Extreme Isolation for an Extreme Institute
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Carl Nappa, executive director of the Ex’treme Institute by Nelly, a St. Louis-based school that offers degree programs in recording engineering as well as individual creative arts courses.
In the interview, Nappa, an industry veteran who has worked with artists including Nelly and producers/engineers such as Arif Mardin, Phil Ramone, Mutt Lange, Al Schmit, Elliot Schiner, and Alan Parsons to name a few, talks about how his experience in the trenches influenced the development of the school’s curriculum and ongoing growth.
Direct Sound: Let’s start from the beginning. Talk about how the school was founded.
Carl: The school was founded in 2011 in a joint collaboration between the artist, Nelly, and a St Louis-based college called Vatterott College. It’s the first of a school like this here in St Louis, a technical school that teaches recording and production and also different aspects of the music business.
Direct Sound: How did the collaboration happen?
Carl: It was just one of those things where Nelly and the CEO for Vatterott College, Pam Bell, were talking over lunch one day about a scholarship concept that Nelly was going to do for the school. And she mentioned to him that she always wanted to do a recording school. And Nelly says, “…hey, I love being in the studio. It would be a fantastic thing. Let’s do that.”
Direct Sound: What happened next?
Carl: They started coming up with some ideas. I had been working with Nelly for the past 10 years or so as his personal engineer and flying all over the country. I was based out of New York and came up through the ranks of the Hit Factory and such. One thing led to another, and Nelly says to Pam, “I’ve got this guy that knows a lot about recording and he can help you out.” I was actually down in Miami at the time working out of the Hit Factory down there. I got a call from Nelly. He said, “…hey, this lady wants to talk to you. She’s the real deal. Don’t hang up on her.”
Listen to the audio version of this interview:
Direct Sound: And you took her call, obviously!
Carl: Yes, I get a call and we talked briefly about it and they flew me to St Louis. They showed me some of the campuses that they had and the kind of ideas that they wanted. They offered me the job, which opened the opportunity to develop a program that I would be proud of and could stand behind. I went back to Miami and packed up my stuff and moved back.
Direct Sound: Talk about what has been happening since then.
Carl: Over the past 4 years, we’ve been building the school basically. We’re at about 300 students and we offer 2 programs. One is a recording and production program. The recording program covers everything from mixing and consoles to Pro Tools and more. We also cover business, contracts and publishing and stuff like that.
Direct Sound: What is Beat-ology and how does that fit into the program?
Carl: A big part of that program is a class called Beat-ology. It was developed by a producer named Wyshmaster. His real name is Adam Cherrington. He’s done everything from the song “I’m On A Boat” by The Lonely Island, to Ludacris to Nelly. He’s a prolific songwriter as well. He developed a hands-on approach to beat making. So it’s a very creative approach. We developed a whole school around his approach and I worked with him to put a lot of the curriculum together and hired the teachers. That’s on the recording and production side.
Direct Sound: The school also has a business program.
Carl: Yes, we offer an associates degree or a diploma which focuses on all aspects of the music business. So there’s a little bit of your typical business classes whether it be office systems or finance and accounting and stuff like that, to marketing classes and media training classes. And we cover a lot more music business stuff like talent and event management, and things like that. So those are two really different degree programs we offer. Because of that, we get a real diverse group of students coming through the door.
Direct Sound: How long does the program go?
Carl: Both our recording/production and business programs are offered in associate’s degrees or diplomas. The diplomas are about 40 weeks and the associates degree for the recording and production side of things is 70 weeks. With the business side, it’s 80 weeks. And we’re a perpetual term. We go constantly, so it’s 10 week terms. The idea is, a student can come in, get done, and get the education quicker, and back into the field.
Direct Sound: Where do most of your students come from?
Carl: Most of our students are from the area. Missouri, Illinois, some come as far as Kansas. And lately over the last, say year, we’ve been branching out and we’re getting more students that are coming in from around the country
Direct Sound: Talk about Studio X and it’s association with the school.
Carl: When we put the school together, one of the things I really wanted to build was a professional recording studio. For two reasons. One, I traveled a lot. I’ve been in most studios around the country. I had the good fortune to travel quite a bit when I started back in Boston working for an engineer named Bob St. John to work at a lot of different studios. The one thing I noticed about these studios is that they’re all kind of set up the same. You know, your patch bay is similar from console to console. The ergonomics of a console might be labeled differently, but they kind of do the same thing. Or, how you plug your microphones up. And 99 percent of the time, they’re labeled the same no matter where you are. Microphones are stored in the same type of locker, with the same type of cable, etc.
Direct Sound: How did that experience impact your approach to Studio X?
Carl: I had two primary objectives. What I really wanted to do was build a room that students could feel comfortable in. So when they leave here and get out of the school environment that they could instantly integrate into a professional recording studio and hit the ground running, with no time loss. That was the primary reason. The second reason was influenced by my experience. I started in rooms like that in Boston. I spent a lot of time in the Hit Factory in New York City where we had 10 studios. And it was there that I learned what audio should sound like in a perfect environment. Where your monitors are tuned and your acoustics are great.
