by Author nicbriggs

Published on

You are here:

The Tools of a Community Musician: What I Still Use and What I Don’t by Paul Carroll (Music Leader on Quench Arts' Plugin project)

I’ve been doing my job as a Community Musician for more than 15 years now. I travel to different settings, work with different ages, interests and abilities but the aim is always to help people enjoy making music. My own skills I bring to the job are kit drumming, percussion, guitar and keyboard chord accompaniment, software-based composition, recording and production and singing. For some jobs I have turned up to with very little in my backpack, for others I have filled the boot of my car and needed two trips from the car park to the venue. Recently I’ve tried to ride my bike to work if I can and this has had an effect on what I carry. This blog is about how what I bring to music sessions has changed over the years. I should add that recently, when travelling to different locations, I have been delivering the majority as a series of one-to-one sessions. Most group sessions I deliver take place at the Quench Arts music rooms in Birmingham.


Soundbeam MIDI Triggers - very occasionally

A very specialised piece of equipment to start with because when I first started out working as a music facilitator, the majority of my work took place in special schools and other disability settings and I used to take Soundbeam to sessions all the time. It enables people with limited movement control to play keyboard sounds by making physical gestures in the air. It also has colourful pads, which are easy to press and can be used to trigger sounds. Paired with Ableton Live or Reason software it is easy to give people the ability to trigger sounds that they have made themselves. I have delivered full-blown projects using mostly Soundbeam, offering participants the opportunity to create and perform their own music. Taking up a suitcase, it is definitely a project that I would have to drive to and it takes a full half an hour to set up and then again to pack away. Apart from that, the reason why I don’t use Soundbeam as much now is because I’m working more in mental health settings unless with physically disabled people.


Acoustic guitar - most of the time

Even when working with technology such as Soundbeam I still take along a guitar to accompany improvisations and any songwriting that takes place in sessions. Any instrument that plays chords can define the key of a piece of music and for musical beginners is excellent when paired with a device that enables the participant to improvise around a fixed scale (such as only playing the white or black keys on a keyboard or technology such as Soundbeam or the Thumbjam app on iPad.) In addition, there is also an interest from participants on projects to learn the guitar but for beginners, getting a good sound out of an electric guitar or bass can be quicker and therefore better for self-confidence. And electric is good for those who want to rock! For accompanying however, I prefer acoustic guitar because the way I play it, the instrument has more attack and can suggest the rhythm and feel of a piece strongly in the absence of drums.


Keyboard - most of the time but…

They’ve been getting smaller and smaller. I don’t gravitate towards keyboard for accompanying so  it doesn’t have to have full size keys. If I come across a participant who is a skilled player and would prefer bigger keys then I’ll bring my bigger keyboard in but that hasn’t happened very often. It’s usually the MIDI USB type for plugging into a laptop and playing software sounds, rather than a keyboard with its own sounds onboard.


Drum Kit - very rarely

What? I’m a drummer but I only ever take my drum kit out for live performances, not for workshops. If I’m honest, what participant wouldn’t enjoy playing a drum kit? I think this would be a good thing to have in a lot of music sessions but the problem is it’s just not practical. It takes ages to load in and set up (even an electronic kit would) and in most places I work it would just be too loud. Some places have their own drum kit set up in a room where noise is allowed, in which case if someone is interested in playing it can be an option. Otherwise….


Percussion - yes, yes, yes

15-20 years ago, everyone had a wooden African drum such as a djembe but I feel a bit old-school when I use on in a music session now. It’s still good though, as is a shaky egg. With those combined you have the sounds of the main elements of a drum kit: bass drum, snare and hi hat. And for one, I enjoy playing them and when the music leader is happy it sets the mood of the session. Also, when travelling to a group session, I can fit multiple instruments in my backpack, meaning everyone can play something at the same time. The other great thing about the djembe and egg in particular is that they are easy to play due to their responsiveness to a wide range of dynamic playing. Even when the focus of a session might be around electronic music I’ve had participants pick up some percussion and play along.


