand-designed piece he hopes catches the eye as it’s meant to represent the school’s Music Technology & Production program on social media “so we can do more stuff like this in the future and have a way to promote local artists.”
And there are plans for future Homewards as the program, currently based at 101 Community Hall, continues to grow. Harris has seen interest increase exponentially since his first year, from less than 30 students to more than 60. A new building to accommodate this influx, the $70 million Arts and Education Complex, is slated for construction near Snell Hall with a tentative 2023 completion date. Interior plans include a concert hall, theater, art gallery, and classrooms. The intention is to place many of university's arts programs in one building.
“I’ll still have a studio in Snell Hall, but there’ll be some other cooler things we’ll be able to use in the technology space,” Fick says. “The Snell facility is right above the VR center, where do they motion-capture and virtual reality. We’ve formed collaborations just sitting around the hallway. So I’m looking forward to that in the new space.”
Meanwhile, however, Fick awaits the release of Homeward. But he loves what he’s heard so far and what it means for the future, technologically and beyond the pandemic.
“I was concerned with the lack of studio for this project because that was a selling piece for the first album,” he says. “So I was apprehensive, initially. But we’ve gotten so savvy in the past year about what we can do. It sounds amazing. It was really cool for me to listen to these drafts and then hear the final mixes the producers sent in two weeks ago. I can hear how their styles evolved and influenced each other, their decisions, and how they process. It gives me hope. It’s not just Billie Eilish, FINNEAS, and Lil Nas X who can produce albums in their homes and win Grammys. This is the kind of forward-thinking I need to have, that I need to impart upon students in the next decade.
“There are a lot of things I don’t initially like about online concerts,” he adds, “but there are some interesting things, too, like the live chat feature that adds a whole new level of engagement. We need to capitalize on these things when we go back to in-person. How can we hybridize events? I think about that with the studio-recording platform too: how can we utilize these things where people can work more remotely but also have access to good, quality gear?”
Hoffman remains awed of the project in general.
“As an aspiring artist who has limited technology access and knowledge, the OSU MTP album is providing a very community-based and amazing opportunity for artists like myself that we may never get access to,” she says.
“Homeward is an album to show the OSU community and what its people make,” Harris says. “Even though our OSU community isn’t always at the OSU-Corvallis campus, we can make music wherever we are and still produce good art.” Therefore, everywhere is home.
“The goal is to give students the experience of working in a creative capacity, collaborating, and finishing something that has a high-quality standard,” Fick says. “Could these songs be played? Would people buy them? The goal is to get them closer and closer to whatever their industry ambitions are, whether they’re to learn more about the business side, the creative side, and the start-to-finish process of making an album.”