How Home Studios are Helping Students

This article originally appeared on The Music Teacher’s Helper’s Blog, where Jennifer has been a contributing author for the past year and a half. This is her final article, as she is expecting a baby this summer.

To start this off, I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed being an author on this blog for the past year and a half and the wonderful people I have met, as well as the beneficial information I have learned as well. This will be my last article on Music Teacher’s Helper, as I’m getting ready to have my 2nd baby here quite soon, and am starting my hiatus.  

As I’ve been contemplating what topic to cover for this last article, it occurred to me while teaching, that it might be beneficial to talk about how I’ve integrated my home studio into my music lessons, and how it has affected my students for the better.

As well as being a music teacher, I’m also a composer/recording artist and so I have a studio in my home.  Many parents and students have asked me “Why do you need two keyboards?” or “How do you record all of that right here?”, as well as many other curious questions pertaining to what goes into recording music from a home studio.

To answer some of these questions, let me start off saying that my studio is all digital.  This means that I do not record any live audio with microphones at my home studio.  That requires an entirely different set-up and I usually go to a hired studio in order to record such music.  A “digital studio” is done through the use of MIDI (Musicial Instrument Digital Interface) as well as some audio cables (which I don’t use but some people do).

Some of the pieces of equipment that I have in my home studio is a 6 foot Kawai grand piano, violin, guitar, a Kawai CN270 digital keyboard (which has a very real action touch and I record piano recordings from this keyboard), a Kurzweil PC88 keyboard (a fancier keyboard with many ‘bells and whistles’ including a modulation wheel, which is essential when recording virtual instruments), 8″ Yamaha Studio Monitors, a Dell computer (with an extra amount of RAM and hard drive space, which is essential for music software), extra hard drives, and probably the most important thing is a valuable array of music software and virtual instruments (soft synths)  that I’ve collected over the years.

One thing that I do with all of my music students is record them.  Any time they perfect a song, we move from the piano over to one of the keyboards and record. 

This has been very beneficial for them in many different ways:

– For one thing, it allows them to have a collection of songs on a CD that they recorded themselves. 

– It also allows them to go back and listen to how their skills have improved from their first recording to their most recent. 

– Recording also helps them to overcome the fear of performing because as they continue to record more and more songs, they diminish nerves. Being recorded  without an audience helps them learn to tap into their inner expression and just play from the heart., and eventually translates over to live performances as well (for recitals, etc.).

– I also have my students record their recital songs before an upcoming recital and do “Self Critiques”. This is where they listen to themselves and write down things they need to work on. It’s been amazing for them to be able to hear what they sound like outside of their own head, and has pushed them to work very hard.

Over the years of allowing my students access to my home studio, I have been able to assist students in entering composition contests, making their own albums, and the best part has probably just been being able to open their eyes to whole new world of music that they may have otherwise not been been exposed to.  I have several students now interested in building their own home music studios so that they can continue the journey of writing/recording their own music.  They now know that learning to play the piano isn’t just learning songs out of a method book, but that they can be part of the imagination and creative process of music.  They can arrange songs, add different instrumentations to the recordings, and learn how to edit as well.

I have one student in particular who recently won a state-level division of a “Reflections” competition for middle schoolers, where she composed her own song, recorded it and submitted it along with the sheet music as well.  While she did all of the work on her own in the composition process, I was able to help her record and notate the sheet music from my studio.  The experience only sparked an interest in her, and her parents have now been helping her to set up a basic studio in her room. 

