Semester Sneak Peek is a new series that provides a preview of courses available at Tulsa Community College (TCC) this coming fall semester.
As a series about upcoming classes, these episodes will feature interviews with many of the instructors tasked with teaching them.
Today's episode features Jeff Smith, Recording Studio Instructor at TCC.
Edited by Sam Levrault
Music by The Odyssey, "75 to Ramona"
Transcript by Bethany Solomon
TCC CONNECTION PODCAST | SEMESTER SNEEK PEAK | FT. JEFF SMITH
Bethany: Welcome to semester sneak peak, our special summer series that provides a preview of courses available this coming fall semester. I am your host Bethany Solomon, associate editor of the north east campus here at the TCC connection.
Today we have a very special guest, Jeff Smith, he is a TCC adjunct professor, TCC signature symphony violist, and president of song smith records.
Jeff Smith: Hi! Good afternoon, how are ya?
B: Good, how are you?
J: I’m doing great.
B: Can you start off by telling us a little about yourself?
J: Sure. I was born and raised in Tulsa, OK. I started playing violin at 10 years old because my brother and sister played the violin. The summer of my 6th grade year my teacher came to me and said “you know you’re kinda beefy, husky boy, you need to play the viola.
I said, viola? It rhymes with granola, I don’t want to play the viola, I said what am I getting myself into here?
She said ‘Oh, no you’re not going to quit the violin, you’re going to learn how to double.
Double. It rhymes with trouble, she said ‘oh no, you’ll be fine.’
So, I got to take two instruments to school, the violin and the viola. Uh, learned how to play the both of them, not long after that the beetles were popular, and I got a guitar. I started going on in.
B: Very cool, very cool, so how did you find your way into the education as far as like, your music. Did you study in undergrad, music specifically, or did you have a broad range of interests beyond music?
J: Oh, gosh. You look back on pivotal points in your life. One pivotal point in my life was, I guess I was in Jr high, early high school, and I had an electric guitar. Dad had come home with a Wollensak, as a German tape recorded. And it had an auxiliary input on it and I learned at a young age I could take the guitar output and plug it into the auxiliary input, crank it all the way up, play the guitar, turn its sound all the way up and it would sound something like:
[makes loud buzzing noises mimicking guitar sound]
Coolest sound I had every heard…. for about 13 seconds. I blew out the 8’ inch paper cone speakers and a couple of power tubes. Its kind of left a mark on me, like this is a cool sound, I gotta get into this.
I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, all through high school, my dad was a fighter pilot in world war II, he had 96 missions over France. My grandfather had his PHD in mechanical engineering and actually wrote the maintenance Manuel for the B25 Mitchel bomber. So, I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, until, calculus first hour happened. Kay, I had a morning paper out, and an evening paper out.
Okay! Take your XY X’s, translate it, rotate it, draw a hyperbola, spin the hyperbola, cut a hole in the hyperbola, and now find the volume and generate it. At that point I figured, you know, I’d rather play the wrong note, I couldn’t see myself designing something that will have someone else get killed because I misplaced a decimal point. But, all throughout high school I played in the youth symphony. My senior year, I audition Id and got first chair of the viola of the youth symphony. And I auditioned for the Tulsa Philharmonic. I guess they were desperate, and I turned pro when I was 17. Uh, went to the University of Kansas, was a Viola Major. A double major in Viola performance and music education. And at KU they had a computer music lab, and they had, we’re talking early-mid 1970’s. And they had an ARP 26 hardener. This is a synthesizer, analog synthesizer. You have never seen so many buttons, knobs, dials, flashing lights, flash chords, slider, path chords I was like ‘gollee’ what does this thing do, what does this thing do? I actually had a blast in that course, it got me down here.
From there I came down to TU, finished up a bachelor’s in music ed, finished up a master’s in music ed, taught in Wichita, Kansas for three years, went back to school, picked up a master in viola performance. I have always believed that if are going to be a teacher, you must be able to do it. There is the old joke that can do, those that can’t teach, those that can’t teach become administrators. Um, nah, I kind of believe that if you’re going to teach, you ought to be able to produce. You ought to be able to do it.
Does that make sense?
B: It certainly does! So, moving into, as far like, the technical aspect of music, recording studio techniques, you have a lot of orchestra experience. How does that translate into the studio?
J: Sure. Well I was a band and orchestra director for 27 years and the times that I wasn’t playing classical music with the orchestra, I was playing fiddle, guitar, keyboards, (unintelligible), for rock and roll bands.
