Now that you’ve got your equipment and have some basic knowledge of how to connect all the pieces properly, it’s time to start teaching some lessons to your students.
But what should you teach?
Here are the basic goals I have for engineering:
- Students need to know the various types of microphones, their polar patterns, and how these affect the recording
- Students need to know conventional microphone placement techniques in order to get the best possible results at the source
- Students need to know the difference between digital and analog signals
- Students need to know how a signal chain is built and what faults/problems may be encountered
- Students need to know how to use various pieces of hardware and software, including audio interfaces, amplifiers, preamps, cables, cords, and plugins
- Microphone Selection Workout: have students determine which microphones they feel would work best for various sound sources. If you have the microphones, make it an interactive, hands-on assignment (or even just a process they go through each time). The key is that, no matter what microphone they select, they have a solid justification for that selection. This demonstrates knowledge and experience with these devices. They may start out simply choosing a microphone because “they want to know how it will sound,” but eventually they should be able to discuss its tone qualities, its pickup patterns, and its durability in relation to the source.
- Microphone Placement Workout: students place microphones in order to shape the sound they are capturing. Placement is the key to good recordings, since a simple inch or two can make a massive difference in the tones and overtones that are captured. Students should be able to justify their placements at times, but it is even more important for students to evaluate their placements after a short sample recording and then adjust those placements to get a more desirable sound.
- Signal Chain Workout: While it’s easy to set up the signal chain beforehand, it is worth letting students go through the process. Have them use appropriate cables and connectors to go from the source all the way to the DAW. They should be able to describe the purpose of each connecting piece while doing this.
- DAW Navigation Workout: Students must be able to use the software, so being able to get from place to place (different windows and views, different features) is critical. Set up a simple scavenger hunt to get them through the features they’ll most commonly use, including plugins, preferences, track adding and deleting, and creating bus tracks.
- Session Set-Up Workout: Have the students set up a full session in the DAW, complete with tempo, outputs, inputs, bus tracks, and any audio tracks they plan to record. By learning how to start a session efficiently, students learn how to manage their workspace with ease and confidence.
The main idea behind engineering is getting the analog signal into the DAW. Any process that occurs from the point of set up to the point of laying down the tracks can be considered part of the engineering side of the discipline. Your goal as a teacher is to create inquisitive, evaluative, and creative student engagement through understanding the components and their qualities. Don’t be afraid to let the students “try something weird” with the signal chain, either. One of my classes insisted, for no particular reason, to use SM57 microphones for practically every recording possible. I was skeptical, but the only wrong choice is one that doesn’t capture the sound. We ended up with some unique recordings because of their novel ideas.