Tag Team Tech December 2015
Sound Matters: Apps, Gadgets, and Music Programming
Chances are that music plays a huge role in the lives of teens that visit your library. Some may be secretly able to play an instrument with great dexterity. Some might be able to give a convincing opinion on what good music should sound like. All teens, regardless of their musical inclination, should know that making original music is accessible and fairly easy, and teaches a skill that can come in handy when it comes to finding royalty-free, copyright-free music for video projects and multimedia presentations. Cost-effective music production programming in libraries can foster a deep appreciation for the production process behind the music teens listen to every day.
It’s very possible that you know these teens already; one excels at writing dynamic, hip-hop driven poetry and carries a messy notebook full of scribbled lyrics. One plays the clarinet in the school band, and can be seen lugging its case around. One has a knack for creating remixes out of songs from YouTube, and dabbles with DJ apps from time to time, cowering behind their laptop while wearing the clunkiest headphones you’ve ever seen. You can draw these budding talents out with programming that encourages creativity, free expression, and most important of all, collaboration.
The three teens in the aforementioned passage could very well be a formidable production team on a pop song. You already have your instrumentalist, your software expert, and your spoken word artist–and of course this is where the you, the librarian, comes in, the audio engineer. As the audio engineer, you record the clarinet player’s string of notes. Next, you can turn the helm over to the remix artist, who can drop in a few BPM-compatible drum loops. Then, bring in the notebook-wielding poet and invite them to drop a few bars in front of the mic. These teens have successfully used library resources to collaborate on a song that they now can share with friends and family; they can proudly announce, “Yeah, I made this at the library.” After uploading the song to social media–who knows, maybe your freshly-produced track may become a viral sensation!
What can music production look like at the library?
Music production programming at Madison Public Library in Wisconsin has taken off in the past year, yielding ten to fifteen drop-in participants at the Meadowridge Branch’s Sound Kitchen. Within a span of two hours every week, any interested teens receive guidance on creating music; most can create a song within a few minutes. The Sound Kitchen’s programming model is a smaller, music-focused version of the setup at Madison Public Library’s Central Library Media Lab, which features a full recording booth and a digital audio workstation featuring professional, state-of-the art software like ProTools and Djay2.
The typical Sound Kitchen workflow will consist of a “producer” who will create an instrumental track, typically out of the pre-installed royalty-free loops in Apple’s GarageBand. However, some teens will record tracks acoustically, from anything like tapping on a table with a pencil to create a custom loop, or recording a few notes from the baritone clarinet they’ve lugged from school. After the track has been mixed (typically someone editing the song post-production by making sure the vocals don’t overpower the instrumentals and vice-versa) the teens can upload their new song to a social media site that allows easy music sharing. Soundcloud has been a popular outlet (with teens typically setting up personal accounts), as the song can be easily shared on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or in an eager email to a parent. From time to time, “artists in residence,” who are local rappers, producers, and other players involved in the local music industry, will be invited to drop in to offer guidance, critiques, and inspiration. The artists-in-residence create connections with teens making music, thus fostering the possibility for further inspiration and collaboration.
Hardware, software, freeware, paid-ware
The ease of use and accessibility of software matters greatly. Most software applications will allow program attendees to simply drag and drop instrumental loops in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style workspace, typically called the “arrange.” The popular application GarageBand already comes downloaded on any Apple computer for no additional charge. GarageBand is also available for iOS devices like iPads and iPhones. While its ability to apply special effects is limited, teens enjoy the user-friendly interface that easily allows cutting out parts of tracks, say where the vocalist may have been breathing a little too heavily into the mic. GarageBand also allows for track automation. This gives the user control of volume levels throughout the recorded track, for instance when a vocalist may be overpowered by the song’s instruments. For Windows-based computers, there are also a number of freeware programs that aid in audio production, one being Audacity which can record, mix, and automate a track with relative ease. Unlike GarageBand, however, Audacity does not come with royalty-free loops, but you can download free, crowd-sourced loops from sites like audioblocks.com or looperman.com.
