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.

ADE Institute 2016

In July I was very fortunate to attend and present at the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute in Berlin.  This was a gathering of just under 400 teachers from around the world who actively push the boundaries to develop innovative teaching techniques.

This is my second Institute and like the first, it was one of the most inspirational weeks of my teaching career.  I’m very grateful for St Andrew’s College who paid for my airfares to attend this week of professional development.

The ADE Institute runs from a Sunday evening through to Thursday night.  This year it was just for ADE alumni, no new people were accepted to the programme.  In 2017 there will be regional Institutes for Europe/Africa, Asia/Pacific and the Americas which new people can apply to be part of (keep an eye on ade.apple.com early in 2017 for applications).

The structure of the Institute can be summed up in this (rather blurry) image:

ADE 2016 summary

ADE Central

One of the best parts at the conference centre/hotel was the ADE Central.  This was a large lounge where you had time to work on your projects, collaborate, play with STEM toys like Bloxels, Spheros and VR.  Most importantly, it was a great place to meet other teachers over a drink and discover common interests.

Apple Sessions

This year there were some fascinating presentations from Apple staff.  Once again, John Danty (Head of Logic & Garageband) was another highlight with his demonstration of the new features in Garageband on the iPad.

It was also great to see Final Cut Pro get more exposure as many educators I know regularly use it and think it’s a fantastic video editing application for high school teachers.

And of course, these sessions are where a lot of the scene is set for our projects, where info about Apple updates and educational initiatives are shared and where all our conference admin takes place.

Workshops

This year ADE was structured so that we had much less time having full Apple Sessions in the ballroom.  Instead, there were multiple workshops on a variety of topics.  I attended workshops on Advanced Editing with Final Cut Pro, Advanced Keynote and how to deliver fantastic presentations.

The last session was particularly valuable.  Not just for the workshops that I run with teachers, but some very good strategies and techniques were shared for presenting to high schoolers as well.

IMG_5361

Expert Labs

Apple were very generous by flying out many of their team leaders for various software development teams.  They are very talented, smart and accessible and the smaller (in some cases one-on-one) sessions they ran were perfect for teachers trying to find answers to problems they’ve had, or for getting more information on what was shown in Workshops and Apple Sessions.

I had a great time catching up with John Danty who hosted me (along with Matt Baier) at Cupertino last year.  It was inspirational to see that John, as busy as he is, has just released an album.  If he has time to be creative, then I certainly can’t use school as an excuse not to invest time into practising my instrument!

ADE Showcases

For many, including me, this is the highlight of ADE.  This is where teachers have three minutes to present something to the conference about innovative teaching techniques they’ve been using with their students.  Ten teachers per session are selected.  There is a pretty rigorous application and development process before you’re allowed to get up at an ADE Institute and present, but I was fortunate enough to present about my department and how I’ve changed the culture of St Andrew’s College music to enable growth.

Preparing for this presentation made me do a lot of inquiry around whats made my department successful, and it has been really great for giving me a framework for further innovation in the department for 2017.

IMG_6490

Project Teams

This is where the long term benefits of ADE come from.  It’s where you get into a small team of educators from around at the world and you work on a major project together.

This year I’m working on developing a website with tools for junior high school teachers who are wanting to deliver cross-curricular programmes.

Spotlight Sessions

Another new initiative at ADE 2016.  This is where teachers have a chance to run workshops on various pieces of software, teaching techniques or anything which they think will benefit the community.

I ran a workshop on showing how the three Apple music apps, Music Memos, GarageBand and Logic Pro work together as part of the musical composition process.  I blogged on this before and you can read a summary here.

Berlin Off-Site

One of the coolest things we did was essentially have the day in the middle of Berlin to explore.  Apple dropped us off at the Brandenburg Gate with a Museum Pass, sightseeing bus passes, metro cards, lunch vouchers, maps and guide books, and essentially told us to explore for a few hours.  We just had to make sure we took lots of photos to share to our collaborative Photo Streams.

We then met back up at the Apple Store for an amazing presentation by the makers of the Eye-Em app and a well known Berlin Photographer.

So what?

From the photos, you can see I had a really nice time.  I got a good tan and it was great to get away from a NZ winter for a couple of weeks.  But what difference has this made to my teaching?

Well, the real benefit is not in any resources I develop as part of the project team, or the information I learned about how to use Final Cut Pro more efficiently for editing school music videos, or even the chance to present to 400 of the worlds top educators.

The real benefit for me is in the relationships I’ve developed and friends I’ve made with people who are at the top of their game in their schools and communities from all over the world.  Every single person I met is an innovator.  They all love to see kids grow and meet their potential.  Every person I met doesn’t only see teaching as a worthwhile vocation, they live education.  Like me, they spend their weekends, evenings and holiday time thinking about their classes, developing resources, looking for opportunities to up-skill, looking for ways to better serve their students.  Teaching is their vocation, but it’s also their calling and their hobby.

And to be surrounded by people like that is heaven.  It’s inspiring.  It means I come back to St Andrew’s College and my networks of NZ Music Teachers with new ideas but also with a renewed passion to see music education in New Zealand produce the finest young musicians, composers and educators in the world.

Creating Music with Apple Apps

As I write this I’m winging my way to Europe to attend the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute.  One of the workshops I’ll present while I’m there is demonstrating how my students have been using three key Apple Apps as part of their creative workshop.

What I love about what Apple have done is that these apps are all fantastic by themselves.  But when you look at how they work together to support the compositional and production process they create their own ‘ecosystem’ that greatly assist students with creating original music.

Music Memos

Music Memos is the newest app.  It’s basically the Voice Recorder app that as been available for iOS for a long time but configured for musicians with a few neat features.

