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.

How to mix… a guide for high school teachers – part two

In my last blog post I demonstrated a good starting point for teaching students how to mix.

After six weeks or so of having my students mixing using only faders, panning and EQ (on a few projects) I then start to discuss the overall picture of the mix process.  Advanced students would be required to purchase the excellent Mike Senior book on mixing on Kindle in addition to reading other articles online and visiting blog posts like soundscoop (and a multitude of others).

Many recording equipment manufacturers like Universal Audio, AVID, Presonus and many others also offer excellent mixing tutorials and students are encouraged to complete as many of these as possible.  However, while we all have some motivated and diligent students, we’re always going to have several that need a little more ‘spoon-feeding’ (which of course we always try to ‘wean’ them off as good parents/teachers should!).  It would be great if all students went to these websites and started teaching themselves (which undoubtedly some students will) but for others I’ve done a few guides that may help.

NZ Music Technology teachers will be familiar with my resources from http://www.learningideas.co.nz and these are excellent guides specifically tailored to the NZQA assessment system.  A resource I wrote several years ago (which was hugely influenced by the excellent book The Mixing Engineers Handbook by Bobby Owsinski from Mix Books) which I gave away free to NZ teachers can be downloaded here. It basically goes through the stages of mixing and can be summed up like this (but keep in mind there is no one way to mix as every mix and mixing engineer is different – but this is good for newbies):

  1. Balance the faders
  2. Pan the tracks to create a stereo image (although some engineers, particularly if mixing for a live PA system will choose to mix in mono for various reasons)
  3. Use EQ to give each instrument it’s own space in the overall frequency range of the track.  You can think of it like this:
    Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 9.32.40 am
    (I got this image off the http://www.harmonycentral.com website many years ago and have not been able to find the page for it again so sorry I’m unable to give proper credit to the person that created it).
  4. Use compression on some instruments to reduce the dynamic range to create a more stable volume balance between the instruments (but in many instances it’s more appropriate to use compression before EQ, or before and after, or use multiple compressors… it gets quite complicated really!)
  5. Add ambience with reverb and/or delay.  Note, it’s best to try and get this naturally by recording in a very nice room with good acoustics.  But if this isn’t possible then record the tracks as ‘dry’ as possible and add ambience in your DAW.
  6. Add interest.  All of the above just serves the purpose of making sure you can achieve a stable balance and hear everything.  But it may not make the mix very interesting.  So here you do whatever you need to make the mix dynamic, exciting, original – this is where you attempt to create a piece of great art!  I’ll try to do a blog post dedicated to this point in future weeks.

I’ve done a video for my students and NZ teachers who are teaching the level 2 27703  unit standard, showing how to do a basic mix in a live setting.  Here I’m using a Presonus Studio Live mixing desk and have the audio tracks streaming from my laptop to the mixing desk (rather than having a live band in the room).  I find this mixing desk a great tool for teaching live mixing to my students but all the concepts I discuss in the video are equally applicable to mixing in a studio/DAW environment.

This video has worked well for my students who may not have followed my in-class demos and may be too nervous to ask questions in front of others as they’re able to replay parts they don’t quite understand.  It serves a good way of filling in the gaps for them.

Please note, the tracks from this video were downloaded from the excellent Sound on Sound magazine website.

In another blog post I’ll go into detail about my assessment processes for mixing with my senior students.  Students can’t just do a mix – they have to be able to articulate all their mix decisions and why they made them.

