I wanted to share the recording setup I use in my classroom. Giving students the opportunity to hear themselves allows them to build better music habits and to develop a healthy practice of self-evaluation. This setup is inexpensive and is made from old hardware I no longer use in my professional studio, but it should be a great starting place to get ideas for a teacher or budding recording artist to build their own home studio.
Why use recording in the classroom?
I am a graduate research assistant at the University of Central Oklahoma focusing on classroom technology use. One thing that I have found to be difficult is finding intrinsic motivators in the music classroom. Extrinsic motivators are easy, how many of us that went to private lessons growing up were given candy because we made it through a lesson without complaining? Intrinsic motivators are a bit more challenging because instead of giving an external reward we are giving them internally rewarding projects that they will want to accomplish.
I have found that with the majority of my students recording projects give them something satisfying to work towards. They tend to practice, show up early for lessons, and stay engaged with music because they are creating their own rendition of a favorite song. Instead of "sticking to the books" I use concepts from the curriculum that apply specifically to the song that they are learning. So if the curriculum is centered around major scales for that week we may look at how the major scale pattern on the guitar connects with a "riff" or melody line from a song that we are working on. Overall, we shift the classroom environment away from being "curriculum" centered to being "goal centered" and those goals become the driver of the recording projects.
In conclusion, recording projects are incredibly helpful as an intrinsic motivator for many students and provides a scaffolding for the instructor to apply musical concepts in ways that are relevant to the student's internal interests.
Macbook (Early 2008)
This macbook got me through my undergraduate work and has been sitting unused for several years. After backing up the HDD I replaced it with a solid state drive and upgraded the ram to 6gb. A clean install of OS X 10.7 took a little bit of work and a USB drive. I also had to buy a copy of iLife 2011 on Amazon because the newest version of garageband won't work with this old of a computer. This computer is OLD and shouldn't be used for anything but classroom recording or as a digital amplifier for your guitar or bass. Typing this blog post on it has the fans going full blast and many applications post 2016 will not work with it. Total cost to me was around $100 for new parts and the iLife DVD.
Alesis i02 Express audio interface
This was my old interface I would use for camera audio while filming. It's powered by USB has two inputs, midi input, phantom power and 1/4" stereo audio outputs for monitoring. It's obsolete and barely works with Windows 10, but it's perfect for this old macbook. Very little latency and the headphone jack lets you hear student performance in detail. It can be found second-hand on Reverb for around $40
Philips SPA8210/37 Multimedia Speakers 2.0
These are not studio monitors, but they put out lots of volume without distortion. It also has adequate low end for bass students to hear themselves. The headphone out is helpful for private listening and the front mounted aux input is great for playing music off your phone. It's also only $30 on Amazon and Walmart, great classroom speakers that are durable and great for helping all of my students to hear their progression.
Audix OM2 Microphone
I think I got this for free for buying something at guitar center ages ago. It's an average microphone, but it doesn't sound boxy and has low noise. I used to use an AKG condenser microphone in the classroom, but found it was too sensitive and picked up extra noise from the other teachers and students at the music academy I teach at. Whichever microphone you use, I would recommend a cardioid dynamic microphone. The cardioid pattern tends to pick up sounds from where the microphone is facing and rejects noise behind it, this gives you options in a less than ideal recording environment.
Heavily modified Fender Champion 600
For electric guitar and bass I use a Fender Champ 600 as my classroom amplifier. I have modified the amplifier to bypass the "tone stack" or the electrical components that make it sound like a vintage fender amp. I also replaced the speaker with a Weber 8" that sounds much better than the stock one. Now, normally it wouldn't be a good idea to play a bass through a guitar amp, but at classroom volumes it doesn't stress it enough to blow out the speaker or cause damage. It also cuts out the "low-low's" that shake walls and disturb other teachers if you're in an environment with multiple music instructors teaching different instruments. This amp can be found for around $150 on Reverb, and I've probably spent another $50 modifying the amplifier. If you want schematics or help, send me an email and I'll try to find my notes on what I did to this thing back in 2010.
Typical Recording Project Action Plan and Assessment
If you want to use recording projects in your classroom, here are some beginning action steps and assessment questions to work through with the student:
What song do you want to learn? What do we already know how to play in this piece? What skills will we need to learn to play it? What do I as an instructor need to do to make this happen (custom backing tracks, play an accompanying instrument, curriculum concepts that will help student, etc.)?
Set a schedule
When are we going to record this song? Is that realistic? How can I as an instructor help students to set realistic goals?
Set the stage
How do I need to change my classroom to allow for recording to happen? Is there too much external noise? Can I change locations? Am I using the goal to teach or am I teaching so that the student can reach the goal?
Once you have these first action steps done, it's up to you to be a positive encourager of excellence and discipline. Students can be their own worst critics and hearing yourself perform can be a bit intimidating at times. As an instructor you can help students to develop healthy self-improvement skills helping them to identify what they did well in addition to the areas they need to improve. Only export and share the file with them when you both feel that they have reached their goals. Do not let a student share something that is not ready to share! Online peer criticism can be brutal and sharing a poor recording will nullify the intrinsic motivation of creating an individual rendition of a song.
I hope this post is helpful! Send me an e-mail if you would like help implementing this in your classroom or if you are setting up a home studio.