Get your head in the cloud, part 2: creating music

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In the second article in his series about cloud-based software, George Hess, MUSIC:ED Music Technology Editor, looks at software for teaching.


It’s hard to ignore how large a part technology plays in today’s music and one of the things music technology makes possible is teaching music through composition and production.

Whether through traditional notation or recording, these programs give students the tools to compose, produce, playback and share their music.

Let’s look at some of the best cloud-based music production software programs for the classroom.

Music production software

Music production software, commonly called Digital Audio Workstations or DAWs, is used to record and edit audio and MIDI.

Professional-level programs can be intimidating as they are behemoths that require technical knowledge and skills well beyond the basics. Many of these programs offer entry-level versions but they are usually just same program with fewer features yet not much easier to learn.

GarageBand

Apple changed all that with the introduction of GarageBand.

The first versions of GarageBand were simple to use yet surprisingly powerful. The key to the program was the sizeable library of high-quality audio and MIDI loops in many styles.

What was transformative was that you could drag a loop into a track and it would instantly conform to the tempo and key of a project. You could also record and edit MIDI using the included software instruments or you could even record audio. Next, add some basic effects and automate volume and stereo panning and voilà, you have a finished track.

All of this made GarageBand ideal for the beginning music technology class. Music teachers could focus on teaching musical concepts rather than technical skills and students could produce work that they could be proud of.

But GarageBand is only available on Mac and iOS and one the most common requests we hear is for alternatives for PC and Chromebooks.

Cloud-based DAWs

Enter the cloud-based DAWs.

These are full-featured music production software programs modelled on GarageBand that include audio and MIDI loops, effects, audio recording, MIDI recording and editing and automation. Just like GarageBand, these are easy to learn and use.

While there are quite a few cloud-based DAWs, there are three options that standout for education:

Each has a free standard version, which is great for getting a feel for how the programs work, but they aren’t entirely safe for schools. Some of the loop names aren’t appropriate and all include an open social media environment for sharing and collaboration.

Educational versions

Fortunately, all three provide educational versions.

These have the same DAWs as the standard versions but loop names have been sanitised and the social media function is a closed environment. Collaboration is still supported but limited to those admitted to the class.

BandLab for Education is free. The educational versions of Soundtrap and Soundation require a subscription. Soundation4Education is only available through MusicFirst, which requires a separate subscription.

There’s not a lot that separates these as DAWs. I found each of them to be easy to use and intuitive. Their interfaces are track-based. Track headers include volume and pan controls, solo, mute and record enable buttons. Automation of volume and pan is added directly to the track using ‘rubber bands’. None of the programs includes a mixer.

Audio is recorded using a microphone or instrument connected to an audio interface or the internal mic in your computer. MIDI data for the software instruments is entered manually or in real-time using an on-screen piano keyboard or drum pad (with QWERTY shortcuts), an external MIDI keyboard or by clicking in the piano roll grid, where the pitch and velocity of notes can also be edited.

The loop libraries and software instruments are comprehensive and varied, allowing students to create music in just about any style they like. The basic parameters of software instruments can be changed and even automated in Soundation.

All of the music production software programs include a useful collection of FX that can be added as inserts on the track or instrument. Each effect has parameters that can be edited but are simple enough that you’ll only need to cover their basics. Soundation also supports automation of FX and is the only program to support FX on separate channels.

Class support

Soundation4Education

Soundation4Education is only available through MusicFirst and assignments are handled through the MusicFirst Learning Management System (LMS). We’ll talk more about MusicFirst but this is in no way a limitation.

Soundtrap for Education

Soundtrap for Education can be used as a standalone environment and supports unlimited class groups. Assignment instructions are limited so it’s best to use it within an LMS. That’s no problem as Soundtrap can integrate with virtually any LMS, including MusicFirst. Soundtrap includes a real-time video or text collaboration tool and can sync recordings over the internet. It also has an app for iOS and Android.

Bandlab for Education

Bandlab for Education is a standalone music production software program and does not support LMS integration. As such, it provides tools for class management, announcements and assignments can be either text or audio with complete descriptions. BandLab also has an app but it does not appear to work with the education version.

Technical support

  • Each program has online help and support and BandLab also has a real-time chat feature
  • Each program has a YouTube channel, although Bandlab’s channel is somewhat limited
  • The Soundation website has a comprehensive collection of text ‘How To’s’ as well as tutorial videos
  • Soundtrap offers two free courses that certify you as a Soundtrap educator

The write way

For those interested in pursuing a more traditional notation-based path, there are two excellent cloud-based options:

Both programs offer limited free versions. Education versions require a subscription. Each program is easy to learn and use which, once again, lets you focus on teaching music instead of technology.

While these aren’t professional engraving programs, both are capable of producing attractive scores and worksheets and can handle most tasks that would be expected in a music class. Their single window interfaces are similar, using a combination of menus and palettes with easily remembered shortcuts for many functions and elements. Scores can be viewed in page or scroll view. Both support MIDI or on-screen keyboard and  QWERTY note entry and playback using software instruments. Lyrics, chord symbols and tab are supported, although only Noteflight supports slash notation. Both programs can import and export MusicXML files.

Of the two, Noteflight is the more fully featured program, including things like rehearsal letters and larger sets of noteheads, articulations and ornaments. It’s also better able to handle exceptional situations such as hiding key and time signatures or measures.

As with the DAWs, social media and collaboration are essential aspects of these programs and both have educational versions that are safe for use in schools. Both programs support class management and assignments as standalone programs as well as integrating with virtually all LMSs, including Google Classroom. Again, Noteflight is the more mature environment, including templates, a considerable library of scores and lessons and more robust tools for collaboration and review.

Good educational practice

Cloud-based music production software ticks all the boxes for good educational practice. It’s easy to create lesson plans that are inquiry-based, authentic and student-centred that include peer review and peer-to-peer learning.

In future columns, we’ll look at how to design those lessons. In the meantime, check out part 3 of this article about the best cloud-based software that supports teaching music in a more traditional classroom.


Other articles in the series


About the author

George HessGeorge Hess is an educator, guitarist, composer and author who has taught music technology, jazz and theory at leading universities for over 25 years.

The author of Create Music with Notion, he is a regular contributor to leading music education publications and his tutorial videos are published by Groove3 and featured by MuseScore.

Dr Hess is an Apple Distinguished Educator and award-winning teacher who serves on the board of directors for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) in the US. A certified Flipped Learning trainer who regularly presents at conferences and workshops around the world, he is currently Associate Professor of Music at Sunway University in Malaysia.

Website: http://georgehessmusic.com


Header image: A Digital Audio Workstation is used to record and edit audio and MIDI

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