Setting Up The Music Tech Lab pt. 2

Mike Lawson • Technology • March 1, 2006

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Creative Considerations for Software/Hardware Use

Compact Computer Furniture
While computer furniture may not seem necessary if you have budget concerns and 4′ x 6′ tables seem just fine, it is an important category that should not be ignored. There are options to consider: modular studio furniture, height-adjustable workstations with built-in racks, 3-level workstations, modular studio stands and shelves and adjustable-height studio workstations.


Manufacturers who make computer furniture are: Edit Center Studio Furniture (, Middle Atlantic Products ( and Quiklok ( Good computer furniture can economize space with multi-tier levels placing hardware within easy access. A clean, well-organized workspace increases efficiency and focus. It could also be vital to the life span of your equipment. If you select a modular system, you can add on or remove as your needs change such as with a Raxxess “Confi g-u-raxx” modular studio furniture system for creatively designing your own effi cient workspace from a wide range of options.

Headphones and Microphones
In a music lab situation, it makes sense to have a headphone/microphone combination. Unfortunately, there are few headphone/microphone combinations that have good microphone quality. Such small mics are usuallyineffi cient at capturing a wide frequency range, and can be particularly poor at low frequency capture. Some of the very expensive professional lavalier mics can get good sound (good enough for live performance but not studio). If you plan on doing serious and good sounding vocals, a decent stand long microphone is the way to go. If you choose to go with headphones without microphones, ruggedness and weight will be your primary concern. Daily wear and tear will quickly be evident. Weight can make the best audio headphone diffi cult to use if the weight causes fatigue.

There are three different types of microphones to choose from: ribbon microphones, dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. The ribbon microphone is considered among the best for professional recording music, broadcasting, and P.A. systems. They are high priced, fragile, and sensitive to wind. Dynamic microphones are practically indestructible and the most popular for general use. The Shure M-57 and M-58 are probably the best general use microphones. Dynamic microphones are probably your best buy for the dollar in a music lab. Leading manufacturers include AKG Acoustics, Electro-Voice, Shure Brothers, Sennheiser, Sony and TEAC. Condenser microphones require a power supply, usually with a self contained battery. They are very versatile and can be used in any nearly situation. Generally, microphone needs in a music technology lab are not as demanding as in a recording studio or for performance.

So, for light use in the music lab that does not deal with digital audio recording needs, professional microphones are not really needed. For SmartMusic interactive accompaniment applications, MakeMusic sells a very good microphone for only $10.00. Radio Shack has numerous inexpensive microphones to also consider for your ear training and teaching applications. Labtec also has a good entry-level microphone for under $10.00 at:

Headphones without Microphones
Important things to consider when choosing the right headphone are sound quality, comfort level and durability. With respect to sound quality you need a clear and undistorted sound. Headphones have become more powerful and effi cient reaching around 90+ decibels per milliwatt (90 dB/ 1mW). This means it takes
only a few milliwatts to reach nice full volume. You also want to have an even and smooth frequency response. The bass should sound deep and clear but not muddy. You also want to have nice brilliant highs. The highs should not sound tinny, screechy or piercing.

Also as important is comfort. Because lots of students wear headphones will be wearing the headphones for prolonged periods, they should provide plenty of durable padding, be adjustable with a durable headband, and the cord should be a comfortable 6 feet so student can work unencumbered. Finally, the headphone should be rugged enough to withstand the brutal on/off parade of students continually removing headphones day in and day out. For a school lab, I would recommend the Yamaha RH3 headphone. Their cushion surrounds the entire ear, they have 95 dB per mW of sensitivity, provide a full spectrum of frequency response (20Hz-20 kHz) and they have a long cable and rugged headband.

Jump Starting Digital Audio Instruction
This is where computer technology gets a bit complicated and expensive as you can’t skimp here. Microphones need to be high quality costing several hundred dollars. Disk drives need to have faster R.P.M.’s than normal with either IDE 7200 rpm speed or SCSI driven. RAM requirements should be 512 MB RAM and CPU’s of Pentium III or faster. But don’t sweat it. Get the advice of a good sound engineer who already does digital audio recording for the most honest recommendations. Sweetwater Sounds is a good resource because they have several recording studios on their premises in which they constantly fi eld test of all the hardware and software available.

You will need specialized audio hardware to interface your computers with improved audio recording capabilities. Edirol produces some excellent mixing modals that will exceed the quality of “live” recording for your computer’s hardware. For video production, the Edirol catalog and web site offer lots of information on appropriate hardware and software even though their products are available from retail dealers.

