A fantastic DAW for Music Technology teachers…

Late last year I did a post stating that for New Zealand Music Technology teachers one of the best Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to use was Studio One Free from Presonus (along with Garageband and a few other choices).  Pretty much straight after doing that post AVID announced that they were producing a free version of their industry standard software, Pro Tools. Well… it’s taken them six months to finally release it (I was wondering if it was going to be vapourware) but Pro Tools First is now here.  You don’t seem to be able to download it from the website straight away.  You have to subscribe on the website and they will send you an email with the download link. After a very short time of playing around with it I’m 80% certain I can now recommend it to NZ teachers as the best software for teaching music technology with the MUSTEC Unit Standards (27656, 27658, 23730) and SOND Unit Standards (26687, 27703, 28007). I’m not doing to give it a complete endorsement until I get into the school term and have tested it with a bunch of students on a bunch of different computers but for now here is why I think it’s going to be the best option for NZ students doing the above Unit Standards:

  • It’s free!
  • It is very similar to the full version of Pro Tools, which is the worlds most popular DAW for recording studios movie post-production.
  • It works on both Mac and Windows
  • It includes high quality, fully functional 7-band parametric EQ, compression/limiting, gates & expanders, reverb, delay, etc
  • It includes Xpand 2, a high quality software synthesiser/sound library that provides all the necessary instruments to do the MIDI requirements of the MUSTEC standards

PT First Edit Window

So, how are these features specifically better that other options for school teachers? (note, I’m not comparing it to software like Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools HD, etc as these all cost too much money for most schools).

Presonus Studio One Free – this is severely limiting in the plugins it provides.  Therefore you can not use this software for 27703 and 28007.  It has a great software synth for level 1 MUSTEC/MIDI but it’s not a good choice of software for level 2 and above.  Please note, Studio One has recently been updated to version 3 and their new free version, Studio One Prime, has not yet been released.

Garageband – this is Mac only.  If you have Mac’s then it’s probably the best solution for your school as it’s likely your students will be very comfortable using it and it has a low learning curve.  If you’re in a Windows and Mac environment then it’s good to still use but teachers may prefer to keep things simple and use one piece of software across both platforms.

Reaper – this isn’t strictly free (it has a never-ending evaluation period) but it does provide great plugins (including EQ, compression, reverb, etc).  However, it doesn’t ship with very good software synth options for working with MIDI.  You have to install third party options.  While I have provided instructions how to use this with third party synths (like IK Multimedia’s SampleTank Free) in my MUSTEC 1 27656 resource many teachers have found it quite confusing (which is why I amended that resource to include Studio One free Tutorials). So is Pro Tools First the ultimate option for teaching music tech/recording in NZ high schools?  Quite possibly, however like most things in life, there are a few catches:

  • You have to create an AVID account which stores the sessions in the Cloud.  I’m not sure what kind of strain this will place on school wifi networks but I’ll be interested to test it over the coming weeks.
  • You can only have three projects going at once.  However, you can delete old projects which will free up a space.  I think they will allow the option to purchase more project ‘slots’ in the AVID Marketplace but personally I don’t think this will be necessary, students just have to be good about finishing projects before starting new ones.
  • You can’t use any 3rd party plugins with it.  But as mentioned above, the included plugins are excellent so they’re not required for teaching purposes.

I’m sure there may be some other negatives but these are not apparent to me as yet.  No doubt students will find problems for me! I’ve done a little video demonstrating setting it up and recording some basic MIDI and audio with it:

I’d love to hear from other teachers and students about their experiences with Pro Tools First.  Please give it a go and come back here to post comments about your experiences.

Thanks,

Duncan

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2016 – Hi there, well I’ve now been using Pro Tools First with students for the last year and I have to say… be very careful with it!  It is so buggy, it is constantly crashing and my students have had real problems with it.  It’s such a shame as on paper it really does look like the best DAW for students.  I have had students complete assignments on it but it has been tough going.  Some students with two year old laptops had to give up and switch over to Reaper or Studio One.

