Don’t Do That (Traditional School Music Labs)

I recently received Sweetwater’s Music Education catalog, which featured a number of “how-to” guides, one of which was about installing (MIDI) music labs in schools.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m glad that stores like Sweetwater, Soundtree, and others are around, as they offer great services to music educators.

Even so, here’s my opinion.  Don’t do that.  Or as Bob Newhart put it, “Stop it.”

MIDI labs can be tremendously expensive, in terms of the computers, MIDI keyboards, microphones, headphones, and software.  And until recently, a MIDI lab was the only way to achieve most of the things that were created and learned in a MIDI lab.

The iPad, the first of a number of new devices, changes that landscape immensely.  The iPad, with specific programs, such as Garage Band ($5), Symphony Pro ($12), and Twisted Wave ($9.99), can do most of what a MIDI lab could do.   iOS Musician has been reporting on how many devices can be used with the new Core MIDI features of the iPad.  In other words, if playing a keyboard on glass isn’t acceptable, a MIDI keyboard could be attached to the iPad as well.

At its core, a MIDI system will need a computer and monitor (at least $600), a MIDI Keyboard ($100), a notation package ($100), audio editor ($0), microphone ($50), headphones ($25), and any other software–not to mention specific lab tables and chairs.  Can we agree that one system will cost at least $1000?  Multiply that times the number of systems needed in a room.  How long until the software needs updating?  Updates are annual and cost at least $60.  How long until the computers age out?  3 years?  5 years?

A far better purchase, without any school discounts, is an iPad lab.  $499 for the iPad, $4.99 for Garage Band, $12.99 for Symphony Pro, and TwistedWave ($9.99).  Also throw in a case.  Ultimately, that’s less than $600 for most of the same functionality–plus the possibility of students to take the lab home with them, or to use them in any location (not locked to a specific room).  Even if the school doesn’t have wireless, the iPad School Music Lab is worth looking at (none of those apps require Internet access).  True, the iPad purchased may be “aged out” in three years compared to the “latest and greatest.”  But that doesn’t mean that the devices will stop working.  As of April 2011, there are still a lot of original iPhones and iPod Touches being used, even if they cannot run the “latest” apps.

If software licenses for notation software alone are going to cost $60 a year, in four years, more than a quarter of the replacement price of an iPad will be saved.  Considering depreciation and the ability to sell used Apple products down the road, ultimately, an iPad lab makes much more sense financially.

I’ve gone on record saying that if students/parents can cover the cost of the hardware (partnership initiatives), and schools provide software, that makes the idea of an iPad music lab even more attractive, and a traditional school music lab even less so.

So, don’t do that.  Don’t invest in a school music lab at this point–at least without considering all the alternatives.


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