As a senior at North Salem High School, I’m enrolled in a class that entails finding an internship for forty hours, in whatever field you want, and creating a project to solve a problem specific to the student’s mentor or profession. I called Barry and he surprised me by already knowing exactly what he wanted to work on: promoting a new project idea centered around families recording together, something he had been doing annually with his own family. My project became finding a family to record and going through the whole process – selling, scheduling, preparing, recording, editing, mixing, mastering – to really see what recording is like. During most of the forty hours, when I wasn’t working on the project, I would act as his “shadow” and experience what it’s like to work in music production. I planned to minor in music at the University of Vermont, where I could feel as though I was utilizing my ability as a flautist while majoring in something else that allowed me to maintain some sense of job security for the future.
On the first official day of the internship, we took the train in to the city to go to the famous Avatar Studios. When we got there, we had to be buzzed in. We went up in a giant elevator, had all the instruments checked in, and arrived in a dimly lit hallway with no windows and an orange glow. I expected it to feel claustrophobic, but it was the opposite. In a soundproofed maze of pine, burlap, and warm light of Studio B, you can’t feel time pass.
Barry introduced me to all the musicians in the project, and one of his students from Hostos Community College, Rue, who, like me, was along for the ride. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, but it was great to have Rue there to talk to me while everyone else was working. He explained some of the technical aspects if I asked. I was just glad to have someone to talk to so I didn’t have to sit there alone and feel like an intruder.
Of course, the most important part of the experience was seeing everyone play. The pianist, guitarist, and percussionist were in the live section of the studio, and Barry played the bass from behind the SSL console in the control room. It was incredible to see four people play so easily together. I was baffled by how nonchalant everything was. Everyone just cracked their knuckles and played a song nearly perfectly. Then Barry would throw out a bit of advice for the next time around, some tiny piece of information that he had saved in the back of his head, and they’d just go again. I have a hard time believing he actually said this, but I wrote down “John, I love how you did that C7 sharp 11 flat 9…”
I started feeling emotional watching everyone play. I wanted to be every person working that day. I always knew I loved music, and I wanted to pursue it in some way. But I was hesitant. It’s a little risky. I’d been ignoring it, using my intentions to pursue a music minor to trick myself into feeling like I wouldn’t be missing out, while I wasn’t really taking any real steps toward a future in music. On the train home, Barry told me I should consider a music major, and I knew he was right. A total transformation in less than twelve hours.
A few days later, we’re at Barry’s house, mixing a different project. We’re using Pro Tools. We used some of the plugins to modify some guitar tracks someone sent for a song Barry had been working on. We also rearranged and tuned some vocal tracks sent by the background vocalist. We had a list of requests and directions from the singer/songwriter, which was very useful to have for organization, and something so simple that I never would have thought of. In addition, we mixed the tracks we recorded at Avatar. I have a much better understanding of the mixing tools now (the knobs and sliders) since we had to adjust them all over again when the files were transferred from the Avatar studio to his own. We just had to decide which tracks we like the best, which meant listening to most of them at least once through, on their own, piece by piece. You would think you’d get tired of hearing the same song over and over, but when you’re really concentrating on the structure, it’s never an issue.
Four days later, the task was to prepare tracks for vocals on a more hip-hop based album, so despite Barry’s usual aversion to “fake instruments”, he decided that a synthetic instrumental track would compliment the project well. We used a program called Digital Performer, and Stylus RMX to find and modify samples of different instruments and pre-recorded beats. We did a little sound shopping to see which samples sounded best in the context of the song. It was interesting to see all the little pieces coming together, and building on top of each other, all as a result of some keystrokes and clicking and dragging.
When we were sending the new tracks to the artist, I asked Barry about his computer desktop photo (a picture of a very nice room) which prompted an enthusiastic detailing of his future house and an impromptu speech about visualization and creative processes. He told me that if you have something in your mind for long enough, it will grow until you can’t hold it anymore, and it will burst out of you into reality. He told me about his bookshelf, which he built on a whim one day because he had always seen it there, under the stairs, in his head, which is as good as it really being there. He told me that the only way to accomplish something is to remove all self doubt. It was amazing to hear him say all of this just based on his own experiences, and was actually incredibly moving. I wish I could recount this with some degree of eloquence, so it could carry the power it deserves. Regardless of my ability to relay this, everything he said stuck with me. I had heard most of those theories before, separately from each other, but hearing them together with so much conviction behind them created a kind of resonance for me that changed the way I thought about creativity. It’s hard to say what the most valuable part of the whole internship was, but this change of spirit is very high on the list. So thank you.
For the next session, we focused primarily on making the vocal charts for the background singers (hip hop project). The artist knew what he wanted in terms of harmonies, so Barry just had to put them into Finale (like Microsoft Word for composers). He added a bar of Persian vocals as a cheeky reference to the lyrics and I was very excited that I could identify the mode he was using as a harmonic minor (a nice change from me appearing to know nothing about music).
At this point, I had found a group of people to record a song for my OPTIONS Class project: the seniors that had been in the musical at my school. I told Barry that they would do it, and he suggested creating an arrangement and assigning parts, since most of them probably know how to read, or can at least listen and replicate what they heard. This wasn’t the original goal of the project, but it’ll be interesting. I’ll keep looking for families to record, but now there’s no pressure to get anybody within the next few weeks.