Anyway, it’s free to try so if you can download it and get it working then everything I’ve written above still stands.  It will be great for you.

Collaborative Composition in Music – Project Based Learning

Over the last five weeks I’ve been trying a new way of running collaborative composition in my year 10 Option Music class.

This year I’ve been blessed to have a large class of highly motivated and talented students, so they were the perfect class to take a risk and jump into what is for me a new way of teaching composition.

The basic summary of what we did is that I divided the class into five groups.  In the first week each group had to start writing and recording a song (in a rough demo format).  In the 2nd week the groups swapped songs and continued on with what another group had started the previous week.  We did this for five weeks so that in the end, every group had been involved in the composition process on each of the five songs.

Initially the students were very nervous about this process as I’d done very little in terms of how to actually write songs.  However, that didn’t worry me as within each group of five members I knew that there were people with various strengths that when combined would make the process go smoothly.

Prior to this we had done a little work on what makes a good chord progression (mainly analysing four chord songs) and an effective melody but within the context of their own personal compositions, which they recorded/sequenced in either Garageband (Mac users) or Studio One Free (Windows users).  It wasn’t much, but it proved to be enough to get the students on the way with the process.  What was critical to the process though (which I didn’t realise until we got a few weeks into the process) was that a strong knowledge of how to use technology and specifically MIDI keyboards/guitars with software sequencers made all the difference to the success of students being able to pass on their work to the next group (only a few students in the class had strong notation/theory skills so technology bridged the gap very effectively).

Here is a little video where I show one of the songs and how each group contributed towards it week by week:

And here some of the songs created by the students (please keep in mind that these are only supposed to be at ‘demo’ quality… we still intend to record them properly at a later date):

This whole process has been an incredibly empowering experience for the students and is a great demonstration of the high end of the SAMR model:

SAMR

Software like Garageband and Studio One has enabled students to achieved a huge amount in a very short time and made it possible for this separate group collaborative thing to happen.  Students that recorded audio onto iPhones or wrote down music with traditional notation were no where near as effective in the sharing of their music with others.  By far the best way for this process to succeed was for students to compose using MIDI for the instruments and microphones/audio for the vocals… all along with a click so the music could be easily edited and rearranged by different groups.

Here are a couple of short videos watching students in action as they were creating their songs:

For other teachers who are wanting to run this sort of unit I’ve found that the following will make the process go very well:

  • Ensure that each group has at least one person who plays the following instruments: piano, guitar, drums, voice.  Often drummers don’t have a huge amount to do in the first week or two but as the weeks went by I discovered they were increasingly taking charge of the projects… running the technology (i.e. the computer DAW/sequencer)… which was critical when it came to restructuring ideas previous groups had come up with into coherent song structure of intros, verses, choruses, etc
  • Try and have a computer with a MIDI keyboard and a microphone setup in each room.  If you are using student laptops instead make sure you have a dedicated USB drive that holds the files that they work off… minimise copying of files between computers.  We ended up a losing a complete work from one room that students were working in as they mistakingly copied the wrong files then deleted the proper one.  The most successful songs were those that came out of rooms that had dedicated computers that students used each week.
  • Use the note pad facilities of your DAW (like Garageband or Logic) for writing down chord progressions, lyrics, ideas, etc  Don’t have things on scraps of paper as they may get lost.  Keeping everything with the DAW file is an elegant solution for keeping everything in the same place.
  • Don’t record piano/guitar ideas as audio… try to record them as MIDI.  This will enable successive groups to edit what was recorded.  If it’s audio, they’re stuck with it and are unable to improve upon it.

For me this process has been such an eye opener.  The students surprised themselves with what they could come up with.  The loved the process (they always arrived early from lunch so they could start as quickly as they could) and they grew so much as the weeks went by.