The other expense to consider is hardware. The equipment does not have to be costly, either; a great recording microphone like Blue’s Yeti offers great vocal quality at an affordable price, as well as Blue’s slightly cheaper Snowball. Reviews report that the snowball has more of a tendency to pick up background sounds; therefore Yeti seems to be the choice for vocals, while Snowball is more apt for spoken word. The Apogee MiC offers great sound without picking up feedback or harsh tones, and is the microphone widely used in Madison Public Library’s programming.
When a microphone is paired with a small wind screen (the mesh looking round thing that goes in front of the mic seen in some recording studio setups), the amount of additional noise is reduced greatly, and will also protect your microphone investment from spit from overeager vocalists. These can retail on Amazon for as little as $7, and can attach to any microphone with ease. If an external microphone is unavailable, the built in laptop microphones on many newer model laptops (which are developed by studio-loved names such as Bose and Shure) can still produce excellent recorded tracks. The earliest Sound Kitchen meetings procured songs recorded with the built-in microphone in the 11-inch MacBook Air, but were subject to pick up background noises and sounds made by spectators wanting to watch the recording process.
Other good things to have around are wide-ranged headphones that accommodate both high and low tones. A popular pair of inexpensive studio headphones is the over-the-ear AKG K 240s, which gives quality sound range at a fair price, but any entry-level over-the-ear headphones will greatly improve the recording experience. Another useful piece of equipment is a very inexpensive audio splitter, which allows two sets of headphones to plug into a laptop’s audio output. Here, the vocalist and person assisting with the recording can hear the work in progress without the instrumental interfering with the vocal recording.
Above and Beyond GarageBand and Microphones
The next (optional) step up is a recording booth, which would require both space and setup. If you’re looking to go the extra mile, full professional recording booths (big enough for you to step inside) run anywhere from $500-$2,000 and require a permanent home, such as a media lab. Keep in mind that the purpose of a sound booth is to not necessarily isolate sound from the outside from sneaking into recordings, but rather create an environment where padded walls control the room’s acoustical environment. For vocal recordings, the smaller the space, the better. The most cost effective solution is to use a small vocal absorption shield, which wraps slightly around the microphone and the vocalist, limiting the echo effects possible when recording inside a large room. These can run anywhere from $60-$100, making this piece of equipment budget friendly. Further, audio interfaces are needed when recording plug-in instruments such an electric guitar or a bass; the popular, accessible models being the Apogee Jam or the M-Audio M-Track Plus. Both of these devices can easily plug into laptops via USB and require little to no set-up time.
Other Ways to Get Musical
A recording studio setup isn’t the only way to to make music in the library. Easily accessible, user-friendly web sites can also make for an enticing music making experience. Made with Code’s Music Mixer (madewithcode.com/projects/music) allows teens to indulge in a heavily visual way to make simple loops, all while using code block programming. The music mixer allows experimentation with a wide range of musical styles (country and acapella included). Since the number of notes and speed can be altered using the code blocks, you and your program attendees can have a hearty discussion on what numbers work, and what don’t. Sharing also makes for great learning; lots of “how did you do that?” will be heard when kids share their creations with one another.
In the same vein of blending code writing and musical creation, Sonic Pi (www.sonic-pi.net) is freeware available for Raspberry Pi, Windows, and Mac OS. While Sonic Pi was originally designed to teach both computing and music lessons in schools, it’s also used frequently in live performance by musicians. The Sonic Pi app features a structured interface with a neatly organized tutorial which easily teaches you to use the app – and gets you coding, quickly. The tutorial encourages the user to play around with adjusting numerical values, and seeing “what works.” You are given the ability to export your work as a WAV. audio file, ready to share with whomever you like. Like Made With Code, there is plenty of room for sharing, discussion and collaboration in projects.
Music programming for teens can and should be considered one of the cornerstones of a maker-based service model; this can be as simple as a few computers set up with freeware and microphones, or as complex as an entire media lab setup with equipment that could rival your local recording studio. Either way, there is a potential to offer great library resources to teens looking to express their musical, writing, or even coding talents. Who knows, maybe the next great thing could come out of your library!
Janice Scurio is a teen services librarian in Madison, Wisconsin. With an extensive background in information technology, she has served as an expert advisor for other libraries looking to implement more youth STEM programming, such as Minecraft and LEGO robotics. When not at the library, she enjoys karaoke, eating sushi, running marathons, and making fun electronic music.