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.

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

How to mix… for high school teachers (a starting point)

There are many guides to mixing all over the internet, YouTube, Amazon, etc – it can all be a little overwhelming if you’re a high school teacher wanting to do music technology/recording/mixing with your students.  Where do you start?

Studio One screen shot

Well, if you have the time, in my opinion the best resource is the book Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior.  Of course there are many video tutorials on recording and mixing from Groove3.com and Askvideo.com as well as free guides on YouTube.  But I’m going to assume you don’t have the time to dig deeply into those excellent resources and want to do something with your students fast.

I’m not going to go into an overall picture of how to mix or get too deep, here is something I do with my year 10 and 11 students (14-15 year olds) that gets them going.

  1. If you don’t have a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) then download Studio One Free from Presonus – it’s Mac and PC compatible (see my previous blog as to why I like this DAW).
  2. Watch this guide I’ve done about how to download and install it:
    http://youtu.be/kn6hTLC_aUs
  3. Download some multi-track audio files from the excellent Shaking Through website (direct link to “Hop Along” is below – one of my favourite episodes):
    http://weathervanemusic.org/shakingthrough/episodes/hopalongNote, you’ll need to create a free membership to download files (highly recommended).  Other excellent files you can download straight away are available from Mike Senior’s excellent website.If you’d like something more ‘orchestral’ in nature you can download these files composed by a student of mine (you can hear our final mix of it here).
  4. Drag and drop the audio files into Studio One or other DAW.  First bring up the most important instrument (probably the lead vocals) to 0dB (or unity gain).  Then balance all other tracks in proportion so that you have a rough balance.  If you’ve chosen the Hop Along track then you’ll probably do it in the order of: drums, bass, guitars, keys, BV’s, any other stuff.
    Studio One faders
  5. Pan the tracks.  Leave the most important track (vocals) down the middle along with the kick drum, snare drum and bass guitar.  Pan everything else to varying degrees left and right.
    Studio One panning
  6. You’ll now have a rough balance but things won’t quite be sitting nicely.  Now put a ‘channel strip’ (or EQ if using another DAW) plugin on each track.  You now need to cut and boost various frequency bands to take away the parts of the instrument sounds that are not important (such as mid range on a kick drum).  Try stick to just cutting frequencies, don’t boost (as sometimes making something louder makes you think it’s better when it’s really not).  By cutting ‘unnecessary’ sounds from some instruments you create space for other instruments to ‘breathe’.  A good example is to cut mid-low frequencies from the kick drum to stop it from ‘competing’ with the bass guitar for the low end.
    Studio One Channel strip
  7. As you adjust EQ don’t be afraid to go back and change your fader settings on the mixer or alter your panning.

Here is a quick video demonstrating all of the above:

That’s it.  Have your students do this with a bunch of different tracks from Shakingthough.com or Mike Senior’s excellent website.

Those of you that know a lot about mixing will be (rightly) asking… “but what about compression, reverb, gating, special FX, etc, etc?”.  Yes, those are important, but for teachers and students who are starting out mixing I think it’s best to leave it to what I’ve described above and for them to do at least 4-6 weeks on a few different sessions so they fully understand balancing faders, panning and EQ.

I’ve deliberately avoided any theory around EQ, parametric EQ’s, filters, bandwidth and other EQ technical things.  That can come later (and it’s all very important).  For now, just use your ears, and have the class compare their mixes.  Some students will be much better than others… use the strengths of those students to teach the others.

If you would like more detail around the theory of EQ’ing (which is necessary for NZ students doing Unit Standards 27703 and 28007) you can order the relevant workbooks from Learning Ideas Ltd.

Thanks,

Duncan

What is the best DAW for schools?

Just so everyone is on the same page… a DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation) is the software on a computer that you use to record and mix audio and MIDI.  With the dramatic increase in computing power combined with falling costs now anyone can have a fully fledged recording and mixing system on their computer (or iPad or iPhone!).

In the past it was too expensive for schools to have recording systems (after all, who can afford an SSL, Neve or API mixing desk?) but now with cheap microphones and interfaces made in China, combined with powerful (and relatively cheap) computers any high school music department can have a recording ‘studio’.

The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.
The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.