Direct Sound: How did leaving the Hit Factory environment and going on your own influence your thinking for the school?
Carl: When I went on my own, I had to build up my client base. I had to start out at the bottom and getting clients that had no money. I’d go to people’s houses and barns and offices spaces, and set up studios. Because I knew what a studio was supposed to sound like, and how audio should sound, I knew how to work in these less than perfect environments. And I knew that when we’re trying teach a student, it’s great to be able to hear that, so they know the difference in sound from a smaller studio, to a home studio, a basement studio, a bedroom studio. They know how to work around the inaccuracies in the monitoring and stuff like that.
Direct Sound: Talk about the classes in Studio X.
Carl: We have classes Monday through Thursday from 10:00 in the morning until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. We have two classes — Recording 1 and Recording 2. Recording 1 is basically a 101 type class where you learn about microphones and techniques and cables and speaker sound, and normal recording stuff. When you get into Recording 2, you basically are introduced to instruments. So students have to record drums, pianos, guitars, vocals, basses, keyboards. Everything that would normally be brought into a pop recording session.
Direct Sound: So the students get to record live instruments?
Carl: Yes, and the reason behind that is that, now with virtual instruments and the advent of sequences and stuff like that, most times a person gets used to just recording a vocal and doesn’t get really get a chance to do a lot of recording of instruments. And we wanted the students to get that experience. Every day they’re in the studio, they’re recording. Then at night, it opens up to the students where they can practice. They can work on what we call a Capstone Project. So every student on the recording side, to graduate, has to complete their courses, an internship, and a Capstone Project, which is a 5 song EP that they record, produce and mix.
Direct Sound: Let’s shift gears for a second. Talk about why the school uses Direct Sound headphones.
Carl: When we opened up, we were looking for the equipment to outfit our studio with. One of the things that I always struggled with in the studio is headphone bleed. And it was one of those things where, the artist loves to hear things loud and the engineer doesn’t want it to be loud because of the bleed. When we tried the headphones here, it was one of the first times that I was able to use a pair of headphones that didn’t bleed into the track at all. It blew me away and it was a good fit for the school.
Direct Sound: So the students get their own pair of headphones?
Carl: Yes, the headphones are actually part of our tool kit that a student gets when they go through certain classes. They get a pair of headphones and there’s been a huge response from our students that they love them. And most people who get to listen to them really dig them and understand the value of not only sonically what they do, but also how they keep so much unwanted sound from leaking around the ear cup.
Direct Sound: Talk about the decision to customize the headphones with the Extreme Institute logo.
Carl: We decided to take our association with the headphones to the next level, so we did some custom ones with our logo on it. And the students love it even more. Instead of a student walking around with a Extreme Institute by Nelly t-shirt, they have the Direct Sound headphones with the logo on the side and it inspires a sense of school spirit. The younger students know that the more advanced classes are when the headphones are given out. So, then everybody can’t wait to get into those classes.
Direct Sound: Any other reasons behind the decision to customize the headphones?
Carl: It was a branding thing. We’re a brand new school and to get that name out there is expensive. If you want to buy all the airtime and magazine articles and the Internet presence, it’s very expensive. And for a new school starting out, you know, sometimes your budgets just don’t equal up to what you want to spend. And this was a good way for us to push that logo, and the brand out into the community very effectively. Because you have 300 students walking around with a pair of headphones and people go, “…hey, that doesn’t look like one of the standard Beats by Dre,” or something that they’re used to seeing. You know, “What’s this EI logo? Oh it’s my school. It’s Nelly’s new recording school downtown and these are headphones that we get from the school.” And usually the students will talk about the headphones themselves. “These are from Direct Sound. They keep all the unwanted noise out.”
Direct Sound: What’s next for your plans with the school?
Carl: Any school should be a growing entity. The curriculum is growing. I wouldn’t say changing, but you know, there’s always a new instructor that might come in and breath a little of his or her perspective into it. Which is great, but we’re also in the process of building a couple of new programs. We cover the business side of things and the recording and production side of things.
Direct Sound: You’re ramping up your course offerings for other programs too, right?
Carl: Yes, we have a class here called Live Corporate Sound and currently it’s just a stand-alone class that teaches students about other avenues in music industry. It goes in depth into monitors and PA’s and stuff like that. We’re in the process of putting together a diploma program where it’s all about live sound and all the different aspects of it. From monitors to front of house, to lighting to touring, and things like that. So we’re really excited to bring that.
The second program we’re developing is an audio-visual technical tech program. Where it teaches students all about home theaters and installation side stuff. So they learn the audio side of stuff here. And in one of our sister schools, they would learn about the installation side. Almost like a low voltage electrician. And over here they would learn about critical listening and Recording 1 and understanding what sound does, and so forth and so on.
Direct Sound: With the expanding curriculum, sounds like you will continue to grow the student base.
Carl: Yes, our new programs are gaining momentum. With this growth, we think we’ll open up opportunities for more people in the country to come here because the value in St Louis is unbelievable. It’s a great place to live, work, and study.