Music Tech On A Budget

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Last spring, I was asked to create an entirely new music offering at my school, something to expand on our current program of band, jazz band and choir. After all of four seconds of deliberation, I decided that I was going to design a music technology class. My principal quickly jumped on board and said something to the effect of, “Oh by the way, we’d like you to do this on the cheap!”

Great, MIDI keyboards, Ableton Live and synthesizer rigs are probably out of the question. What the heck am I going to do?

This was a question that weighed heavily on me during the summer. I was starting a Master’s Degree, and one of the requirements was to design and present a curriculum in the span of five weeks. It was perfect in the sense that I needed to get this done anyway, but difficult in the sense that we were encouraged to pretend like money was no object. So I decided to design essentially two parallel curriculums, one for a school that spent money like a drunken Gordon Gecko, and one for the real world. Here are some of the things that I came up with.

Digital Audio Workstations (Ableton Live: $30/site, Soundation: Free)

In a perfect world, this class would be using Ableton Live. In fact, my colleague struck a deal with the good folks at Ableton which would have given us some dirt-cheap site licenses. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find the money so we’ve adapted and started using Soundation as our go-to DAW.

Soundation offers a lot of the features that we were looking for as part of a basic music tech class, like the ability to compose using pre-recorded loops, ability to export saved files in .wav format, and the ability to do MIDI sequencing with a piano roll or virtual keyboard.

The student project using Soundation was the composition of a five-part Rondo. Students had to use three tracks of pre-recorded loops, and one MIDI track that they composed to create a piece in ABACA form.

Audio editing software (Audacity: Free)

Before this class began, I was relatively unfamiliar with Audacity. After two units using the program, I’m hooked. It’s a high-quality, powerful audio editor, and middle school students were able to use it fluently with a minimum of trouble.

Project #1 using Audacity was lifted straight from the pages of Dr. Scott Watson’s book. Students wrote, recorded and edited a podcast about one of their favorite musicians. To create an effective podcast, students had to import an MP3 clip, cut it up, and fade in and out. Students also had to adjust their own vocal recording levels so as not to interfere with their audio clips.

Project #2 involved students creating a piece similar to Lasse Gjertsen’s Hyperactive or PBS’ Garden of Your Mind. Students learn how to cut up and rearrange audio tracks as well as how to apply different audio effects, such as distortion or pitch correction.

Synthesizer rigs (Audiotool: Free)

Synthesizers are easily the most difficult thing to cover on a budget, at least so far. It’s impossible to replicate the tactile nature of programming a drum machine, but Audiotool makes a good go of it. Audiotool is essentially a virtual synthesizer rig, where students can sample, apply effects, sequence drum machines/synthesizers, apply automation curves, do MIDI sequencing, and a whole host of other capabilities. In short, it’s got the potential to be mindblowing deep and complex.

At this point in the semester, students are just learning the basics. It took only one class to show them how to create multiple drum patterns on one of the virtual drum machines, and add the patterns to the timeline (similar to a piano roll). Based on early impressions, it seems like we could spend an entire semester working in just Audiotool and still only scratch the surface.

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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