The importance of being creative

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.

So, this year I’ve decided to do something about it and engaged in a Film Composition course through Berklee University.

This has been a 12-week course in which you analyse different genres of film music composition such as love themes, high intensity action, supernatural/grandeur, sad themes, etc

In addition to analysis, completion of short pre-tasks and quizzes on music theory you have to compose music for a 2-3 minute film clip each week.

In a busy work life at school this has been tough.  But, it’s been awesome. I’ve found the following benefits:

  • My students hugely respect that I take my own learning and growth seriously
  • My students appreciate that I’m not asking them to do anything in a week that I’m not prepared to do myself
  • I have been forced to put admin aside to focus on creativity
  • I have gained confidence to share my own work
  • I am better able to demonstrate to my students the creative process involved with composition
  • I now have a bunch of great templates in Logic Pro which I can share with my students as they do their own film composition tasks
  • I have massively improved my MIDI sequencing chops in Logic Pro
  • I have finally got my head around some of the amazing possibilities of what you can do with my sample libraries

Tools/software used

Composing a new piece of music that sounds great for 12 weeks in a row is tough.  However, I’ve been fortunate to have the following tools and software at my disposal:

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol

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Native Instruments Komplete 11

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Project Sam Symphobia 1 & 2 and Lumina Sample libraries

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Spitfire Audio Orchestra collection

SpitfireMasse_KontaktPLayer

Roli controller and it’s Equator Synth

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Demo Reel

Well, I suppose you want to hear a bit of what I’ve done.  Here is my demo reel from the course.  I’ve included short excerpts from five of my 12 compositions in the following genres:

  1. Love theme – Sense & Sensibility ‘kiss’ scene
  2. Action – trailer for Troy
  3. Fantasy – from Once Upon A Time
  4. Suspense – Iron Man (when Tony Stark is captured)
  5. Action/suspense – 2012 deleted scene

The clips don’t make sense all the time with the dialogue and SFX removed (as well as being unable to see the pictures I was composing to) but it gives a good impression of what I’ve been up to.

Creating Music with Apple Apps

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

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.

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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).

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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).

GarageBand

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Strategy for growing Music Tech skills in Music students

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:

Year 9

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!

Year 10

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.

I wrote a blog about this in depth last year.  But here is a clip of students creating in the studio.

Year 11

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.

Year 12

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.

Because of the requirements of the Unit Standards they can’t use beginner software like Garageband or Soundtrap so they move up to Pro Tools (or Pro Tools First), Logic or Reaper.

Year 13

This is when it all comes together and students engage in Project Based Learning, often to make an album of material they have composed and performed.  An excellent example is from one of my students last year who made a whole album.

In terms of assessment students complete Unit Standards 23730 and 28007.

Reflection

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 🙂

 

Teacher training – Music Technology

For New Zealand High School teachers here are the details of some Professional Development workshops I’m running.  Please register your interest by emailing sales@learningideas.co.nz

Tuesday 12 April – Incorporating Music Technology into your Music Department
Cost: free (this day is funded by the Heads of Independent Secondary Schools Trust so is only available to teachers from Independent Schools)
Time: 10-4pm
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Course structure for Achievement and Unit Standards
  • Project Based Learning
  • Equipment and skills required to teaching Performing Arts Technology and Music Technology Unit Standards
  • Collaborative Composition using technology
  • Open forum time for teachers to discuss challenges and successes of teaching in an Independent School environment
  • Apple Distinguished Educator Programme
Wednesday 13 April – A beginners guide day for teachers new to teaching Music Technology.
Cost: $150.00 + GST
Time: 10-3pm
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Overview of gear required for teaching music technology – basic studio setup
  • Overview of 27656 (MUSTEC 1)
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 26687 (SOND 1)
  • Producing Notation from Audio & MIDI including a demo of the new features of Melodyne 4 (if time)
Please bring your laptop and a MIDI keyboard (although I have plenty if you to use if it’s inconvenient for you to bring your own).
To prepare for this day please download and install the free software Pro Tools First from: http://apps.avid.com/ProToolsFirst/
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
Topics covered:
  • 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)

The ideal setup for a school recording studio

Last year I was lucky enough to be granted the Head of Independent Schools Scholarship Trust award. This enabled me to travel to San Francisco and NYC to study how Music Technology is successfully being incorporated into high schools.

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.

Recording Room Setup

Band recording in one room

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.
    Guitar Signal Flow
  • 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.

Thanks, Duncan

Garageband – serious DAW or a toy?

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.

Plugins

When you highlight a track and press this button:

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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.

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Initially it may seem that you can’t do this… until you press this button

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which shows you a plugin menu:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Duncan

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.

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.

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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.