A lot of teachers in New Zealand and around the world this past week are grappling with how to deliver courses online. At Learning Ideas we have a lot of resources for Songwriting, Music Technology, Ear Training and Music Theory that are ‘flipped’ resources, they have videos and workbooks that show your students much of what they need to know on a certain topic.
However, when it comes to composing at home there are now some amazing tools for students. Ableton Live, Logic Pro and others are offering free 90 day licences for fully functional ‘pro’ software so it’s worth looking into those options. The Verge have collated a lot of the free and trial options here. Well worth a read.
However, I’m more interested in what options are out there for students and teachers beyond the 90 days. Fortunately, there are now lots of amazing recording and composition tools available for free. So, if you like free stuff that’s awesome quality, here is my pick of the best free software available.
Project Sam The Free Orchestra
Project Sam is one of my favourite Orchestral and Jazz sample libraries. I use their sounds in my film composition work all the time. Their full sample libraries are very expensive (although they do offer educational discounts) so this is exciting news that they have released some of their best sounds for free.
Spitfire Audio Labs
My other favourite orchestral sample library company is Spitfire Audio. They release a lot of their best sounds for free in dedicated players. Super high quality, and sound amazing. Head over to their Labs website to download them.
Native Instruments Komplete Start
No other company offers (in my opinion) the range of virtual instruments, effects and sample libraries that Native Instruments does. For anyone that can afford it, I highly recommend purchasing their Komplete library… but for students that probably can’t afford it, you get an amazing range of instruments and sample libraries from their Komplete Start library.
Waveform by Tracktion
All those sample libraries and virtual instruments are great, but they’re useless without a Digital Audio Workstation to play them in. As mentioned above, Ableton and Logic are for 90 days, but students might like to try this free DAW instead. There is the ‘free to evaluate’ software Reaper (which is incredible and definitely considered ‘pro’ software), but that is quite hard for a lot of people to get their head around when it comes to MIDI instruments. Waveform Free by contrast, seems very easy to setup and it has many wonderful getting started tutorials on YouTube.
There are so many free options for technology and composition. The ones I’ve mentioned above are my favourite, but why do you write in the comments anything you think I’ve left out. Yes, I know I’ve left off Soundtrap.com 🙂
Last term our senior musical was “Parade” by Jason Robert Brown. This was an exceptionally complex show, so we wanted to make a good recording of it for our archival purposes (we are unable to share the video for copyright reasons).
The live sound desk in our theatre is a Midas M32, which enables us to plug a laptop in via USB and record all 32 channels on the desk to separate tracks in Logic Pro, so we can do a better mix of it for video later. We had 23 radio mics and 9 channels for the band.
Watch this video to see my overview before reading my workflow below.
My workflow for working with a Logic project of this size is to do the following:
Colour code all tracks – lead parts go in yellow, girls ensemble in pink and boys ensemble in blue.
Create a basic mix for the band – balance faders, corrective EQ, compression if necessary. I won’t do any reverb on them as there is so much leakage from other mics, and the room mic I have at the back reverb is possibly unnecessary.
I will create aux channels – one for the boys and one for the girls. This allows me to control the overall volume of the girls with one fader and the boys with a different fader.
Do a basic mix for each vocal mic. This will usually involve a high pass filter to get rid of all low frequency leakage into the mics from the band. Then apply corrective EQ to get rid of any nasty frequencies (usually honky mid frequencies). I will then place mild compression on each vocal mic to reduce dynamic differences, making the voices easier to balance and making their words clearer and easier to understand. At this stage I am often mixing each vocal mic in solo. This is often discouraged in most mixing scenarios but here it’s necessary to clean up the sound of each vocal mic. We can do further fine tuning of the tracks later.
I will create aux channel strips for reverb and delay, which means I can route any signal to those tracks to create ambience (if necessary).
I will then work on a song where the full ensemble is singing (usually the finale) to create a basic full ensemble mix. This involves balancing faders, and then maybe some fine tuning of the EQ on some voices to make them blend. I am a big fan of putting a large amount of compression on the aux bus of these groups of singers – it really does ‘glue’ the sound of an ensemble ‘choral’ sound together.
Now, at this point it’s where I get tricky. For each of the important characters I will then duplicate their tracks twice. One of the duplicates I’ll mix it for how they sound when lead singing (usually a bit more reverb) and for the second duplicate I’ll mix it for when they are speaking dialogue (probably no reverb at all). The point of having separate tracks for the separate ‘roles’ of each character is to reduce the need for automation of volume and effects. This way, I can just chop up their regions in the arrange window and drag them to the appropriate track and in theory, they should sound appropriate.
And that’s basically it. With regards to actual mixing, I spend a comparatively small amount of time doing that. Instead, I spend a long time editing – deleting the unused regions (i.e. when people are backstage but their track has recorded everything they said) and then chopping up the main characters and copying them to their ensemble, lead or dialogue tracks.