And that was an awful lot of fun, setting that stuff up, it gets really tiring after 15 years of lugging all that’s stuff around the back of a pick-up truck. It dawned on me, you know, that I can make music instead of lugging around all this PA gear and power amplifiers and all this other junk. Why don’t I just build a house, have recording studio, and have them come to me to make music, and I don’t have to lug all this stuff around. So I started SongSmith records in the mid-eighties back when we had, they were called ADAT machines. They recorded on a VHS cassette, and they would theoretically, and I say theoretically, synchronize together by two ADAT machines – and you could have, wow, 16 channels of digital audio. You could have a grand total of 34 minutes of digital audio.
J: Of course, you could format the tape first before you had to record on to it, and that is about as much fun as having paint dry. But it was there, and we had 16 channels of digital audio. I’ve still got those ADAT machines and once in a while we’ll get an artist in the back of the studio that recorded with me 20 year ago say
‘Jeff! Do you still have to ADAT tapes?’ I say yeah.
‘Could we dump them into pro tools and clean them up a bit and rerelease?
And I say sure.
B: Fun stuff. Definitely. That’s really cool. So, what do you think, as far your students, and what you teach here, what has been the most challenging for your students? In terms of getting comfortable with technology or for musicians in general.
J: Wow. That is kind of a tough questions. Each student is different, each student has their own strengths and weaknesses. On day one, I had to fill out a little, I call it a student data sheet. Tell me a little about yourself so I know who I am dealing with. A lot of times I will get students in the class who have already had pro tools experience they might run sound at their church. And I’ve got kids, ‘well I have sang in choir, but I want to learn how to record myself.’ And they don’t know anything about the technology. So, the challenge, for me as an instructor, is to teach on two or three different levels. So, I try to teach to the very, very raw beginner, to the kid who has had some experience, to those kids who could probably teach me a thing or two.
I guess that’s the fun part about the teaching. In the class, I have to make sure that each kid knows we will only be playing with three things in audio.
Frequency, amplitude, and time.
And all the buttons, and knobs, and dials,
[mimics with higher pitch] Buttons, and knobs, and dials, oh my!
All have to do with either frequency, amplitude, or time.
If you understand that basic concept than you go through ‘okay well what does this button do, how does it change the sound?
B: So, a lot of it is experimenting, as you’re in the course.
J: Yeah. And that’s how they learn. We tell them, for example, once we define frequency, amplitude or time are, we go into signal flow. We go, okay, what happens, how does the ear work. How does the microphone work? We trace the audio from vibrations of your voice, or your guitar or whatever, through your microphone, line, inputs…..into. What happens next?
[jeff starts laughing….]
It all goes in from the patch bay, and the patch bay goes into the microphones, and the micros to the IO’S, IO into the computer and we explain all that stuff in signal flow, signal flow, signal flow.
All an audio engineer does, all day long is.
I don’t hear the guitar in my left ear, why not? Or, I plugged this in, and I don’t hear anything.
J: Or I turn this knob, and nothing happened. Back up and figure out why.
B: And that is what you give your student leeway to do. Figure out why they made a mistake, to figure out why and backtrack.
J: If you tell them what they did wrong, they’ll never figure it out themselves. If they go throughout, and your cohort here, can attest to this. I will rarely just tell a kid an answer, I say, do you have an iPhone on ya? There’s this thing called google, look it up!
And then for example, when they learn the measurements, and what decibels are to measure frequency.
I’ll ask them questions like ‘what’s the unit of measurement for frequency?’ and they’ll say, uhm, decibels? No that is the measure for amplitude. Man, it hertz if you don’t know this. Hertz being cycles per second.
J: Hertz being, you know, cycles per second. Hertz is the measurement. So, it hertz if you don’t know this!
B: That’s a good one actually!
J: The stupider or funnier something is, they’ll remember it.
B: It sticks better! Definitly it helps it stick. So as far as walking away from the class, how important is it for students after, in the aftermath, are these techniques that can easily be forgotten if they are not applied immediately.
J: Oh gosh, I hope not.
B: If you have students that come for, let’s say, do you teach a second course as well?
J: Yes. There’s a Recording Studios Technique II (RST II) class, theoretically there are two sections of RST I, which will have 16 kids total, 32. Out of those 32 kids, if RST II is offered, we only take 8. So it’s like ¼ of those two classes, if they wanted, we are limited to 8.
