32-bit recording

It is rare that in a particular year there is a huge standout product or piece of music technology equipment. While everything is always getting better and cheaper, often it is gradual improvements to things like recording software or microphones which make the life of a recording musician and composer easier in some way.

However, last year a new audio recorder came out that is particularly worth of mention. The Zoom F6.

Firstly, the basics: the Zoom F6 has six microphone inputs allowing you to record pretty much any kind of small ensemble. It is incredibly small (seriously, it’s much smaller than you would think by looking at pictures of it online). It records to SD card so if you are recording somewhere like the Big Sing, Rockquest or Chamber Music competition you can do recordings without having to also lug around a laptop.

However, what makes this portable audio stand out from the many other portable audio recorders on the market (and there are a lot of them) is the fact that it can record 32-bit floating point audio files. Why is this important? Well, in short, it means that you never have to worry about correctly setting the input or gain levels. It is physically impossible to record too quiet or too loud.

For anyone that has any experience with recording you’ll know that if you set the levels too high on your recording interface then you’ll get clipping or distortion. Working with student bands a common problem is setting your recording levels during their sound check or practice, but when it comes to the actual performance or recording they all of a sudden play twice as loud, distorting your audio signals.

This is no longer a problem with 32-bit audio recording. Here is a great example of someone demonstrating this with the smaller Zoom F3:

In the past we used to always record digital audio at 16-bit quality. This gave us a dynamic range of 96 dB. 24-bit audio quality gives us a dynamic range of 144 dB which is a massive improvement. However, with both of these formats we can never record over 0 dBFS, which is the clipping point. With 32-bit audio though, we have a dynamic range of 1528 dB, including the ability to go a massive 770 dB above 0 dBFS. The greatest difference in sound pressure level on Earth is only around 210 dB! See here for all the math.

I can’t really underestimate what a big deal this if for field recording. In the past while recording students performing outside, or even in situations where I’m recording tutorials in my classroom, there have been times that the input signal controls have accidentally been knocked making my tracks way too loud and distorted and ruining what we were trying to record (and often I only realise that after everyone has packed up and gone home and I’m sitting down to mix!). With 32-bit recorders this is no longer a concern.

To see the Zoom F6 in action here is a recording we made of some students performing at the top of the Port Hills at sunrise:

In this setup I had two microphones setup in a stereo ORTF arrangement, three microphones used as close mics spread out across the performers and the sixth input dedicated for the guitar DI box. The audio levels were all over the place at the time of recording but using the ‘sort of free’ recording software Reaper I was able to balance everything up nicely.

The microphones suffered terribly from wind noise so I had to use the excellent Izotope RX software to clean the tracks up.

So, if you do a lot of recording in different spaces, then I highly recommend you trial one of these units from your local music store.

Collaborative Composition between primary and secondary students

I want students to develop a love of learning, music and creation. Not just to bank NCEA credits. Therefore I deliberately get them to do tasks that are not assessed. They are pushed hard to focus on NCEA assessment in all their other subjects so they are very much in the habit of focusing on the results, and not the process.

My year 12 music students completed their two songs/compositions as required by NCEA by the end of term 2. As I did not want to stop creativity in my class just because we’d met the requirements for NCEA I decided to get them to do group compositions, but with a twist.

I got them to go to the year 3 class at St Andrew’s College and interview the students about their native birds inquiry. The year 3’s were in the process of discovering everything they could about New Zealand native birds (alive or extinct). They were learning about the their size, their habitat, their sounds and what are their main threats.

I divided my class of 14 students into four groups and put them with a group of year 3’s for half an hour. They laughed, sang and had a great time together. My students recorded the interviews on their phone, took pictures of the student artwork and generally gathered a lot of raw material with which they could go away and start writing songs about.

Task overview

I designed a simple overview for my students to help them with structuring their time which you can see here.

In each of the year 12 groups I made sure that there was someone in each group who had strengths in the following areas:

  • Lyric writing
  • Chord construction
  • Beat making/production

Throughout year 11 and 12 my students have all developed a solid understanding of:

  • Song structure
  • Using Logic or FL Studio for recording and beat making
  • What a melody should be like in verses and choruses
  • How to develop vocal harmonies
  • Chord construction
  • Developing instrumental hooks and counter melodies

Of course, all the students are stronger in some areas than others, but within the groups all the bases were covered. As my students have already written at least 4-5 songs/compositions they didn’t need to learn about the process. My job was to make sure they were staying focused, not spending too long on little things, and to help resolve conflict through questioning around their overall purpose.

Unfortunately due the COVID lockdown in term 3 I was not able to spend any time with the students analysing kids songs in general to help them understand the challenges writing for a young audience. My original intention was for my students to write songs that could be sung by the year 3’s in class. But with the loss of class time I decided to just let the students go for it and write the songs in any style they feel comfortable with.

