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

How to create a positive culture in a music department

Having a music department that gets great results academically and in performance is built upon the culture that is established amongst the students and staff.  It is something I constantly struggle with, trying to get it right for all our (25!) music groups.

The title of this blog post is a bit misleading because there is no magic formula for creating a great culture.  The is no A+B+C = X+Y+Z.  Every situation is unique.  However in my reflection there are a few things that seem to be working for us at the moment.

2015 was a struggle for my department in the areas of my jazz groups and the choirs.  Things weren’t terrible, but they were not optimal.  2016 has started with all the groups and students being committed, hard working, supportive of each other – generally a great culture!

Here are a few of the things I think are contributing to this.

A positive Culture…

  • Takes time
  • Needs to be adaptable to the students you have in front of you
  • Needs to be clearly defined in actions (such as making first jazz rehearsal a blues composition class, masterclasses, creating the expectation that everyone has to improvise), not just words, posters or powerpoints!
  • Requires hard calls taking out negative influences from difficult students (but at the same time finding a place for those students in which they can excel by placing them in different groups).
  • Requires careful planning and communication so everyone knows what is coming up (and then sticking to the plan but also being flexible enough to adjust it if students progress requires it).
  • Empowering a senior leadership group of students but at the same time spreading responsibility across all members – don’t just rely on a few ‘stars’ or dominant personalities.
  • Take time to explore the background to why we do what we do (without spending too long on it) – students must know the context of everything they do and the reason for doing it.
  • When things are not going well talk to as many experienced people as you can and MAKE CHANGES! Don’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. If the changes don’t work, talk to more people, reflect more, and MAKE MORE CHANGES!
  • Hire talent, not a reputation – reputation counts for nothing when coming into a new environment. In fact, many adult musicians/singers/tutors are so wrapped up in their reputation that they think the students have to adapt completely to their style of doing things. This is wrong!!!! Tutors must adapt to the students as the tutors are the ones with fully developed brains (hopefully) and have maturity (not always the case, just because they’re older doesn’t mean they’re more mature!). They must make the effort to meet the students where they are at and to then gently lead them to new levels of attitude and performance.
    I have had a lot of success hiring young and inexperienced (but incredibly talented) tutors.
  • Have fun!!! Be funny. Tell jokes (even if they’re not funny, it’s the intention that counts). No one likes to be around people that are serious all the time.

Now I know a few people read this blog that run successful music departments.  Please take five minutes to reflect on what has created a great culture for your department and comment below – share the knowledge.

Thanks, Duncan

How far has Music Technology Education come in 2015?

In a given week I wear a few different hats.  I’m a teacher, a head of department managing a large staff, a resource developer for Learning Ideas, a moderator of other teachers work for NZQA and a developer of exemplars for NZQA.  Somewhere in there I also run workshops in Music Technology for other teachers.

As a result of all these ‘hats’ I feel like I am developing a pretty good picture of the state of Music Technology education in New Zealand.  I see the job that teachers are doing as part of my moderation work with NZQA but I also get to supply resources to teachers to assist them with including Music Tech into their high school programmes.

On the whole I’m hugely encouraged regarding the state of the direction of Music education in NZ for the following reasons:

  1. We have seen the number of schools offering Music Technology Unit Standards more than double over the last year – I’m particularly pleased about this as I fully subscribe to the following quote from Charles Dye (a famous mixing engineer): “I don’t see engineering (mixing) as a career anymore… it’s simply a skill set of being a musician”.
    It’s clear many teachers agree with this sentiment and acknowledge the importance of skills in technology as essential to the modern musician.
  2. The quality of work submitted by teachers is on the whole of a very high standard.  There are many teachers either using the technology resources from Learning Ideas or creating their own and delivering good programmes.  There are a few schools out there doing a poor job but these are very much in the minority.  Generally those schools that are using the technology resources from Learning Ideas are doing a great job.  The info booklets, tutorial videos and assessment documents that Learning Ideas have developed are enabling teachers to deliver quality instruction in music technology.
  3. It’s clear teachers are seeking to up skill themselves for the purpose of providing the best possible education to their students and to maintain their own passion for teaching…

Related to this last point is this fantastic graphic from Mindshift:

10 Ways to Maintain Passion for Teaching

And this is why I love it so much that more schools and teachers are introducing courses in music technology.  Generally ‘older’ teachers don’t have a background in technology and certainly haven’t received training in how to record and operate PA systems.  They are largely self-taught.

While this can be daunting when starting out and require a lot of extra work, the process that a teacher goes through to be able to offer a course in technology requires them to go through all ten of the points in this picture.

And in doing this they become a better teacher across the board, not just in content and skills relating to Music Technology.  And I fully believe it’s important for students to see their teachers being stretched and learning new skills themselves.

So I encourage teachers to print off this picture and stick it up somewhere prominent in their classrooms or offices.  Remind yourself on a daily basis of the importance of maintaining your passion through 2016.

Happy new year.


The dangers of gear lust…

I don’t have many hobbies.  I don’t know why, I think it’s my father’s fault.  He was always a workaholic so I think it’s a bit of his legacy in that when I’m supposed to be relaxing, I’m usually working, or thinking about working.  Case in point… it’s Sunday morning and here I am writing a blog about… work.

