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Those of you who are old enough might remember Moore’s Law, the idea that computing power would double every 1-2 years.

Not counting a Radio Shack Trash 80, my first computer had 1 MB of RAM and a 20 MB hard drive. Of course, now even the lowliest smartphone is exponentially more powerful.

It’s also true that as computers becomes more powerful, computer software grows to take advantage of the size and power. However, sometimes the software gets ahead of the curve. A corollary to Moore’s Law should be that when a new idea hits the market but isn’t quite ready for prime-time, you need only wait a few years and the technology is sure to catch up. That’s been the case with cloud-based DAWs. When they first appeared, they were little more than loop players. You could drag loops into a track-based sequencer and manipulate them some, but you couldn’t record MIDI or audio, and the lag even with built-in loops was pretty bad, too.

Fast forward a few years and things have changed dramatically. Cloud-based DAWs are now a robust, competitive market and the programs have matured. We’re seeing major updates regularly, while minor updates, bug fixes, and additional content are added whenever they are ready. To top it off, all updates are free, one of the advantages of being in the Cloud.

The current programs vary from entry-level up to near-pro quality, including a few programs focused specifically on the educational market. Inspired by the original version of GarageBand, these programs all have clean, easy-to-use interfaces, a library of software instruments, loops, and effects, support MIDI and digital audio recording, and support collaboration, which puts them a leg up on GarageBand when it comes to classroom use. On top of this, they also have closed, COPPA-compliant educational environments.

In this Corner

One of the leading contenders in the educational market is Soundtrap. First introduced in 2013, it’s evolved into a robust entry-level program. That’s not to say it’s a toy. Even with the free version, you can create real music. The free version supports all the necessary functions and includes 150 instrument presets and over 750 loops. It’s limited to five songs, but you can download the audio files and delete a project whenever you need more space. Premium accounts cost $7.99 or $11.99 per month and include 550 presets, over 4000 loops, built-in support for Antares Auto-tune as well as other features.

The classroom version, Soundtrap for Education (SFE) is a “walled garden,” a COPPA-compliant environment that includes all of the features of the Premium Musicmaking account. You can purchase this directly from Soundtrap at $5/user (minimum 50 users), and if you are a MusicFirst subscriber, you can get it at substantial savings or as part of a bundle with other software. Larger schools should contact Soundtrap directly.

The Tale of the Tape

For those who are not familiar with the program, it’s a track-based DAW. Rather than go with a retro, analog look, it has a clean, modern interface. If you’ve used any other DAW, the operation of the program is immediately apparent, with clear instructions where needed. The basic transport controls Record, Play, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind are at the bottom of the screen, along with Key, Tempo, the Metronome, and Master Volume.

Creating a track is easy. Click “add a track” and select the type: software instrument presets, guitar/bass amp, drum pattern machine, audio, or loops. The sounds are good, and each preset has a set of controls for modifying the sound. Standard parameters include volume, pan, and reverb. The function and number of other knobs vary depending upon the preset and FX used. I was pleased to see synthesizer presets have a panel with basic analog synth parameters, though I almost overlooked the oddly-named “Tweak” button that opens it.

MIDI can be recorded using the computer keyboard or an external controller. My USB MIDI controller was instantly recognized, and recording was smooth with no noticeable latency, rather amazing in itself when one considers we’re recording to the Cloud. One serious omission is that continuous controller and pitch bend data are recognized, but not recorded. Another limitation is the control knobs on instruments and FX cannot be automated. Automation is limited to volume, pan, and sweep, which controls filter cutoff and resonance. Soundtrap also handles audio smoothly. It immediately recognized all of the devices in my Audio/MIDI Setup, and I was able to record using my audio interface and USB mic, also with no noticeable latency. You can also import audio, though it wouldn’t import an AIFF file until I changed the extension from aiff to aif.

There is a library of 25 standard stompbox-like FX, each with a few basic controls. FX are added as track inserts only--there are no auxiliary tracks, sends or returns-- and FX chains can be saved as part of user-defined presets. Vocal tracks also include pitch correction using a basic version of Antares Autotune, and some fun transformation functions such as robot and auto-harmonize.

New Kid on the Block

As mentioned, new features roll out on a regular basis, but the big news is the new podcasting tool, Soundtrap for Storytellers, which will be included with all SFE accounts by the time this goes to press. With Spotify’s (Soundtrap's parent company) recent focus on developed its podcasting presence, this promises to be a feature that receives significant attention.

Of course, you can record podcasts with any DAW, but the tools here take all the hassle out of it. There are three main components: real-time remote collaboration, the transcript tool, and integration with Spotify. Real-time collaboration couldn’t be easier. Click the Call button in the Studio, and you’ll get a link to share with your guest. The guest then calls at the agreed upon time. Since this is real-time, you need to be available to answer the call.

You and your guest can see and hear each other while you record the audio for each of you on separate tracks. Once you’ve recorded the podcast, you can edit it the same way you would any audio track or by using the Transcript tool. The new Transcript tool automatically creates a text transcript of your recordings. It’s very accurate, and many of the transcriptions it did were perfect. What’s even more impressive is that it eliminates all of the verbal fillers--er, uh, um--automatically, providing a clean transcript of what you meant to say, rather than what you actually said. You can edit the text to correct the few misspellings, and deleting words from the transcript also deletes the corresponding audio, which is a real time saver. It wasn’t immediately apparent how to edit the text though. An “Edit” button as they have with audio regions would be a wise addition. That notwithstanding, this is an excellent tool for all podcasters, and the educational uses should also be quite apparent.

Once you’ve completed the podcast, you can upload it to Spotify or export it to upload to another site. It’s a simple manner to set up a Spotify podcast channel and add new programs, all from within from Soundtrap.

In the Training Room

For many years, teachers have asked for GarageBand alternatives, first for PC, and more recently for tablets and Chromebooks. Soundtrap fills the bill on all counts. While it may not have all the features of a pro-level DAW, it has more than enough for most classroom uses, and the new podcasting tools are a welcome addition. More importantly, you’re not going to spend hours learning to use the software, and neither will your students.

There are pros and cons to the educational environment. On the plus side, you have complete control of access, and all loops are appropriate. SFE includes class management software, and it also integrates with the MusicFirst LMS.

The downside has to do with the collaboration tools. Since the environment is restricted to your classes, students can’t easily seek outside collaborators or interview subjects. You can let individuals in on a case-by-case basis; otherwise, collaborations are only between students in your classes. What would be ideal would be a closed educational environment that includes only verified schools.

Straight from the Shoulder

Tech support was quick to reply to my questions, but one of the downsides of being cloud-based is with new features and content rolling out continuously, it’s hard for the website team to keep up. I found lots of contradictory information, particularly about content and pricing in various places, and some outdated technical information. I don’t quite understand the time limits on Transcripts. Both Soundtrap for Storytellers and Complete accounts include 8 hours of transcripts, so It’s a small quibble since, for most podcasters, this is probably plenty. However, if someone has multiple podcast channels, they may find themselves running out. Being cloud-based, anything you do in Soundtrap uses resources, but I would expect them to encourage productive podcasters rather than limit them.

Scorecard

With this update, Soundtrap leapfrogs the competition. Podcasts are great educational projects, and the new Soundtrap for Storytellers makes podcasting about as easy as it can be, which teachers will greatly appreciate. It significantly cuts down the time required to create episodes and adding the transcript to existing podcasts is a great bonus. The music-making tools are solid and improving all the time. Overall, this is an excellent option for music education.



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