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

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.

Duncan

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? 😉

Avenues for Professional Development for teachers

For me, the greatest issue in NZ High School Music Education is how do we get more schools teaching Music Technology – i.e. using MIDI and audio (microphones, DAW’s, interfaces, etc) to produce music.  While I’m a huge believer in teaching reading music and notation (in my professional career most of the work I got was because I was known as one of the few good sight-reading bass players in town) the reality is that these skills are of less importance to students wanting a career in pop and rock music.

For these students, knowledge of how to produce with Logic or Pro Tools is of a lot more importance.  Now, I know that if I wrote this on the Artsonline Musicnet email network (an email network connecting NZ High School Music Teachers) the daggers would be out with plenty of people attacking me (but also plenty of people in support).  But in all my reading, research and experience running a recording studio and teaching high school for over ten years I’m becoming more and more convinced of the importance of music production skills using technology.

Let me say out front that this is not my background.  I’m not trained in music technology.  I have two music degrees majoring in classical and jazz music.  But the longer I’m involved with the music industry the more I see the need to train our high schools students for the realities of our music world.  The simple fact of the matter is that if they are into Pop or Rock, then it’s more important to know how to produce music with a DAW than it is to be able to read Figured Bass or to be able to analyse Sonata Form.

What is heartening is that there are plenty of teachers that agree with me but many teachers who have been around for a while often have the question: “Where do I start?”

My business, Learning Ideas Ltd, has been providing Music Technology workbooks for the New Zealand Unit Standard system for the last few years and as best I can tell, these workbooks and tutorials have been of great help to many students.  I have also been running workshops for teachers all over NZ for the last few years.  And while I think these are very positive and helpful sessions for teachers I’m mindful of the fact that many teachers are overwhelmed with information.

What many teachers need, particularly older teachers, is someone to walk along side them in the teaching of their first year of music technology.  By all means use the workbooks and tutorials from Learning Ideas but teachers should seek the help of someone else who knows the ‘content’ very well (even if they’re not trained teachers).

These might be teachers at other schools, but probably not as most teachers are struggling with the workload at their own school so can’t help other schools too much.

So far, I think the solution lies with our Tertiary providers.  Places like MAINZ, SAE, CPIT and Universities that are running music production courses (like Massey, Auckland, etc).  Teachers should seek out the people who run those music schools to find the best students in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th years of study.  After all, in NZ, everyone involved in the music industry is involved in education in some way so getting ‘placement’ into high schools to assist teachers can only be good for those Tertiary students.  And because they’re not qualified yet teachers shouldn’t have to pay them too much!  (Teachers need to remember though that any resources or teaching associated with Performing Arts Technology Standards can be paid for with STAR funds).

I see this as a win/win situation.  Teachers can offer Music Production/Tech courses that will attract higher numbers into their programmes, and they can be in charge of assessment.  But in the teaching of complicated things like Compressor Threshold and Ratio, Phase, RT, Parametric EQ, and so on… they can have Tertiary students who should know the basics of all the knowledge and basic techniques of use.  Teachers will still need to do their own PD (see here for some good options) but the pressure on the teacher to know everything immediately is taken away.

So, if you’re one of those teachers that want to offer a music technology course in 2016 but don’t know where to start send me an email to sales@learningideas.co.nz

I’ll set you up with the resources and I’ll help you touch base with your local Tertiary Music Tech provider who maybe in a position to send some talent students or recent graduates your way.

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:

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 12.20.09 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 12.20.14 pm

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 12.21.22 pm

which shows you a plugin menu:

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 12.21.52 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 12.22.08 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 12.28.03 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 12.29.02 pm

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.