Designing a music production MOOC

In my capacity as a research assistant to Alex Ruthmann, I’ve been getting to work on a bunch of cool projects. The first one to come to fruition is a MOOC (massively open online course) about music production. It’s called Play With Your Music, and it starts November 1st. The project is spearheaded by the idealistic edupunks at Peer to Peer University, with input from the MIT Media Lab. It’s free and open to anyone with an internet connection.

Play With Your Music

Why are we doing this? Other than, because MOOCs are the hip thing right now? We’re trying to address the giant sucking vacuum that exists for entry-level pedagogical resources around audio production and engineering. There are a ton of YouTube videos talking about specific techniques with specific software, but there isn’t much out there about the bigger concepts: How do you listen analytically? How do you mix in a way that sounds good? How do you structure a track? How and why do you use reverb, EQ, compression and so on? How do you remix something? The few broad-based, beginner-oriented online resources that do exist tend to be either superficial or forbiddingly technical. And there isn’t anything in this area on the web that’s interactive, so far as I know. So there’s a gap to be filled, and we have the resources to fill it.

I entered the MOOC process with some skepticism. In the abstract, I’m on board with the techno-utopian vision of cheap or free online education for everybody. But the reality of that education is a very mixed bag. There are a lot of sleazy, exploitative for-profit online courses out there. There are some well-meaning but ineffectual non-profit ones too. But I feel good about this project. Our point person at P2PU, the irrepressibly bubbly Vanessa Gennarelli, is conscious of the MOOC’s dodgy reputation, and is committed to rehabilitating it. The web’s major drawback is the lack of face-to-face interaction and all that goes with it — easy and spontaneous social connection, accountability, camaraderie. The upside is scalability, convenience, broad accessibility. So the question for us as MOOC designers is: how do we build in some of the best aspects of in-person learning? P2PU’s answer is: collaboration. (Thus the name of the organization.)

Right off the bat, when you sign up for PWYM, you get assigned to a group according to your music tastes, through the magic of the Echo Nest API. You work alongside your group on all of the projects. Giving feedback to your peers is a key part of the course. We’re taking advantage of several collaboration-friendly web platforms, most significantly Google Hangouts. These are a souped-up form of videoconferencing, with text messaging and sharing of Google docs. Even better, you can actually work on audio projects as a team within the Hangout — more on that below. We’re also using Google+, SoundCloud and good old email as discussion/criticism platforms.

To me, the really exciting thing is that participants in the class don’t need any special hardware or software beyond a computer with a web browser. For remixing and recording, we’re using Soundation, a staggeringly full-featured web-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) — it’s basically Garageband in the browser. We warm you up to Soundation using a nifty custom in-browser mixer. You apply different effects to a track on SoundCloud with PWYM Live Effects. And you use Girl Talk in a Box and Infinite Jukebox to understand structure and repetition. These last two are hard to explain; you really need to just click through and experience them. They’re fun.

The next post discusses the ways that our participants learn how to listen like audio professionals.