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Just as a magician relies on hidden gadgets to perform seamless illusions, modern recording artists dip into a near-bottomless bag of technological tricks to create their signature sounds.
It's this "man behind the curtain" world of music production that industry veterans Dan Levitin and Sandy Pearlman plan to unveil in a new undergraduate course they'll be co-teaching at McGill in September.
Dubbed 'Philosophy and Aesthetics of Music Production,' the course, MUTH 475, is similar to one Levitin taught at Stanford University some 15 years ago, when he brought in his friend and mentor Pearlman to help pick apart records by the likes of the Beatles and Pink Floyd to figure out what made them sound the way they did.
"Most of the music we listen to is profoundly affected by the technology used to record it," says Levitin, James McGill Professor of Psychology and Director, Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise. "Multitrack recording technology is what allowed the Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for instance."
What's more, the stylistic imprint of the record producer plays a major role in determining what a piece of music will ultimately sound like, so that the listener can discern Jimi Hendrix from ZZTop, even if both are playing the same song.
Who better to explore the topic than Levitin and Pearlman—a visiting scholar at McGill's Schulich School of Music. Between them they have helped craft the sounds of such rock luminaries as the Blue Öyster Cult, The Clash, Steely Dan and others.
"Between me and Sandy, the records we've worked on have sold upwards of 30 million copies," says Levitin, whose numerous other claims to fame include his best-selling book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and, perhaps more obscurely, his side gig as co-author of the Bizarro comic strip.
In examining the interaction between the technology and artistry of making recorded music, Levitin and Pearlman will look not only at the ever-evolving technological aspects of recording, but will also answer fundamental questions such as, "What exactly does a producer do?" and also delve somewhat into the business of music recording and distribution.
Ironically, business and production are more closely aligned than one would imagine.
"In an age when record companies are becoming increasingly irrelevant as a means of distribution, production is becoming even more important as more and more consumers turn to Internet downloads to get their musical fix," Levitin explains.
As is his custom, Levitin plans to welcome a variety of well-known guest lecturers during the 13-week course and has already confirmed a visit from punk-rock pioneer Patti Smith.
After all, to learn about making music, there's no better source than those who make it.