Looking to outgrow your entry-level soundcard for digital audio recordings? Spike by Mackie with an XD-2 interface (USB) has two microphone, two MIDI and two line inputs which gives initial digital recording capabilities in a music lab along with its user-friendly Tracktion software which combines everything you need for creative digital audio recordings in a recording studio environment. Digital audio software certainly has many professional capabilities, but microphone capabilities are limited. They can be enhanced with mixers when you use external MIDI Interface boxes such as M-Audio’s and Roland’s.

Because the computer’s hard drive can be over-taxed, I recommend a separate hard disk drive for audio recordings. Be sure the hard disk drive has 7200 rpm speed. External hard disk drives are readily available and cost effective productive for 150 to 300 GB’s of storage space. The leading companies include: Seagate and Maxtor. External hard disk drives can now fit into a portable hard disk case and inserted in desktop cases in seconds without any power supply requirements. They also can be reloaded with additional drives so you can easily and economically upgrade them since they do not require a power supply.

Digital recorder hardware has advantages over software because there are usually fewer steps for recording and rarely crash like software. Roland, Yamaha, Edirol, and M-Audio offer some interesting and very capable digital recorders with professional digital audio capabilities. I particularly like the following Roland consoles: BR- 900CD, BR-1200CD, VS-2480CD, and VS-2400CD. They’re hard to outgrow and several of these models canoperate on battery power.

Scanners for Music Optical Character Recognition
Music scanning software has been, at this point, over 13 years in development.Scanners have improved tremendously over the years and they’re smaller and much higher quality. My first HP IIc scanner was over $2,100. Today’s higher resolution scanners can cost well under $100. You almost can’t go wrong with most good brands. Just be sure that its drivers provide clean .TIF fi les and not compressed ones so that music scanning software applications can make quality music file conversions from the .TIF fi les. Epson and Canon produce excellent scanners.

Canon’s LIDE series are superb and highly portable with USB power which makes them ideal for small music labs. Also be aware that there is an excellent 11″ X 17″ scanner made by Mustek that only cost $199.00 so that you can do oversized scores conveniently and accurately. Epson’s 11″ X 17″ flatbed scanners begin at $1,499.00 which makes the Mustek A3 scanner a best buy recommendation in this class of flatbed scanner.

Jump/Pen Drive/Thumb Size Flash Drives
Jump drives are great for fast, efficient transfer of data through convenient USB ports. Flash drives are now 2 GB and larger at prices well under $200.00. Smaller fl ash drives can be purchased under $20 for 128 or $39.99 for 256 MB. Some even come with a wrist-band watch so you are never without instant storage capabilities. Popular brands include: Memorex, Lexar and PNY Technology.

Adapter In a small music lab, it is possible to use a KVM switch to use one monitor, one mouse and one keyboard on two CPU’s. This allows two computers (a server and a workstation) to be used with only one monitor, mouse and keyboard to save workspace. Simply hit the scroll key twice and you can toggle between the different computers easily with more table-top space available in a small room. Usually, these KVM switches include audio and mic support, a manual port selector and software that make witching ports easy. Leading manufacturers are Belkin and IO/Gear.

Reference Speakers
Both reference and audio types of speakers can function in a music lab. It’s nice to have reference speakers in your music lab for class playback purposes. Reference monitors have a flat response with no treble boosters so you can more accurately mix your recordings. There are six steps in choosing reference speaker.

First for boom and thump, you; need large woofers and lots of power to drive them.

Second, active (powered) models are convenient and save having to find a place for a separate power amp.

Third, monitors will work in any size room, but big monitors need a large room to sound their best.

Fourth, if you use a sub-woofer, you can consider smaller “main” monitors, since the sub will take the low-end load off the mains.

Fifth, work within your budget, but always go for the highest quality you can get. Sixth, your monitors will only sounas good as the room they’re playing in. Sweetwater out of Fort Wayne, Indiana offers a variety of ways to treat the acoustics of a room, such as roominators, TruTraps, Aural Xpanders, and Elite ProPanels. Popular brands include: Mackie, Tapco, Nearfield, Adam, Genelec, JBL, Tannoy, Alesis, Yamaha, and Roland.