About a week later, I was supposed to take the train in to the Bronx to Hostos where Barry teaches a Sound Design class. I ended up being sick, so it wasn’t the best idea to go in and…breathe on people. They’re recording an acappella group for backup on some of the songs. Rue texted me asking if I had Skype, so he just carried me around for a while on his phone. I ended up watching for an hour or two, even though I couldn’t hear or see a lot of what was going on. I heard most of what they recorded, though, and the harmonies they added were incredible. They were crisp, clear, and resonating even through the poor sound quality of Skype. I was glad to be able to watch, instead of brooding on my own with a box of tissues. Rue saves the day, again.
Next, we’re back at Avatar, in Studio W this time. This one has a tiny room for recording – I tried to take a picture of the mic, backed up for a wider angle, and ran into the wall — and a larger one for mixing. It’s very small, but it was just what we needed.
Barry refuses to let me be idle in the college major selecting process. We were on the train for ten minutes before he had his iphone out researching Northeastern’s music department (After a week of deliberation and tears, I decided to enroll at Northeastern, where the opportunities for a musician are greater). It’s hard to know which majors I would like because I don’t even know what I would really like doing, but it was so good to have someone who’s getting me to think about it. My parents want me to take it easy with the music ambitions, so if no one was pushing me, it’d be hard to figure anything out on my own. I know I shouldn’t need him to keep me on track, but I’m glad he does.
Back at Barry’s studio, I was able to contribute by playing a “featured flute interlude” for the Avatar project. It was the easiest thing I’ve played in years, probably, but I was so nervous I had to sit down. This doesn’t usually happen to me. I think it was the difference between playing for a bunch of people who’ve never touched an instrument in their lives and someone who, at the very least, I didn’t want to be disappointed. I thought it was awful at first, but he insists it was good. After hearing the final production, I have to admit, it was pretty good.
Finally, on May 11th, we recorded my project with a few members of the North Salem theatre group. I brought my camera and recorded everything, which I would later sync with the audio. SEE VIDEO AT THE BOTTOM.
We started with everyone singing at once: the last verse and the subsequent double chorus. Barry grabbed his electric guitar and played some chords to keep everyone on key. He just asked me to sing it for reference and he played along with it. I don’t think he even knew the song. I have no idea how he does that.
Dan and Natalie sang through the whole song individually and then had to leave. Cate and Irene did the same thing and Barry asked if I was going to sing. I wasn’t planning on being in it at all, but the three encouraged me to try it, so I was back behind the microphone for the second time in 24 hours. I somehow confused myself into ad-libbing over the group parts, so we recorded a second part where I did it on purpose, and featured my part over the others.
I tried to feed the harmonies to Cate and Irene but there was too much confusion to get enough for the whole song, so after they left I punched in all the harmonies over again so we knew we’d have something good for all the phrases.
People tell me all the time that I have a good voice, and I agree with them, but I don’t trust them. It’s hard to explain. Barry surprised me by telling me that he likes my voice, and he thinks I should make an album. I’m not going to do that, but something about hearing that was surreal and overwhelming. Sometimes I think he’s too nice to me, but I know he’s being genuine, so I guess I’ll just have to start accepting that.
Three days later, Barry had a session with a singer, Keren, to do background vocals on the album we recorded the first day, so I went over to meet her and watch. I didn’t need any more hours for my class, but I like coming and seeing what’s going on – it’s always something different. I hope to be able to see more over the summer, as well.
Keren was amazing. She was sitting there with a box of tissues and she still sang better than mostly any other person I’ve ever heard sing in real life. I always meet talented people here. The artist was there over Skype. He was happy to see me and he liked my flute solos.
Halfway through the session Barry and I went to get his kids, Maya and Noah, at the bus. When we got back, everyone sat at the kitchen table and ate watermelon with spoons. I think it’s cool that Barry’s job can be so casual. It’s one of the things that made the experience so unique. You wouldn’t get that at a studio away from home.
An email to Barry, after seeing the Juilliard Pre-College Orchestra (conducted by Barry’s friend Adam, which he highly recommended I see):
I don’t really know what to say. I’ve never seen an orchestra before, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I’ve never heard such clear sounds coming from any instrument.
They were all so good. I kept forgetting I was watching people my age — and younger.
It’s hard to come up with words for this because, as you know, you have to see it to understand it, so how does one quantify it in an email?
I have to be honest, I didn’t really believe you when you said it would be inspirational. I thought it’d just be sad. Rue told me almost the same thing as we were waiting for it to start. I don’t know how he felt afterwards, but you were right, of course. It was weirdly refreshing to see a live orchestra…it almost made me wish I hadn’t quit band. Almost. It made me excited to play in college, in whatever groups I might join. It was a lot of fun just to watch, I think I was smiling to myself a little too much.
I’ve been over a few more times. I met a trumpet and flugelhorn player who recorded for the first album. I also met an amazing violinist.
I met more talented musicians in 40 hours (okay, a few more than that) with Barry than I had in my whole life. It was so inspiring to see all these people being great at what they do. And, of course, just knowing Barry was the most important part. I never considered a person could do so many things. Seeing so many possibilities is encouraging. I have a new sense of direction and openness. I was surprised that I liked it so much; it was always not only interesting, but fun to see what he does.