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How NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music Rebuilt Oscilloscope & Tackled Online Education

Oscilloscope Studio NYU
David Grandison Jr.

Oscilloscope Studio at the NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

When I arrive at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music (CDI), chair Jeff Rabhan introduces himself by offering me a glass of Prosecco. It’s the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving, and some of the faculty and staff have popped open a bottle now that classes are done for the week.

Rabhan jokingly ribs associate chair Nick Sansano, who’s about to give me a tour of the facilities, before turning back to me with a smile. “I’m sure this is exactly what you expected at school, right?”

Banter and bubbly aside, the two colleagues have every reason to celebrate: After 15 years of using satellite facilities and rented studio spaces around the city, the NYU program has just moved into its new, state-of-the-art campus in downtown Brooklyn.

Occupying two floors of the Transit Building inside Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center, the campus is, indeed, nothing like what the average college student would expect. While the upper floor is filled with faculty and staff offices, the lower floor is packed with a carefully curated array of recording studios, editing suites, critical listening rooms, production suites, rehearsal spaces and more. (In fact, the closest things that come to a traditional classroom in the building are the department’s digital audio workstation labs, where students take classes on digital audio techniques and music theory.)

Michael and Rianna Godshall
Oscilloscope Studio at the NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

“We had 15 years to f--k up to learn what we had to do here,” Sansano explains with a laugh as he describes the four-year process of designing the campus. And the associate chair is right: Each and every feature seems handcrafted to foster creativity and anticipate students’ needs down to the smallest detail. Students pass through hallways decorated with subversive textiles and wallpaper designed by the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Mike D of the Beastie Boys. In the lower level’s meticulously organized technical space, they have access to virtually any type of instrument, gear and tech imaginable. Rehearsal rooms are equipped with four to six cameras so students can record their sessions and use the footage for social content. A special podcast room can accommodate live-streaming of concerts, interviews with visiting artists, and other events. 

When it came to building their quartet of recording studios, the department opted to place two-story windows in each studio space, providing students with plenty of natural light as well as the inspiration of the New York City skyline. Of course, there’s a reason the average recording studio usually comes without windows: The acoustic isolation required to capture quality sound doesn’t typically lend itself to the noisy city outside. The studios, however, are all remarkably quiet -- a tranquility achieved by a dose of ingenuity and an innovative feat of engineering marvel. 

 Michael and Rianna Godshall
Oscilloscope Studio at the NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

“In our acoustic design, this is essentially a room within a room,” Sansano explains excitedly from inside one of the studios. “So they take the standing structure and then they build within that standing structure so you don't even actually touch the superstructure of the building -- you're on pucks and rubber and springs, and you're totally separated. So that’s how you get the isolation.”

Each of the building’s four recording spaces also center around a specific motif -- one is dubbed the “nature” room, with a proverbial birds’ nest perch overlooking the booth; another is filled with sketches and etchings by Andy Warhol, including a giant lithograph of the Empire State Building featured in the pop artist’s 1964 silent film Empire. A third studio is specially designed for multi-channel recording using Dolby Atmos, immersive audio and the types of cutting-edge, three-dimensional recording techniques that the faculty are only just now beginning to write into their curriculum. 

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The crown jewel of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, however, has to be Oscilloscope, the iconic recording studio founded by late Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch. With a touch of awe, Sansano recounts how Yauch’s wife Dechen Wangdu offered the studio to NYU several years after the star’s untimely passing at the age of 47 in 2012. 

“When they were gonna close it, we asked if we could buy it with the idea of reinstalling everything as close as possible to the original,” he says. “And she and her daughter generously donated it to us and said, 'You can take it and use it for as long as you want.' Because she realized that, instead of it going into storage or being cut up into pieces, it would be like a living memorial and museum. A very functional museum."

In tribute to Yauch, the Institute reconstructed Oscilliscope as faithfully as possible: rebuilding cabinetry to exact specifications, selecting the same shaggy chartreuse carpeting that blanketed the floors of the original studio and recreating the “burlap and shoji screen-type design,” as Sansano puts it, of the performance space. Memorabilia, menu books, vinyl records and even an old game of Scrabble owned by the Beastie Boys litter the studio’s cupboards, with even more mementos still waiting to be unpacked. All of the Beastie Boys' original instruments, furniture, microphones, pedals and more made their way to the new campus as well, where students can now sit behind Yauch’s original console to record their own projects. 

