Carnegie Mellon’s best-kept secret — and the ’Burgh’s latest

You’ve oohed and ahhed over the rare book section in Hunt Library, contributed your own personal millimeter to the Fence, and you know the Kraus Campo like the back of your hand. Is it possible you’ve exhausted all the interesting parts of Carnegie Mellon? Doubtful. There’s one campus hot spot that has eluded almost everyone: the recording studio.

Many students are unaware that Carnegie Mellon even has one. Nestled in the basement of CFA, room A6 is not your typical classroom or lecture hall. It looks like the real deal, similar to the image you probably have in your head from all those episodes of Behind the Music. Rainbow-colored wires connect computers to monitors to mixing boards, soundproof doors make you feel a combination of isolated and cozy, and there are plenty of pairs of high-quality headphones to go around.

But the scene would hardly be complete without the presence of professor Riccardo Schulz, instructor to the College of Fine Arts’ Sound Mastering and Editing and Sound Recording classes. Most of the time, you can find Schulz somewhere in between a multitude of tasks: adjusting knobs amid a jungle of equipment, rigging microphones as needed, and directing his students via laser pointer, to name a few. Of his domain, the recording studio, Schulz said proudly, “This is probably the best kept secret in Carnegie Mellon.”

The secret’s out

From the acoustics to the equipment, the recording studio is an impressive part of Carnegie Mellon and an unlikely resource in the city of Pittsburgh. The studio is connected to the two recital halls in the College of Fine Arts building, the Alumni Concert Hall and Kresge Theater, so that technicians can record them from below. Such a setup is unusual as studios go, and it’s great for large sets of performers like orchestral groups, which are better suited to play on stage than in a recording room.

The recording studio is only four years old. It has occupied a portion of the CFA basement ever since the drama department was relocated. “Whatever money they did spend, they spent very well,” said Schulz. The acquired territory spans three rooms: the actual studio, where most of the machinery can be found, and two recording rooms, one small and one large. Prior to taking his class, most of Schulz’s students didn’t even know the studio was there.

Schulz’s teaching philosophy is one of plunging right in to new material. “In this class I expect you to do professional work from the get-go,” he told the class. “Use all the skills that you have.” And it was only the first week. Some professors have guest speakers. Schulz brings in a guest rapper. Meet Freestyle, an up-and-coming hip-hop artist native to the ’Burgh. He’s been working with Schulz for three years now. When Schulz dropped by the studio on August 30, Freestyle was there to record three tracks off his upcoming album. “This is trial by fire today since it’s only their second class,” said Schulz to to his guest, who was unfazed by the news.

The cast of would-be sound engineers comprised the 21 students enrolled in Sound Recording, a class which has no prerequisite. Schulz mentioned that the original roster left space for 12. “I keep encouraging them to drop out,” he joked. A room full of inexperienced undergraduates was slated to help record the music of a legitimate performer, and nobody saw this as a problem. In the words of Schulz: “There is no learning curve.”

How it works

“Who wants to come up now?” That phrase must have been uttered at least a dozen times. Schulz was eager to encourage each member of his class to give the recording desk a try. Everyone got to participate, and a lucky few were even given the opportunity to become a part of the album. Freestyle was all in favor of student cameos: Sophomore creative writing major Marian Mereba spoke a segment for one of the intros, and a slew of male volunteers rapped backup for the last song of the night.

What better way to learn about the process than to do it yourself? In the studio, start off by working with tracks. Sound engineers work with several at a time. One track will be the song’s beat, the prerecorded background music. The next track will be the performer’s main vocals. Freestyle wanted to have himself on two tracks at once, the second of which is called an “ad-lib.” This gives an effect standard in many of today’s songs where the artist can be heard singing two different things at the same time. The student contributions were also put on separate tracks.