I will be making sure that this way of composing will be incorporated to NCEA composition at our school.  It will grow the numbers of students taking music and will help to break down the perception that you must be an orchestral musician who has been learning since you’re seven years old to be able to succeed in NCEA (even after five years at my school I’m still trying to destroy this myth!).

But overall… it was a heck of a lot of fun.  And that is what teaching and learning should be… shouldn’t it?

Project Based Learning in music – part 3

One thing I get asked a lot on courses I run is about how I structure my NCEA music classes.  If a typical NCEA subject consists of 22-24 credits some teachers are a little incredulous when they hear I offer 53 credits at level 2 and 64 credits at level 3.

The first thing I point out is that it’s not as bad as it sounds as students don’t take all those credits (although I have had one student that did… but he was a rare sort of student as he went on to get NZ’s top Music Scholarship mark in 2013) and even if they are taking around 38-44 credits, up to 16 of those credits could be performance ‘standards’, which we don’t spend any class time on (they do all their learning for this with their instrumental teacher and assessment takes place in concerts).

However, with the majority of my year 13 students doing Project Based Learning this year the whole NCEA credit thing and course structure has become a little more complicated.  In some ways it’s not… in that they’ve chosen the sort of project they want to do (such making an album, or composing for film projects produced by the Year 13 Media/Film class) and the available NCEA Standards should take care of themselves.  But with a dozen or so students all doing different projects, assessment within the NCEA structure can be hard to keep on top of and regularly fills my sleepless nights with worry!

I’ve got one student who as a result of her student leadership position in the school is struggling to keep on top of her workload.  We are now almost halfway through the 2nd term of school (only 4-5 weeks away from halfway point in the year) and I haven’t seen any substantial work from her yet.  It’s clear that she is going to struggle to complete her task of producing a singer/songwriter type album by November unless we find something to motivate.

So this week, we’ve done a review – something I’m finding hugely necessary to keep the students on top of workload and to keep them focused (I’m trying to sit down with each student at least once every two weeks).

What we have done this week with this student is what I believe is the secret to offering lots of NCEA credits – assessing multiple standards from few tasks.  Let’s be clear, it’s not double dipping, it’s about designing smart tasks that have multiple aspects to the work flow that can fit in with the requirements of multiple standards at once.  What I’m finding with PBL is that the tasks need to be personalised to the individual student.  This is the task we’ve designed for her:

  • She has recently developed a real interest in Gospel Music (as a result of what she’s singing in the school choir) and wants to do a research project on it.  She hasn’t narrowed her line of inquiry yet but it’ll be something along the lines of looking at the importance of Gospel music to African-American slaves on the cotton fields and how their harmonies developed… through to how Gospel music continues to influence the harmonies/style of modern R’n’B styles of music.
  • She will do her research and present it but a major part of the presentation will be arranging a piece of music in a Gospel style, using the knowledge that she will develop through her research.  She will produce notation of her arrangement which she’ll annotate for the purposes of the research presentation.  She may even produce two arrangements of two different types of Gospel arrangements with different instrumentation.
  • She will also produce a recording/sequence of her piece of music using knowledge she’s developed using Presonus Studio One and/or Reaper.
  • If we take this further, she may even perform one or two of her arrangements in a performance evening for solo or group performance (but this is less likely as she has plenty of material to use from her singing lessons).

So, from this one task which she is hugely motivated to achieve will result in the following NCEA credits:

  • 3.10 Research standard – 6 credits
  • 3.9 Arranging standard – 4 credits
  • 23730 sequencing and notation standard – 8 credits
  • TOTAL – 18 credits

If you add her solo and group performance Standards of 12 credits she has a course of 30 credits, which is plenty!  If she was doing the 28007 (SOND 3) recording standard, which could easily be incorporated if she had the time to do the learning for it, she would have another 6 credits.