Thanks,

Duncan

10 great resources for teaching recording and mixing to high school students

In New Zealand we now have the wonderful opportunity to teach recording and mixing skills to high school students.  We have Unit Standards that allow us to assess and provide credits towards a course of work in the area of Performing Arts Technology and Music Technology.
However, these Unit Standards only tell us the ‘outcomes’, not the pathways teachers should follow to teach the students to the info and develop the skills.
For NZ teachers I’ve produced a series of resources (documents, tutorial videos, eBooks, assessment schedules, etc) that are written specifically for the NZ system (although the resources are generic enough to be of assistance to anyone wanting to learn about recording and mixing).  These can all be found at www.learningideas.co.nz.
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However, there are many other fantastic resources available that can help teach students about recording and mixing.
  1. Alan Parsons Art and Science of Sound.  This is a fantastic DVD series and covers all the basics of recording instruments and provides great background theory on the developing of recording technology.  The chapters on mixing are very weak though but the videos on recording are gold.  A new accompanying book has also just been released and is available at Amazon.
  2. Mixing Secrets For the Small Studio by Mike Senior – while this might be a hard read for students I’ve not come across anything that explains the concepts of mixing as well as this.  It’s all too easy to use presets on plugins thinking that they will provide you with a good mix (FYI, presets are never the answer!).  This book goes way beyond that showing you how to approach the mix for each song along with the specifics of the techniques for using EQ, Compression, etc.  I’ve bought this book twice as well as on Kindle I love it so much!
  3. Shakingthrough.com – This is an amazing website for a recording studio (Weathervane Records) that records artists but also documents the process from a technical/recording viewpoint as well as a creative/compositional viewpoint.  All tracks of songs featured in the videos are available for download so you can practise your mixing chops.
    They have just released a new educational course in mixing.  I’ll be using this with my students in 2015 so I’ll write blogs about how well it works.
  4. How To Listen app from Harmon – a great tool for teaching students to associate frequency boosts and cuts on EQ with Hz numbers.  This app helps to train their ears to listen critically to frequency ranges and to learn to associate descriptions with those ranges.  Also worthy of a mention is the “hearEQ” app for iOS available on the app store.
  5. hearEQ for iOS from the app store – another brilliant ear training tool – especially it’s ‘learn’ feature which allows you to boost and cut various frequencies of any song in your iTunes library.  Also worthy of a mention is “Quiztones” also available from the App store.
  6. Recording Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior – probably a better book for advanced students who already understand the basics of recording techniques.  This book is excellent at giving tips for recording in less than ideal environments (which most schools are stuck with as very few schools can afford purpose built studios with excellent acoustics).  What is also really great about this book though is the advice that Mike gives with regards to working with performers and how to get the best out of them.  Overall, full of wise advice from one of the best people in the business.
  7. Soundonsound.com – this website (and associated magazine) is the best recording/mixing magazine out there.  It’s the best way of staying up to date with the latest releases in music technology equipment.  Articles are well written and full of practical advice.
  8. Pensados Place – Definitely for more advanced students and teachers… this fascinating production from Dave Pensado, one of the top mixing engineers in the music industry, regularly interviews the top mixing engineers, performers and producers.  The insights into the creative process from people who are at the top of their game and the best in the LA, NYC and Nashville music scenes is really fascinating.  Also great is the “Into the Lair” segment where Dave provides really clever (and often advanced) mixing techniques.
  9. Groove3.com – this website provides excellent video tutorials for all the major DAW’s.  You can pretty much learn everything you need to know for any DAW (like Pro Tools, Studio One, Logic, etc) by watching these 2-3 hour tutorials.  Add in another 3-4 hours of working on what is shown in the videos and inside a day you can get up and running with any DAW.
  10. Live Audio Basics DVD from Down2Earth – this can be pretty painful to watch (I wonder if Americans find it as painful to watch as my students and I do? – could be a cultural thing?) but the content and clarity with which live PA systems are explained is the best I’ve seen.  Yes, the focus is on live PA (and this is supposed to be a blog about recording and mixing resources) but their explanation on signal flow, maintaining Unity Gain, Aux/buss sends,etc are brilliant and all vitally important to recording systems as well.
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I have other resources I use as well, but these are my top ten (of course aside from the resources I’ve written available at http://www.learningideas.co.nz).  Go ahead and list your favourites in the comments section.  I know there are a lot of great websites out there so feel free to list them.
Happy new year!  May your 2015 be full of creative goodness!