Every bridge, hook, and verse required multiple attempts and modifications before either Freestyle or Schulz was satisfied. After those changes came mastering, a notoriously difficult process. “Mastering is how to make it look like it was not made in a recording room, when it was made in a recording room,” said sophomore physics-drama double major Derek Pendergrass. This is where Schulz’s expertise really comes into play. “He’s one of those people that can understand any music genre,” said Haseeb Qureshi, a class of ’06 alum who studied business administration and psychology. “He’s done everything.” For each project, Schulz encourages his students to try mastering tracks on their own, but he’s there to relieve them when they find themselves in over their heads.

Freestyle was doing Schulz a favor by giving his students some real-life experience, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t benefit from the session as well. Recording tracks can be incredibly expensive; Schulz estimated that the work his class accomplished during Freestyle’s visit would have cost at least $10,000 through a label. He explained to the class that when an artist is signed, most of the money earned goes to paying back the label for everything from recording fees to hotel rooms. It takes millions of copies for CD sales to become profitable; most of the money artists make comes from concerts. Schulz recommended Moses Avalon’s Confessions of a Recording Producer for anyone interesting in learning more about the business. “It’s really the artist that gets screwed over most of the time,” he said.

Introducing Freestyle

Three years ago, Freestyle won a hip-hop contest sponsored by local radio station WAMO (106.7 FM). After that, he came to Carnegie Mellon for the first time through the Arts Greenhouse project, an initiative designed to guide some talented young artists of Pittsburgh through the recording process. The rest is history: Nurturing what can best be described as an unconventional mentor-mentee relationship, Schulz and Freestyle have been working together ever since. “He scratches my back and I scratch his,” Freestyle explained.

The unlikely partnership just goes to show how music has a way of bringing just about anybody together. The two share the same birthday — November 1 — but the similarities end there. Schulz in cargo pants, Freestyle with designer sunglasses, the two have a kind of comedic shtick going on that didn’t fail to amuse the Sound Recording class. While the 20-year-old artist had both his cell phone and his smart phone at his side, Schulz was quick to point out: “I don’t even have a television.” And yet the two work extremely well together. One of Freestyle’s song lyrics seemed pertinent: “I’m a chip off the old block so call me wood shavins’.”

Freestyle’s name has a double meaning. For one, he can come up with lyrics on the spot with such flow that people sometimes assume he’s rapping prewritten material. Also, the name matches his personality; he’s extremely versatile. Freestyle didn’t mind that his technicians were in constant rotation, in fact he was all for it. He made a point of asking the name of each student every time somebody new took a seat at the mixing board.

Whatever Freestyle’s doing, it’s working. Phat magazine called him the next Jay-Z, but that’s just the beginning. He’s been on XM since September 1, and he’s definitely getting signed: His first single is under Sony Epic, but he still has a chance to switch before the release of his album. “The labels are like vultures,” said Freestyle, who isn’t at a loss for options. Additionally, he is looking into collaborating with some well-known artists, including Ludacris.

Speaking of collaboration, whenever Freestyle teams up with former student Qureshi the two are unstoppable. “We work so fast,” said Qureshi, who’s been working with Freestyle for about a year. Together, they once finished five songs in three hours. Qureshi is enthusiastic about what’s to come: “This is the best I’ve ever heard,” he said. And the studio itself never fails to inspire. “It’s literally hands-down the best studio in the entire area,” said Qureshi.

You might think that hailing from Pittsburgh would count as a disadvantage for an aspiring hip-hop artist, but so far the city has only helped Freestyle in his effort to attract national attention. There has yet to be a big rapper from the ’Burgh, so he has the opportunity to be the first of his kind. “I want Pittsburgh to come out of everyone’s mouth,” he said. Freestyle would love to have a career that parallels that of one of his major influences, Nelly, who became the first name in hip-hop to emerge out of St. Louis. Right now, when people think of Pittsburgh, they think of the Steelers and Andrew Carnegie — maybe someday they’ll be thinking Freestyle. He’s well on his way, and Freestyle will always owe a bit of his success to where he first got started: the Carnegie Mellon recording studio.