On the right track

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Bristol's John Cabot City Technology College uses professional musicians and links with leading manufacturers to make the recording studio experience as real as possible for its students. Hugh John samples the atmosphere

Imagine this. You're a GCSE music technology student and you've got roped into playing in the college revue as part of an end-of-year exam.

Not exactly Wembley Arena or the Royal Albert Hall, but it's a gig.

Then, the show gets a booking at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and suddenly for a week you're living the life of a professional musician, sharing a flat in the city with eight student actors.

It gets better. The show, Cluedo, is based on the well-known board game, and the name attracts passing trade. While other performers play to three men and a dog, you're part of a production that attracts good houses and completely sells out the 120-seat venue for the last two shows.

Such dreams can come true if you're a music student at John Cabot City Technology College in Bristol.

Let's rewind. John Cabot, in the Kingswood area of the city is one of 15 city technology colleges in the country. It is, says the prospectus, "a truly comprehensive community of students drawn from all walks of life".

Students are expected to become confident and discerning users of ICT.

The music department, headed by Sairee Douthwaite, is at the forefront of the drive to embed ICT in the curriculum. With 22 students taking GCSE music and 15 studying music technology A-level, the department offers a mix of traditional fare with access to a recording studio equipped with a 16-channel desk, a rack-mounted effects unit and Logic Gold recording and mixing software.

Within the next two years, the department will move to a new custom-built suite, but for now most of the teaching and playing takes place in the main music room, kitted out with electronic keyboards, and computers running MicroLogic AV on a Community Connect 3 network. Two smaller rooms house a "real" drum-kit and a Roland electronic piano.

And therein lies another story. "One of the college's senior managers knew someone at Roland UK," says music teacher Dean Blake, "so we wrote to the company and were invited to their HQ in Swansea." He is also part of the college's business unit and has established a relationship with the Japanese manufacturer. Roland has donated a COSM (Composite Object Sound Modeling) guitar amplifier and electronic piano to the college, but the most tangible expression of the company's largesse is the 50-channel digital mixing desk that the college will soon install.

John Cabot has reciprocated by staging a Roland drum clinic, which was attended by other schools in the Bristol area. Early next year the college hopes to mount an exhibition of Roland guitar and keyboard synthesizers.

Roland and college representatives meet to discuss initiatives, one of which could see sixth-formers from John Cabot trialling prototype musical equipment for the company.

The department is by no means exclusively Roland, however. Yamaha electronic keyboards and Logic sequencing software form the basis of most ICT activities. At key stage 3, for example, students work in pairs and use the sequencers to develop musical skills and ideas. At KS4, sequencing software underpins composition work.

Studio skills, including the use of the mixing desk, microphones and effects units, are introduced at A-level. Students are also expected to compose a film score with an imported video clip.

Sequencing, Sairee Douthwaite believes, has educational value on a number of levels. It can act as a musical aide-memoire, allowing students to concentrate on composing rather than "spending the first 10 minutes of a lesson trying to remember what they had done before". It is also a great help to students who don't have keyboard skills as it allows them to enter notes in "step time". Most importantly, "it enables students to be creative, gives them greater flexibility in the development of their ideas".

While Sairee Douthwaite is responsible for the organisation and curricular needs of the department, much of the instrumental teaching is undertaken by two peripatetic teachers - Dean Blake (drums) and Andy Allpass (piano).

Their hands-on, practical experience perfectly complements the more theoretical requirements of the courses on offer.

"The kids think Andy is fantastic," says Sairee. "They enjoy the situation because they get the best of both worlds. They know to come to me for certain things and to go to Andy for others. They are not learning music technology from a textbook, but from someone with experience."

When the department, in response to increasing demand, established the A-level music technology course, Andy Allpass was the obvious choice for the specialist post as he unashamedly admits to being an "anorak" .

Andy Allpass and Dean Blake have played together professionally for years and their friendship and understanding have proved invaluable when putting together bands and projects at the college.