All the groups worked well together for the most part but there were certainly times of tension and personality clashes. Which is great! I was hoping that would happen. The students were able to work through their issues and complete the job in spite of how difficult it was for them at times. This is the nature of collaboration! They learned that you may sometimes disagree, but you need to come up with a solution that meets the brief and deliver on time. And they did. I’m sure all teachers will see how many of the Key Competencies are being displayed through this process.

Here are the four songs that my students wrote. You are welcome to download them and share them with your classes.

Technology required to make this happen

St Andrew’s College is a BYOD school but when I have student collaborating I don’t allow them to use their own laptops for the main project file in case one of them is away sick or on a school trip. Therefore I use music department desktop and laptop computers.

Each computer is loaded with Apple’s Logic Pro and all the computers are sync’ed together with shared Dropbox folders. This ensures all their work is automatically backed up to the ‘cloud’ and I am always able to access their projects from my laptop. Halfway through the process we have a class review of each other’s projects and being able to access all their files from my laptop makes this a whole lot easier.

The students were set up in our studio, my office, my classroom and a practise room. Each group with an audio interface (Focusrite Scarlett Solo), a microphone (Shure SM58), headphones/speakers and a small MIDI keyboard (Novation Launchkey).

In each group the student who had strength with ‘beat making’ would have their own laptop to make the beat while the others are lyric writing, recording guitar/keys, etc. The ‘beat maker’ would construct the beat in sections and then import it to the main project computer once they were ready. This ensured people weren’t sitting around doing nothing.

Outcome

Coming out of lockdown this was the best thing possible for my class. Students had just spent several weeks not interacting with real people, and doing mostly theory and research work online. I got the impression from some students that in some other subjects they were in a sense of panic about having to get through material for our upcoming Prelim exams. Students were really feeling the stress.

But by doing this collaborative and creative work students were really happy and calm. Once again music became their ‘safe place’ in the school day as they could relax and enjoy working with others. And ironically, I would assert they ended up with much high levels of learning and productivity than in any of their other classes who were rushing to get ready for exams.

In reflecting upon the process the students were all surprised at what they had achieved. They all knew there were things they would do differently and better next time, but they had a deep sense of satisfaction in producing such high quality tracks in such a short time period. They all recognised the benefits of collaborative composition and as we head into level 3 Songwriting and Composition they have a wonderful skill set and understanding of the compositional process that will serve them well.

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

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.

Project Based Learning in music – part 3

One thing I get asked a lot on courses I run is about how I structure my NCEA music classes.  If a typical NCEA subject consists of 22-24 credits some teachers are a little incredulous when they hear I offer 53 credits at level 2 and 64 credits at level 3.

The first thing I point out is that it’s not as bad as it sounds as students don’t take all those credits (although I have had one student that did… but he was a rare sort of student as he went on to get NZ’s top Music Scholarship mark in 2013) and even if they are taking around 38-44 credits, up to 16 of those credits could be performance ‘standards’, which we don’t spend any class time on (they do all their learning for this with their instrumental teacher and assessment takes place in concerts).

However, with the majority of my year 13 students doing Project Based Learning this year the whole NCEA credit thing and course structure has become a little more complicated.  In some ways it’s not… in that they’ve chosen the sort of project they want to do (such making an album, or composing for film projects produced by the Year 13 Media/Film class) and the available NCEA Standards should take care of themselves.  But with a dozen or so students all doing different projects, assessment within the NCEA structure can be hard to keep on top of and regularly fills my sleepless nights with worry!

I’ve got one student who as a result of her student leadership position in the school is struggling to keep on top of her workload.  We are now almost halfway through the 2nd term of school (only 4-5 weeks away from halfway point in the year) and I haven’t seen any substantial work from her yet.  It’s clear that she is going to struggle to complete her task of producing a singer/songwriter type album by November unless we find something to motivate.

So this week, we’ve done a review – something I’m finding hugely necessary to keep the students on top of workload and to keep them focused (I’m trying to sit down with each student at least once every two weeks).

What we have done this week with this student is what I believe is the secret to offering lots of NCEA credits – assessing multiple standards from few tasks.  Let’s be clear, it’s not double dipping, it’s about designing smart tasks that have multiple aspects to the work flow that can fit in with the requirements of multiple standards at once.  What I’m finding with PBL is that the tasks need to be personalised to the individual student.  This is the task we’ve designed for her:

  • She has recently developed a real interest in Gospel Music (as a result of what she’s singing in the school choir) and wants to do a research project on it.  She hasn’t narrowed her line of inquiry yet but it’ll be something along the lines of looking at the importance of Gospel music to African-American slaves on the cotton fields and how their harmonies developed… through to how Gospel music continues to influence the harmonies/style of modern R’n’B styles of music.
  • She will do her research and present it but a major part of the presentation will be arranging a piece of music in a Gospel style, using the knowledge that she will develop through her research.  She will produce notation of her arrangement which she’ll annotate for the purposes of the research presentation.  She may even produce two arrangements of two different types of Gospel arrangements with different instrumentation.
  • She will also produce a recording/sequence of her piece of music using knowledge she’s developed using Presonus Studio One and/or Reaper.
  • If we take this further, she may even perform one or two of her arrangements in a performance evening for solo or group performance (but this is less likely as she has plenty of material to use from her singing lessons).