Audio Speakers: Creative Lab L3500
Audio speakers can be considerably cheaper than reference speakers. There are many different choices for audio speakers. Should you get that 5.1 Dolby surround system? 7.1? 8 speaker system? At that point not only will you have to worry about stringing wires everywhere (don’t forget that you have to tear that all down at the end of the year) but the word “overkill” will certainly come into play. You need to ask yourself, “Do I really need to give my students hearing problems they’ll brag about for the rest of their lives?”

Most of the time the media you’ll be demonstrating in class will not require the latest movie theater quality. You’ll probably need speakers that don’t require careful placement in 6 different spots throughout the classroom. Balance between quality and price is paramount, and the Creative Labs L3500 speaker setup is a good solution. It consists of two outboard speakers and a subwoofer. What separates this setup from the pack is the careful design in the two speakers.

They contain two high range speakers pointed forward and one mid pointed 90 degree to the side. Don’t forget that higher range frequencies need to be aimed, while lower ranges tend to be “omnidirectional” and simply fi ll up the empty space of your classroom. The subwoofer just needs to sit somewhere out of the way with an unobstructed path at the classroom for optimal performance.

How did it work? We put it up against an unnamed setup from one of its competitors with the same basic design. When tested with DVD movies, the surround sound-like performance of the Creative audio speakers really stood out, largely because of the speaker design. MP3 fi les (depending on the quality of encoding) definitely sounded clearer and had much higher fi delity than the competing system. It is strongly suggested that with any good set of speakers you utilize an equalizer so that you can take advantage of the speaker setup. We were quite impressed with the L3500’s ability to sound like a multi-speaker setup without the high price tag.

Other Considerations: Expanding Your Music Technology Lab beyond Entry-Level Use
Wiring can be a hassle in a networked computer lab. Consider us-ing wireless system to connect all of your computers to the server. Linksys is the leader in wireless technology. You’ll need a PC Adapter card for each workstation and a wireless router for the server. Usually a NIC card (Ethernet) will be included in the purchase of school computers if purchased through your school’s technology purchaser. If Ethernet drops are already in your room, you can take advantage of a school server in your building. If not, it still is possible connect to the school server via wireless cards by your computers.

Because Ethernet is wired, it is very secure and stable with special security features. It transfers faster with data transfer up to 93 megabits per second while wireless is only 20percent of the Ethernet speed. An advantage of wireless, is that it has no cables to connect or route and it has minimum installation costs. But it is only 20 percent of the speed of Ethernet. And security from hackers can be a problem with wireless.

Four ways to prevent hackers:

  1. Activate encryption
  2. Change your router’s default password
  3. Disguise your network
  4. Create a computer “guest list”

In any case, you will have access to three very important features: Internet connectivity, network printing to any printer in your building or in a different room, and the ability to save work to individual student folders on the server. You can even get a wireless printer box that can connect your workstations to a single printer by Ethernet card, USB cable or wireless. Western Digital, Maxtor, Seagate are leaders in hard disk drive technology. Seagate also has an unlimited 3-year warranty which is the best in the industry. If you purchase a printer with wireless capabilities, you will not need this box and your entire lab will “wireless.”.

Epson and HP are the leaders in printers. There are four categories of printers: 1) text only, (laser printer), text plus color photos & graphics (inkjet printer), 3) text, photos, & graphics plus copying & scanning (multifunction machines). Be sure to get a laser printer as cost of operation is considerably cheaper than using an ink-jet printer on percopy cost. For color work, inkjet is your best bet but also more expensive to operate with more versatility and quite inexpensive. New printers
tend to be much faster because they usually contain much more memory than ever before. Usually, the cheapest way is purchase everything through school bids through your district’s technology channels.

Another good upgrade would be a CD/DVD burner added to the teacher’s master workstation. This is invaluable in a music lab for producing student CD’s and backing up data to an external source as well as putting studio projects on DVD. A DVD burner is mandatory with their capacity of 4.7 to 8.5 GB. If your computers are not networked, then you might consider having a portable DVD/CD burner to backup your computer’s data. HP makes a nice DVD/CD burner which nets for $400.00 retail.

External speakers will not be necessary for individual student workstations because headphones are the primary means of listening. However, there should be a good set of reference speakers available at the teacher’s workstation for presentations. The Roland MT90 speaker is amazing beyond the sound quality because it has a floppy diskette drive that can play Standard MIDI files without a computer which makes for faster presentations.

An overhead projection system is a must for a “well-dressed” computer lab for presentations from the master workstation. When ordering a projection system for the teacher’s workstation, be sure to order a videocard that can project two VGA images simultaneously on the wall and to the teacher’s monitor. Be sure this card has two VGA outputs instead of one VGA and one S-video connector.

