San Diego's Beat Scene Has a Pulse

“People think it’s making beats,” says UCSD doctorate student Mike Gao, “but it’s actually programming things to make music with, or making things to make things to make music.”

Thanks to the guidance he received as a student at Stanford from advisor Ge Wang (now chief technology officer at Smule, the developers of the popular Ocarina and I Am T-pain iPhone apps), Gao recently released his first “thing to make music with.” The Vocal Beater app captures a beatboxed phrase as a MIDI file and emails it to the user. The beat can then be opened on hardware/software drum machines.

“Some people are just better at making beats with their mouth than by hand,” says Gao, who has won beat battles at Project Blowed and Mighty4 competitions.

While anticipating a Vocal Beater 2.0 with overdub and undo functions, the Beijing-born Galapagos4/All City beat producer is putting the final touches on an iPad music controller that allows the user to construct harmonies with colors and geometry. The square array of notes can be configured into almost any possible “pitch space,” or tuning system. Gao most often uses “Balzano’s space,” named after and established by Gerald Balzano, a professor in Gao’s UCSD computer music program whose research involves “designing new kinds of musical environments using computers.”

“It’s basically me as an artist seeing my weaknesses and then going out there and making something to help my weaknesses,” Gao says regarding the as-of-yet unnamed iPad app. “I’m only good in certain keys. I only play certain chords. Here’s an app that lets me play different chords.”

Gao has been playing at Daddy Kev’s legendary Low End Theory nights in L.A. since its inception, with L.A. beat kings such as Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Gaslamp Killer, and Nosaj Thing. He has produced beats for several hip-hop artists, as well, including Qwel, Mestizo, Typical Cats, Robust, Luckyiam, and Offwhyte.

“I always notice whenever cities start drying up — San Diego is still poppin’,” Gao says of the lag in musical trends between L.A. and San Diego. He credits DJ Pound and eLan for establishing the local beat scene at El Dorado, Kadan, and the Kava Lounge.

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