by Dr. Fred Kersten



To many teachers who are involved with the daily instruction of college students in Electronic Music Labs some of the suggestions in this article may be "old hat." It is precisely the reason this article needs to be written, and rewritten! The next time you walk in and find a speaker blown ($300-500 a shot), your hard drive missing large amounts of data, or a synth--full of coffee, you can think about the suggestions I am making here. Do yourself a favor--- help save your equipment and better educate your students---------read on.

"The Rubber Meets The Road"

Students entering college-level electronic music courses have a wide variety of backgrounds. Some know more than you!! (or sometimes think so) Others are lucky if they can find the switch to turn on the computer. A WIDE variety of basic computer operations knowledge is also apparent. You may assume that each student has a comprehension of simple computer basics and will be startled to discover that nothing of the sort exists!! How do you teach sequencing, notation, and sampling if the student cannot operate your lab platform? The following suggestions are developed, and based on five semesters of experience as both a neophyte entering the electronic music program at Penn State, and as a veteran leaving it with postdoctoral study concluded. My experiences are not atypical, and my suggestions may be common sense but they are based on reality and things I have seen and experienced and will help eliminate "fires" before they start.

Initial Screening

Determine what you want the students to know BEFORE they touch the equipment in the lab and TEST them as to their competencies. Do they knowhow to work with the operating platform?? Ascertain what their background is and compare it to what you expect. Write out your initial requirements and see that they are implemented. You will be doing your students a favor as they will waste a lot of time for themselves and perhaps damage work of others if they do not understand basic information needed for utilizing your system. This is especially true if the entering student is used to working with another platform and has to transfer to a foreign country (PC/Mac). It may be wise to devote several sessions to basic computer usage, and if you have a very "green" group, you should access software or video introduction packages that are available for beginning students needing to understand operating platform basics. Does your college require a basic computer literacy course? Find out! Have your students taken this? If not, then in is not unreasonable to require such a course before they signup for an electronic music offering.

Lab Etiquette

Spelled out in writing, the following will save a lot of headaches. Some suggestions:

  2. Insist that a "cool down" checklist be followed after each lab session is finished. Meaning--return all sliders and knobs, to an agreed on default position and so the next person will be able to operate the system without worrying about "artifact gremlins". You have word processing software, put up some signs in large point bold print. Enumerate procedures to be followed so that there is no misunderstanding.
  3. Develop a default MIDI/Audio setup and inform students that it is to stay that way. Many experienced students like to demonstrate their abilities in system redesign and its great that they are creative. However, for the next person who may be a neophyte, it may take their whole lab time in restoring the system to the place they expect to use in their projects. That is down time, and worse, if you are continually called to render the system operable your time then also is expended. Some students will have their own equipment and try to hook it up to the labs. Regulations should be established prohibiting such. The direction is for a lab that will function continuously for every one and not just certain individuals.
  4. Develop time schedule sheets-----REQUIRE THEIR USE, and post them in advance. Expect students to follow the time schedule and sign up for a reasonable amount of time to accomplish their needs. This is a part of good lab training as a person must examine what s/he, is going to accomplish, how it will be done, and how much time will be needed to complete the goals. Thus the time must be planned------ an important aspect in the overall quality and through nature of efficient equipment usage and vital for individual development.
  5. Provide guideline limitations for lab usage so that each student has an equitable amount of schedule time. Surplus time may be utilized either on advanced projects or by those requiring more time for re mediation.
  6. Maintenance sheets should be posted and completed after each individual lab session so that problems with equipment can be indicated. You will see how your lab is functioning and should you see a continual problem surfacing you can then provide remediation in advance.
  7. Arrange for data backup. This aspect is becoming more and more important as the hard drive is no longer sufficient for the number of users. If there are to be temporary files placed on the hard drive, provide for a folder for this use and limit the "megage" allowed. Should students be working with Sound Files of large sizes, a suggestion would be to include a ZIP or JAZ Drive for such storage. Since this allows files to be kept separately, students can access them without the continual change on the hard drive which can have mistaken tragic consequences.
  8. Lab Housekeeping. It is necessary, common sense, and must be reiterated. No Food, Drink, Cigarettes, or "Building a Nest" in the Lab. The latter refers to students who establish their own domicile, leaving backpacks, books, umbrellas, and lunch, in a usually small limited space around the equipment. Coffee and soft drinks spills on the synthesizer happen and damaged key contacts and other malfunctions are a result.
  9. Place your manuals in a common library area where they are not to be removed. If you can establish your library area adjacent to your equipment then some students not working with the equipment can read or study these in more depth. My feeling is that this is NOT done in some situations and better learning will result if prior study is done before a project is started. Because of the above mentioned stipulation regarding not taking manuals from the lab, many manuals "gather dust' when they should be read prior to equipment usage. It is sort of like spending instruction time on the use of a rifle as to sighting and preloading before giving a trainee a live cartridge to put in the weapon.