We did a really cool thing this last semester. The students had to produce a video and they had to literally, we shot it on a gopro camera, and it was actually pretty terrible, but they learned the process. They had to get a video program onto their computer, there are several free ones, and just experiment there, here’s the scene we shot. And the whole theme of the video was, and this is terrible, once again, I love my wife, but she has a problem with collecting small electrical appliances. If there is small electrical appliance made, she has it. She’s got four or five crockpots, I don’t know how many mixers she’s got, toasters, curling irons, you name it, those little vacuum thingies, if it is a small electrical appliance she has it.
So the format of the class was, we’re going to make a video and you all have seen these videos of the poor animals you know, for the charities, and there’s this poor dog with one eye and its snowing outside and he’s missing a paw or something and there is a choke collar behind this poor animal.
And well the idea was, we’re going to have small appliances, and they need a home. And they produce something absolutely hilarious.
“Do you know a small appliance that needs a home that’s been abused? We’re sorry. SARI, the small appliance rights institute, so we made a video, and we got t-shirts with irons. One of the appliances was an iron that burned a hole in the t-shirt, so the kids were like no, no bad iron! Flatten it with the newspaper, and later on we use that same shirt with sorry with this big old iron burn on it, we’ll give you this shirt if we give us $19 a month. That is only 63 cents a day.”
So I hope the kids learned a lot from that. Uh, they learned how to put it together, how to edit, how to synchronize the audio. One student actually wrote this really cool darkish sounding sad piano music that everyone wanted to use because it was so cool.
B: So you have different types of projects and assignments in the class, of various ways.
J: Oh yeah.
B: So for exams, what should students expect for an exam, in a studio techniques class? How will their knowledge be tested?
J: Exams! I figured kids are not in JR high school or elementary school anymore, I do not use true or false, multiple choice. Most of the tests and quizzes are done with fill in the blank and short answer. You know, hopefully using correct English and spelling things correctly.
It’s not like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” we’ll give you four choices, and you pick through the answers up here. I want you to go a little bit beyond that.
J: We also give the kids all kinds of interesting ways to help memorize things like that. For example, can you name the planets in order from the sun out?
B: Probably not in order.
J: Okay. I can.
B: You can?
J: My wife took an astronomy class once, kay, and if you take the first letter of each planets. If take the first letter of each planet, ‘M’ for Mercury, ‘V’ for Venus, ‘E’ for Earth, ‘M’ Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, back then Pluto. So, she came up with a very simple sentence. My very enormous man Jeff Smith understands nothing.
B: She came up with that?
J: She came up with that! Totally originally, and OH! Okay. So, you take all that information, you condense all that down. It is like taking all 5 great lakes. Heroin, Ontario, Michigan, siria, and superior. Spell the word HOMES, take that data and condense it. It is like putting it in a ZIP files for your brain where they can memorize some of these techniques, and hopefully it will not only help them in audio engineering but in life.
J: You know, if you’re on stage running sound for a band somewhere or in a church situation and all of a sudden thing die. You don’t want to turn to the guy next to you. Good gosh what do we do? As an audio engineer, you got to figure it out, quickly.
B: Right. It is about application, not just knowing the what, or how, it is about knowing the why, the why you are doing what you’re doing. That is what differentiates it from a lot of other subjects.
J: That’s the thing, if you know anything about Bloom’s Taxonomy of Education.
Harking back to many, many years ago. If you have just a knowledge level question:
‘Who invented the telephone?’
You know? That’s knowledge level. If you have a question like, we’re gonna form a band, you’re gonna come up with a song, you’re gonna cover a song or something and you are are gonna form a single here in the class. We’re gonna pick members for the band, and you’re gonna go from there. That takes a lot more brains to be able to do that.
B: It takes creativity!
J: Absolutely. You gotta coordinate your schedule together, you gotta pick a song, come up with an original cover song, do the rehearsals, figure out how you’re gonna mic the drums. I’ll show you how to mic them, but you do it! And why you might do it this way.
B: Right. It takes a lot of brain power to figure out what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and why you’re going to do it.
J: The more you use it the stronger it gets.
B: Yeah. That’s really good. That’s actually a really good way of doing it. So, for current line up of courses, beyond Studio Techniques I and then II.
J: Two happens in the spring. I teach private lessons on violin and viola through TCC. That’s only a handful of students, like two or three.
B: Oh okay!
J: I also teach private guitar out of my house, but that’s a different story.
B: Do you have anything like a semester split? What do you teach during what semester?
