I’ve been going to the Winter NAMM show since 1997, and every year when I return I’m always asked “so, what did you see.” Granted, trade shows are all about products, but over the years I’ve come to realize that they’re really about people. I don’t really need to fly across the country to find out about new products; any of us can check a manufacturer’s website after the show closes on opening day and get the dope on their latest and greatest. What’s really cool is the people, and for me, some of the coolest people I meet are students I’ve had over the years. I’d like to highlight a couple of former students from Berklee’s Music Synthesis department, my day gig, who have gone down very different paths and are doing really cool things.
My first day in LA I had the opportunity to have lunch with game developer, Dan Lehrich. I count myself lucky because it seems like getting a mid-week lunch with anyone working in LA, is about as easy getting an audience with the Pope. Dan came to Berklee as a bass player and left as an interactive audio designer. He had a typical trajectory through the core courses in the Music Synthesis major until he found Max. Max is a graphical programming environment for music, and capability expands into audio with the MSP extensions and video with an additional toolkit call Jitter. I recall talking with Dan while he was in school, soon after he had this epiphany, and what really excited him was the possibility of programming the kind of interaction he experienced playing bass with other musicians. Once he got the bug, he got real tight with Max. He worked as a student employee in Synth department office, and became a fixture, tweaking his latest patch, showing his stuff and sharing ideas with anyone who walked past.
Then graduation, and reality set in. There’s really not a big market for interactive computer performance, and we all have to eat somehow. Fortunately, an internship opened up at game developer Electronic Arts in LA, and Dan was in. At lunch, he talked a bit about that first experience. As an audio intern, there’s a lot of grunt work to be done editing and managing files, not exactly glamorous. But, Dan really opened some eyes along the way with a solid knowledge of advanced synthesis techniques that they had never really seen in an intern before. His stock went up. After the internship had ended, he began working for independent developer Seven Studios. As things got busier, he eventually found himself in the enviable position of starting and managing an audio department for them, and was soon able to hire a fellow alum to help meet the mounting deadlines he faced.
Along the way, his passion for interactivity and programming skills continued to grow. One of the big game hits of the last few years has been Guitar Hero and the follow-up Rock Band. On the surface, the attraction of these games may be the engaging 3D animation, but the core of the game play experience comes through, you guessed it, interactive music systems. Dan refers to these as “tempo-driven” games. Seeing an opportunity in the marketplace, Dan put together a demo for a game using Max, pitched it to game producers, and after a series of starts and stops, it’s now in development.
While I’m always up for a good success story, as a teacher, I’m interested in what someone needs to know to be successful. When I posed this question to Dan over lunch, he stressed knowing the basics of digital audio –sample rate, resolution, compression and file formats. While a knowledge of granular synthesis techniques may have impressed his handlers at EA, being able to clearly communicate this basic information got him though the day.