Welcome to the Beat Lab

The well-equipped room in Hill Hall is a place where aspiring beat makers can experiment with digital music.

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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,” says Mark Katz, John P. Barker Distinguished Professor of Music and founding director of the Next Level Cultural Diplomacy Program.

Welcome to the Beat Lab.

The Beat Lab grew out of two courses Katz taught in the College of Arts and Science’s music department: The Art and Culture of the DJ and Beat Making Lab. Katz was researching how DJs have transformed music technology into a creative force and found a small room on campus to share his turntable collection with students.

In 2013, the Beat Lab became a reality. Katz filled it with furniture from home, his personal record collection, and books detailing the history of beat making around the world. He commissioned two murals: one with Rameses as a DJ and another of double helixes strung with letters spelling “the Beat is the DNA.”

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

Teaching assistant music professor Maya Shipman, professionally known as Suzi Analogue, also teaches beat making courses in the lab. A writer, composer and producer of chart-topping music and performer of DJ sets worldwide, Analogue is 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. A beat maker since she was 15, Analogue remembers making music with a computer and some headphones. “I always wished I had a space on my campus where I could just go and play my music loud for the first time.”

Analogue updates the Beat Lab continuously with top equipment so that aspiring musicians 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 course in the technique, history and evolution of beat making. Students learn the elements of a beat and how to use equipment to sample music, record beats and add effects. By the end of the course, students have built portfolios to show off their musical skills.

A passion for sharing music with students is what brought the Beat Lab to campus, and it’s what keeps the hallways outside it vibrant with sound. As music technology continues to evolve, Katz and Analogue hope that the Beat Lab can provide a space for anyone to experiment with digital music.

“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.”

Read more about the Beat Lab.