Heading for the top of the charts

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Hugh John looks at an online music station that gives students a chance to publish their music.

Schools can win subscriptions and other prizes in our competition on page 29

They have had a couple of hours training with teachers and ICT technicians and now the key stage 34 students at Intake High School Arts College in Bramley, Leeds, are clearly having fun. They have brought their own sound files into class and are uploading them on to the website where they will become part of a top 100 chart. There's already a keen interest in the chart positions of bands from local schools. Messages are being left on the website in the arcane texting language that separates young from old, hip from hip replacement.

Jordan Hall and his friends have been listening enthusiastically to a track from a band at nearby Lawnswood School. He's now typing directly into the on-screen comment box suggestions on how they can improve. Such precociousness! But perhaps it's what you would expect at a school where ICT is a core strand of learning and teaching and where students are encouraged to express themselves positively and creatively.

It's the end of the summer term at Intake and brothers Mark and Tim Riches, the creative team behind Synergy.tv, winners of this year's BETT "Innovation" award, are here to trial "dbass" - their latest education project - in a classroom environment.

As befits its specialist arts college status, Intake (whose former students include Melanie Brown from the Spice Girls, and Angela Griffin, who played Fiona Middleton in Coronation Street), is superbly resourced. The music room we're using has a suite of PCs loaded with Cubase sequencing software, music keyboards and a variety of other equipment. Adjoining the room is a rehearsal booth and a controlrecording booth. The PCs are connected to the dbass website (www.dbass.org)and students and teachers are uploading and downloading music files.

Dbass works like this: each school that subscribes to the project becomes a designated "station" with its own website. Registered students are then allocated individual pages where they can store music samples, "blogs" (online diaries) and comments and suggestions from other members of the dbass community. The website has high-quality audio clips that can be downloaded from a sound library of bass, synth, beats, guitar, vocal and effect samples, as well as sound files that have been put up by students from other dbass stations.

Students can also upload their own music in either MP3 or proprietary file format (Cubase, Ableton, Reason and so on). This content is first submitted to the station's "publisher" - typically a music teacher or technician - for approval. If sanctioned, the material is uploaded to the dbass site where it becomes available to everyone.

Inappropriate material - such as dodgy lyrics, obvious plagiarism or unsuitable images in the picture box - can be marked and sent back to the artist with the publisher's comments. The primary role of the publisher, however, is not censorious, but supportive - to give encouragement and advice.

Once uploaded, all the samples go live on the dbass site and are catalogued by genre and by popularity (a sort of pop chart of favourite sound files).

As well as the main dbass chart there will be one for each participating school. According to Mark, "Kids are already looking to see where they are on their station chart".

Developed in tandem with Radiowaves, the online radio station that won the BETT "Innovation" award, dbass is a resource that will offer stimulating content and well prepared support. This includes eLearning tutorials on how to use the site and how to encode something into MP3 file format, and suggestions on what hardware and software to use.

The website, designed by Mark, has the sort of clear interface, interactivity and usability that makes popular commercial sites such as Amazon and eBay such a pleasure to use. Add to that the chart rating system and you have got another potential award-winner.

Darren Ibbetson, one of the teachers who has spent the day trialling dbass, is enthusiastic. One of the college's music teachers, his responsibilities encompass the primary schools community music programme, adult education, guitar and samba drums tutoring, and providing support for GCSE lessons.

Oh, and in his spare time he plays with local band, The Hoarse. Darren believes dbass has three distinct advantages. The registration and approval system ensures that students are properly supported: "They can always refer the materials to us and we can make suggestions." The sophisticated upload and download procedures should encourage students of different levels and abilities: being able to upload proprietary files will challenge the more advanced students, but the pre-loaded samples will bring in students who might be daunted at the prospect of creating their own musical loops and samples.

Finally, the chart idea will encourage young people to raise their own game: "They'll listen to what they've put up on the site; listen to the next one up on the site, and realise they'll have to produce something a bit better if they want to get on in the charts."

Remember the name: Jordan Hall is a Year 7 student at Intake and he's going places. He's been drumming since the age of three and has his own band - a drums, guitar and bass outfit which plays punk material, "just like Busted".

The dbass site, Jordan believes, is "really easy to use. I like the fact that you can just upload any sort of music and you can also report back on other people's music to say what they can improve and how they can improve it."

Having had half a day's training, he's confident that he can use the site.

"So if someone said: 'here's a sample, go and upload it'. Could you do it?"

"Yeah, I could. You've got to know a little about sound and computers, but I think it's just a very easy website to use. With my band, I could just see us putting songs on the internet and then promoting it and seeing how far we can go."

What's the downside then? On a light-hearted note, Intake's arts technician Paul Driscoll is worried that the enthusiasm shown by students at today's trial means a hugely increased workload. "I'm one of the four chosen publishers, so I just hope it doesn't become too popular or I'll be spending half my time approving stuff." In fact, publishers can accord privileged status to regular contributors by employing a "trust" button to fast-track their files on to the dbass site.

But Paul is convinced that because of the computer and music technology competence of Intake students at KS34, dbass is an easy tool to use: "You show them something once and they know how to do it - it's astonishing."

It's the end of the day and Mark Riches is wrapping up a plenary session in the music room. What, he wants to know, can Synergy do to improve dbass? There's a rush of questions. Can we put band videos on the site? Will we be able to upload Cubase files? Would it be easier to upload in Flash? Clearly dbass made a real impact on these teachers and students.

Michael Jolly, assistant head for teaching and learning, is attending the lesson and believes that it's been a very successful exercise. "Anything which uses ICT is going to be attractive to young people. Anything which actually gets them to communicate and work with other young people is going to be beneficial to the curriculum."

Over the summer, Mark and Tim have been working with three local schools to fine-tune the project, get feedback and ironing out last-minute problems.

They will be putting in place "a network of people and support that makes it easy for people to get on board," says Mark. The official launch of dbass will be at the SETT (Scottish Education and Teaching with Technology) show on September 22-23.

In the short term, the intention is to expand nationwide from their Yorkshire base. Ultimately, the brothers are looking to international horizons to exploit what Tim calls "the happy coincidence that English is the primary international language and that world music now shares so much".

Will they succeed? Given their track record, the quality of dbass and, above all, the enthusiasm of the trialling students and teachers, you wouldn't want to bet against them. Darren Ibbetson, teacher and guitarist, succinctly sums up the dbass effect: "It's pretty much pitched spot on.

Kids here are into performing and getting their own bands together, and dbass gives them the opportunity to make music and publish it."

Pricing, one suspects, is critical. The lowest join-up fee for a school is pound;350 per annum. This comprises pound;199 for the school station and pound;15 per artiststudent, assuming a minimum of 10 artists. The yearly cost for a class of 20 would be pound;500. Mark and Tim will be hoping that they have pitched the level appropriately enough to build up a dbass community of some strength. After all, the larger the database the more scope within it for collaboration and communication.

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