J: Oh okay. In the first semester, the fall semester, we only offer Studio Techniques I, and hopefully there will be two sections. Then from that, we’ll offer in the spring, studio techniques I and II.
B: Oh cool! So, advice for students as well, for anyone who does not have experience. What should they expect going to class and what should they expect coming out of the class?
J: Bring a pencil and a notepad! You’d be amazed on day one that sometimes there is not a whole lot of different between first graders and college kids. You write something on the board, and some kid in the back will say, is this going to be on the test?
J: Ummm, YEAH!
The idea is if it is on the board, I feel it is important enough that you need to know it. Because if you are successful in music, you know, you could make a lot of money. Pay all that taxes and social security and support me when I’m old…..er.
B: Very good point! So, if you want to be successful, for musicians specifically, how important is it to learn studio techniques for your own music?
J: Oh gosh! In the music business especially, what has been relatively successful for me, I call it a multiple income source.
My main income for many, many years was teaching in public schools. On the side, I was playing classical music in two different Orchestras. The (unintelligible} Symphony and the Signature Symphony and occasionally the Tulsa Harmonic. The Tulsa Opera and the Tulsa Ballet. On the weekends, we were not doing classical, we were rocking and rolling in establishments. We call them gun and knife clubs.
Bring your own, within a hundred miles of Tulsa. You know, within 200 miles. So you had money coming in from the rock n’ roll side, money coming in from teaching lessons on the weekends, money coming in from your teaching job, money coming in from your symphony gigs, then if you write music, you can create it that way, and get royalties from that. That way if any one leg of that collapses you have something else to depend on.
It the music business, to really make it big, you have to be extremely good at ONE thing. And then you can afford everyone else to pay them to record your CD for you, to book you here and there, but the more you know about every aspect of music. How do you finger a saxophone, where’s the best way to mic a saxophone, or a flue, or a guitar, or a cello, or a base? Where does their sound come out from? Where does it sound the best? What kind of mic do you use?
All of that stuff, the more you know, the more you’re worth. You apply everything in music. There was a time when my teaching career, where the school I was teaching, I had been there for five years, and they were going to close the school due to a reorganization plan. My last year teaching there they’d lost all the electives. The only elective you could take at this school was band, orchestra, or gym. No home ED, no foreign languages, nothing. That was it. They closed the school next year to reorganize. Orchestras fold, right or left sometimes. Schools change.
And in the music business especially, you’ve got to have a backup plan. You get smart, by a house, accelerate the principle on that, so you pay it off early. We paid our first house off in 8 and a half years by accelerating the principle. If you anything about financing, that is a different topic. But that’s how you get successful.
B: Very cool. So I hear it is important to be multifaceted but to also master one area.
J: Well. If you wanna be really successful in music, you got to be able to sing like Garth Brooks, or Whitney Houston. Or, you have to be able to play that violin like Itzhak Perlman. That’s all he does. For me, I can’t do that. I am too much Attention Deficit Disorder. I get attracted by all the flashing lights. Wow, cool, we are recording this in garage band right? Neat stuff! And I’m watching all these little lights flashing over here and she turns around smiling listening to us on her headphones running through the, and I am wandering GEE! What is that knob do, OH, that is the interface there she’s running through. So for me, you know, I’ve done the six hours of practice everyday when I was at the Cleveland institute of music getting my viola masters.
Six hours a day of the viola? Gee I hate the viola sometimes! You know? It’s like too much. Put it down, play the guitar sometimes, go play the fiddle in a country band somewhere and make it fun.
B: But you put a lot of time into it.
J: Oh yeah!
B: That’s awesome! Just to go over an overview on your courses one more time. Studio Techniques I, Studio Techniques II, Viola…
J: And violin..
B: Oh, you teach violin as well.
B: So those are private lessons.
J: For both majors and non-majors.
B: Do you have a special email address that your students can reach you at? And potential students as well.
J: I have the TCC email, but I have had more luck with my own personal email. Would it be okay to do that one?
J: My personal email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now if you go on the web and go to songsmithrecords.com, understand that I have been busy and haven’t updated the website for 15 or 17 years. It’s on my list of things to do I’m working on it but I’ve been busy.
B: Alright, great, so where are your classes based at? What campus?
J: We are based at the southeast campus.
B: Sounds great, this has been Bethany Solomon and Jeff Smith at the TCC Connection. Thank you for listening and we hope to continue this series for the summer.
J: Thank you Bethany, I appreciate your time.
B: We appreciate you as well!