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.

Suspect: The Murder Mystery Musical

At the moment there are many people involved with the #28daysofwriting and I’m full of admiration for them! I’m struggling to keep up with one blog post per week. To be fair in my defence in the last week I have just setup a full music block and recording studio after the completion of our music dept building programme. I’ll do a full blog about that soon as I’m sure other teachers will find it fascinating how we’ve created what I think is one of the finest recording studios of any school in New Zealand (and even the world!).

So for my blog this week I thought I’d just send you to an excellent blog written by the director of IT at St. Andrew’s College, Sam McNeill. In this blog Sam interviewed me and we discussed all the different processes and pieces of technology that we used in the creation and production of a musical written by a year 13 student of mine, Isaac Shatford.

StAC e-Learning Stories

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Mr Duncan Ferguson, Isaac Shatford and Ms Ginny Thorner. Mr Duncan Ferguson, Isaac Shatford and Ms Ginny Thorner.

UPDATE: This story profiled on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp on Friday 24th October and can be seen here.

The buzz around St Andrew’s College lately has all been focused on the annual Middle School Production, largely for the fact it has been mostly written by Year 13 student Isaac Shatford, with contributions from a number of other senior students in the area of lyrics and plot. I knew something like this would always involve significant use of technology as the Musical Director was Head of Music Mr Duncan Ferguson, and was actually the first person I interviewed for a story for this blog.

Consequently, I sat down for an hour with him to learn what was involved and was impressed to learn that the following tools were just some that were used during the composition and performance of Suspect:

View original post 1,260 more words

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!

What is the best DAW for schools?

Just so everyone is on the same page… a DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation) is the software on a computer that you use to record and mix audio and MIDI.  With the dramatic increase in computing power combined with falling costs now anyone can have a fully fledged recording and mixing system on their computer (or iPad or iPhone!).

In the past it was too expensive for schools to have recording systems (after all, who can afford an SSL, Neve or API mixing desk?) but now with cheap microphones and interfaces made in China, combined with powerful (and relatively cheap) computers any high school music department can have a recording ‘studio’.

The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.
The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.

So… what DAW or recording/mixing software should schools use?  There are so many options.

Here is your answer… Studio One Free from Presonus.

Why?  Here are my reasons:

  • It’s free (for the basic version) – students can download it to their own laptops and home computers right away and get playing around with it.
  • It’s cross platform – i.e. it works the same on Mac and Windows computers.  Therefore teachers can be assured that all students are working on the same software so they don’t need to know how to use multiple pieces of software.
  • It comes with good MIDI instruments so students can plug in a MIDI keyboard or other controller and get recording very quickly.
  • If you want to see how quickly you can download, install and record with it I’ve made a quick overview video that you can see here:

Some commons questions I get from teachers at workshops when I say this:

  1. So why not Garageband?  Well… I love Garageband (it is actually better than Studio One Free in many ways), but it only works on Mac computers so if you have students in your class with Windows laptops it creates issues in that you’ll have some students on Studio One and some on Garageband.  Many teachers are fine with that so if you’re one of those go for it (I have students using both DAW’s) but in the interest of keeping things simple… it’s probably best to keep all students on the same software.
  2. Why not Pro Tools… isn’t that industry standard?  Yes it is.  It’s my personal DAW of choice.  But it’s sooooo expensive!!  No way most high schools can afford it.  I had 12 Pro Tools 001, 002 and Mbox systems at an old school (an investment of around $15,000 at the time) and all those systems a long time ago became obsolete.  Pro Tools is much better now that you don’t have to have AVID/Digidesign hardware to use it, but for the software it’s still too expensive in my opinion.
  3. Why not Apple Logic Pro?  I also love Logic and it is now amazingly cheap.  But once again… Mac only.
  4. Why not Reaper… isn’t that also free?  I’ll get into this more below.
  5. Why not… blah blah blah?  There are many DAW’s out there and if you as the teacher are more comfortable in teaching those to your students (and your students can afford it) then go with them.  But if you’re new to this… stick with Studio One.

So what about Reaper?

Reaper is awesome.  It’s not exactly free, it just has an unlimited trial period.  But you can purchase it for your school at incredibly cheap prices (non-commercial licences are only $60 USD but you can get it cheaper if you purchase in bulk as an educational institution).  But, for working with MIDI keyboards (which is a big part of the level 1 Music Technology Unit Standards in New Zealand) it has proven to be too complicated for many teachers to setup… which is why I suggest Studio One.

For NZ teachers who are using the ‘SOND’ unit standards, 26687, 27703 and 28007 Reaper is probably a better bet.  For the level 2 and 3 standards your students need to be using fully parametric EQ’s and compressors that have ratio, threshold, attack/release and knee controls.  Studio One Free doesn’t allow you to use EQ’s and compressors (although the paid versions of Studio One that you can see outlined here do allow you to use better EQ’s and compressors) which is why if you’re wanting to stay with ‘free’ software, Reaper is a great choice.

So in summary…

  • In setting up a music technology programme at your school that uses MIDI (such as NZ schools wanting to teach the level 1 ‘MUSTEC’ standards 27656 and 27658) download Studio One Free.
  • If you’re an NZ school wanting to offer the ‘SOND’ standards 26687, 27703 and 28007 either buy Studio One Artist upgrade ($93NZD per licence currently…edu discounts may be available by emailing Presonus) or use Reaper (unlimited trial or purchase at very cheap prices).
  • If you are a school that is wanting to offer a full on studio experience then it’s probably advisable to purchase Pro Tools, Logic and Studio One Pro eventually.  But before you spend any money make sure you are absolutely certain that you need them, it’s very easy to waste money on software you hardly use!

Any suggestions or disagreements?  Please use the comments section to give your opinions on what you’ve found works well in schools.  But before you do, please ensure that the opinions you share are based on actual classroom and student experience.  I’ve had people in the past say that you must use Pro Tools with students as that is what is in pro studios and tertiary institutions, but when I’ve dug further I’ve found out these people have never taught in high schools let alone have had to juggle limited financial restrictions that most high schools struggle with.  What we are teaching should be recording and mixing, which can be done on any decent DAW.  Skills are easily transferable between software platforms.

Anyway, enough of my soapbox, let me hear what you have to say.

Oh, btw, Merry Christmas.

Duncan

Welcome to my new blog

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Hi there,

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

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

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

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

http://eblog.stac.school.nz/2014/10/23/suspect-the-murder-mystery-musical/

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

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

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

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

Duncan 🙂