Recording equipment - certainly

I am likely to make some kind of recording, of varying levels of quality and precision, in nearly every session I deliver. In some cases, I’m working with such talented and skilled individuals that recording (and encouraging) is all I’m good for! In any case, I am a musician who functions by ear and not notation so during a creative process I will often make many short recordings using my phone as a song progresses so that I don’t forget a section of music when we move on to another part. The quality of phone recordings even when simply using the voice memo app are really good these days. In fact, in the last two years I’ve used many a phone recording in fully produced professional recordings for community music projects. Some settings don't allow phones but will allow iPads. Also, MP3 recorders are pretty affordable too. So, at some point I am likely bring everything I need to make a professional recording but I should add that these days I can get it all into my guitar bag and still ride to the session if it’s not too far. This has not always been the case; there used to be a time when I’d have to rely on the host venue having recording equipment or bring my 18 track hard disc recorder in the car.


Computer - yes

With a computer, I can work with people’s many different tastes, from producing a full band sound with drums and bass samples to a track using software synthesisers, samplers and drum machines. You can connect a USB MIDI keyboard and play any sound imaginable. And plug in an electric guitar and make it sound like it’s being played through a large and expensive amplifier. Add a microphone and a willing singer, rapper or spoken word artist and you have vocals covered. And then I can write up my notes in the same place too. In the same way that laptops have superseded expensive hardware keyboards and drum machines, tablets are becoming more and more powerful and can handle considerable composition and recording projects. The sound libraries that come with computer-based audio software are so enormous it can be quite overwhelming sometimes. But to be honest, I find it comforts me to have them to deal with every eventuality. Apps for tablets, as well as being cheaper, come with less sounds but perhaps that could be better for some situations, in terms of narrowing down the choice and helping the composer choose and move on quicker. Apple claim that their latest iPad Pros have “five studio-quality microphones,” which, if placed well could do away with the need for microphones, cables and audio interface.


Software - Cubase and Reason - not any more, Logic - sometimes, GarageBand app - yes, Ableton Live - definitely

Well, it looks like I’ve been lucky enough to have tried a lot of the music production software out there. I think it’s probably personal choice that eventually pulls you to a favourite. I was enticed away from Cubase and Reason by the sheer size and quality of the sounds in Logic as well as the fact that it is an industry standard, especially in education settings. Then I dabbled with Ableton Live because of its easy-to-use sampling capabilities. I think you can do the same things in Logic but I’ve found working in Ableton easier. It also seems to run with less glitches than Logic but that could just be my machine. What really solidified my enthusiasm for Ableton was the fact that it runs on non-Apple platforms such as Windows. I realised that if a project participant learnt how to use Logic and wanted to continue doing so after their time with me then they would need an Apple computer because Logic isn’t made to run on anything else. And Apple Macs are pricey. I do use the GarageBand app on iPad though, for its tactile virtual instruments and comprehensive selections of sounds. I’ve been experimenting recently to see if I can satisfy the requirements of most sessions with Ableton Live Intro, which is currently on sale for £52 plus some free sounds from other developers to cover where Live Intro lacks. It’s required a bit of work finding good, legit. free stuff but it’s out there. I can recommend Spitfire Audio Labs for strings, a decent piano and really good bass guitar and drums. For guitarists, there are some great amplifier simulators in the free version of Amplitude by IK Multimedia and Steven State’s free drum kit is decent. Plus there are some juicy free Komplete sounds by Native Instruments, as all these companies try and get you to download their software installer in the hope that you will pay for more stuff in the future, so I try not to get tempted!


Speakers - definitely

And thank goodness small bluetooth speakers are pretty loud and hi-fi now so I no longer have to bring an extra bag just for the speakers. Or, as was the case at one point, a suitcase to fit in two heavy studio monitors. My 12cm rechargeable speaker is good enough to satisfy all but the most discerning bass heads.


I think that about covers it. Thanks to the diminishing size of gear over the years, the proximity of my house from Quench Arts’ workshop spaces and Birmingham’s excellent canal network, I can cycle to sessions most days, saving me money on motoring and, who knows, maybe saving the planet at the same time!