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The Electronic Music Studio of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst

The University of Massachusetts electronic music studio

Author and student in the studio.

When the University of Massachusetts/Amherst USA was founded 113 years ago, it was known as Massachusetts Agricultural College, and there were more cows in its cattle barns than there were students in its classrooms. It was one of seventeen institutions founded immediately following the American Civil War in response to the so-called Morrill Act of 1862, which created a network of colleges and universities throughout the United States 'to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts... without excluding scientific and classical studies and including military tactics'. These universities, which are now known as land-grant colleges because of the original allocation to them of Federal acreage, now exist in every state of the Union. Most have extended their missions well beyond the teaching of agriculture and the mechanic arts, and many, including the University of Massachusetts, have taken their places as the major institutions of higher learning of the American state university system.

In the case of Massachusetts, and unique among land-grant institutions, the agricultural and the mechanical curricula provided for the Morrill Act were divided between a public institution — the Massachusetts Agricultural College — and a private university; what has now become the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As recently as 1930 the present University of Massachusetts, or UMass as it is now familiarly known, was still essentially an agricultural school. The following year it became Massachusetts State College; in 1947 its name was changed again, to the University of Massachusetts, and its mission became that of the principal public institution of higher education in the Commonwealth. It is now the largest university, public or private, in the New England states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire) and one of the premier public institutions of higher learning in the eastern United States.

It is also one of the nation's major centers for education in the arts and the location of one of the country's youngest, largest and most active electronic music studios.

The new Fine Arts Center of the University of Massachusetts was designed by the internationally-known architect Eero Saarinen and completed, after his death, by Kevin Roche. At its completion in 1974 it included what was then a state-of-the-art analogue and digital electronic music and graphics studio. This facility was designed by the musicians Joel Chadabe and Robert Stern and the graphic artist John Roy. The digital facility was built around a DEC PDP 11/10 computer, which was interfaced to provide control voltages for driving the equipment of the analogue music studio. At the time of its installation the direction that digital sound synthesis was to take was still very much in doubt. The approach embodied in the University's studio, of using a digital computer to drive analogue equipment, still seemed a promising possibility. Subsequently developments have, of course, rendered this approach obsolete, and the digital equipment in the UMass studio has now been integrated into the University's extensive program in computer graphics, which involves not only the Department of Art, but the University Computer Center, the Department of Electrical Engineering, the Artificial Intelligence Group and the University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

In the meantime, the analogue electronic music facility expanded rapidly under the direction, first, of Robert Stern and, since 1976, of the present writer. The equipment of this studio now includes:

  • Moog 45 modular synthesiser (including Bode frequency shifter)
  • Moog 15 modular synthesiser
  • Arp 2600 synthesiser
  • Custom designed high speed (to 20 KHz) 60 position sequencer
  • Custom designed random voltage and trigger generator
  • Syntovox 222 vocoder
  • 8-channel dbx 155 noise reduction system
  • Phase Linear 100 auto correlator noise reduction system
  • Urei 539 1/3 octave filter
  • AKG BX20E stereo reverberator
  • Systran Donner 6220A frequency counter
  • Polyfusion QP-1 quad panner
  • Eico 460 oscilloscope
  • Exact 128 Lin/Log sweep generator
  • Tektronic 5103N oscilloscope
  • 4-track 1" Skully tape recorder with remote control
  • 4-track ¼" Teac tape recorder
  • Two 2-track ¼" Skully tape recorders with remote control
  • 2-track ¼" Revox tape recorder
  • 4 JBL 4320 monitor speakers
  • Ramsa WR82-10 10/4 mixer

The studio is hard-wired to the main Fine Arts Center recording studio, which is immediately adjacent and contains the following:

  • 8-track 1" Skully tape recorder with remote control
  • 4-track ¼" Skully tape recorder with remote control
  • 2-track ¼" Skully tape recorder with remote control
  • 9-channel dbx 208 noise reduction
  • AKG BX20E stereo reverberator
  • Industrial Research stereo digital delay
  • 4 Century V monitor speakers
  • Eico 460 oscilloscope
  • Pacifica Quad Eight 16/4 mixer

The electronic music studio at the University of Massachusetts, in common with most University-based studios in the United States, is a specifically dedicated teaching facility and a center for creative activity by the University's faculty and students. It is not available to non-UMass composers nor for rental. In spite of this, the studio has already, in its relatively short history, produced six commercially-released recordings by four different composers — Robert Stern, John Dusenberry, Michael Gilbert, and the present writer.

The University limits the total enrolment in its electronic music courses to 15 students. About half of these are music majors, predominantly advanced composers, with the rest drawn from a variety of different disciplines; within recent years these have included electrical engineers, film directors, graphics artists, dancers and a student of physical education, whose interest in the course has remained a mystery. All students must be upperclassmen and all, including non-music majors, must have completed at least a year of University-level music theory. The curriculum of the program consists of an introductory course in the history, literature, and aesthetics of electronic music, and includes a preliminary study of tape and synthesiser procedures; a class in electronic studio technique, for which the introductory course is a prerequisite; and an on-going course, that may be repeated as often as the student and teacher are willing, in advanced electronic composition.

The University is also now re-entering the realm of digital music synthesis, with a combined program being developed between the electronic music studio and the Electrical Engineering Department. This program will utilise, at least in its early stages, the CMUS operating system developed at the University of California at San Diego for the DEC VAX computer. The program is in the very early stages of its development but is expected to be on line before the end of the next academic year.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jun 1983

Feature by Charles Bestor

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