Break it Down: Teaching Teens Music Production Through Remixing

There’s been a massive democratization of music production, and that’s been spreading to services at public libraries. Along with maker spaces, digital media labs are popular ways for libraries to further support their mission of supporting life-long learning experiences. Even without a set media lab, there has been enough advancement in available technology that the only tools really necessary for decent music production is a laptop or tablet.

Too often, these spaces only attract people already interested and active in musical production: musicians recording demos, amateur filmmakers, etc. It’s such a high learning curve that teens with a passing interest feel intimidated. Not everyone has the innate talent, or past experience, to be capable singers or instrumentalists. And programs geared at education – “Learn Music Production” or “Open Lab!” – are also intimidating. I can learn to use the tools, but what can I do with it? Nothing is more imposing than a blank page, or a pressed “record” button in a silent room.

Programs geared towards remixing an already-existing song can bypass that problem and attract new and diverse teens to discover a new passion, in addition to appealing to teens predisposed to music production. By providing pre-existing elements to experiment with, teens are able to easily provide their own creativity and skills to changing it. This takes the same philosophies behind blackout poetry or Art Attack and applying them to music production. Teaching the skills of song writing aren’t the easiest, but so much of the indelible and memorable parts of pop songs come about in the production stage, and not the original writing. Indeed, it’s often the doing of something that really gets the creative juices flowing.

In my program “Become a Remix Master!” I partnered with a coworker from my library’s Digital Services department. During the program, teens worked in both our computer lab and the digital studios. This program can easily be scaled to smaller libraries without these specialized spaces, though. All you’ll really need are some laptops, headphones, and a pre-recorded song.

Outcomes:

  • Teens learn basics of music production, and develop familiarity with new software and techniques
  • Teens deepen their cultural literacy, gaining an understanding into the process of creating the music they enjoy on a daily basis
  • Teens develop a broader understanding of available library services
  • Teens’ understanding of the library as a place for creation and making

Time: 3 hours (1-1.5 hours for learning the ropes, 1.5-2 for remixing)

Participants: 6

Materials & supplies:

  • Computers or laptops, preloaded with music production software (My program used GarageBand, but a great free alternative like LMMS would work great, too.)
  • Pre-recorded original song
  • Headphones (recommended)
  • Instruments & microphones (optional)

Program prep:

Record your song. My partner for the program, Alex, and I took an hour or so in our digital studio to lay down an incredibly simple original track for the teens to play around with – so much so that we simply titled it “Dumb Song.”

Some keys to a good original song – it should have a few different instruments, and a few different musical parts (chorus, verse, etc.) so that teens can play with the changing tones and moods throughout. Unless you plan on including editing “live” recorded instruments in your instruction, I would recommend staying away from recording vocals or actual acoustic instruments through a microphone. Digitally recorded tracks are much easier to edit and remix, and will make everyone’s life a bit easier.

(Alternatively, if you have the connections to allow for an actual musical act who would provide access to the original pre-mastered tracks on the software you’re working with, and permission for your teens to remix their song, that would lend your program an extra level of awesomeness.)

Running the program:

    1. Our program started with a basic walk-through of the music production software’s tools and features. We showed how the song was put together and how to change various elements of each track or the entire song.
    2. Teens paired off or worked solo in the library’s digital recording studios with an original copy of the song and made their own remixes. The two library staff running the program stayed available for technical assistance, troubleshooting, and basic guidance, but we mostly let the teens take the approach they wanted. Some did the traditional remix, changing up tempos, instruments, or samples, but keeping the original song structure. Others started almost completely from scratch, creating an odd avant-garde soundscape. One teen took a deep dive, spending his entire time perfecting one sample around the song’s original baseline.
    3. The final 10-15 minutes was a show-and-tell, where each group shared their finished remixes.

After the program

  1. Make sure the teens know how to access all the resources you showed them about. (How to book time in the media lab, what computers have these resources, etc.)
  2. Share their music on your website and social media, and make sure the teens can have easy access to it, too!
  3. It would be awesome if you could find other ways to incorporate these remixes. You could use it as background music for a promotional video, or even have a program where teens create music videos to the songs. I’m always a fan of repurposing program leftovers.

5 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *