Zac Baird, keyboard player in the band Korn, is in a position that most of us envy. He has a sweet job playing with a major label band, and if he’s not writing and recording in the studio, he’s rehearsing or on the road touring. Despite this success, he continues to search for ways to make his music even better, and one way he’s doing that is by taking Berkleemusic’s online course, Producing Music with Ableton Live.
Although Zac finished the course this past April, it was an act of true dedication to fit it into his maniacally busy musical life. Since October, Korn has been in the studio working on their eighth record, and according to Zac, “Everyone is putting in all of their energy and effort into making the greatest rock record of 2007.” That means marathon sessions, seven days a week, up to twelve hours a day. “We’re doing everything from writing lots of songs, to programming,” he said. “You’re there as a band member for discussion of the song, harmonic suggestions, doing your parts, or helping someone else with their parts—being there as moral support.”
The band has written nine new songs for the new record, and is in the process of re-recording another four or five songs they did last year. In early December, they recorded and performed a set of unplugged songs for MTV, then got back into the studio after the holidays and started writing. “We went into a wood shedding period of writing a song a day,” Zac said.
As if this weren’t enough, in January Zac signed up to take Berkleemusic’s Producing Music with Ableton Live, a twelve-week course. Ableton Live was not entirely new to him—but he is self-taught and still felt he could do more with it. He began the course amid Korn’s creative flurry, fitting coursework in during studio downtime, thanks to a laptop and a wireless network. “Let’s say the rest of the band is editing drums, I will be in the other room with headphones on, going through my textbook work—reading and doing the demos and quizzes.” Or, sometimes, after the studio day ends, he’ll work on his course into the wee hours, before he goes to bed. “The great thing is, you can do it whenever you want to…when I’m cramming I’ll wake up early before I have to be at a session, and do my reading and project over two or three days during the week.”
Though this schedule may seem zealous, he said that he finds the coursework and projects very reasonable. His greatest challenge is finding a way to rein himself in once he gets started. “I always want to go longer and start developing things more than they need to be. That’s part of the cool thing about the course. I think if you want to venture into other territory or expound on something, you can do that, as long as you show that you’ve done the required work.”
Some of the creative ideas he’s gotten from the course have made their way into the new Korn album, though in an understated way. “The course reminded me about what songwriting is and what it needs to have and how a song should go. Some of the things I like are how the course breaks down the elements of a song or a section of music… how many parts are playing, and what is the development of the process. It was great to see that, even as we’re making this record. While you’re writing a song, you’re not really thinking about what’s going on. You’re just kind of doing it… it was cool to see it broken down into words and described in something you could literally go, ‘Yeah, that is true; that’s what I’m doing here.’“
Learning the more analytical aspects of songwriting has enriched Zac’s creative side as he’s matured as a musician. “Musicians go through all different sorts of things in their lives… but I’m 36 years old,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a little while. I’ve been in a place where I didn’t really think I had to listen to anybody. Now I’m in a different place, and I believe that being a musician is a lot about listening… It’s a very young idea to think that you don’t to have to listen or take someone else’s advice. No matter how old you get, one of biggest things you do as a musician is listen, and that goes from listening to the other musicians, to listening to what your teachers are advising.”
It’s not just the teachers who have something to offer in the online course, however. Zac says he learns a great deal from his fellow students, as well. “I live in Los Angeles so Berklee is not within working distance. I don’t have time for a normal classroom environment—I wish I did because I love the interaction with real people, but that’s one of the things that the Web site gives you. If you want to take the time to post some logs or write to another student, you can do that. That means you meet people, you make connections, you share musical experiences, and who knows, maybe you meet someone you want to do a project with. “
Right now, Korn is racing to meet a tentative July 17 album release date. Once the record is out, it’s back to touring for the summer, and Zac plans to apply some of his new Ableton skills to the live shows. “One of my roles in the band is the segues in between songs. I want to integrate Live more into that aspect of the show for the next tour… I just wanted to venture into some new territory, so I thought I could take this course, maybe be get a little more prepared, figure out ways to rout my keyboards in various ways, how I could control Ableton Live.”
Though the Family Values tour this summer will keep him very busy, he hopes to take more courses with Berkleemusic in the future. “Some of the courses that might interest me would be music business courses, possibly more theory courses because I think that’s always something you can brush up on. Maybe I’ll even venture into some other instrument courses—taking up some other instruments would be fun and useful.”
Zac loves his job and says he doesn’t want to do anything else—but as the record industry continues to move forward through shaky ground, it will be critical for him to remain up to date and flexible.
Like many musicians, he worries about what the digitization of music and, specifically, music downloading has done to the major labels. “At the end of the day, my job is playing keyboard…it’s hard enough to pay bills playing music…and if the industry dies, and art suffers because of that, it’s a bad thing.”
With that said, he also is fully excited about all the ways that computers have enhanced music making and communication between musicians. “There are great things that computers have brought to us, like Berkleemusic and online courses. I can be sitting here in Los Angeles communicating with someone in Slovenia…It’s definitely cool. I think it’s great that iTunes is up, and honestly, I buy the majority of my music via downloads and iTunes. But everything’s changing.”
“The hard thing is that unfortunately, the music industry—pop music and rock—has been giving people bad music for years,” he continued. “Most people listen to music on their drive into work and what they’re hearing on the radio isn’t that great. My argument is that if you gave people really good art, they’ll respond to it. Despite all these other things that are happening, if you keep making good music… maybe people will hear it.”