Millikin University School of Music Students and Faculty win three DownBeat Magazine Student Music Awards

Big Blue student Starling Merideth, Vocal Jazz Ensemble OneVoice, and the Millikin Audio Recording Service (MARS) received honors from the legendary jazz publication.

DECATUR, Ill. – While in the recording studio, Millikin University junior Commercial Music major Starling Merideth can be a little hard on themselves.

As a member of the vocal jazz ensemble OneVoice, Merideth was trying to give the best performance they could while recording “Strangers of the Heart,” written by Amanda Taylor, in the on-campus recording Millitrax Recording Studio

Starling Merideth
Millikin's Starling Merideth was named Outstanding Soloist in DownBeat Magazine's 47th Annual Student Music Awards.

OneVoice performed “Strangers of the Heart” in concert a couple of times and translating that into an in-studio recording was challenging. 

“I felt that I struggled with this song quite often when we performed it, and I wasn't really happy with the outcome when I performed it,” Meredith said. “But I am pretty hard on myself when it comes to recording. We did several takes of ‘Strangers of the Heart,’ and I wanted to make sure that it was the best-sounding recording we had.”

Although Merideth had mixed feelings about their performance, Millikin Director of Choral Activities Dr. Benjamin Hawkinson had a different opinion. 

“‘Strangers of the Heart’ is incredibly complicated and switches meters a lot. It’s not just in 4/4 time. Sometimes it counts to five, sometimes it's three, sometimes it's two. It’s very complicated, but also Starling brought a powerful vocal to the mix,” Hawkinson said. “This song is right in Starling's wheelhouse. Starling is one of these voices that can just soar. They can belt, they can float, and they can flip between the two easily. It was fun just to watch them do what they do best.”

Starling Merideth
Starling Merideth has been a member of OneVoice since their sophomore year.

The staff at the legendary jazz publication DownBeat Magazine agreed with Hawkinson, awarding Merideth the Outstanding Soloist award in their 47th Annual Student Music Awards for their performance on “Strangers of the Heart,” announced on May 9. 

Joining Merideth in receiving honors were OneVoice for Outstanding Large Vocal Jazz Ensemble and Millikin Audio Recording Services (MARS) for Outstanding Engineered Live Recording by an Undergraduate College for recording the 2023 Vespers performance. 

Millikin's OneVoice vocal ensemble has been recognized as one of the premier collegiate vocal jazz groups. 

The 2022-23 OneVoice members included Amelia Tam, Starling Merideth, Adriana Martinez, Erica Egger, Daniella De la Cruz, Tommy Barroso, Alan Ramirez, Carson Cole, Jay Torrens and Drew Rachow. 

Members of MARS that assisted with the Vespers recording were Nino Baker, Trinity Mata, Alex Barr and Cooper Self.

“I was very surprised when I found out that I had won. I was really proud of myself and definitely gained some confidence,” Merideth said. “This was a really cool experience to be a part of, and I'm very glad that I was able to get recognized, as well as the group as a whole.”

OneVoice consists of 8-12 singers, and members audition each fall semester to join. 

“Part of the fun of OneVoice is exploring the limits of where the style is. When people think of jazz, they often think of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the swing kings of the years past,” Hawkinson said. “But it is 2024, and we've continued to evolve, and we are pushing the edges of what vocal jazz can be into the contemporary world.”

Benjamin Hawkinson
Dr. Benjamin Hawkinson conducts at Millikin's Vespers.

The award-winning recording sessions for OneVoice were recorded at the on-campus Millitrax Recording Studio, which features analog and digital studios.

“The ability to just go downstairs (in the Perkinson Music Center), set up a couple of microphones, and have a professional-level recording studio at our fingertips is a game changer. It means that we can access it regularly, become fluent with it, and bring our best to what is admittedly a challenging process,” Hawkinson said. “The DownBeat Student Music Awards. are essentially the bar folks measure collegiate vocal jazz in this country, and to come home with two awards, one for large vocal ensemble and soloist, just means a lot.”

Hawkinson will soon lead the Millikin University Choir on a nine-day European concert tour to Belgium and France. The theme of the performances will center on the idea of home.  

“For many of our students, it will be their first time abroad, and international travel is one of those things that opens their minds. Seeing the way other people live and other cultures and perspectives is central to the mission of Millikin University,” Hawkinson said. “Our concert is focused on themes of home, and we'll be bringing pieces of music that are essential to our home, but also exploring what their home feels like as we go to these different locations.”

On the Record

The Millikin Audio Recording Services (MARS) took home the DownBeat Award for Best Engineered Live Recording by an Undergraduate College for the student-run venture recording of the 2023 Vespers performance in the Kirkland Fine Arts Center. 

MARS logo

“It really didn’t hit me at first. What it means hit me a couple of days ago when I was watching Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz, and they kept referencing DownBeat Magazine with all the reviews of the old jazz artists,” Millikin Director of Millitrax Recording Studio Kevin Guarnieri said. “I didn't realize that DownBeat’s tentacles were that long and that it went back that far. I'm extremely honored for my students and what we’ve built with MARS."

MARS began in 2015 with a mission to provide the ability to record Millikin’s yearly student and faculty recitals, which can surpass over 100 in a given academic year. Students can use those recordings for their best performances for auditions and graduate school applications, and the MARS staff can learn to make high-quality mobile recordings at a location or venture that’s not a recording studio. 

Millikin's Vespers is a beloved annual holiday choral event.

MARS recorded Vespers, Millikin’s beloved annual holiday choral event, in 2023 for the first time. The performance gave the group many challenges in recording the event without the audience noticing it. 

“One of the biggest challenges is that we’ve got performers on stage and performers in the loge area singing towards the stage. When you've got people singing towards each other, you've got a mic in two different directions. That causes phase problems immediately and micing issues where you're getting a lot of the audience inadvertently,” Guarnieri said. “We've got micing techniques that we've learned and crafted that get microphones out of the way, so we're able to get them out of the way on the floor and still get great quality recordings.”

Hawkinson was excited to have Vespers recorded and was very happy with the award-winning finished product. 

“I don't think anybody in the audience noticed them, but there were, I think, 12 microphones through the space (at Kirkland),” Hawkinson said. “Then, the real art is knowing which microphones to mix together to create the best sound as the music moves from the loge to the stage and to the greatness of the full hall."

Millitrax Studio
Millikin's Millitrax Studios. 

The Millitrax Recording Studio features a Neve Console, which is considered the best-sounding console by many recording professionals. 

“The quality of the studio is second to none. I'm still incredibly thankful we could put in a Neve Console in 2019. There are not many universities that have a console that nice,” Guarnieri said. “Having worked in the recording industry for 20 years, I’ve worked in studios all over the world. We have a world-class studio. We have a studio in which we could easily make major label releases.”