Taking Pro Tools to New Places
by Greg Thomas
Welcome to the premier installment of The Graduate, a column dedicated to graduates of Digidesign Certified Pro Tools training programs. The goal of the column is to share some inspiring stories of individuals who are making the most of their Certified Pro Tools education. We’re kicking off this column with someone who has a career path that’s — well — out of this world. We wouldn’t be surprised if Kelly Snook is among the first humans on Mars. And if she gets there, we bet she’ll have a portable Pro Tools rig with her.
But sometime before college Snook realized that she didn’t want to struggle through the music industry as her father had. So she chose a slightly different career path — aerospace engineering. Yes, really. It seemed logical enough to her: She was good at math, science, and drafting, and aerospace engineering seemed like the most interesting of the engineering choices. Snook dove into the field head first and pursued it all the way through graduate school, earning a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University.
Yet there was something gnawing at Snook. “Music was always my passion,” she explains. “And actually, I was fortunate enough to have time during my Ph.D. program to rediscover music and even explore new directions, like Taiko drumming.”
“I decided that what I really wanted to do was to have my own recording studio and learn how to produce and engineer,” says Snook. “I wanted to record the music I had been hearing in my head, and I wanted to be able to do that without the pressure of paying for studio time. So I did something really rash,” she says with a chuckle. Snook stopped in an LA music store and, without any knowledge of recording technology, told them “Give me the best, highest-end recording system you can get. I want a system where I’m not going to encounter any limitations.” She walked out with $30,000 worth of equipment that included a full Pro Tools TDM system, Control|24 control surface, and 5.1 surround system, plus a tape deck, turntable, and a few other things.
Setting up and running that equipment was not easy for this complete novice. “I called the Digi rep constantly with lame questions,” she says. “He was great—he went way out of his way to help me set up the system.” Still, after reading through the manuals and using a fair bit of trial-and-error, she decided to take her training to the next level and signed up for Pro Tools certified training through ProMedia Training.
Advanced Education at ProMedia Training
Courses are taught by career audio professionals who have worked with some of the biggest names in music, from U2 and Aerosmith to Steely Dan. In Houston, Snook studied with Shawn Simpson, whose Nashville credits include Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks, among others. Snook took Pro Tools 101 (which focuses on Pro Tools fundamentals), then progressed through Pro Tools 201 and Pro Tools 210M, which concentrate on more advanced recording, editing, and mixing techniques, and cover MIDI, control surfaces, sampling, and more. Some time after Snook completed the intensive Houston courses, she did some brush up work at ProMedia’s facility in New Orleans to acquaint herself with an updated version of Pro Tools software. ProMedia encourages students to apply what they’ve learned in a course then come back to dig deeper.
Snook’s ProMedia experience was a good match for what she needed. With around 10 students in each class and a relaxed atmosphere, she felt comfortable asking questions, even if she was not a “professional” studio operator. “People came in with a wide variety of backgrounds and levels of experience,” says Snook. “And I liked that. I learned a lot from the questions other people asked and the stories they would tell about their studios. They asked detailed questions about problems they encountered and the instructor helped them figure out ways that Pro Tools systems could help them solve those problems.”
According to ProMedia’s Martin Kay, the school attracts a diverse set of students. “We get a fair number of corporate clients, from television networks and a range of other industries, plus independent audio professionals. But probably half of our clients are musicians, aspiring pros, and hobbyists,” says Kay. “Whether they are a pro audio engineer or someone who’s just bought an Mbox, they all can benefit. People can really take what they need from the classes.” Snook not only learned Pro Tools essentials but also many of the basic recording concepts, such as signal flow and mic placement, that she desperately needed to understand.
Pro Tools on “Mars”
Snook began to apply her newfound engineering and production chops — somewhat surprisingly — at her day job. Back at NASA, Snook’s worlds of music and planetary exploration were coming together. For one of her “analog” missions, Snook and other scientists sequestered themselves in a two-story habitat in the Utah desert to conduct scientific tests in a simulated Mars environment. At Snook’s urging, the team brought along a Pro Tools LE system, which they used to record their own musical creations and to collaborate with musicians outside the station by sharing session files over the Internet. The Pro Tools system helped to foster camaraderie among the scientists, reduce stress, and minimize feelings of isolation while also testing the potential for collaboration on intricate tasks over long distances. (For the full story, check out DigiZine’s November 2002 issue.)
Inspired by the success of the Utah analog, Snook combined her recording skills and love of exploration once again in another analog, a few years later. This time the environment was a far cry from the Utah (or Martian) desert. James Cameron, the Academy Award–winning director of the Titanic and Ghosts of the Abyss, had decided to produce a 3D IMAX documentary about the deep-sea hydrothermal events that he first experienced while searching for the Titantic wreckage. He reached out to the scientific community and connected with Snook. She saw an opportunity for another Mars analog and assembled a team of scientists that would work on tasks similar to those they might encounter on another planet.
Not Rocket Science
Back on dry land, Snook began to take what she learned at ProMedia and expand her own studio operations, first in Houston, then in Washington, D.C., where she moved for a new job. Her studio, cleverly named It’s Not Rocket Science Studios (www.itsnotrocketsciencestudios.com), was initially built to satisfy her own creative drives, but the skills she developed at ProMedia gave her the confidence to accept outside clients. With Snook, though, nothing is typical. Her recording studio and its complementary performance space (called Tiny Planet) operate as a non-profit.
“People pay for their studio time by doing service for the community — whatever community they want to contribute to,” says Snook. “We work out a fair exchange beforehand. Then they do the service and document it. A member of one band joined the peace corps. Another band built a house for Habitat for Humanity.”
Today it might seem as if Snook has enough on her plate. But she has a myriad of other projects in the works — one of which brings together her interests in space and music once again. Snook plans to work with multi-platinum recording artist Moby plus both academics and individuals in high-tech fields on a “solar system sonification” project, which would create a musical model of the solar system. Snook explains, “My goal is to map the astrophysical parameters — the masses of the planets, their motion, their distance from the sun — with music.” While many people have made physical models of planets and the solar system (picture the planetary models you’ve seen at museums or at a planetarium), and some have attempted to create music inspired by the solar system, no one has yet directly translated physical properties into music. But it’s not such a far-fetched idea, according to Snook. “The solar system is full of harmony, natural rhythms, and natural frequencies that lend themselves to algorithms that can be expressed as music.”
Snook’s audio career seems to be just taking off. Looking back, what role did the Pro Tools training have in that ascendancy? “My vision was to develop my skills enough so that I could create my own music — and help people make the music that they wanted to make — with fewer impediments.” says Snook. “The Pro Tools training certainly helped me do that.”