If you’d like to follow her progress as she works through this project you can follow her blog here:

https://musicnotes97.wordpress.com

Thanks, Duncan 🙂

Apple Distinguished Educator

I’m delighted to let you know I’ve just been selected as an Apple Distinguished Educator.

“The Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) Program began in 1994, when Apple recognized K-12 and higher education pioneers who are using a variety of Apple products to transform teaching and learning in powerful ways. Today it has grown into a worldwide community of over 2,000 visionary educators and innovative leaders who are doing amazing things with Apple technology in and out of the classroom. Apple is pleased to welcome Duncan Ferguson to the ADE Class of 2015.  Learn more about this group of innovative educators online at http://www.apple.com/education/apple-distinguished-educator .”

I’ll be sure to pass on anything relating to Music Technology education that I get out of this community on this blog.

Thanks, Duncan 🙂

Project Based Learning in music – part 2

This year with my year 13 music students we are deciding to make a point of not focusing on assessment as being the driver of learning in class (as it should never be but is rarely the case in most NZ schools).  Therefore we are deciding to focus on projects our students can complete through the year.  Projects such as making an album, composing for student films, making music videos. You can see details of my holiday planning for this course here.

We are now nearing the end of term one, and what a busy term its been.  But what is hugely satisfying is that the majority of my class are loving the projects they’re working on and making great progress.  It should be noted that not all students in year 13 music have decided to have a project as a major focus.  They’re quite happy completing the tasks and learning as required by NCEA and that’s great. So, what has this PBL thing looked like this year?  Well, a bit like this:


We started the year spending quite a bit of time searching for inspiration and listing the interests and skill sets of the students.  I’m very big on collaboration and I want the students to help each other out as much as possible.  To keep our ideas and skills at the forefront of what we do we created an Inspiration Wall where students pin up interesting musical related images and text as well as list their outline of their project.

Students have also setup WordPress blogs where they keep a diary of what they’ve found interesting in class and on field trips. Every time we do something in class, or they do some work, they’re expected to document their progress on their blogs. You can see some of them here:

https://jamesmurraymusic.wordpress.com

https://blipblipbang.wordpress.com

https://gusellerm.wordpress.com

https://maxmusic42.wordpress.com

Reading through the blogs you can see we’ve done a few things to focus the students on the craft they need to develop to realise the art they want to produce.  These have been:

  • Guest presenter – Luke Di Somma (local conductor, producer, arranger, composer, MD, etc).  The students were very inspired by chatting to Luke and he dealt with issues such as: where he finds creativity, how he manages his ‘business’, what motivates him, what is required to ‘make it’ in the music industry, etc
  • Visit to local studios and tertiary providers – as recording and technology is a big part of the students’ projects we visited MAINZ and had a great presentation from Ivan Shevchuk.
  • Watching music production tutorials from AVID doing our own mix of the tracks shown in the video.

For the rest of the term we’ve been largely focusing on getting the first part of their projects completed.  This has involved teaching them about how to use our recording equipment and how to mix.  There has been a lot of one-on-one instruction about crafting their compositions and arrangements.  At this stage, we’re just trying to record demo’s of everything as it’s unrealistic of them to produce good quality recordings in term 1 when they have so much learning to do around music production.  It will mean a lot of recording and mixing in term 3 and 4 so we’ll see how we go…

To assist with their learning about recording and mixing we’re going to start a course in mixing through Weathervane music.  Their Instructors Toolkit looks like it could be a great syllabus to work into our music course to advance their music production skills.  I’ll do a separate blog on this once I start using it with my students.

Where to from here…

Well, we’ll need to refocus on what it means to be creative and to make great Art.  We’ve spent quite a while focusing on their craft and finishing the first aspect of their projects, so we need to redress the balance and get focusing on what they are trying to achieve with their project by the end of the year. We’ll get more industry professionals in to talk to us and will visit local producers who can demonstrate their workflow and assist with the discussion around where to find inspiration. Students need to do a stocktake of all they’ve accomplished this term and now that they know what they’re in for need to come up with specific goals that must be achieved in term 2.

