Well, it’s official. All of my students are now henceforth required to post all music assignments on SoundCloud. It solves so many problems! No fumbling with thumb drives, no sharing of huge files, no annoyances with incompatible DAWs. No need to mess with audio-hostile Learning Management Systems. Everyone gets to listen to everyone else’s music. And best of all, the kids get into the habit of exposing their creative work to the blunt indifference of the public at large. Students can comment on and fave each others’ tracks, and so can randos on the web. It really takes the “academic” out of academic work.
You may have noticed a lot of writing about Peter Gabriel on the blog lately. This is because I’ve been hard at work with Alex Ruthmann, the NYU MusEDLab, and the crack team at Peer To Peer University on a brand new online class that uses some of Peter’s eighties classics to teach audio production. We’re delighted to announce that the class is finished and ready to launch.
Here’s Alex’s video introduction:
I participate in Marc Weidenbaum’s Disquiet Junto whenever I have the time and the brain space. Once a week, he sends out an assignment, and you have a few days to produce a new piece of music to fit. Marc asks that you discuss your process in the track descriptions on SoundCloud, and I’m always happy to oblige. But my descriptions are usually terse. This week I thought I’d dive deep and document the whole process from soup to nuts, with screencaps and everything.
Here’s this week’s assignment, which is simpler than usual:
Please answer the following question by making an original recording: “What is the room tone of the Internet?” The length of your recording should be two minutes.
I was looking at a collection of perfectly looped gifs on Buzzfeed and thinking about how they remind me of sample-based electronic music. In both cases, you’re taking a piece of a linear recording and making it cyclical. Do it wrong and it’s extremely irritating. Do it right and it’s mesmerizing. I’ve given a lot of thought to how looping a segment of audio changes its meaning, but am only just starting to think about the visual equivalent.
Creating and running the MOOC has been a learning experience for everybody involved. It certainly has been for me. I do most of my music teaching one on one, and it’s been weird creating materials for a couple of thousand students I never see at all. (Though I guess that’s sort of what I’m doing on this blog.) My colleagues have been keeping close tabs on the community of participants, but my personal interaction has been limited by the course’s coinciding with crunch time for my thesis. So this post will be less about the students, and more about the teachers.
This is the fourth in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. See also the first, second and third posts.
After PWYM participants have tried mixing using just levels and panning, the next step is to include audio effects for additional audio manipulation. As a painless introduction, you can load any track from SoundCloud into our own miniature web-based effects unit, #PWYM Live Effects. Then it’s time to open up some dry stems in Soundation. In addition to mixing and panning, you can now do some creative application of Soundation’s effects. These include:
Both low-pass and high-pass filters are available, which block high and low frequencies, respectively. Why would you want to do such a thing? There are practical and expressive reasons. The practical one is to keep sounds from fighting each other in the mix. So, for example, my electric guitar has a very bass-heavy sound. If there’s a bassist on the track along with me, together we’re going to sound like mud. By applying a high-pass filter to my guitar, I can stay out of the bassist’s way and still get across most of the information in my sound. Similarly, I’d want to low-pass the bass for the same reason.
Alex is fond of the phrase “pedagogies of timbre and space.” By that, he means: ways of studying those aspects of recorded music beyond the notes being played and words being sung. Timbre is the combination of overtones, noise content, attack and decay that makes one instrument sound different from another. Space refers to the environment that the sound exists in, real or simulated. These are the aspects of music that get shaped by recording engineers, producers and DJs. Audio creatives usually don’t have much input into the stuff you see on sheet music. But they end up significantly shaping the end result, because the sonic surface is the main thing that most non-specialist listeners pay attention to (along with the beat.) For many pop and dance styles, the surface texture is the most salient component of the music.
The work of audio professionals, be they recording artists, engineers, producers, remixers or DJs, consists mostly of close listening. Making recordings consists of doing a lot of asking yourself: Does this sound good? If not, why not? Is there something missing? Or does something need to be taken out? Is the blend of timbres satisfying? Are the sounds placed well in the stereo field? Are they at the right perceptual distance from the listener? No one is born able to ask these questions, much less to answer them. You have to learn how, and then you have to practice. In a sense, music production software is like the Microsoft Office suite. Before you learn about the fine points of formatting or making equations, you need to learn how to write coherently, how to organize data, how to structure a presentation. So it is with music. There’s no point in learning the nuts and bolts of particular software until you know what you’re listening for and what you want to achieve.
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.