Michael and Rianna Godshall
Oscilloscope Studio at the NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

The facilities may be new, but the Clive Davis Institute has long been an aspiring music geek’s dream -- a program where superstar artists, music moguls and future industry power players are made. Founded 15 years ago by legendary record executive Clive Davis, the Institute has steadily gained momentum over the years to become one of the premier contemporary music programs in the country.

“Did you see the Grammys?” Rabhan -- an industry veteran known for discovering Hanson in the ‘90s and managing the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Michelle Branch -- asks from his office, where an MTV Video Music Award is tucked casually into the corner of his desk. “We had our most amazing year of Grammy nominations ever.”

He quickly rattles off a list of alumni up for consideration this year, including best new artist nominee Maggie Rogers, whose big break came when she played her hit “Alaska” for Pharrell Williams during an NYU masterclass in 2016; production duo Take a Daytrip, nominated for their work on Lil Nas X’s 7; Nija Charles, the pint-sized songwriting behemoth whose contributions to 21 Savage’s I Am > I Was and Beyoncé?’s The Lion King: The Gift have landed her nods in multiple categories; and Andrew Watt, a producer on Lana Del Rey’s Norman F--king Rockwell, up for album of the year. (Watt also boasts a co-writing credit on No. 1 hit “Señorita” alongside Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello.)

“Not that that's how we value what we do, but at least it's the most visible way to show what a lot of our graduates are doing,” Rabhan is quick to clarify. “You know, three out of five kids in the A&R department at RCA Records came from our program. So there's so many things a lot of the kids are doing, which aren't nominated, on the business side of things. They're attorneys, and kids that are running studios, and kids that are managers and have production companies and digital marketing companies. They're all over the place. This year feels like we’ve finally grown up.”

With that type of track record, the admissions committee’s selective eye for cultivating the best and brightest talent has clearly paid dividends as the Institute has grown -- even if, according to Rabhan, it’s also become the most statistically competitive undergraduate program at NYU. 

“We take somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of applicants; we’re building a class of approximately 60 kids [per year],” he explains. “And it's not that we're exclusive or that we're elitist. It's that we really believe in the size of the program and the way we're structured now, that that makes the most sense. When your recording studios are classrooms, or your editing suites are classrooms, it doesn't lend itself to a hundred people. You can fit 18 kids into the studio? That's how big the class is gonna be.”

Partially in an effort to combat the obstacle of limited space, the program is branching out into a new realm: online education. Titled Music Industry Essentials, the course -- which was designed by NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, featuring Billboard, and powered by online education platform Yellowbrick -- is built around six modules covering music history, business, content and artistry, marketing, production and emergent media. Music Industry Essentials is designed to give participants a taste of the program’s curriculum, as well as the tools and information they need to start carving out their place in the industry.

“For me, growing up in the music industry, there were no music programs at all,” Rabhan says. “You learned about the music industry by getting ripped off or getting kicked in the teeth or getting burned. On-the-job experience by making mistakes, screwing up -- that's always gonna be a part of it, but there was no place to learn about the business.” Instead, the Music Industry Essentials course provides that information in an accessible, affordable package, delivered straight from the mouths of NYU faculty and other industry experts.

And this isn’t your stereotypical online class: Crafted by Yellowbrick, each module is taught by an expert in the field with plenty of color commentary and industry know-how mixed in -- from case studies on how D’Angelo and Lady Gaga marketed their music, to deep dives with Grammy-winning producer Bob Power, Gordy Enterprises CEO Kerry Gordy, celebrity vocal coach Stevie Mackey and more. “Online education can be so dry and so boring," Rabhan says. "When Yellowbrick came to us and showed us the kinds of things they were doing with Complex and with F.I.T. or Parsons, it felt like they understood the creative part of education and how to communicate that."

Most of all, Rabhan hopes the new Music Industry Essentials course will serve as a natural extension of the Clive Davis Institute, reaching the types of closet songwriters and aspiring artists who, perhaps, didn’t have the option of moving to New York City and spending tens of thousands of dollars on a music education.

“I'm really excited about it, because I love the idea of doing something which is affordable, that anybody can access,” Rabhan says. “Because artists need information so badly, and so many make mistakes that they regret for many, many years to come. And I'm not saying that online education is gonna solve all those problems, but if we can turn the lights on for a few people and show them the way to do things, or light a fire, or inspire them or teach them something, or answer questions for a very, very affordable amount of money, it's worth it.”

Students interested in participating can learn more about Music Industry Essentials here.