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Mills College: Unique Collaborations and Amalgamated Techniques

Mills College is a century-old, all-women’s undergraduate and co-ed graduate liberal arts college with a unique approach to musical collaboration in its Center for Contemporary Music (CCM), a leader in experimental music creation.

OAKLAND, CA—Mills College is a century-old, all-women’s undergraduate and co-ed graduate liberal arts college with a unique approach to musical collaboration in its Center for Contemporary Music (CCM), a leader in experimental music creation.

Students at Mills College enjoy a blend of analog and digital recording technology, centered on a new API 1608 console and sidecar and bookended by a classic Studer A80 multitrack and a brand-new Pro Tools rig. CCM co-directors/professors Maggi Payne and Chris Brown work closely with technical director Les Stuck to blend modern DAW and software-based technologies with time-proven analog tools in the preparation of future composers and audio content creators.

“The Mills program is small with a large diversity of musicians,” explains Stuck. “Some people come here as purely classical violinists, for example; it’s all they know. Meanwhile, there are those that come to Mills that have been programming music software for a while. We get these people together, encouraging them to play and collaborate with each other. One example of this is the students’ own concert series on Thursday nights, which forces them to step outside of their natural boundaries and make music together. We strongly emphasize improvisation, too—a wonderful performance technique and the best way to learn how to be a composer.”

Recently, Mills College purchased a new API 1608 analog console and sidecar alongside extensive Pro Tools system upgrades; the 1608 replaced a decades-old AMEK TAC Scorpion mixer.

As Stuck explains, students find unique recording tools at Mills College, gleaned from years of technological innovation and evolution. “It’s been a center for really experimental, avant-garde music since the ’70s,” he notes. “We have an old Moog 3P Modular Synthesizer and even a Buchla synth—a super-early one. Of course, we teach contemporary, computer-based audio with Pro Tools, Max, SuperCollider and more, but we also have a Studer A80 multitrack with Dolby SR, and now this lovely API 1608 analog console. Our students are encouraged to collaborate in strange new—and old—ways; there is no artistic dogma here.” As Stuck explains it, the API 1608 purchase was “a no-brainer and the best possible option” for Mills. “I should say that in choosing an analog recording mixer today, there aren’t that many choices if you want something really good,” he continues. “The 1608 sounds great and has a good reputation; it’s a solid professional console. Another benefit is its compact size, as we have a small control room.”

Further, Payne didn’t want an inline console. “The API is a mixer that you can configure any way you want,” he says. “I think it’s great for educational purposes. For our configuration, the expander handles 16 channels of monitoring and the 1608 is the input section. This is the way that Maggi has been teaching for a long time and it works well.”

Mills actively teaches other traditional recording skills such as two-track editing via analog tape machines, though not simply for historical perspective. “Sure, I think it’s interesting, kids love it, and it has this whole retro quality to it,” tells Stuck, “but with my own history as a recording engineer, I think the best way to learn is to gain as many experiences as possible, with all kinds of technology and all kinds of producers. Zooming out to the big picture, every recording program out there is based on Pro Tools. The fact is, software is pretty easy to learn; people don’t have to go to school to learn software. Just by giving students exposure to the many different methods of recording music is very good for their futures. We don’t know what kind of technology will be available to us in 20 years.”

Another benefit to emphasizing historically proven and/or old-school analog recording techniques in education is that burgeoning composers and artists learn to recognize the aural differences between varying techniques, choosing methods accordingly to the project at hand. “A big deal about analog is the sound quality,” illustrates Stuck. “I think that’s not a simple issue to talk about, so it takes hands-on and listening experiences to learn the differences between formats, techniques and gear. There are certain aspects of analog recording that sound better in some cases and some that don’t sound as good in others; a contemporary recording engineer has to be able to make those distinctions. For example, a beautiful, old tube microphone may sound amazing, but it might not be clean enough to record classical music. Or an analog multitrack recorder can be overloaded in a sweet-sounding way, but that format may create troubles in editing. For any step of the recording process, it’s good to have experiences with analog and digital recording so as to combine them to make sense for the project at hand.”