How music education is using tech to thrive during coronavirus lockdown
With the shutdown of schools, colleges, and universities, educators are turning to existing and innovative new technologies that keep students learning and mentally healthy – this is how you can do it too.
Si Gordon of Black & Gold Audio has been teaching remote sessions from his studio since before lockdown.
Life right now has inflicted the strangest of feelings; we’re all still battling the daily changes that the COVID-19 virus has brought into our world. These changes are, however, making us think differently, and one of the greatest weapons we have is the ability to adapt.
I teach Logic and Ableton Live at diploma and degree level, but when I began running ‘First Access’ Music Technology sessions in both primary and secondary schools, I turned to some innovative free tools which have really helped in the lockdown.
Here are the tools and techniques I’ve used to keep running music technology classes remotely.
BandLab for Education
Teaching music technology in schools can be difficult, resource-wise. Not all schools are equipped with up-to-date computers and software so, unfortunately, until now there has not been a one-size-fits-all approach that also enables students to work outside of the classroom. Step into the arena BandLab, with its cross-platform availability and its Education version for use when teaching primary and secondary students. It’s a match made in heaven, and even more so when delivering remote sessions.
If you are not familiar with BandLab, you will be pleasantly surprised if you keep expectations at the lower end of the scale. Remember that it is an introductory music production tool. It centres on a free online DAW with both audio and MIDI tracks, and functionality that’s very similar to other industry-standard DAWs. BandLab’s loop library contains a vast number of high-quality construction and sample kits in virtually every genre known to man. These can also be used in other offline DAWs using the free Bandlab Assistant app. Loops also conform to your project’s tempo.
When delivering online sessions this is a great starting point used in conjunction with the intuitive 16-step drum machine module. Inspiring students is the key at the start of their journey so some simple drum programming and loop use is important to grab their attention immediately.
External audio can also be imported from a local hard drive or recorded via a computer microphone or even an audio interface and microphone setup, recording at 44.1kHz / 16-bit as standard. Students use this facility for recording their own instrument and vocal parts and with a ‘latency tester’, users can compensate when processing bandwidth issues arise.
Live notation can be recorded into BandLab via a MIDI controller or with a computer keyboard, once again eliminating the need for specialist equipment. All of the sounds for MIDI playback are sampler-based. Think along the lines of one internal ROMpler or playback sampler storing various instrument categories and sub-categories. When a patch is selected, it uses a simple online piano interface to play back sounds, and scales can be defined for a better understanding of what’s being played.
There is, however, no sampler or synthesizer interface to further manipulate sounds. In fact, there is nothing more than the playback sampler on the MIDI front. When teaching with any DAW it’s important to deliver theory, especially when it comes to music notation and this is a great tool to get started with. The recent MIDI Mapping feature is also fun for those who have an external controller attached.
Editing in BandLab uses some standard DAW tools for both MIDI and audio. Cut, copy and paste are joined by on-region tools for shortening and lengthening of regions and notes. Looping is accessed via an icon on each region. You can also alter pitch and duration with a time/pitch algorithm, and reverse sound. Not bad for a free online DAW. Editing MIDI notation allows users to quantise, re-pitch, humanise, randomise and change the velocity of notes.
For a basic DAW, it also comes packed with some cool effects and mix processing features per track. There are nine effect categories including amps, delays, distortion, modulation, reverbs and tonal effects. The effects modules themselves contain some stripped-down parameters that enable users to tweak as desired. Mixing-wise, BandLab comes complete with pan and volume controls as standard but no mixing desk for additional routing. Automation is available per track for volume, pan and effects parameters, but it’s not as advanced as other DAWs. That said, for a new learner it’s perfect.
Some final features worth noting are the exporting and importing of MIDI and audio. Users can render individual tracks (MIDI and audio), as well as the final song as a whole, to audio. And it’s certainly a useful feature. All exports are downloaded to a user’s local drive and can then be re-imported or uploaded into a project. BandLab’s mastering service is also worth a look and has features that are not dissimilar to those in Landr’s service.
As a ‘First Access’ free online DAW, BandLab has to be one of the most innovative on the market. It runs in Google Chrome and Firefox (not Safari or IE), as the features of the supported browsers include critical features such as ASIO support. If your students only have iOS or Android devices then BandLab has specific apps that are downloadable for these platforms, too.
A walled garden
There are two ways to log in and get started with BandLab. The main page gives users access to the ‘social network’ side of things, where a stream is created and collaboration is king. BandLab now has over 18 million users worldwide, with a massive increase since lockdowns have been implemented. That’s a lot of musicians, singers and producers to work with if so desired, but along with this amazing feature comes those all-important safeguarding policies for student minors. This is where BandLab for Education comes into play. Made for educators, this ‘walled garden’ in BandLab for Education meets all the current GDPR and safeguarding rules which are critical in education to keep youngsters safe. BandLab for Education ticks all of the boxes and goes even further between teacher and student interaction. I’ve found it a fantastic teaching tool for remote learning. Having the ability to make virtual classes, invite students and other teachers by code, then setting assignments and being able to review their DAW production work and giving instant live feedback makes it the perfect VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). All music and music technology tutors should embrace it in this current climate.