If you think your child or student would be interested in setting up a home digital studio as well, I can suggested a few pieces of key equipment:

A Digital Keyboard/Piano.  This is essential, and you will want to be sure you get one that has both audio and midi outlets/inlets.  This way you can connect the keyboard directly to a computer.  You don’t need an expensive keyboard, but I would suggest making sure you find one that has all 88 keys.(as they come in various forms with lesser amounts of keys). 88 keys is especially essential if your child/student is a pianist.  You can find decent keyboards for under $500, such as this portable digital keyboard. For something more piano-esque and slightly more expensive, I would suggest this digital piano.  The difference between a digital keyboard and a digital piano is that the keyboards tend to have more sounds and synthesizers, and usually are portable. You need to buy a stand to put it on, as well as a bench.  Digital pianos usually come on their own stand (screwed together, so not easily portable) and do not have all the fancy buttons and gadgets.  As you noted earlier, I have both in my studio and they both serve two different purposes. I have found that the digital pianos are better for pianists because the keys are usually weighted, wood, and play/feel much more like a real piano.  A digital keyboard will feel lighter, more plastic-like but with the benefit of being able to record a wide variety of sounds and instruments.

–  A Computer.  This can be a laptop or desktop, whichever you prefer.   Since I am not a travelling performer, I have a desktop that stays in my studio. However, some musicians prefer laptops so that they can be more mobile.  You will want to be sure you have a decent sound card as well, and depending on how much software you plan to invest in, you will want extra RAM and hard drive space.

Software.  Let me first say that you do need software to record.  At least on a very amateur basis.  In fact, the  2nd keyboard that I suggested above has the ability to record mulit-tracks within its own built-in computer.  So for beginners, that is a great place to start.  That keyboard also comes with some basic software that you can put on your computer in order to transfer your recordings from the keyboard’s internal computer to your own computer.  However, neither the keyboard or the software it comes with allows you the ability to edit your recordings and has limited midi use. 

When I first started out, I used a free software called Audacity.  You can download it here. It is very basic, but very helpful.  You can record audio with this program (run an audio cord from your keyboard to your computer and it will record whatever synth or piano sound your keyboard is outputting).  You can also splice, change volume levels, eq’s, add special effects, add fade-in’s/out’s, etc.  But again, Audacity does not work with MIDI.  If you are wanting to get into using virtual instruments (soft synths) then you would need to go to the next step up and purchase a DAWS program (Digital Audio Work Station), such as Cakewalk, Sonar, ProTools, Cubase, etc and that is the pricepoint where a studio starts to get more expensive and more on the professional level.  There are many programs out there, and most even offer a LE version to get you started.  (I personally use Sonar Producer 8).

I don’t want to get into too many details regarding the benefits and differences of recording with MIDI, but to explain what exactly midi does – it basically is a way to record music that has the flexability of changing what you recorded into any instrument that you wish.  For example, you can record a piano part and change it into sounding like a harp.  Midi obviously requires that you have the necessary software programs to translate your tracks into these other sounds, which again, gets into a whole other arena of music studio software that I’m not going to go into for this article as I’m trying to keep this information basic.

Another piece of software that might be beneficial, is a notation program.  Some DAWS have the ability to print out notation from MIDI, but not without much editing. Those types of programs were not designed to be notation programs and so that aspect of them are very limited.  I would suggest referring to a previous article I wrote regarding notation programs for further help on this topic, as I suggested a few different freewares available as well as professional grade programs.

With the continued advancement in technology, more and more younger students are getting interested in music and technology.  It is both motivating and exciting for them to be able to create music using the advancements available today for home studios.  What I have covered here is very basic, so if you have any more detailed questions please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me directly at (jennifer@jenniferthomasmusic.com) and I’d be happy to help. Thanks again for a wonderful experience here on the Music Teacher’s Helper Blog as an author, and I wish you all happy music making!

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3 responses to “How Home Studios are Helping Students

  1. The only thing I’d say, is 88 keys is only necessary to the most talented pianists, as all beginners will start in the center of the board, and won’t really need anything more than a 76 or even a 64 if they’re really young.

  2. Yes this is true, although I have to wonder what would be the point in investing in a smaller keyboard when in a year or two the student would be needing a full size anyway. It would kind of be a waste of money, in my opinion.

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