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Gaining Tools to Work in the World of Creative Sound

After years of playing music as a teenager, Sam Clapp ’18 transitioned to writing songs, jamming in basements, going on tours, and making albums as he played guitar and drums in bands across St. Louis.

While he enjoyed the live performance experience, he discovered that his favorite parts of the process were recording and producing.

After moving to Chicago, he decided to search for a master’s program that could help him develop more technical skills while connecting him to other professionals in the world of sound.

Once he was accepted to Northwestern’s MA in Sound Arts and Industries program, he took advantage of every opportunity—including registering for as many courses as he could across different specializations represented in the program.

Sam Clapp“From film sound design to basic audio engineering, I was able to cover so many different aspects,” he explains. “Northwestern was a great place to experience all these practical and academic fields where sound is involved. I had been at a loss in terms of how to pursue it as a career, but the program gave me the burst of energy I needed.”

After earning his degree, he did freelance sound design work for the Chicago theater community (a connection he credits to the program), provided sound engineering support to the Museum of Contemporary Art, and helped Experimental Sound Studio, a Chicago nonprofit focused on sound production and experimental music, write grants and manage a small musician co-op and record label called Catalytic Sound.

Clapp was still performing and doing freelance sound work when the pandemic hit. “All of our dreams of playing live were dashed,” he said. “Some of the friends I was in a band with had an interest in narrative audio and music. We put our heads together and thought, ‘What if we started jamming not as a band, but as a music production unit?’ ”

Together, the group created Cue Shop, a music library and scoring co-op that produces music for media. Their first project involved creating original music for the third season of a WBEZ podcast called Motive.

“For a year after that, the group played once a week or more. Five of us played music together to generate different musical moods with the goal of creating a large library of music that podcast, radio, film, and video producers could license. A lot of existing production music is a bit sterile or generic. We wanted to create the weirdest, most unusual, most deeply felt library music of all time.”Cue Shop

Eventually, the group had created enough music to sort it by “vibe,” as Clapp describes it, or by its potential application or narrative use. To use the music, producers can purchase tracks for a set price based on their budget. The idea is gaining traction, with the Art Institute of Chicago and podcasts Love and Radio and The Secrets Hotline all using music from Cue Shop.

The group also creates original scores for film and podcast projects, like WBEZ’s Motive Season 4 and the debut film feature from Northwestern graduate Alex Phillips, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms. The movie debuted at Festival Fantasia in Montreal in June and recently had its first Chicago screening at Music Box Theatre.

In addition to his work with Cue Shop, Clapp also now works full-time for the Museum of Contemporary Art. He serves as a video production manager, documenting performances and creating video content for the marketing and curatorial teams.

He says his master’s degree provided him with the much-needed “coat hangers” for concepts he now hangs his experiences on. He describes it as a proving ground that gave him the opportunity to do everything from experiment with technology to try new sound techniques.

“My experience at Northwestern was very important in setting me on this path,” he says. “This program allowed me to meet many great people and gain tools to work in the world of creative sound.”

Read more on our blog and follow Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries program on Facebook and Twitter.