Good Vibrations

The Beat Lab provides a welcoming space for students and community members to experiment with digital music.

January 23rd, 2024

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An upbeat electronic melody echoes through the hallway outside of Hill Hall room 109.

Inside, students dance and socialize. But they also create the music that moves them — measuring, mixing, and experimenting with sound.

“It’s meant to feel welcoming, quirky, eclectic, and have a lot of energy,” Katz says.

Make no mistake — this is a lab.

The Beat Lab was inspired by two courses taught by Carolina music professor Mark Katz: “The Art and Culture of the DJ” and “Beat Making Lab.” At the same time, Katz was researching how DJs have transformed music technology into a creative force — and began collecting turntables. He found a small room on campus to share his collection with students.

In 2013, the Beat Lab became a reality. But Katz didn’t want the space to feel like a traditional lab. He filled it with furniture from home, his personal record collection, and books detailing the history of beat-making around the world. He even had two murals commissioned: one with Ramses performing a DJ set and another of DNA strands embellished with letters that spell: “the Beat is the DNA.”

“And then it just kept growing,” Katz says. “I thought, What else? What else would we need? I started teaching a beat-making class where we needed to have computers with software, we needed synthesizers — and it just keeps growing.”

Today, the lab hosts DJ workshops with professional musicians and has walk-in hours for students and the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It features compact disc jockeys; analog synthesizers from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s; microphones, computers, and hardware; and a vinyl record collection that students can use to record and sample sounds.

“If you were just to look around this space, you could actually chart the evolution of music technology over the past 140 years,” Katz says.

Breaking sound barriers

Alongside Katz, Carolina music professor Maya Shipman, professionally known as Suzi Analogue, teaches beat-making courses in the lab. Analogue, who has written, composed, and produced chart-topping music and performed DJ sets worldwide, is also the musical director of the UNC Hip Hop Ensemble. The group meets in the lab every week and features student beat makers, vocalists, rappers, and bassists who write and record albums together.

“In this space, I just see the culture getting stronger and tighter by the premise of us writing songs together,” Analogue says.

Analogue has been making beats since she was 15 years old. She reflects on her own time as an undergraduate student, making music with a computer and some headphones.

“I always wish I had a space on my campus where I could just go and play my music loud for the first time,” Analogue says.

Many aspiring musicians face barriers in accessing music equipment, which is often expensive. Analogue works to continuously update the Beat Lab with top equipment so that users can practice DJ sets and consider whether this is something they’d like to pursue long-term.

“Hopefully, the Beat Lab serves as an example of how we can make music creation more equitable and accessible in our world and use it as a point for unity and diplomacy for different communities,” she says.

Building beats

Analogue’s experience with producing and performing directly informs her instruction in her course, where students study the technique, history, and evolution of beat-making. They learn the elements that comprise a beat and how to compose music using equipment, such as the Digital Audio Workstation, which is used to sample music, record beats, and add effects.

Assignments include uploading beats to SoundCloud. By the end of the course, the students will have portfolios complete with artwork to show off their musical skills.

Analogue also dives into styles studies, when she and her students look at music made by producers and beat makers from each region of the United States, including North Carolina.

“Students really get a chance to dive into everything popular that they’ve heard and have their own take at it,” Analogue says.

A passion for sharing music with students is what brought the Beat Lab to campus, and it’s what keeps the hallways outside of 109 Hill Hall vibrant with sound.

“That’s what keeps me going,” Katz says. “What drives me to do the research and teaching I do is just an insatiable curiosity and love for music. I just can’t get enough of it, and students are always teaching me.”

As music technology continues to evolve and beat-making remains at the heart of every song, Katz and Analogue hope that the Beat Lab can provide a space for anyone to experiment with digital music, regardless of experience level.

“Where can you go to just write a new song?” Analogue says. “Well, you can come to the Beat Lab. And that’s going to change things.”

Mark Katz is the John P. Barker Distinguished Professor of Music and founding director of the Next Level Cultural Diplomacy Program in the Department of Music within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

Suzi Analogue is a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Music within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and director of the UNC Hip Hop Ensemble.