However I’ve come to peace with this a while ago.  The thing is, I like many aspects of my work and so if they give me more enjoyment than fishing or golf then I’m not going to feel guilty about it anymore.

So, most weekends you’ll find me reading magazines like Sound on Sound, or reading tech blogs and trying to stay up with the latest developments in the world of music technology so that I can make smart choices about what gear I should be purchasing for my music department.

But, this has a big downside that I’m constantly having to remind myself of.  Just because there is some great new piece of recording equipment that I think I could use really well, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good choice for my students who are not as obsessive about gear as I am.  And it’s worse when it comes to software.  I have to say when people look at Pro Tools on our school recording computer and see we have 20 different types of compressor plugins available I get a little embarrassed.  At times I’ve lost perspective about whether some new plugin will really make a difference to students who are struggling with the fundamentals of how a compressor works in the first place!

So, while I believe I have the knowledge to put together the most incredible recording studio setup in any high school around, is this what is actually best for students in the long run?  Well, yes, and no.

I love it that students in my studio get to work with gear they’ll find in most professional studios any where in the world.  When I take students to see professional studios or to visit Tertiary institutions that run recording programmes it is very gratifying for them to see equipment that they already know how to use like the Apogee Symphony, preamps from Grace, API, Focusrite, La Chapell, microphones from Royer, Neumann, AKG, Shure and so on.

An array of pro quality preamps
An array of pro quality preamps

But for the student that is more into making music than being obsessive about gear (and without being sexist, I’d put most girl students into this category) the gear needs to serve the music… not vice versa.  (And to be honest, it should be like this in all situations… if a recording setup is too complex that it interrupts the creative flow then it needs to be simplified).

So, for those NZ teachers that are now accessing STAR funding or putting together budget for PTA fundraising I encourage you to come up with a statement about the philosophy of your school recording setup long before you start researching what gear is the best for you.  Otherwise you’ll end up making the same mistakes like I have… i.e. purchasing gear and software that rarely gets used (I make it out to sound I’ve been really bad at this, but I’m not really, overall I’m very happy with what I’ve done, but I have made some mistakes).

I would encourage teachers to put together a studio for the purpose of fostering a creative environment that allows students to get their ‘voice’ heard, that will enable them to take the songs they write and to get them out into the public.  This is the way of the future… how many compositions that students create in a traditional format using ‘Sibelius’ ever see the light of day?  But students that record songs and upload them to Soundcloud or YouTube create works of art that will never disappear.

So a studio setup needs to be easy to understand, cost effective and last the distance.  If you have money to spend this is the order I believe you should spend it:

  • Interface/mixer – I’d recommend an all in one unit like the Behringer X32 rather than a separate A/D interface and preamps which cost significantly more and are harder to use (but admittedly better quality).
  • Microphones – start with a few dynamic microphones that can be used on a variety of sources.  Shure SM57’s and SM58’s are the obvious choice.  Don’t save money by getting lower cost mics like the Shure PG range – they’re rubbish!  Then if money allows buy one good quality condenser mic for recording solo instruments and voice (I love the AT4050 but there are many, many more options available from companies like Rode and AKG).
  • Speakers, headphones and cables – don’t go crazy with these.  Obviously you’ll get better quality the more you spend but for your initial setup go with whatever you can afford.

And that’s it!  All this is around $5000 NZD (not including computer or recording software).  It’s simple, sounds great and is easy to understand.  Obviously there is a great need for quality acoustics (which is the main advantage professional studios still have) but to get up and running with a music tech syllabus this should do everything you need.

And whatever you do, don’t start getting hooked into plugins from companies like Slate, Waves or others.  Keep it simple, stay with stock-standard plugins so that the focus is on how to use them, rather than having the students thinking that a single ‘magical’ plugin will make them sound amazing the create professional sounding mixes.

That being said, I really do love the Waves CLA plugins and couldn’t be without them now… And have you seen the update to Ozone? 😉

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 .”

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 🙂

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:



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.



Welcome to my new blog


Hi there,

I’m a teacher of high school music in New Zealand who really loves music technology and the opportunities it is opening up for students.

I’m constantly experimenting with new technologies and teaching methods.  Some of these I get to share on teacher professional development sessions I run.  Feedback I get from teachers is that they find the information and teaching and assessment concepts really great, just a little overwhelming.

So this blog will be the way I share the new things I’m doing, the new technologies I come across that can assist teaching and hopefully provide a forum for other teachers to share their ideas.

A recent blog that was published about me and all the ways I used technology in the composition and production of an original school music (“Suspect”) can be found here:

(btw, if you want to hear the music of “Suspect” you can purchase it on iTunes).

Over the next few weeks (well, once Christmas is out of the way…) I’ll be documenting my journey in creating a project based learning course for my year 13 students that I’ll be running in 2015.

In the standards based assessment system that we use in New Zealand (NCEA) I find my students are at times more concerned with ticking the boxes of assessment requirements rather than being concerned about the information and skills they are learning.  Running a music course in which students choose their focus and work on major projects through the year is my attempt to get students passionate about learning, developing their craft and producing great art!

If you’re a music teacher make sure you check out my website where you can purchase Ear Training and Music Technology resources.  These are specifically written for the New Zealand curriculum and assessment system but teachers in other countries do find them very useful.

Duncan 🙂