Watch the video above, and you’ll see how I do it. Feel free to send me comments about how you think this process could be further refined.
Music teachers are busy. I don’t need to go into all the reasons why… just take my word for it! So it is a shame that music teachers, who should be engaging with their creative sides as much as possible, are often so caught up with admin and managing a large number of classes and a whole co-curricular programme.
I have felt the pressure of the job, and have neglected my own creativity. While I regularly perform on my instruments with my students, I have found it very hard to spend anytime composing.
As I write this I’m winging my way to Europe to attend the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute. One of the workshops I’ll present while I’m there is demonstrating how my students have been using three key Apple Apps as part of their creative workshop.
What I love about what Apple have done is that these apps are all fantastic by themselves. But when you look at how they work together to support the compositional and production process they create their own ‘ecosystem’ that greatly assist students with creating original music.
Music Memos is the newest app. It’s basically the Voice Recorder app that as been available for iOS for a long time but configured for musicians with a few neat features.
My students use it on their iPhones and iPads for capturing their rough musical ideas when they’re in practise rooms, on the bus or anywhere that inspiration strikes.
Here is a student of mine using it to record some ideas she had for a verse in a new song.
Music Memos has this amazing ability to not just record audio, but to also analyse the timing of the performance and the harmony used. It is then able to create a session timeline of bars and beats and provide you with information of the chords that were played.
It can even provide a virtual band of bass and drums to play along with your performance (of which settings you’re able to configure).
While all this sounds amazing in reality my students haven’t found it hugely accurate with it’s analysis (but this is more the fault of the performers than the app). With very good performers (like you’ll probably see on YouTube reviews of the App) it works fine but with high schoolers I’ve found the chordal analysis and bass & drums backing very hit and miss.
You will notice in the video that Bella was very intentional about trying to play as in time as possible and strongly outlining the beat – this really helps Music Memo’s with the analysis (but even then, it still got a lot of chords wrong in the analysis). However, many students struggle to play their parts clearly so the analysis can be rather misleading.
But, this doesn’t diminish how useful Music Memos is in capturing ideas, tagging them with keywords and allowing them to share those ideas with friends. It really is the perfect digital scrapbook.
However, when the chordal analysis does work it’s amazing as you’re able to import your Music Memos files into GarageBand on iOS or MacOS (including a MIDI realisation of the bass and drums that were added).
Music Memo’s projects are easily able to be opened in GarageBand on the iPad. This is fantastic as you’re then able to use the amazing ‘Smart Instruments’ to create new chord progressions, accompaniments from a variety of instruments such as keys, bass, drums, strings, etc For students that don’t play piano or guitar this is a massive support to their songwriting.
However, using iCloud you’re also able to open Music Memos projects into GarageBand on the MacOS.
This is what we did here. Bella opened her project up so that she could record some MIDI keys and start mucking around with overdubbing vocals, harmony parts, etc She’s also able to alter the exisiting Music Memos Bass and Drums or she can create new parts using GarageBand’s Drummer tracks.
What is very clever is that GarageBand has created a tempo map of her performance in Music Memos so any loops we drag in to the session will be snapped to the correct timing.
However, if we wanted it to be all exactly in time we can do this be deleting all the tempo changes in the tempo track at the top of the window. GarageBand is then able to conform the original Music Memos performance into time using Flex time.
The best thing about using GarageBand at this stage of the songwriting process is that the student is now able to start playing around with the structure, instrument choice, drum patterns, add vocal harmonies, overdub guitar solos, etc – basically create a polished ‘demo’ of the song and arrangement.
This is of great assistance to the composer and musicians that are going to be collaborating in a recording session.
If you’d like to download Bella’s basic demo and have a go at creating your own arrangement you can do so by clicking here (please don’t share or sample this work – all copyright is retained by Isabella Ford and St Andrew’s College).
If the artist is really happy with the demo then they’re able to open their GarageBand file in Logic and record in a studio environment. However, for this project we decided to start in Logic from scratch with the musicians.
Logic Pro X
Once Bella had her song sorted out we went into our school studio with musicians for a few hours. She played them her song live and also played her demo from GarageBand. They discussed what feel it should have, and how to structure the piece. The string player (who also did BV’s) thought through possible parts she could add in and discussed with Bella.
They ended up adding in an extended solo section which is not what Bella had originally intended.
Here is the final result:
We recorded into Logic Pro X through an Apogee Symphony interface using preamps from Grace, La Chapell, Focusrite, Radial and API. Our studio also has very nice acoustics. Using equipment and a facility of this quality meant that we were able to get very good sound tracks that were easy to make a rough mix of in a couple hours.