We’ll also be joining with the year 13 media class to provide the music for their original short films they’re creating.  This is very exciting and as we’re well setup at St. Andrew’s College with movie composition tools and equipment I’m expecting to see some very professional looking/sounding films in the StAC Film Festival this year.

A new recording studio

Over the last few months I have been involved with the design and rebuild of my music room to create a world class rehearsal, performance and recording space.

We have gone from a very drab looking room that looked like this:

DSC03750

DSC03749

To a fabulous room that looks like this:

DSC05266 DSC05264

DSC05282 DSC05280

As part of the rebuild we have transformed a storage room full of old music (which I have scanned and made available to students through Dropbox) into a control room full of top quality recording equipment.

DSC05273 DSC05270 DSC05259 DSC05256

(and yes, the couches are necessary!).

I will post more details in future posts about the equipment we have, who we employed to do the acoustics design and issues we had to work through for any other music teachers looking to do a rebuild/new build any time soon.

You can see photos of the construction process at the music department Facebook page.

Thanks,

Duncan

Suspect: The Murder Mystery Musical

At the moment there are many people involved with the #28daysofwriting and I’m full of admiration for them! I’m struggling to keep up with one blog post per week. To be fair in my defence in the last week I have just setup a full music block and recording studio after the completion of our music dept building programme. I’ll do a full blog about that soon as I’m sure other teachers will find it fascinating how we’ve created what I think is one of the finest recording studios of any school in New Zealand (and even the world!).

So for my blog this week I thought I’d just send you to an excellent blog written by the director of IT at St. Andrew’s College, Sam McNeill. In this blog Sam interviewed me and we discussed all the different processes and pieces of technology that we used in the creation and production of a musical written by a year 13 student of mine, Isaac Shatford.

StAC e-Learning Stories

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Mr Duncan Ferguson, Isaac Shatford and Ms Ginny Thorner. Mr Duncan Ferguson, Isaac Shatford and Ms Ginny Thorner.

UPDATE: This story profiled on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp on Friday 24th October and can be seen here.

The buzz around St Andrew’s College lately has all been focused on the annual Middle School Production, largely for the fact it has been mostly written by Year 13 student Isaac Shatford, with contributions from a number of other senior students in the area of lyrics and plot. I knew something like this would always involve significant use of technology as the Musical Director was Head of Music Mr Duncan Ferguson, and was actually the first person I interviewed for a story for this blog.

Consequently, I sat down for an hour with him to learn what was involved and was impressed to learn that the following tools were just some that were used during the composition and performance of Suspect:

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Setting up a high school recording studio

On workshops I’m often asked to give an opinion about a certain piece of recording or live PA equipment.  There is so much choice at so many price points that it can be really hard to figure out what is best for your school and your students.

If you’re reasonably comfortable in the world of music technology then my advice would be to read lots of reviews from websites like Sound on Sound, visit other schools, visit studios and talk to a range of sales people in a range of shops.  Never take just one person’s advice (including my own!).

The more you become informed of the options the better position you’ll be in to make smart purchases.

If you’re not overly confident with the world of music technology and just want someone to tell you what to do, here is my advice based on what I’ve found what has worked for me…

Microphones

  • 3 or 4 Shure SM57‘s – the industry standard mic for recording guitar amps, snare drums (as well as tom’s) and can also work great for loud brass instruments.  The most important thing about them for a high school situation is that they’re pretty much indestructible (well, I’ve never had one break on me despite some rough treatment).  If you can only afford a couple of mic’s – just get a pair of these, they even work well on vocals (although you might like to consider an SM58 for these).
  • AT4050 Condenser mic – it’s good to have one good quality condenser mic for recording voice, solo acoustic instruments, etc.  Get a pair of them and you can make great stereo recordings of choirs and orchestras.  There are many comparable condenser microphones from other manufacturers (AKG 414’s are a popular choice) but I love my AT-4050’s.
  • A pair of Neumann KM184‘s – great for over the top of drums, grand pianos, violins, recording ensembles, etc

Recording Interface

There are a huge range of interfaces available now.  If you want one that can double as a mixing desk for a live PA system then I’ve found the Presonus Studio Live desks excellent.  I’m particularly fascinated with their new RM mixer series which only has mic inputs and is controlled from an iPad or touch screen computer.

