by Esther Young
A group of 75 students and several alumni from Palo Alto's Gunn High School released a full-length album on Jan. 9. The 16-track, hip-hop heavy "Airborne" is the second album from the Gunn collaborative, following "Liftoff," released in 2017.
"Airborne" is filled with personal stories based around the perspectives of Gunn students. "Wings" comes from the point of view of a senior student stepping out into his second semester and diversifying into the arts — joining the school play, dancing and rapping more. "Tides" describes familial and academic pressures stacking up and hurting mental health. The sound of the album is unified by rock guitar riffs, symphonic and airy production, and hip-hop sampling, true to the style established in the "Liftoff."
The project began with Zac Sanders (now a film student at Biola University), who first aspired to produce an album as a Gunn underclassman. Citing Kanye West as his biggest musical inspiration, he began making tracks for "Liftoff" in 2016. Midway through, a song gaining traction on Soundcloud led him to the artist, another Gunn student. Sean Yu joined him in producing "Liftoff." Shortly after, Yu started on the tracks for "Airborne."
After making backing tracks, testing melodies and drum patterns and establishing the album theme, Yu gathered artists using a Facebook group, where the producers posted instrumentals. Members were welcome to add friends and other musicians, as long as they were Gunn students or alumni. Several vocalists were handpicked based on their posted Soundcloud covers — the same way Sanders had inducted Yu into the making of "Liftoff."
If multiple artists wanted to rap on the same instrumental, the team of four producers modified the beat to accommodate new ideas.
"I don't think anyone was ever cut," Yu said. "The goal of the album was to make quality music and get as many people involved as possible — it's a balance."
The participation of so many meant that the recording phase stretched beyond the two-month timeline Yu had anticipated. Some students had their own mics and sent Yu recordings. For the others, Yu drove from house to house with his portable Audio-Technica AT2020 mic, often coaching his fellow artists to inspire their best singing or rapping performance.
"I'd say to do it in this voice, think about that emotion, or make a 'stank' face — it helps!" Yu remembered.
While the album was created without any official school affiliation, the students benefited from a quiet private gathering place. The school library's audio conference room was furnished with sound absorbers, a studio microphone and a desktop computer running Logic Pro X, the production software that all four producers used.
Librarian Daljeet Gill, "an advocate for student podcasts and music-oriented production students are interested in, went to the district for a grant," Yu explained. Half the recording took place in that room during flex periods (a free period for students to do homework, use office hours, or work on independent projects).
"The third step was the most boring," Yu said. He and another producer, Michael Zhang, used mastering plug-ins to ensure the track volumes were balanced. Some of the artists brought them chicken nuggets for moral support as they labored for two days, pulling near all-nighters to meet their set deadline.
A listening party, including some live performances, was held Jan. 4 at the Mitchell Park bowl.
On Jan. 9, the official release date, the students gathered in the library audio room during flex period.
"It was a magical day," Yu said.
"This project has changed the attitude towards music at Gunn and around Palo Alto — the goal being to inspire creativity in high school students and the Palo Alto community in general," collaborator Thomas Burton told the Weekly in an email.
"This album is set to increase the quality standard of what teens can create independently, and give people a glimpse of what large collaborative efforts can accomplish."
The album is available on Spotify (search Yu's artist name, "soyybean") and is also available on Soundcloud at soundcloud.com/soyybean/sets/airborne.