Output should0 be at least Super VGA at 800 X 600 dots per inch., or better yet, SGA at 1024 X 768. The power of the projector should be well over 1,000 lumens even in a small room.. Prices of expensive projection systems have been coming down and it is possible to get quality projector systems on school bids for well under $1,500.00. A few years ago, the prices were $5,000 to $10,000. Brands to consider are: 3M, Viewsonic, Sanyo, Infocus, and Benq. The weight has come down as well under 5 pounds. The InFocus LP120 is two pounds and a little thicker than a two decks of cards which is great for traveling. But for heavy-duty use, stay away from the ultra-light portables as they don’t have the power of the 5 pound models and can’t handle extended use because its ventilation isn’t as good as larger models.

Essential Non-Music Lab Applications for a Computer Lab Monitoring individual monitors can be a challenge since there is one teacher. But with VirtualClass by FarStone (, you can monitor and broadcast to all the monitors in a networking situation from the teacher’s monitor. This allows you to guide a student through a difficult problem remote-ly plus it allows you the privacy of monitoring your student’s workstations.

Another advantage is you can lock student workstations while you are lecturing! You can also set up a discussion board to initiate a class discussion by chat, text and drawing board. The class can even be divided into groups for dynamic discussions. And the price is only $59.99 for a networking application, which is amazing!

If you can eliminate students handling CD-ROM’s, you’ll have less wear and tear on both the CD-ROM and the CD. VirtualDrive Network 2005 by FarStone (www.farstone. com) is an innovative product that lets you load and manage CD/DVD content on the server in your networked lab without having to insert a CD-ROM. This is clearly necessary when the lab serves elementary and middle school students and also reduces theft. In addition, it improves performance because it runs faster than any CD-ROM in Windows 2000 computer or higher.

FarStone ( has two products similar to Norton’s Ghost. DriveClone and RestoreIT 7 Pro version. Restore IT has recovery features and drive cloning features. In order to backup a hard disk drive, you must create another partition using a separate product such as Norton Partition. RestoreIT is less complicated and easier for a nontechnical person who is unfamiliar with traditional backup procedures.

Both products are excellent and are highly recommended A computer lab will function better if specialty software applications are used to improve the output of the computers. For example, don’t under estimate an anti-virus software application. Without adequate virus protection software can easily be transmitted by Internet downloads and e-mail. Student diskettes can mess up a school computer in a hurry leaving a trail of problems that are not very pleasant to deal with. Fortunately, your school may already have a site license for an anti-virus protection which could include a music lab at a modest cost.

The two leaders in virus protection application are MacAfee and Norton. These utility applications can be essential to the effi ciency of how your computers work. You will also need a good spyware protection program to protect your lab. Consider downloading Ad-Aware SE by Lava Soft. Not only does it work exceptionally well, but it is free.

Most teachers will eventually need to create your own on-line teaching materials, printed training manuals, and instructional CD’s for your students. Good looking screen dumps are easy but with TechSmith’s ( SnagIt, you will be able to fi ne tune a truly professional training manual with pin-point accuracy, including multi-screen and video screen dumps. SnagIt has 40 different ways to capture screen dumps. One mouse click will capture any part of your screen. Adding artistic effects and annotations is just as easy. For Mac users, try Snaps Pro by Ambrosia Software which is a wonderful shareware product that really works.

If your computer lab has identical computers, take advantage and make a hard disk drive image with a ghosting program such as Norton Ghost by Symantec. Then you can backup one student workstation and restore all the computers in that lab in minutes even if the operating system goes down on any workstations. In a networking lab, you can restore an entire lab with just one procedure if all the computer workstations are the same. In fact, you could have several different confi gurations in your lab for different teachers/subjects, for almost instant back up; and reinstalling different software products so your workstations are never overloaded in just one procedure.

If your lab is used and shared by different subjects in several teachers, then it is realistic to have several ghosted images so the individual workstations don’t get cluttered at any one time with too many applications on the computer resulting in insuffi – cient hard disk drive space. Instead, reghost (clone) the lab for different classes and the computers are instantly ready for your instruction with optimum confi gurations every time different teachers instruct. Individual workstations can be fixed on a “fly” whenever technical assistance becomes an issue. If you don’t have a computer lab with similar computers, you still can ghost (clone) individual workstations so they can convenient be reloaded again.


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