However, if you want something more ‘pro’ in terms of the preamps and analogue-to-digital conversion (i.e. better sound) then my pick would be the newly updated Apogee Ensemble.  I have the older Ensemble and it’s fantastic (for my studio I also use the Symphony but that is probably out of the budget range of most high school departments).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rM7eLk3ZY1U

Recording software

See my previous posts here and here where I discuss what is the best Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for high schools.

Speakers/Studio Monitors

In the past I’ve had Tannoy Reveal’s, Behringer Truth’s and Mackie HR824’s.  But I’ve never really been happy with any of them. Don’t get me wrong, for a high school situation they’re fine.  They were durable and gave a big sound.  But all of them suffered from not being overly ‘even’ across the frequency range – usually too bassy.

So I consider myself very fortunate to now have Focal SM9‘s, but these cost crazy money.

But… based on reviews I’ve read recently I’d say some of the best monitors at reasonable prices would have to be the Presonus Sceptre’s or any of the mid-priced options from Focal, Adam, KRK or JBL.

IMG_0778

Of course you’ll also need things like cables, mic stands, speaker stands so don’t forget to allow budget for those.

Where do I purchase all this from?  Well, I like to support local stores but online the best website I come back to time and again is Sweetwater.com.  Their service has been faultless.  The other store that has given me great service and good educational discounts is Vintage King (if you ever get the change to visit their LA store make sure you do, it’s amazing).

Audio equipment preferences can be very personal so I do encourage you to do your research.  Don’t get too hung up on reading forums like Gearslutz (too many contrary opinions there!).  The best thing to do is to find other schools that are into music technology and visit them to find out what works.

What is the best DAW for schools? Continued…

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post saying why I think Presonus Studio One Free is the best DAW (recording software) for high school teachers and students to use.

Well… such is the ever-changing nature of technology that I’m having to possibly change my mind.

In the last few hours at NAMM Avid has announced a new piece of software as part of their Pro Tools range, Pro Tools First.

Pro Tools is the industry standard DAW – everyone uses it.  But I advised against using it in schools as it was always too expensive, even the ‘student’ version.  What is different about Pro Tools First though is that it is FREE!  It will have limitations (such as only being able to have 16 audio tracks and can only record up to four at once, which may make it difficult recording drums in some circumstances) but it will do pretty much everything students will need of it.

It has software instruments for using MIDI, plugins such as EQ, Compression, Reverb, Delay, etc and many of the same recording, editing and mixing features as the pro version of Pro Tools.

It has not been released yet but as soon as it has I’ll do a full review of it and how useful it will be to high school teachers and students.

For my New Zealand customers it is likely I’ll produce new tutorial videos and documents for my MUSTEC 27656 and 27658 Unit Standard resources based on this new software (these will be available as a free update).

If you’re a teacher who has been using Studio One Free don’t feel you have to change to anything else.  If it works for you and it helps your students to learn how to record and mix keep using it.  Just because a new piece of software has been released doesn’t mean Studio One has become any less capable.

Probably the main reason I’m excited about this is that it brings back memories of using PT Free back in the early 2000’s on a class set of Windows 98 computers.  That was a great solution for teaching but as Digidesign never updated it for Windows XP or OSX I’ve always been looking for other solutions.

So… I’ll keep you posted on this potentially exciting development for teaching recording and mixing in schools.

Duncan