Zoom on! (or this article will cost you $483.94)
Set Up for Success as a Teacher or Student in the now ubiquitous distance-learning environment.
Remote learning isn’t going away any time soon.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning was expanding, but now many aspects of our life are completely online, at least temporarily. It’s time to maximize your ability to teach and learn online.
Especially for music teachers and students, this requires a little bit of gear. How much gear and how expensive it is really dependent on our budgets, and what we're trying to accomplish. It's important to understand as we decide what gear we're going to buy, and what gear we're going to do without, that we understand exactly what our needs are and what we're trying to accomplish.
For online teaching/learning we really need to address 4 areas:
3. Being seen
4. Being heard
I'm going to assume that you already use a platform like Zoom or Skype to teach and learn . This also assumes that you are using a laptop, tablet or phone to do that with. And again this also assumes that you have Internet connection.
One note only on that, especially if you are a teacher I recommend highly that you use a laptop that is directly connected to the Internet, not via Wi-Fi. That means having a network cable plugged directly into your laptop, also make sure that your Wi-Fi reception on your computer is turned off so that you are using the direct connection. That's all I have to say about that.
Let's get down to the nitty gritty.
I'm going to talk about options for seeing, hearing, being seen, and being heard individually and I'm going to try to break down price points to give you the best option. I guarantee you that I understand limited budgets of music teachers and music students, and I'm going to try to give various options to address various budgets.
Tier 1: $0.00: I'm going to assume that you already have a phone, tablet, or laptop to work with. Hopefully this means that you do not need to purchase anything new. Let me just say that the ability to see is impacted by a couple of things. First your screen may be attached to your camera, in this case getting a good view of your screen will also limit your ability to be seen effectively. Camera positioning therefore is crucial. As a drum teacher I have a recommendation for my students that seems to allow them to see and be seen in a most effective manner. I recommend putting the camera to the players non dominant side for most drummers that's the left hand and slightly below the level of the hi-hat cymbals. This gives the teacher a really excellent view of the hand position grip and the overall drumset. It also seems to get a really good sound when not using external microphones.
Tip: To give the most to your viewer, imagine the video angle that you most enjoy INFORMATIONAL VIDEO ON YOUR GIVEN INSTRUMENT. Try to duplicate that with the way you frame the video feed you send. This may pose a problem for viewing.
Tier 2: > $100 Especially if you're using a phone, you might look into a dedicated screen. At the beginning of February 2021, I found a 20” TV screen for $69, add a dongle to connect your phone or tablet to that TV, and you into a bigger screen for less than $100. If you are going to go this route, it's important that you are able to put the TV near your camera if you are interested in not having your viewer feel like you're looking past them the whole session. I do not personally use this overall method; I use a laptop. That being said I have one student who uses this method with success.
Before I discuss options on this topic, I think it's very important to talk about hearing protection hearing loss and damage. As you approach your hearing situation and read the price tags on some of these products Please remember, we only get one set of ears. Are hearing, as I'm sure you've already been told, is our number one tool as musicians. Therefore, it follows that we should be extremely careful about what we use to listen, and how we do that. I also want to recommend having your hearing checked regularly. Here is my method for using any hearing device, whether that be my ear buds listening to a podcast, listening to music in my vehicle, on stage monitoring, headphone volume when I practice and teach. Use the lowest possible volume level that you can get the job done with.
When setting the volume level:
1. Beginning with the volume off, start some sort of reference audio or music.
2. Gradually increase the volume until you reach level of comfort.
3. Dial down one volume level.
I’ve been playing music, mostly drums for nearly 30 years, and have “minimal” hearing loss for a person my age. I believe following these steps has really helped.
OK, Back to the good stuff..
Headphones and Monitoring
Tier 1 less than $15: these days most of our devices come with a pretty decent set of headphones and in a lot of cases those headphones also have a microphone attached. If you're looking to provide yourself a little bit of isolation from the room noise, and also a slightly better reference when listening back to audio you might consider this option. Purchase a set of isolation earmuffs, the type that people wear at construction sites or for shooting sports. You can get these at just about any store that sells sporting goods of any type, target, Walmart, etc. (these are $12.75). This gives you sound isolation, which is really important for drummers, but also can be very effective if you're just trying to hear your teacher or student better and isolate from your room noise.
Tier 2 $79: my #1 recommendation is to get the Vic Firth SIH2 noise isolation headphones. I've bought many pairs of these for personal use and for use in my studio. At first, they might feel a little bit snug, but having purchased similar products for other brands over the years these really are your best bang-for-the-Buck in durability, comfort, sound isolation, and sound reproduction.
Tier 3 $99.00 and way up: sound isolating in-ear monitors. Please note this product is different than just your average earbud. What I'm talking about is an in-ear headphone that is designed to replace on-stage monitors. The least expensive ones I have come across are the Shure SE215 at $99 (which I have not personally used). From there in ear monitors get pretty pricey. I personally own the Westone UM2 and UM3 models. While these models have been phased out, you can get the comparable and versions on the UM 20 pro and UM 30 pro for $200-$300 range respectively. These updated models have removable and replaceable cables, so should they develop a short, you don’t have to replace them or send them in to be repaired. Superb! While they are kind of pricey, I would definitely pay the money again; very comfortable, sound isolating, superior sound reproduction! If you don't have in-ear monitors, and you are set for all the other items that are discussed in this post, I would tell you it's time for you to get some in your monitors.