The Lab Manual

It has to be developed!!! It has to be updated!! It has to be composed of information that each student must have. It must be assumed that each person is NOT familiar with the equipment both hardware or software. It can be on computer or in hard copy---I recommend both! Each student should have a hard copy version!! The hardcopy version should use a spiralbacking or three-holed liner so pages can be added as it is developed. You may wish to put the Lab Manual on the computer, however my feeling is that having an overview of the project in the hands of the student BEFORE entering the Lab is vital, so the project project can be thought through. My feeling is the student who enters a lab and spends his/her two hours reading "push the green button and then pull the red slider" and then doing it with out prior study is wasting a lot of time and will not develop a conceptual OVERVIEW of what is being accomplished. What should be in it?

  1. An inventory of what must be done for basic lab projects assigned for the courses taught. As an example: if sequencing is to be done, a list of basic steps needed to initiate the project and a list of software manual pages that should be referred to must be included. TRY TO ANTICIPATE CONFUSION THAT MAY OCCUR IN ADVANCE. What aspect of the process is unclear or can be unclear? Look at the manufacturer's manual---sometimes directions can be better stated by you.
  2. Diagrams of the Lab and the connections therein. TEACH STUDENTS TO READ THESE!! It is highly disconcerting to have a student ask why the Cassette deck is not working and to inform them it is coming in on the Alt 3-4 bus especially when the Lab diagram is in plain sight on the wall. A few minutes spent in study of the routings will save them time, you--explaining the same thing over and over, and more importantly a more through knowledge of "how to analyze" a new lab as they are availed new situations or environments.
  3. A clear concise description of each equipment item and page referrals for further clarification. It is not necessary to duplicate the equipment manual but to provide an outline of basic functionality for each piece of equipment.
  4. A suggestion for lab manuals on line: Use you computer lab manual as an educational tool. Have basic information that you wish known put in the LM (with manufacturer manual referrals, diagrams, pictures, and tutorials if you wish) and then have students test out on each item listed. By following this procedure your students can build their knowledge (if they have deficiencies ---most will) and those not in need of remediation can take their knowledge to a higher level. If you provide a supplementary section for your advanced students, you will find that many of them will accept the challenge as it builds their self-esteem to "test out" at MACH-V or what ever you wish to call the achievement level. It also give those starting at the beginning a goal to aim at. If students put the quizzes intheir individual folders you can evaluate how they do at one sitting.

Lab Security

A security ID doorlock system, using a swipe card, may look like a large initial expense however it does much is saving the time and bother of those keeping the keys should a traditional key access be utilized. It also allows for identification of those entering and leaving the lab at all times. If it is implemented properly it also allows for extended hour usage should you lab be placed where it can be accessed by those entering a universally secure/available main door. Obviously glitches can occur if students leave their friends in by providing access to their personal ID cards. Many colleges have personal ID numbers for access to individual computers within the system. You may wish to continue this on your system as it will again provide an additional measure of accountability for what occurs during the time the lab is utilized by the student. An alarm system with a delay is also possible--should the door be left open for a certain number of seconds an alarm will sound, and be recorder on the security device monitoring lab activity. This may seem like a lot of "cops and robbers" but it makes the individuals utilizing the Lab more conscious of their activities and will put others on alert should someone think about having one of your synths and that nice ADAT as part of their home studio.

Implementation Procedures

All of the above is useless without communication. Lab users must be not only initially aware of the procedures to be followed but continually aware and accountable should problems occur. Whether procedures for sanction include: removal of privileges for a period of time, outright exclusion from equipment usage, or, some "variation on the theme" this information must be made known in advance. It is also important to repeatedly emphasize correct Lab procedures as students tend to become over confident and sometimes get sloppy. It must be continually stressed that damaged equipment or other malfunction can result in "down time" not only for the perpetrator, but for all who use the equipment. With the current cost of technology and the limited funds available to departments, this can be a tragedy to all concerned.

CODA and FINE --- Will it Really Help?

You will alleviate a lot of problems, save your equipment, and make your students more aware of their performance in the Lab. You will also make your courses more valuable as to practicality and usefulness as your students take not only knowledge of the materials you present with them, but also an initiation as to ways for implementation when they are faced with the situation as instructors.

About The Author

Dr. Fred Kersten returned to Penn State years back to study Music Technology. He is a veteran of many years of teaching public school music. Fred started with the very basics of computer usage and has been working with digital audio and video in addition to burning his own arrangements for recorder  on CD. He has continued over the years working with music technology and making presentations for ATMI, TI:ME and MENC. You can reach Dr. Kersten and view his work at his web site.