Senior Ryan Nilsen, left, and teacher Nick Caldwell look at a project during class. For the first time this year, Wilson High School is offering an elective class in music recording and production. Students use Pro Tools software to digitally mix beats to create full clips. (Laura Frazier/the Oregonian)

In the age of “do-it-yourself” music projects, Wilson High School students are developing the tools to record their band or mix their own beats.

This year, teacher Nick Caldwell is offering a Sound Engineering elective course in a brand new studio attached to the school cafeteria.

“It’s so at their fingertips now,” Caldwell said. “I really want the kids to have an opportunity for a new kind of elective.”

Wilson High School Sound Engineering classRyan Nilsen, a senior at Wilson High School, is taking the school’s music production elective. Here, he shows how he created a beat using Pro Tools software.

For the course, students learn how to digitally record, mix and compose music.  Started with help from a parent who works in the music production industry, Caldwell said the class is an opportunity for students who aren’t interested in band or choir to study music. It’s also a chance for students to get a feel for a possible career while still in high school.

Caldwell described the course as a “21st century music class.” To offer the elective this fall, he got the go-ahead from Wilson Principal Brian Chatard and $10,000 in funding from the Portland Public School budget, Caldwell said.

About 90 students signed up for the elective, filling two classes of 20 students each, Caldwell said.  Some students don’t have any musical background at all.

Bruce McCleave, whose daughter is a freshman at the school, says he’s worked with artists Brian McKnight, Prince and Josh Groban. When McCleave heard about the new class coming to Wilson, he offered to help.

McCleave credited his own career in music production to a course he took in high school and wanted to lend his experience to Wilson High School students.

“Seeing how all this works has fascinated me from day one,” McCleave said. “The kids are so excited and intrigued with it. They’re sponges right now.”

McCleave said he also negotiated with Guitar Center to get discounts on equipment. The classroom is filled with stations with computers, controller keyboards and headphones, where students work in groups. The class also uses speakers, amplifiers, microphones, an eight-piece drum set and electric guitar. Students started with Garage Band, before transitioning into more sophisticated Pro Tools software, Caldwell said.

Students also learn some music theory. They study major and minor chords and learn to read sheet music for basic tunes such as “Happy Birthday,” Caldwell said. Some class assignments so far included creating basic drumbeats and incorporating popular clips into their own compositions.

In class on Nov. 12, students started the period at the computer. Headphones on, they layered and created tracks to build a complete clip.

Later on, the class transitioned into testing out different microphone setups.

One student played a drum solo multiple times with various microphone arraignments. McCleave, who helps out in the classroom when he can, handled the recordings from the digital audio workstation in back of the room.

Caldwell, who also teaches band and guitar classes at the school, asked his students to point out the differences they noticed in each recording. They mentioned the reverberation they heard and how in one clip the ring of the high hat came through stronger, for example.

Multiple students said they took Sound Engineering for the opportunities it offered. Senior Belle Lemoine said its been an introduction to what a career could be like.

Sophomore Logan Blackard said he also plays the drums, and likes that the class allows him to create music electronically.

“I though it’d be cool to make some of that on my own,” he said.

Next semester, Caldwell plans to teach live recording techniques, such as how to fix feedback or sound levels from backstage. He hopes the class is a gateway to a college course, a job at a studio or just a good experience with music.

Students also agreed that class reflects changing interests in technology and music. Senior Ryan Nilsen didn’t have much experience with mixing and producing before taking the class, but is happy to learn it now.

“I feel like it’s also a class that has real value,” he said. “It makes me want to come to school more.”

— Laura Frazier | @frazier_laura


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