However, the biggest reason why this song sounds great is not because of the quality of our equipment, or the skill of the musicians (of course these things are essential). It was the effective creation process that these three Apple Apps helped with. Through capturing ideas in practise rooms with Music Memos, to crafting an effective arrangement and ‘demo’ in GarageBand, and finishing with recording a live band of skilled musicians into Logic Pro X.
This workflow is what has been key to the success of this song. And to prove this isn’t an isolated case here are some of the other songs produced by my students in this manner.
At my school, St Andrew’s College, we’ve got one of the best Music Technology programmes in New Zealand. We have a world class studio. Students are making albums in which they compose, perform and record all their own material. But the thing is… I’ve just had the insight that I’ve never really had a strategy for growing music technology skills in my students from years 9-13… it’s all just kind of happened.
This week I’m running workshops for teachers in how to create a music technology programme and it’s through the course of the first day that it’s dawned on me. I’ve got a pretty good course running, but it could be so much better if I am more intentional about what I want to see produce by students at each year level.
Currently this is what I’m running at each year level:
All students in our school do ‘core’ music for two periods a week. In the past they’ve made loop based compositions with Mixcraft and Soundation but this year I’ve moved on to using the excellent Soundtrap.com.
With loop based composition it has just been about exposing students to the basics of how a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) works and to focus on their compositional skills of developing structure and texture.
Recently (as in… last week) I got these students (who are not ‘music’ students, most of them don’t play instruments) to plug in MIDI keyboards to their computers and to run Soundtrap.com while doing classroom performance. Here is the result of what they came up with:
The next step is to get them composing using loops and making melodies with keyboards utilising the pentatonic scale. Or, I could get them to make drum beats using loops or the built in sampler on Soundtrap, compose their melodies on glockenspiels or Xylophones (or other instruments if they play them) and to then record in their compositions to Soundtrap using their laptop microphone.
I’m rather excited now, I can’t wait to get into next term and try it!
In year 10 students can choose to take ‘Option’ Music. In this course students are involved with writing songs and recording them using MIDI keyboards and microphones with Garageband. This course last year was the most successful course I’ve run and as a result this year we now have our largest year 11 class St Andrew’s College has ever had.
In the year 11 course I have given students the option to do composition in a DAW, not just by using Sibelius as I have traditionally done. This is hugely exciting as I’m seeing an amazing level of creativity. The NZ Music Commission has been hugely helpful with their composers in residence scheme and the tutor they’ve provided us has been excellent.
Here is an example of what a student has composed. This is from a student who plays Oboe to around grade 5 level so it was a huge surprise to me to find out she had this in her!
At year 11 students also learn the basics of putting together PA and recording systems, what microphones are good for which situations and how to run sound for a lunchtime concert. The focus has traditionally been on just what the equipment does and how to connect it.
Students complete Unit Standards 27656 and 26687. Generally they’re using Studio One Prime, Pro Tools First or Garageband.
In year 12 students complete Unit Standards 27658 and 27703 so they get a good grip on how to mix and how to use Parametic EQ, Compression, Delays & Reverb. They take tracks recorded by other people from websites like shakingthrough.com and mix them.
In terms of assessment students complete Unit Standards 23730 and 28007.
When I look at what my students are producing I’ve got a huge sense of pride. But, I get the sense that if I provided them with more clarity around expectations of what they’ll be producing each year, they’ll be producing albums in year 13 that will truely be mind blowing.
So, what would an overall high school music course music technology plan look like? I’ll let you know when I write the next blog 🙂
Please note, this may take some time so please aim to install it a few days in advance of the workshop, not the night before ;-). Please also watch the getting started videos further down on that page (this will take no more than an hour). You also need to download the free Xpand 2 plugin/software instrument through the Avid Marketplace (from within Pro Tools First) but we are able to do this at the workshop.
Thursday 14 April – An advanced day focusing on best practice for teaching and assessment of level 3 Performing Arts Technology Unit Standards.
Cost: $195.00 + GST
Time: 10-3pm (with time for questions and discussion until 5pm).
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Assessment tips and techniques for 27703 (SOND 2)
Assessment tips and techniques for 28007 (SOND 3) – as part of this we will record and mix a live student band and walking through the assessment process.
Assessment tips and techniques for 27658 (MUSTEC 3)
Assessment tips and techniques for 23730 (new v4 for 2016)
Course Design for year 13 – Project Based Learning (if time)
As a result of this study I have produced a document called The Music Educators Technology Survival Guide. This is a free download and takes you through recommended equipment required to setup up a music technology programme in your high school. It also provides an overview of the requirements for the NZQA Unit Standards, which you may use to assess your students’ music technology skills.
However, it’s one thing to have all the gear for teaching music technology but I’ve found the physical makeup of your studio/recording/mixing spaces, are critical to student success.