So, from this one task which she is hugely motivated to achieve will result in the following NCEA credits:

  • 3.10 Research standard – 6 credits
  • 3.9 Arranging standard – 4 credits
  • 23730 sequencing and notation standard – 8 credits
  • TOTAL – 18 credits

If you add her solo and group performance Standards of 12 credits she has a course of 30 credits, which is plenty!  If she was doing the 28007 (SOND 3) recording standard, which could easily be incorporated if she had the time to do the learning for it, she would have another 6 credits.

If you’d like to follow her progress as she works through this project you can follow her blog here:

https://musicnotes97.wordpress.com

Thanks, Duncan 🙂

Project Based Learning in music – part 2

This year with my year 13 music students we are deciding to make a point of not focusing on assessment as being the driver of learning in class (as it should never be but is rarely the case in most NZ schools).  Therefore we are deciding to focus on projects our students can complete through the year.  Projects such as making an album, composing for student films, making music videos. You can see details of my holiday planning for this course here.

We are now nearing the end of term one, and what a busy term its been.  But what is hugely satisfying is that the majority of my class are loving the projects they’re working on and making great progress.  It should be noted that not all students in year 13 music have decided to have a project as a major focus.  They’re quite happy completing the tasks and learning as required by NCEA and that’s great. So, what has this PBL thing looked like this year?  Well, a bit like this:


We started the year spending quite a bit of time searching for inspiration and listing the interests and skill sets of the students.  I’m very big on collaboration and I want the students to help each other out as much as possible.  To keep our ideas and skills at the forefront of what we do we created an Inspiration Wall where students pin up interesting musical related images and text as well as list their outline of their project.

Students have also setup WordPress blogs where they keep a diary of what they’ve found interesting in class and on field trips. Every time we do something in class, or they do some work, they’re expected to document their progress on their blogs. You can see some of them here:

https://jamesmurraymusic.wordpress.com

https://blipblipbang.wordpress.com

https://gusellerm.wordpress.com

https://maxmusic42.wordpress.com

Reading through the blogs you can see we’ve done a few things to focus the students on the craft they need to develop to realise the art they want to produce.  These have been:

  • Guest presenter – Luke Di Somma (local conductor, producer, arranger, composer, MD, etc).  The students were very inspired by chatting to Luke and he dealt with issues such as: where he finds creativity, how he manages his ‘business’, what motivates him, what is required to ‘make it’ in the music industry, etc
  • Visit to local studios and tertiary providers – as recording and technology is a big part of the students’ projects we visited MAINZ and had a great presentation from Ivan Shevchuk.
  • Watching music production tutorials from AVID doing our own mix of the tracks shown in the video.

For the rest of the term we’ve been largely focusing on getting the first part of their projects completed.  This has involved teaching them about how to use our recording equipment and how to mix.  There has been a lot of one-on-one instruction about crafting their compositions and arrangements.  At this stage, we’re just trying to record demo’s of everything as it’s unrealistic of them to produce good quality recordings in term 1 when they have so much learning to do around music production.  It will mean a lot of recording and mixing in term 3 and 4 so we’ll see how we go…

To assist with their learning about recording and mixing we’re going to start a course in mixing through Weathervane music.  Their Instructors Toolkit looks like it could be a great syllabus to work into our music course to advance their music production skills.  I’ll do a separate blog on this once I start using it with my students.

Where to from here…

Well, we’ll need to refocus on what it means to be creative and to make great Art.  We’ve spent quite a while focusing on their craft and finishing the first aspect of their projects, so we need to redress the balance and get focusing on what they are trying to achieve with their project by the end of the year. We’ll get more industry professionals in to talk to us and will visit local producers who can demonstrate their workflow and assist with the discussion around where to find inspiration. Students need to do a stocktake of all they’ve accomplished this term and now that they know what they’re in for need to come up with specific goals that must be achieved in term 2.

We’ll also be joining with the year 13 media class to provide the music for their original short films they’re creating.  This is very exciting and as we’re well setup at St. Andrew’s College with movie composition tools and equipment I’m expecting to see some very professional looking/sounding films in the StAC Film Festival this year.

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.