Harmonic mix

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Douglas Blane visits a school in the Highlands where Apple's GarageBand software is revolutionising creativity

Six roe deer in single file step daintily into the icy waters of the meandering River Bran, as the snow-clad shoulder of Sgurr a'Mhuillan, high above the bleak brown valley, is briefly touched by a weak and wintry sun.

Flurries of frozen crystals occasionally threaten the ribbon of road as it winds through the wilderness of Wester Ross to the sea, where Gairloch High School serves a widely scattered community of homes and crofts.

"We have a catchment area of 400 square miles, some of it pretty rugged," says headteacher Stephen Shaw. "It's just as well you didn't try to get through when we had the storms recently. It can get wild here in winter.

That hasn't stopped people from coming here to live. The school and the community are both thriving."

Having been highlighted several years ago by HM Inspectors for its good practice in ICT, Gairloch High has been making further progress, most recently as the recipient of a Future Learning and Teaching Award from the Scottish Executive. "That has allowed us to move further ahead as a whole school," says Stephen. "We have also been able to focus on several subjects, like music, that already had a good ICT capability we could build on."

In a bright welcoming room adorned with posters for shows and concerts and liberally bedecked with guitars, harps, drums, keyboards, headphones and big shiny eMacs, music teacher Beth Hunter is conducting a class of 13-year-olds in music invention. "Let's have eight of you on the computers using GarageBand, and the rest on your instruments please."

As the children settle, Ms Hunter, who has been using ICT in music for close on 20 years, provides a little background. "The good thing about GarageBand is you automatically get it when you buy an Apple Mac, as part of a great package called iLife, which lets you create music, photos and video, and pull them all together," she says. "So the whole school has created a DVD to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our new building.

Another application is a joint project we have with art, and now also drama, to get the kids to portray emotions in sound and images."

She clicks an icon on her eMac screen and a succession of harrowing black-and-white photographs from war zones and famines appears, accompanied by sombre, evocative music. Another icon brings up a sequence of wacky and surreal images, with sounds that stretch the definition of music.

"Ying tong, ying tong, ying tong, ying tong, ying tong iddle I po" - and the computer vibrates to a loud raspberry from Neddie Seagoon. "I love that song," says Ms Hunter. "The art teacher has been collecting these amazing images for years, so I feel a wee bit of a fraud because I put the soundtrack together in a weekend.

"The music playing now is from the Harry Potter film - a legal download from Apple's music store. Now listen to this on the headphones. I don't want to distract the kids too much."

The children, working on computers or with acoustic guitars in the corner, look too engrossed to be distracted. Occasionally a pupil gets up, listens to somebody else's work, or approaches the teacher with a question or a comment. There is some conversation and a lot of concentration. The mood is creative, not chaotic. From the headphones plugged into the computer a lovely soprano voice sings a haunting Gaelic melody. "My niece asked me to create a CD for her wedding, so that's me singing and accompanying myself on the harp," says Ms Hunter. Having recorded the wedding pieces she then exported them to iTunes, which created a "mixdown" for burning on to CD or DVD. "Have you got to the part where another voice sings in harmony?" she asks "That's me, too - singing harmony with myself. GarageBand lets you record separate tracks - voice, instrument or a load of pre-recorded stuff called loops - then put them together. It's very powerful, very user-friendly."

She draws attention to the quality of the sound by pressing a key on the keyboard, producing a sonorous guitar note from the computer speakers. "Do you hear that 'Dunng'? That's a really good guitar sound. You get that on GarageBand just by pressing the key harder. On classical guitar you can even hear the attack of the fingers."

Flora Donald (13), who comes from a musical family, plays flute and guitar, and sings with her sister, is equally taken with using computers for music.

She persuaded her parents to buy an eMac so that she can do so at home.

"I'm not that good at inventing music," she says modestly, "though it is something you get better at the more you do. I'm not too computer-literate either. But I started gaining confidence when we got GarageBand last year.

"The teacher let us experiment, so we learned it by using it. With other programs you have to listen to a lot of instructions and do things exactly the right way." As Flora's musical invention - a lively piece with a traditional Scottish influence, and "not as much of the heavy bass and drums my friends like" - plays on the computer, the separate tracks she used to construct it scroll past as horizontal blocks on the screen.

"That's a loop I used," she says pointing to the top one. This is another loop I modified. And these are the parts I put in from the keyboard and through the microphone."

At the next table, 13-year-old Liam Ross explains that the creative aspects of music are not the only ones enhanced by computers: "You can download the latest music online into iTunes, so you don't have to go all the way to Inverness to buy it. You can even get albums that aren't out yet. It's cheaper too. I've spent hundreds of pounds but I've got loads of stuff."

GarageBand has made a big impact on Gairloch pupils, says Ms Hunter: "It is so cool. A lot of them are saving to buy Apple Macs now so they can use GarageBand at home. "Some music teachers don't want to know about computers. They've got this idea that they take the soul out of music.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As a creative tool for music, computers are just fantastic."

* For details of the RMX '05 songwriting and remixing competition using Garageband, see page 10


Apart from the computer and software, not much equipment is required to mix, make and share music through ICT, says Beth Hunter. The essentials are:

* Midi interface, Monster Cable, memory stick, musical instrument or voice

* eMac: Macs for the educational market. Two models: 40Gb hard drive with Combo Drive (reads DVDs, reads and writes CDs); or 80Gb hard drive, and CDDVD-reading-and-writing SuperDrive. Otherwise identical, with G4 processors, 256 Mb RAM, modem, audio in and out, and video output port.

Software bundled with eMacs includes iLife and AppleWorks.

* iLife - allows youngsters of any age to have fun and be creative with music, pictures and movies. Includes GarageBand, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD.

* Emagic Logic Audio - a step up from GarageBand for aspiring musicians, producers and composers, who can use the advanced spectrum of features and tools to create, modify and enhance their music.

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