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Luke Dennis’s ping-pong table is unlike any other. Instead of serving simply as an object on which players rally a ball back and forth, his is one through which they compose music.
It’s rigged up with audio sensors that fire when a ball bounces off the table, and with color-sensing cameras that track the ball. At the same time, Xbox Kinect cameras monitor the movement of the players. All this information is directed to a program that generates audio in time with the kinetics of the game. Essentially, Dennis has created a ping-pong table that generates music in real time, with the players’ movements modulating the audio.
The idea is that you would create a song out of a game, Dennis ‘15G says. The core of the project was built around Max/MSP, a visual programming language that he describes as a “really fun and cool way to make audio talk with visuals, talk with impulse responses that you’re getting from the real world.”
The ping-pong table is just one of dozens of projects that the 35 students in the one-year graduate program in Music Production,Technology, and Innovation developed at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain, last year for their required culminating experiences. Other degree candidates built musical apps for the iPhone, designed a musical robot, or created projects using the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, for example. Among the technology and software they use are Arduinos, Max/MSP, Ableton Live, projection mapping, Orbits, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere, Pro Tools, the studio’s Avid System 5 mixing board, and more.
The program is “all about the new thing. This is all about staying at the cutting edge,” says Stephen Webber, director of the MPTI program.“The other music technology programs that there are in the world—master’s degrees—are focused on things like audio and studio recording, and video production, [but] we decided that if we’re going to say 'innovation,' we need to mean it.”
In the Vanguard
The mindset in the program is forward-looking: students and faculty try to look around the next corner in the music industry and see what’s coming up. “We want to train people not to bemoan how it used to be and hoping that we can somehow put the genie back in the bottle. We want people who are thinking about how to make the genie even cooler and bigger and better and faster and stronger, and how to tame the genie for their own uses,” Webber says.
Not only do the students in the program cover the basics of signal flow, mic placement, and how to operate in a large-format studio, but they also delve into how to manipulate audio—in terms of timing, intonation, spectral repair, surround mixing, and designing reverbs by taking impulse responses. Many students are working with using music to create an experience that’s more than just aural.
“Music has gotten so visual,” Webber says. Everyone takes at least one class in music video production. Students shoot, edit, and add effects to video in the first semester and in the second, if they take it, they get into animation and projection mapping, increasingly popular features at concerts and music festivals in which music is synced with moving images beamed through high-powered projectors.
Dennis, a longtime guitarist from Dedham, Massachusetts, says he likes that he learns from his peers, who come in with such varied skill sets, as well as from his instructors. Some students come in with a turntabling background, others with a computer science background, and still other with a visual arts background. The combination results in a “constant push and pull of inspiration in any given class.”
In fact, says Webber, students come out “entirely transformed, just with a whole new toolkit of really relevant skills.” This expertise has landed graduates jobs at Los Angeles post-production houses, studios in New York City and London, a company that makes equipment for electronic music, and a teaching college, for example.
“It’s amazing the level that everyone came in at and the level we’re at now,” Dennis says. “The program stretches you in so many directions you don’t even know what you’re going to come out as.”