At the last college production, CyberBar Blues, a student guitarist and student bass player were in the house band. For Sandy - the bass player - it was a real learning experience. Andy Allpass wrote out the bass part, and Sandy's playing and musicality convinced Dean Blake and Andy Allpass to take him to the Edinburgh Fringe.

The college is aware of the benefits of using working musicians. "All the guys we hire," says Dean Blake, who also runs the peripatetic service for the college, "are professionals doing it for a living and they can pass on so much more experience in a lesson."

And experience is important. Recording has never been an exact science and understanding the vagaries of MIDI protocol and temperamental gear cannot be overvalued.

"We know the technology from working on the outside," says Andy Allpass, "and we're able to bring it into the college. It's teaching the lesson and lesson-planning that is different for us and we've been helped no end by Sairee. There's a great team here to support us."

COMPUTERS AND SOFTWARE

* PCs in the main music room run on the school network and are loaded with MicroLogic AV sequencing software.

lThe computer in the recording studio is a standalone and runs Logic Gold.

For GCSE and A-level, the department needs to print students' scores to send to exam boards. MicroLogic AV was unable to print drum parts, so Logic Gold was bought for this (it also improved the scoring of all the other instrument parts) and is now used in tandem with Finale.

Logic Gold (v6) costs pound;215 excluding VAT (Mac only). MicroLogic is still available for education (Windows and Mac), but has been superseded by Logic Education (Windows and Mac), and costs pound;65 excluding VAT, from Counterpoint MTC. Sales and online catalogue: www.counterpoint-mtc.co.uk

MUSICAL EQUIPMENT

* Main music room: Yamaha electronic keyboards, Roland electronic piano, Roland COSM Guitar amp.

* Studio: 16-8-2 recording and mixing desk; a selection of microphones, including BST condenser, AKG dynamic and AKG dedicated Drum mic set; 19-inch rack unit housing reverb, compressor, gate and patchbay units, and another unit housing 8-track ADAT digital tape recorder; EMU sampler (with external CD-Rom drive and Zip 100 for backup of edited samples); minidisc recorder and conventional cassette tape recorder.

Key points

* Music technology is not an exact science. Problems often occur in a recording studio or with software, particularly "MIDI handshaking", that don't seem to have a logical cause.

* You can't have too much equipment. The ratio of students to keyboards at GCSE is one to one. "Hands-on or practical experience," Sairee Douthwaite says, "is vital."

* Music-making is usually a group activity. Encourage students to develop social skills alongside musical ones.

* It's helpful if the recording equipment in school is industry standard. If it isn't, a student on, say, work experience would be seriously disadvantaged.

* Most of the popular multi-tracking software packages have "cut down" or "lite" versions. Look out for older versions that are sometimes given away free in recording or music equipment magazines.

* Be clear about how ICT can help meet educational objectives. Sairee Douthwaite suggests asking the following questions before using ICT: is it appropriate to the musical task? Is it suitably matched to the students' ability? Is it appropriate to the level of support available from the teacher? Does it offer an enlightening way of learning? How appropriate and beneficial is it for the time available? Is it musically rewarding and stimulating?

* Partnerships with business can be extremely beneficial for all involved, but should be clearly defined and need time and effort to become established. The John Cabot music department benefits from Roland's sponsorship and students have the opportunity to try new equipment. In returrn, Roland is associated with a forward-looking college and gets feedback on new products.

Computers and software

* PCs in the main music room run on the school network and are loaded with MicroLogic AV sequencing software.

lThe computer in the recording studio is a standalone and runs Logic Gold.

For GCSE and A-level, the department needs to print students' scores to send to exam boards. MicroLogic AV was unable to print drum parts, so Logic Gold was bought for this (it also improved the scoring of all the other instrument parts) and is now used in tandem with Finale.

Logic Gold (v6) costs pound;215 excluding VAT (Mac only). MicroLogic is still available for education (Windows and Mac), but has been superseded by Logic Education (Windows and Mac), and costs pound;65 excluding VAT, from Counterpoint MTC. Sales and online catalogue: www.counterpoint-mtc.co.uk

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