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Excerpted from Being Wendy Hsu.

Last week, we hosted the first of our Studio Sessions in the CDLR. Harnessing my interest in popular music, as a scholar and a performer, I thought that I would experiment with multi-track audio production using the iPad. I was inspired by all the iPad bands that are burgeoning on Youtube and especially empowered by to see that this emerging genre is heavily populated by women in Asia.

image of CDLR Garage Band Studio Session At the event, I transformed the CDLR into a mobile music recording studio. I moved some furniture out of the way. Using table cocktail tables, I set up multiple stations to track various instruments: electric guitar/bass, MIDI controller, USB voice/acoustic instrument. The guitar interface made by Apogee Jam makes it possible to plug an electric guitar directly into the iPad to control the built-in digital amp models. Via an Apple Camera Connection Kit, the MIDI controller and the USB microphones were connected to the iPad. The MIDI controller enabled the user to control and record various software instruments (fancy keyboard sounds like vintage organs and synths). I set up a “vocal booth” using the USB mic in the small compartment inside the CDLR to record sounds that travel through the air. We did a couple of close mic experiments. Tom Burkdall of the Center for Academic Excellence recorded his a capella version of an Irish pub song. Throughout the course of the session a student participant recorded a cover of “Hey Soul Sister” that features his baritone ukulele.

The GarageBand Studio Session was the first event of CDLR’s “Year of Collective Learning through Critical Making + Code.” We designed this series with the intention to encourage the Oxy community to experiment with technology in ways that go beyond the end-user / consumer roles. I can say with confidence that the event achieved the goal of critical learning through making.

Learn more about the mobile app for Garage Band on iTunes.

Let me illustrate this point by narrating my interactions with a first-year student at Oxy. He told me that he has had no experience in songwriting and audio production. He indicated that he didn’t feel comfortable starting out the session by playing with an instrument. I thought this would be a great opportunity to play with the sampler feature in the GarageBand app, which allowed the musically uninitiated to play with samples of sounds that are programmed to fit the (western) scalar tonal system. He quickly migrated into the Smart Percussion and Smart Keyboard. In a couple of hours, he made complex patterns of instrumental sounds.

While I was thrilled with his progress, he appeared to be discontent with his work. He told me that his music doesn’t sound right. After probing him, he revealed that his music doesn’t sound like Kanye West’s music. I recommended for him to sit down and study Kanye West’s music. We discussed principles and elements of pop song form. I left him to his own device to do some close listening. Without prompting him, I saw that he listened closely and jotted down notes about the song’s sections and structure. A little later, he tapped on my shoulder, “yo, this song sounds like really simple. The form is simple and is built on a few simple tracks.” I said, “well, you’re totally right. Kanye West’s music is pretty simple in terms of its form.  You can either be like him, make simple forms with your songs, or you can go with a form more complex than Kanye’s.” He seemed surprised by my claim.

He scratched his head and then went back to listen more examples of his favorite music. He played for me his recent favorite song “Tommy Chong” by the Blue Scholars as an example of a single-track keyboard introduction. Shaking his head, he indicated that he wished he could write a cool keyboard melody like the Blue Scholars. I said to him, “well, it’s not as hard as you think. This keyboard riff is in a pentatonic minor scale.” Then I showed him how to limit the keys on the GarageBand keyboard to only the tones in the specific preset scale. Bang! He instantly heard the difference between a pentatonic minor scale and a major scale by interacting with the keyboard algorithms in the app.

Contrary to how I usually teach the concept of scale, via musical notations drawn on a chalkboard, coupled with a demo on a piano, the method of learning music through making a song on a tablet seems incredibly efficient and effective. The immersive practice of constructing a song, enabled by the tactile and visual components of the GarageBand app seems to me a more holistic approach to learning musical principles. By piecing together elements like tone, timbre, scale, harmony, section, melody, and rhythm for the task of building a song, students can learn the relationship among these musical components through a series of sonic and visual exercise, trials & errors. Not only that, this process also demystifies songwriting and could help students gain a critical perspective on the “artistry” of popular music.