Arts-Fall 2013

Scientist of sound brings love of studio to classroom

by Mary Isca Pirkola photo by Amanda Pitts

Joseph McCargar considers sound recording in the same realm as a photo essay, a story in a book or a collection of favorite family recipes. Theyre all forms of archiving things we think are important, he said. Sound recording is the aural form of preservation.


A scientist of sound, Joseph McCargar concocts a balanced formula for teaching technical and artistic aspects of audio recording.

An affiliate professor in the School of Communications, McCargar has been sharing his passion for sound with Grand Valley students since 1979. As a founding staff member of River City Studios, a commercial sound recording facility in Grand Rapids for nearly four decades, he also brings his vast expertise.

As a scientist of sound, McCargar finds it challenging to concoct a balanced formula for teaching both the technical aspects as well as the artistic approach to audio recording. On the first day of class, he tells students that his job is to tell them what he knows, to help them organize their time, and to encourage them to feel the love. He said, Those who go into this field dont go on just because they can do cool things with computer software and audio hardware, but because they love the process of pulling something out of nothing  as in any art form.

McCargar admits that in his younger days he wasnt immune to the cool factor. He was in a local rock band that produced several records, with two releases under the name Rock Garden, under contract with Capitol Records.

We ended up at A&R Studios and Capitol Records studios in New York, and that is how I got introduced to what I call the other side of the glass and became very interested in the technical side of audio production, he said. McCargar paired that passion with his interest in teaching and earned a bachelors degree in education. After a teaching stint at Montana State University, McCargar returned to Grand Rapids in 1977, to work with a former band member who started River City Studios.

Weve worked with national acts, recording Rascal Flatts, AC/DC and Aerosmith, among others, he said. That experience transfers to the classroom during musical recording exercises known as sample sessions, which have become a favorite of students. These are very spontaneous performances by student musicians and include anything from a guitar and voice to a large group. My students get an opportunity to understand the workflow of a complex recording and their musician friends get a free recording, said McCargar.

Students also get experience producing radio dramas, broadcast commercials, long-form documentary audio, and a soundscape, which uses musical and nonmusical sounds to create a mental image that may not have the benefit of the spoken word to convey
its meaning.

Other audio skills are taught to prepare students for a wide variety of jobs: forensic audio for legal and law enforcement courtroom evidence, industrial audio, which includes spoken word for corporate audio/visuals, and arts and entertainment audio.

"Currently, one of the most sophisticated and prolific areas of sound recording is in the gaming industry, said McCargar. The film industry has proceeded on a parallel track with many multi-speaker and surround-sound applications.

McCargar said the one thing all forms of audio production have in common is that they all come out of the necessity to archive communications.

"Sound recording has a place in culture, and certainly in the university, as a skill and a creative endeavor in and of itself  not that different than any other field of study, he said. At many colleges it shows up as courses in a film program or music department. I think that at Grand Valley, sound recording is rightly based in the School of Communications because it is a communication arts science.

In fact, McCargar and colleague Keith Oppenheim, director of the broadcasting major, are in the process of building an audio recording minor, not only as a vital part for all communications majors, but with interdisciplinary applications for students in other fields, such as music, physics or engineering.

By incorporating an educational mix of interpersonal and technology skills, this scientist of sound continues to refine an impassioned formula for success.