Of course, the quality of the acoustics in your recording space(s) is one of the most important factors but unless you’re involved in a new build of your department there may not be a huge amount you can do (whatever you do, don’t put egg cartons on your walls, they will only make things worse!).
But if you are lucky enough to plan a new setup this is what I recommend you aim for when you’re trying to record a rock band.
Some important things to note:
All the musicians (apart from the singer) are recording in the same room at the same time but the only instrument that is actually mic’ed up in the recording room is the drum kit.
The guitar signal is recorded via a DI box, which is then outputted to an amplifier in a separate ‘amp’ room (using a specialized reamp device). The guitar amp is mic’ed up with one or two mics and those signals are then returned to the recording system. The guitar amp signal is then fed back to the musicians via headphones.
The bass player is recorded via a DI box with the signal returned to the musicians headphones. The bass track usually sounds great if you have a good quality DI (like a Radial JDI) but if you need to reamp it later and/or overdub this is also an option.
The singer is recorded in the mixing (or other) room with their signal coming back to the musicians’ headphones. If the quality of the singer’s track is not good enough they can be overdubbed later.
Why does this setup work so well?
Generally high schools students are not going to be good enough to record to a click track and retain a good feel, and they’re also not great at overdubbing instruments one by one. So this setup allows them to play all together as they would in a normal rehearsal room, hopefully creating a great groove.
But with our multi-room setup (i.e. having an amp room) we are able to record each instrument on to isolated tracks in our DAW so if one musician makes a minor mistake you don’t have to stop the take as you would if you had the amps in the same rooms as the drum microphones. Any minor mistakes can be cut out and re-recorded (or inserted from another take) just by the musician that made the mistake, without forcing the whole band to do another take.
Having all instruments on isolated tracks (without any ‘bleed’ from the other instruments in their tracks) allows us to fix timing and pitch issues with software like Celemony Melodyne.
On a recent session the bass player had huge trouble locking in with the drums. If the band had recorded to a click track it would be easy to ‘quantize’ the bass audio to the grid but as I said before, most high school bands aren’t good enough to be able to record to click well.
But using the new version of Melodyne 4 you are easily able to generate a ‘tempo map’ of the performance (most likely using the drum kit as your timing reference) which you can then quantize the bass to, making the two musicians perfectly in time with each other (even though they didn’t record to a click). I’ll do a full review of this software and walk through this process in a future blog.
If you want hands on, practical help with understanding how to create a recording setup like this I’m running workshops for teachers – Learning Ideas Teacher Training.
What is your physical recording setup in your school? Comment below and share what works for you.
This week I’m lucky enough to be attending the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute in Singapore.
Yesterday I enjoyed lunch with the Heads of the Development teams for iMovie and Garageband. They were both very inspirational in their presentation but at the same time kind, down to earth and accessible.
I’ve done recent posts extolling the wonders of the new Pro Tools First mainly because it is free, cross platform (which many schools may require) and comes with excellent MIDI instruments and reverb, compression and EQ plugins.
However, there are many schools that are lucky enough to be Mac only (yes – big bias coming through here – but that is only because I’m very much over finding that our MIDI keyboards and audio interfaces don’t play nicely with the myriad of Windows devices kids bring to my school). For these schools the logical solution for them in running a music technology course is Garageband.
So I thought I’d do a bit of a post showing why Garageband really is one of the best pieces of software around and how it can be useful for NZ teachers doing the Performing Arts Technology at level 2 and above.
When you highlight a track and press this button:
you end up with controls to do broad changes to your sound. Now, these are excellent. But for level 2 SOND standards and above you need more control. You need to be able to change the threshold of the compressor, the ratio, change reverb levels, work with parametric EQ.
Initially it may seem that you can’t do this… until you press this button
which shows you a plugin menu:
Here you are able to open the individual plugins which contribute towards the first user interface that you saw, and in here you can customise pretty much anything you need to. And it sounds great!!! Remember, these are the same plugins that are in Logic, just packed slightly different to seem less intimidating. There are a few features missing from what you’d get with Logic (such as ability to control and knee or release in a compressor) but most of what you need is there.
If you’ve created a guitar track then it’s the same scenario, you’re able to see the pedal board, amp selection and all other aspects that go into making that particular sound.
And we don’t have time to get too far into the Drummer feature here but needless to say, it really is an amazing feature.
So when you dig a little deeper, you can see that Garageband is far from a toy. It is a serious DAW and completely usable for all of the SOND standards. Where you might find you have some issues is when it comes to editing audio to improve the performance. Here it may be a little clunky… but still possible. Pro Tools First would definitely have the edge here so level 3 SOND students may want to try both DAW’s and see what works for them.
The guys from Apple shared some really exciting news about the next release of Garageband (which I’d better not share here) which will make the fact that this is a free piece of software even more amazing!
Watch this space for a full review of the new Garageband when it comes out later in the year!
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 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
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.
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.