So… what DAW or recording/mixing software should schools use?  There are so many options.

Here is your answer… Studio One Free from Presonus.

Why?  Here are my reasons:

  • It’s free (for the basic version) – students can download it to their own laptops and home computers right away and get playing around with it.
  • It’s cross platform – i.e. it works the same on Mac and Windows computers.  Therefore teachers can be assured that all students are working on the same software so they don’t need to know how to use multiple pieces of software.
  • It comes with good MIDI instruments so students can plug in a MIDI keyboard or other controller and get recording very quickly.
  • If you want to see how quickly you can download, install and record with it I’ve made a quick overview video that you can see here:

Some commons questions I get from teachers at workshops when I say this:

  1. So why not Garageband?  Well… I love Garageband (it is actually better than Studio One Free in many ways), but it only works on Mac computers so if you have students in your class with Windows laptops it creates issues in that you’ll have some students on Studio One and some on Garageband.  Many teachers are fine with that so if you’re one of those go for it (I have students using both DAW’s) but in the interest of keeping things simple… it’s probably best to keep all students on the same software.
  2. Why not Pro Tools… isn’t that industry standard?  Yes it is.  It’s my personal DAW of choice.  But it’s sooooo expensive!!  No way most high schools can afford it.  I had 12 Pro Tools 001, 002 and Mbox systems at an old school (an investment of around $15,000 at the time) and all those systems a long time ago became obsolete.  Pro Tools is much better now that you don’t have to have AVID/Digidesign hardware to use it, but for the software it’s still too expensive in my opinion.
  3. Why not Apple Logic Pro?  I also love Logic and it is now amazingly cheap.  But once again… Mac only.
  4. Why not Reaper… isn’t that also free?  I’ll get into this more below.
  5. Why not… blah blah blah?  There are many DAW’s out there and if you as the teacher are more comfortable in teaching those to your students (and your students can afford it) then go with them.  But if you’re new to this… stick with Studio One.

So what about Reaper?

Reaper is awesome.  It’s not exactly free, it just has an unlimited trial period.  But you can purchase it for your school at incredibly cheap prices (non-commercial licences are only $60 USD but you can get it cheaper if you purchase in bulk as an educational institution).  But, for working with MIDI keyboards (which is a big part of the level 1 Music Technology Unit Standards in New Zealand) it has proven to be too complicated for many teachers to setup… which is why I suggest Studio One.

For NZ teachers who are using the ‘SOND’ unit standards, 26687, 27703 and 28007 Reaper is probably a better bet.  For the level 2 and 3 standards your students need to be using fully parametric EQ’s and compressors that have ratio, threshold, attack/release and knee controls.  Studio One Free doesn’t allow you to use EQ’s and compressors (although the paid versions of Studio One that you can see outlined here do allow you to use better EQ’s and compressors) which is why if you’re wanting to stay with ‘free’ software, Reaper is a great choice.

So in summary…

  • In setting up a music technology programme at your school that uses MIDI (such as NZ schools wanting to teach the level 1 ‘MUSTEC’ standards 27656 and 27658) download Studio One Free.
  • If you’re an NZ school wanting to offer the ‘SOND’ standards 26687, 27703 and 28007 either buy Studio One Artist upgrade ($93NZD per licence currently…edu discounts may be available by emailing Presonus) or use Reaper (unlimited trial or purchase at very cheap prices).
  • If you are a school that is wanting to offer a full on studio experience then it’s probably advisable to purchase Pro Tools, Logic and Studio One Pro eventually.  But before you spend any money make sure you are absolutely certain that you need them, it’s very easy to waste money on software you hardly use!

Any suggestions or disagreements?  Please use the comments section to give your opinions on what you’ve found works well in schools.  But before you do, please ensure that the opinions you share are based on actual classroom and student experience.  I’ve had people in the past say that you must use Pro Tools with students as that is what is in pro studios and tertiary institutions, but when I’ve dug further I’ve found out these people have never taught in high schools let alone have had to juggle limited financial restrictions that most high schools struggle with.  What we are teaching should be recording and mixing, which can be done on any decent DAW.  Skills are easily transferable between software platforms.

Anyway, enough of my soapbox, let me hear what you have to say.

Oh, btw, Merry Christmas.

Duncan