Video studio stuff

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Last week, we finished the first semester of Music School. I prepared and taught a total of 176 sessions of about 45 minutes each over 16 weeks and I readily admit I am a bit tired. Going forward, things will be much easier because I am cutting the number of classes I teach in half and already have the curriculum built out for them.

The technology behind it worked well the entire time. Actually, it was perfectly consistent and once a few kinks were worked out, I did not have to make any further adjustments. Because it is online training and therefore dependent on internet consistency, once in a while, a student would have issues because their internet connection was bad. But overall, I was very pleased.

I know many of you have been watching this school because you are interested in the idea of online education itself more than what I was teaching so I thought I would give you my exact technical configuration. Maybe it can help some of you as you start preparing to teach online.

The software I use is Adobe Connect which allows me to share my screen, share documents, write notes on the screen, and interact with students by chat. It also has two way video and audio capability. I never enabled video for my students but many of them did talk using microphones on their computers.

Here is a demonstration I did before the class started that shows the software in action. (If you don’t see the video below, click here.)

I teach directly out of my fairly large office. We created a studio backdrop with some paint and fake trim. This drives my wife crazy because she does not understand why we did not finish painting these walls, but of course I only care about what the cameras will see.

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Note that I have a small desk on rollers directly behind my piano. I have to use my piano and computer in those classes and this setup makes it quite easy. I am finding it very useful when I write music as well.

The internet connection we have in the building is a good one but not anything special. I think we get 16 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up (the more critical number here) and that is more than sufficient.

The computer I use is a mid-level MacBook Pro that is a few years old. It handles Adobe Connect and a few other things I will talk about in a second.

From an audio perspective, I just use the soundcard in the MacBook Pro and send it a mix from a small inexpensive mixer on the shelf below the desk. The mix is two channels: a Shure lavalier microphone I wear and a microphone on the piano itself. I have two studio monitors that I connect to the MacBook to hear students talking and to play their uploaded assignments where everyone can hear.

A key thing I do is send midi data from the piano (via a PNOScan sensor from QRS) to the MacBook. I had a lot of problems with it initially but it is working great now. It outputs midi from the piano via USB which goes straight into the MacBook. I use Synthesia to light up keys on the virtual keyboard that students see in Adobe Connect.

Video is the simplest piece of the puzzle. I would like to pretend that I use a sophisticated set of cameras but I don’t. I use a $100 HD webcam from Logitech and it connects directly to the MacBook via USB. The quality on those cheap webcams is just ridiculous for the price. I use just one big softbox light at about 10:00 if I am looking directly in the camera. While I have three softbox lights in the room, I have found that I don’t really need more than one.

All together, I suppose my financial investment is substantial but if you use a midi keyboard that you already own and have a good computer, you could do this for less than $1,000. Really, you just need a light source ($150), a web cam ($100), a few microphones ($400), a small mixer ($100), and some cables. Adobe Connect costs maybe $500/year.

While not perfect, this kind of teaching will continue grow more effective as technology improves and it is here to stay. I was pleased to work with students all over the world during this last semester.