Summary: You can proceed at an acceptable level whether a teacher or a student for less than $15. If you have your other ducks in a row, and do not have in-ear monitors, I very highly recommend that as your next investment.
A good portion of this has to do with the camera, its position, and considering lighting. Let's get to it.
Tier 1: $0.00 you can always use the camera that is on your device. The upside is it doesn't cost you anything . The downside is it is directly connected to your ability to view the screen and sometimes forward facing cameras, especially on laptops an older tablets or phones are not so good. That being said with budget concerns a different camera is not necessarily the place that I would focus on spending the money, I would actually think it would be the last place.
Tier 2: $10-$50 this tier mostly applies to those using a phone or tablet. More than getting a new camera investing in some sort of mounting device for your phone or tablet is highly recommended. This gives you the flexibility to place your screen/camera in a lot more places. This gives you the best combination of screen visibility and camera angle. For most of my students, this is the place I feel money is best spent on improving remote learning. There are quite a lot of these products available, read reviews when possible. I typically recommend things that are better built and are not device specific so that they can be used and reused overtime, this typically makes them on the more expensive end of things. Remember, you are improving your overall ability to teach and learn with this purchase, and I feel for most people this is the best place to spend the money.
Tier 3: Lighting. ~$100 This may seem funny, but I would recommend investing in some sort of lighting, especially for teachers, before investing in a better camera and possibly even a more expensive microphone set-up. More than just a lamp, or one of those ring lights, I would really recommend photography type softbox. I bought some of these a few years ago on eBay. Mine came with softboxes on stands, and light bulbs. They are pretty light duty. However, I’m not constantly adjusting them or transporting them. They stay in place, that has helped them last. I have also used just regular lamps and have one of those funny little ring lights, but the softbox lighting really makes a huge difference, HIGHLY RECOMMEND.
Tier 4: >$200 Alternate camera: especially if you are using a laptop, and you have your lighting situation optimized, this is when I would suggest external cameras. There seems to have been a lot of difficulty and price gouging with traditional webcams since the pandemic. For example an external webcam that I purchased three years ago four $60.00 was going for nearly $200 in March. My recommendation, and what I am doing myself, use an iPhone 6s or newer (or Samsung Galaxy S5 etc) that has 1080p video capability, some sort of phone mount and a USB cable and all of a sudden you have HD video. My experiences with using my old iPhone 6, connected to my MacBook Pro, using third party webcam software called “Telecast”. I also tried one called “Camo”, whose free version has a watermark and whose pay version is more than Telecast. Again, I would highly recommend going this route, use your old cell phone or look on eBay for an older iPhone , you can get one for less than $100 that will work with the Telecast app. I would definitely visit Telecast website to check for the latest requirements before purchasing a used phone for this purpose.
Side note: Since even before the pandemic, I was teaching remote lessons, sometimes from my phone sometimes from my iPad most often from my laptop. I really feel like the laptop is the best way to go. It is the most expensive, it is the most cumbersome, it requires peripheral equipment. But if you are a teacher, or if you are a student with the means, I encourage you to make the experience the best for you and for your students, and ultimately your development by using a laptop and an external camera. There is a learning curve and there can be some pain in getting external cameras external audio etc., etc., working all together. Once you’re set up, you'll be able to use it for much more than just teaching lessons. I use it now to record myself practicing, I can record snippets of zoom lessons and send them to my students with a great deal of ease and they're getting high quality video and audio.
Just something to think about.
Ok, Moving on...
This is one place where I find musicians are most hamstrung by the vast amount of possibility. Not only that but the amount of practice it takes to get a good overall sound.
Forget all that for a moment. What you really must do is take a first step beyond your on-device microphone.
If you think you will be playing and or studying music 1 year from now, I recommend all the following items below if you have the basics covered in all of the areas we have discussed above.
May I suggest the Pre-Sonus AudioBox iTwo for $169 (Article on the AUDIOBOX iTWO is in the works)
This is a very non-intimidating way to get started with our primary goal of a better learning and teaching experience. The device is pretty much plug and play especially if you have an iOS device.
Along with the interface, I recommend 2 microphones in particular.
The Shure PGA81 condenser microphone.
and the Shure SM58.
These two microphones have different applications. Without going into great detail, the PG81 is great for covering a larger area, and the SM58 is best used close to the source. This will give you 2 options and industry standard quality microphones. I recommend buying these new at an authorized dealer like Hubbard’s Music, (there is a surprising market of fake Shure mics out there).
Microphones and sound recording are a broad topic, and I am not an expert by any means, but this is an area that we all need to just get over and jump in. You’ll be glad you did in short order because of your imporved learning environment, not to mention the ability to record yourself more effectively and do the review part of plan/do/review method. (More on the Plan/Do/Review coming too!)
You already have almost everything you need as you read this article.
So you probobly need to get:
PreSonus Audiobox iTwo
Shure PGA81+Boom Stand+XLR cable
Shure SM58 (avaible in a perfomance pack with stand and cable)
At the moment before publishing this post, I priced all these online at $483.94, but I strongly reccomend you shop for yourself and see if your local mom and pop shop will match. I know that Hubbard's Music will do it for locals to my area, and I bet your local shop will too.
This is a very broad topic that could be broken down into TONS of articles on sub-topics. I hope that my experience and this breakdown are a useful tool for you to get some clarity on your next step. Most of all, here's hoping this knowlege helps you to
Play Well With Others
Till next time,