Watching Steph Curry or LeBron James do amazing things on the basketball court inspires participation in the sport—just like hearing great artists motivates kids to channel their creative energy into making music. Young people know all the best artists in their favorite genre, but they don’t usually know the top bassoonist or harpist in their local orchestra. Incorporating the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic pillars of music theory with sounds familiar to students can foster greater engagement and demand in music classes, as well as a higher musical IQ in the general public. Unfortunately, not enough schools offer music production labs where kids can take steps toward becoming the next big music producer. So, how do you build one? Let’s take a look.
Start with a computer. Macs are considered best for creatives in art, film, and music, but PCs have gained ground in recent years and can often get you bigger bang for your buck. Both formats offer tons of options. Software is the next step. First, you need a digital audio workstation (DAW). DAWs act as central hubs for recording, editing, and producing audio files such as musical compositions or sound effects. While Pro Tools is the longtime standard bearer in the audio industry, the learning curve can be frustratingly steep for beginners. FL Studio by Image-Line—popular with hip-hop and EDM producers alike—is great for students as its spreadsheet- like playlist and flexible piano roll are easy to comprehend visually. Other DAWs to look at include Akai Pro’s MPC 2.0, Logic (only available for Mac), Presonus Studio One, Bitwig, and Ableton Live.
Some DAWs, like FL Studio, come bundled with Virtual Studio Technology (VST), which simulates traditional recording hardware. These usually come in the form of drums or musical instruments that emulate real or completely new sounds or audio effects like reverb, EQ, or compression. So, we have a computer and software capable of generating, recording, and organizing sounds. Now we need a MIDI controller to play our VSTs and record our ideas into the DAW. MIDI, short for musical instrument digital interface, is essentially a language that allows electronic musical instruments to communicate with one another and gives instructions to programs like DAWs and VSTs on the velocity, length, or loudness for specific notes. The most common MIDI controllers come in either keyboard or drum pad form. I recommend starting with the Advance 49 by Akai Pro, which represents the best of both worlds by featuring 49 keys as well as eight high-
quality drum pads. If desk space is an issue, the Advance 25, MPK225, or MPK mini are all great options by the same manufacturer.
The last two items are an audio interface and monitors.
Most commercial music tracks are not produced using the computer’s built-in microphone and speakers. Live sound from an instrument or microphone can be captured by a DAW using audio interface hardware, which expands the sonic capabilities of the computer. The cost and capabilities of audio interfaces vary, but a good place to start for reasonable price and reliability is the M-Audio M-Track 2X2.
Finally, in order to hear our wonderful new music we’ll we need a pair of monitors, which are speakers specifically designed for professional audio playback. As opposed to headphones that “sweeten” the sound of commercial music via raised bass and treble EQ, monitors give a relatively flat EQ curve for a what-you-hear-is-what-you- get sound. The M-Audio BX5s are a great bang-for-the- buck option.
We now have all the components of a station capable of producing high-quality instrumental music. Add a microphone to the mix and we can record vocals and traditional band or orchestral instruments. However you choose to do it, building out a quality music production lab will keep students engaged in music and, by proxy, keep them in school. Better yet: it may save the music department entirely.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Torrie Jones is a music-producing keyboardist with a B.A. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA. He is currently the Brand Manager for iconic music gear manufacturer Akai Professional.