How to Create a Cheap, Battery-Powered Production Workstation

If you work at an after-school music program, maybe this dilemma will sound familiar: Your students want to learn how to make music, but maybe not the kind they find in their school's classical, marching band, or choral curricula.

The Music & Youth Initiative came up with a cost-effective way to get powerful, contemporary music-making tools into the hands of students. The battery-powered workstation the group devised has everything students need to create modern pop, hip-hop, R&B, or other current music, and it will cost just about $1,000 total.

Music & Youth is not new to such endeavors. For 15 years, the organization has been launching and supporting music programs for children in low-income neighborhoods. Their Music Clubhouse locations even have full-fledged recording studios on the premises. However, state-of-the-art facilities are, of course, costly. The Mobile Studio iPad Workstation, as the group calls it, is far less expensive, but still offers a way for students to create the music they want to hear.

"Over the years, we realized that many Boys & Girls Clubs and other Youth Development programs are hosted in shared spaces like school cafeterias, community centers, and housing developments," Music & Youth's David Bickel says. "Because these organizations often can't commit to building a recording studio in these shared/multi-purpose spaces, we came up with the idea of efficiently bringing Music Production equipment to them."

Music & Youth's Mobile Studio assembly video.

The Mobile Studio features a microphone and a two-channel recording interface, a MIDI controller for playing software synths or samples, and an iPad that runs Apple's free GarageBand recording program. The interface's extra input and a headphone splitter allows more than one student at a time to be involved. And with a battery pack and a lightweight pedalboard frame, it's also self-contained and portable—easy to move, store, or be passed around by excited students. (Purchasing a two-year AppleCare warranty for the iPad is advised.)

Fitting all this power into one small workstation was a feat of clever engineering. Thanks to donations of Scarlett 2i2 interfaces from Focusrite, a Reverb Gives grant, and other support, Music & Youth was able to find the right mix of gear through trial-and-error.

The first iteration featured the now-discontinued Focusrite iTrack Docks. A second version was made portable via a universal DJ case (it proved to be too heavy). But, as Bickel says, "Third time's a charm. At the 2019 NAMM show we saw a few lightweight guitar pedalboards that featured a mounting system and our final concept was born."

With the portable, easy-to-use system, that means there's more time for students to get creative. "Ultimately, our hope is within two-to-three minutes of the Mobile Studio arriving at a location, participants can begin making music," Bickel says.

"We also selected products that would make the individual components look like one instrument," Bickel says. "In the case of the iRig Keys I/O Mic, [it] was a great/affordable solution to include a quality-sounding microphone with less setup time and messy cables."

If you're interested in building Music & Youth's Mobile Studio, you can find detailed instructions on Music & Youth's website and in the video above. If the $1,000 budget is too high for your needs though, Bickel has some ideas for how you could start with less.

"The iPads themselves are extremely powerful—it seems like every update to GarageBand gets closer and closer to Logic Pro X [Apple's professional recording software]. I'd encourage after-school programs to buy an iPad as a first step. The rest of the gear can always be added afterwards," Bickel says.

"I would also encourage after-school programs to leverage the technology that participants bring with them everyday... their phones," he says. "Many participants are creating beats on their phones (iPhones or Android). Selecting and using universal products in the setup means that participants can plug their phones into the interface and keep working on their projects."

By meeting students where they are, and teaching them how to create the music they want to hear, teachers not only help students immediately, but start to build the inroads necessary for further teaching.

"We start with the music teens love because it's the best way to engage them. Once the Music Clubhouse staff capture their attention, build a trusting relationship with them, a lot of doors open," Bickel says. "Our priority is using music as a vehicle for youth development. This means if the participants don't attend our program (because they don't like the music we teach or the approach we use) then we risk further alienating them to the point where they don't come and we have less impact on their lives."

The Mobile Studio is just one tool toward having a lasting impact. If you run or work at a music education program and would like to apply for your own grants to support music education efforts, visit our Reverb Gives page here.

For a full equipment list and step-by-step instructions for the Music & Youth Mobile Studio, visit the Music Impact Network's how-to page here.

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