During the lockdown, keeping our minds active, creative and stimulated by making music with technology is extremely important for good mental health; BandLab is the ultimate accessible free option to achieve this. The virtual classrooms themselves give the young students a chance to interact with friends and classmates in a very positive way. Teachers can keep students positive and on track with the criteria that is required to meet their learning targets – something that’s important for their futures when returning to the physical classroom, and yes, they will get back into our real classrooms.
Online learning tools
Web conferencing plays an integral part in the remote learning process, be that on a one-to-one basis or in classes. Larger institutions have traditionally used SecondLife and Kubi Telepresence, but Skype and Zoom are the tools often used today because they are free for both students and educators. Over the years, I have occasionally used Skype for remote learning when students have been ill, had transport issues or still want to participate in class sessions while on holiday. But now, COVID-19 has forced us all into a corner, and the only way to come out fighting has been the introduction of both Skype and Zoom alongside DAWs like BandLab, Logic, Cubase and Ableton Live.
In the past weeks we have all seen a rise in live streamed music performances on various social platforms. We’ve also seen a plethora of new how-to videos explode onto the world’s digital window. These can, however, be extremely one-directional with little interaction except for the obligatory message and comment board discussion.
Having the ability to go further and fully interact and teach live, as if we are in a classroom with all our resources is essential. In Skype or Zoom, this is possible. However, Zoom goes a lot further than Skype with some useful remote functions for teachers. For instance, teachers can remotely control any student’s computer, which is invaluable when helping with a practical or academic issue, and very similar to sitting next to that student in a classroom.
Zoom’s audio I/O settings are also well set up for music production tuition; the ability to use an external interface and microphone is paramount for clean audio – removing original sound and those nasty codecs that warp conference sound. Within the Share Screen settings, you can also turn on ‘Share computer sound’. This is another welcome addition when playing back audio from within your sequencer. Another benefit of the screen sharing function in Zoom is the ability to use drawing functions. These work like a virtual whiteboard or highlighter.
Sharing any open browser window or linked phone/tablet tab is another useful tip, and the ability to make use of a second camera for hardware demos is another welcomed addition. Instant document sharing is also a must-have teaching resource within the software.
Zoom brings a lot to the table. Being able to have up to 100 participants at any one time is perfect when dealing with class sizes of 20-30 plus. Being able to mute all students while delivering content is essential for managing the class, too. Everyone can also record the session with the host’s permission although it is recommended the teacher (host) records the session so that students can access again via Moodle or Google Classroom/Drive. Recorded video files are sensibly sized MP4 files and are easy to manage. Teachers very rarely record physical classroom activities, so remote learning has invaluable recap opportunities for students, especially for those who might have missed the original remote session.
All of my current classes have now moved to remote learning via Zoom. My mature students studying diplomas and degrees generally have the hardware and DAW software available to them at home and in the rare instances they do not, we loaned equipment just in time before the government enforced the dreaded COVID-19 lockdown. These students are continuing their regular lesson timetables with minimum disruption. However, with the primary and secondary schools, it’s a different matter. Classes have been restructured, and home learning is slowly taking place. For teachers and parents, encouraging students to engage in a remote session can be a challenge in itself. And, lest we forget, some students are unable to engage due to a lack of resources at home. So, in that sense, it is not yet fully inclusive.
Can you do this?
It is evident that the tools are out there for us all to keep music technology education positive, in the face of current negativity. Can this work for you as teachers and your students? The answer is “yes”. If you have the knowledge and skills to deliver in the physical classroom, then you can certainly replicate your magic in the virtual classroom. It is undoubtedly a different beast and can take some setting up to achieve quality audio and video, but once you are past the teething problems and implement your structure, remote learning really is something to behold. The tools that I have explored in this article were made for the current world crisis we find ourselves in, so let’s embrace them and keep moving forward!
Five essential remote teaching tools
1. Zoom or Skype
There are others about, but these are a couple of the most popular and are essential if you are to carry out remote lessons. Zoom is my preference because of its audio sharing tools and stereo operation.
2. BandLab/BandLab for Education
For beginner to intermediate learners, it’s a no brainer. It requires Google Chrome or Firefox, works on any platform, needs no controller and can be used in Education mode for closed and protected classrooms.
3. Audio Interface
Not essential but clear audio from the teacher to the student should be paramount; it can be as simple as a 2-in, 2-out unit.
An optical line would be best, a poor connection is the last thing you want, and if you can hardwire instead of using wifi, do it.
Not so much for the teacher if you’re in a studio space, but should be seriously considered. If not, every student must monitor a session with headphones.
Five dos and don’ts of remote teaching
1. Do stay professional
Your duty of care should remain, regardless of location, nothing should be visible of your private life so use appropriate backgrounds, both teacher and students, dress appropriately and make the session private closing all other browser windows when screen sharing.
2. Do allow for technical issues
time at the start of the session often needs to be dedicated to connection, be it video, audio and or logging in.
3. Don’t allow students to disrupt
Take charge of the session, have clear aims and use the ‘mute’ button when delivering content. Management of the online classroom is essential.
4. Don’t offer additional support
After structured remote sessions, be very careful not to get caught up in lengthy email exchanges, which would normally not happen and may take up more time than you expect.
5. Do make sure others in your space know you are working
This is important – there is nothing worse than a member of your family wandering into the picture or making noise, so warn them beforehand. This also goes for the students.
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[Editor’s note: BandLab is owned by BandLab Technologies, the parent company of MusicTech magazine/MusicTech.net]