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Going Full Circle with Professor Jake Smith

When Jake Smith thinks about the ideal Northwestern Sound Arts and Industries student, he can’t help but think about his own career trajectory.

“I was a musician and my career took me into academia,” Smith says. “That’s one of the profiles of students we’re looking for.”

Smith is a professor in Northwestern’s Radio/Television/Film Department. He’s also one of the founders of the Sound Arts and Industries program.

Smith’s career in sound began in high school when he learned to play guitar. He was a member of several bands in the 90s, including Antenna, alongside his now-wife, Freda Love Smith. Freda is also a former member of the alternative rock group, the Blake Babies.

Antenna released four albums under Mammoth Records and toured throughout the 90s. But the lifestyle eventually grew old for Smith and his wife.

“The glamour of being in a smelly van for nine weeks was losing its appeal,” Smith says. “We quit, we had a baby and on the side, started a new band called The Mysteries of Life.”

Though the two musicians – now young parents – thought they had left the music industry behind, The Mysteries of Life triumphed. The band made two albums with RCA Records and even made an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Around this time, the recording industry was transitioning to digital recording, and Smith was fascinated by the shift.

“It was mind blowing to have grown up with tape and then all of the sudden, you had digital tools and could undo and auto-tune,” Smith says. “It was a real eye-opening moment, and I got interested in the connection between music and technology.”

Smith decided to go back to school, pursuing a PhD from Indiana University. But he didn’t give up performance completely. Before taking his first teaching job at the University of Nottingham in England, Smith recorded bass on the eventual mega-hit, “How to Save a Life,” by The Fray. He first heard the finished record over the loud speaker at a grocery store in England.

When Smith landed a job at Northwestern in 2010, he was thrilled to move back to the Midwest and reconnect with former bandmates in an amazing music city like Chicago.

However, it was overseas – this time in India – where Smith would start to develop the idea for a master’s in sound program. On a trip with students for a class he was teaching on Indian Cinema, Smith spoke with Northwestern School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe about the potential to build a new kind of sound curriculum in the School.

“Being at Northwestern is what made this program possible,” Smith says. “The support of the Dean and all the other strengths in sound across the School of Communication and beyond – sound scientists, sound historians, sound artists, and a great music program. We were able to pull these things together to create this program.”

After returning to the states, Smith worked with fellow Northwestern professor Neil Verma on the 2014 Lambert Family Conference “Sonic Boom: Sustaining Sound Studies,” which brought together scholars and professionals from the university and beyond. The keynote speaker was Gary Rydstrom, seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer and director.

“It went so well that we decided to start the next step – building a curriculum,” Smith says.

That was 2014. In August 2017, the first cohort of Northwestern Sound Arts and Industries students graduated from the program.

With a year of the program now behind them, Smith says the Northwestern faculty and staff are encouraged by the first year.

“Marrying the history and culture of sound with sound production and sound science – it was kind of a new idea, and we weren’t really sure what the reaction would be,” Smith says. “I think the big takeaway is that it works!”

In reflecting on his own career, Smith views the establishment of this program at Northwestern as a natural progression.

“This would have been a great program for me when I was coming to the end of my time as a professional musician,” he says. “It’s kind of full circle.”