My students use it on their iPhones and iPads for capturing their rough musical ideas when they’re in practise rooms, on the bus or anywhere that inspiration strikes.

Here is a student of mine using it to record some ideas she had for a verse in a new song.

Music Memos has this amazing ability to not just record audio, but to also analyse the timing of the performance and the harmony used.  It is then able to create a session timeline of bars and beats and provide you with information of the chords that were played.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.48.31 AM

It can even provide a virtual band of bass and drums to play along with your performance (of which settings you’re able to configure).

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.48.38 AM

While all this sounds amazing in reality my students haven’t found it hugely accurate with it’s analysis (but this is more the fault of the performers than the app).  With very good performers (like you’ll probably see on YouTube reviews of the App) it works fine but with high schoolers I’ve found the chordal analysis and bass & drums backing very hit and miss.

You will notice in the video that Bella was very intentional about trying to play as in time as possible and strongly outlining the beat – this really helps Music Memo’s with the analysis (but even then, it still got a lot of chords wrong in the analysis).  However, many students struggle to play their parts clearly so the analysis can be rather misleading.

But, this doesn’t diminish how useful Music Memos is in capturing ideas, tagging them with keywords and allowing them to share those ideas with friends.  It really is the perfect digital scrapbook.

However, when the chordal analysis does work it’s amazing as you’re able to import your Music Memos files into GarageBand on iOS or MacOS (including a MIDI realisation of the bass and drums that were added).

GarageBand

Music Memo’s projects are easily able to be opened in GarageBand on the iPad.  This is fantastic as you’re then able to use the amazing ‘Smart Instruments’ to create new chord progressions, accompaniments from a variety of instruments such as keys, bass, drums, strings, etc  For students that don’t play piano or guitar this is a massive support to their songwriting.

However, using iCloud you’re also able to open Music Memos projects into GarageBand on the MacOS.

This is what we did here.  Bella opened her project up so that she could record some MIDI keys and start mucking around with overdubbing vocals, harmony parts, etc  She’s also able to alter the exisiting Music Memos Bass and Drums or she can create new parts using GarageBand’s Drummer tracks.

What is very clever is that GarageBand has created a tempo map of her performance in Music Memos so any loops we drag in to the session will be snapped to the correct timing.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.58.24 AM

However, if we wanted it to be all exactly in time we can do this be deleting all the tempo changes in the tempo track at the top of the window.  GarageBand is then able to conform the original Music Memos performance into time using Flex time.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 5.59.56 AM

The best thing about using GarageBand at this stage of the songwriting process is that the student is now able to start playing around with the structure, instrument choice, drum patterns, add vocal harmonies, overdub guitar solos, etc – basically create a polished ‘demo’ of the song and arrangement.

This is of great assistance to the composer and musicians that are going to be collaborating in a recording session.

If you’d like to download Bella’s basic demo and have a go at creating your own arrangement you can do so by clicking here (please don’t share or sample this work – all copyright is retained by Isabella Ford and St Andrew’s College).

If the artist is really happy with the demo then they’re able to open their GarageBand file in Logic and record in a studio environment.  However, for this project we decided to start in Logic from scratch with the musicians.

Logic Pro X

Once Bella had her song sorted out we went into our school studio with musicians for a few hours.  She played them her song live and also played her demo from GarageBand.  They discussed what feel it should have, and how to structure the piece.  The string player (who also did BV’s) thought through possible parts she could add in and discussed with Bella.

They ended up adding in an extended solo section which is not what Bella had originally intended.

Here is the final result:

We recorded into Logic Pro X through an Apogee Symphony interface using preamps from Grace, La Chapell, Focusrite, Radial and API.  Our studio also has very nice acoustics.  Using equipment and a facility of this quality meant that we were able to get very good sound tracks that were easy to make a rough mix of in a couple hours.

However, the biggest reason why this song sounds great is not because of the quality of our equipment, or the skill of the musicians (of course these things are essential).  It was the effective creation process that these three Apple Apps helped with.  Through capturing ideas in practise rooms with Music Memos, to crafting an effective arrangement  and ‘demo’ in GarageBand, and finishing with recording a live band of skilled musicians into Logic Pro X.

This workflow is what has been key to the success of this song.  And to prove this isn’t an isolated case here are some of the other songs produced by my students in this manner.

 

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

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:

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you end up with controls to do broad changes to your sound.  Now, these are excellent.  But for level 2 SOND standards and above you need more control.  You need to be able to change the threshold of the compressor, the ratio, change reverb levels, work with parametric EQ.

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

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which shows you a plugin menu:

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Here you are able to open the individual plugins which contribute towards the first user interface that you saw, and in here you can customise pretty much anything you need to.  And it sounds great!!!  Remember, these are the same plugins that are in Logic, just packed slightly different to seem less intimidating.  There are a few features missing from what you’d get with Logic (such as ability to control and knee or release in a compressor) but most of what you need is there.

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If you’ve created a guitar track then it’s the same scenario, you’re able to see the pedal board, amp selection and all other aspects that go into making that particular sound.

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And we don’t have time to get too far into the Drummer feature here but needless to say, it really is an amazing feature.

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So when you dig a little deeper, you can see that Garageband is far from a toy.  It is a serious DAW and completely usable for all of the SOND standards.  Where you might find you have some issues is when it comes to editing audio to improve the performance.  Here it may be a little clunky… but still possible.  Pro Tools First would definitely have the edge here so level 3 SOND students may want to try both DAW’s and see what works for them.

The guys from Apple shared some really exciting news about the next release of Garageband (which I’d better not share here) which will make the fact that this is a free piece of software even more amazing!

Watch this space for a full review of the new Garageband when it comes out later in the year!

Duncan