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TA212 - Music Technology Passing this course is counted as 60 Points at Level 2 towards either a BA or BSc Open University degree. Please note this a review of the TA212 course in 2008 so there may be some slight differences. In 2008 (and hence also in my review) there were 7 TMAs but the 2009 course only has 6 for example, other than that I should the subject matter is very similar if not exactly the same. A full description, as well as the cost and study dates, of the current course can be found here: www3.open.ac.uk/courses/bin/p12.dll?C01eTA212
PERSONAL BACKGROUND It had been over 10 years since I last studied with the Open University so I wanted to start back with a subject I felt fairly familiar with but, more importantly, that I would enjoy studying and find rewarding. Having worked in IT for over 20 years and been a musician (with an interest in sound engineering) for 6 this seemed the ideal course for me. As the course states, you don't have to be a musician to study it and very little musical ability is needed throughout the course but it is probably most useful for people with some musical connection, be it playing an instrument, sound recording or engineering. There are elements of mathematics and physics throughout the course but it's all explained fairly clearly and the first block teaches the basic maths skills (algebra, number bases, equations, fractions and percentages etc) you'll need during the course even if you aren't already familiar with, or have forgotten, them. For those unfamiliar with the OU a TMA is a Tutor Marked Assignment, these are used to assess your progress through the course and count as 50% of your final grade. The other 50% comes from an end of course project (as opposed to sitting an exam).
COURSE CONTENTS (BOOKS) The course was split into 5 Blocks as follows: Block 1 - Prelude (1 TMA) This block acts as an introduction to the basics needed to pass this course, it's a good introduction/refresher and eases you nicely into the course. Even if you're already familiar with music and/or maths there will be a few useful points worth learning here plus the chance for a good first TMA mark. Part 1 - Deals with how to read music, musical notes and scales. Part 2 - Looks at learning to listen to music in the analytical and critical sense with some discussion of common flaws that occur in recordings. Part 3 - Introduces the mathematical aspects you will need to learn for the course.
Block 2 - Investigating Sound (2 TMAs) This block is split into two parts 2:1 and 2:2 - 2:1 Part 1 - Looks at sound and pressure waves and what sound actually is. There's a fair bit of physics involved in this as it covers ideas such as amplitude, frequency, wavelength and phase. 2:1 Part 2 - Examines what makes sounds different from each other and why different instruments have different timbres. Ideas such as the harmonic series are covered in depth. 2:1 Part 3 - Looks at the time aspect of sound and covers musical ideas like note durations and time signatures.
2:2 Part 1 - Talks about reverberation and the acoustic properties of different environments. 2:2 Part 2 - Examines the difference between listening and hearing and how the biology of the ear and our brain affects how we hear sounds. 2:2 Part 3 - Looks at sound capture and recreation by examining loudspeakers, microphones and pick-ups work. There is also an introduction to how analogue sounds are stored digitally.
Block 3 - Musical Instruments (2 TMAs) This block is split into two parts 3:1 and 3:2 - 3:1 Part 1 - Examines the physics and general principles of different methods by which instruments produce sound. 3:1 Part 2 - Woodwinds such as the oboe, clarinet, saxophone (yes, it is technically a woodwind rather than a brass instrument) and flute are examined in detail. The history, construction, method of sound production and frequency analysis is covered for each instrument throughout Block 3. 3:1 Part 3 - Brass instruments such as trumpets, horns and trombones are discussed as well as how the lips are used to produce sound in brass instruments in general. 3:1 Part 4 - String instruments such as the violin and acoustic guitar are covered in this section.
3:2 Part 1 - Percussion such as drums, cymbals and xylophones. 3:2 Part 2 - Keyboard instruments like the piano, harpsichord and organs. 3:2 Part 3 - The human voice and how we make sounds is covered here so there is an element of biology involved. 3:2 Part 4 - Finally, electronic instruments such as electric guitars and synthesisers are discussed.
Block 4 - Sound Processes (2 TMAs) This block is split into two parts 4:1 and 4:2 - 4:1 Part 1 - Examines digital recording methods and equipment as well as some aspects of sound engineering, editing and mixing. This section is especially useful for anyone interested in getting into home studio recording. 4:1 Part 2 - A brief history of musical notation and printing through the ages. 4:1 Part 3 - Looks at how music can be stored and reproduced mechanically (using methods such as barrels and paper rolls) or electronically as MIDI files (this is the format of most music you here playing on websites).
4:2 Part 1 - Music distribution talks about how music is stored on CDs, tapes and mini-disc as well as the methods used to create MP3s and other digital formats. 4:2 Part 2 - Talks about the history of the music business and key innovations along the way (from Edison cylinder to iPod) with some additional discussion concerning copyright and similar issues.
Block 5 - Preparation, Project and Practice (End of course Project) This isn't really a Block in the sense of the rest of the course, it's more about advice and suggestions to help with the preparation and execution of the final course project.
COURSE CONTENTS (MEDIA) This course comes with a great deal of multimedia, which includes:
7 Audio CDs The audio CDs contain clips of both actual songs (I remember thinking how cool is a course that requires you to listen to 'Golden Brown' by the Stranglers!) as well as general audio examples of material covered in the course (examples of recording flaws, tones etc)
6 CDs containing software, examples and other media. During the course there are many exercises and examples which refer you to media you have installed on your PC. These are generally very helpful for illustrating points that don't come to life on paper very well, a picture may paint 1000 words but a moving media clip really shows you what's going on! The real bonus is in some of the commercial software you're given to carry out audio analysis and recording exercises with, such as Adobe Audition and Cubase LE, which are both quite useful programs even after you've finished the course. If you are interested in dipping your toe into basic home studio recording this is a good way to save paying out for any software to get you started and even though it's an earlier version of Cubase LE it's still a decent little program.
2 DVDs These are professionally made and useful for illustrating the points made in the course material. Generally they feature members of the course team talking to experts and musicians about aspects and instruments covered in the course. They're quite easy to watch and make a nice break from reading all the time.
COURSE CONTENTS (PROJECT KIT) This contains physical items that are necessary more for people without any musical equipment of their own. There's a small computer type microphone, a pair of Sennheiser headphones, a Yamaha recorder and some small tubes for use in one of the Block experiments. This is the very basic equipment you will need for the course if you don't already own an instrument or any recording equipment. If you already do, however, there's nothing of much use to you here. The headphones would be good except the cable on them is only about 2' long so you have to be right next to what you're listening through them on. I swore I'd never own a recorder again since school and even though this is a cool (as cool as a recorder can be that is!) transparent blue Yamaha one I'd still really have done without it. In fact, personally I'd have preferred to have done without the whole kit and had a few quid knocked off the course instead but it's a minor moan.
TUTOR SUPPORT There are monthly tutorials at your local OU centre that you can along to if you wish, though it's not compulsory, or you can contact your tutor by phone or email if you prefer. Generally my tutor was very helpful and replied to my emails fairly quickly. I disagreed with my marks on one assignment (some of the TMA questions could be a bit ambiguous) and it was handled smoothly and quickly.
OVERALL I found this to be a really rewarding and interesting course but it's obviously only going to appeal more to people with a sincere interest in music, home recording and/or musical instruments. Even if you are one of those people TA212 can still occasionally get a bit heavy going but the content of the block sections is quite varied so you don't often feel bogged down. The TMAs aren't too difficult as all (or nearly all) the information you need is in the course materials provided. The project was quite demanding and required both an in-depth written study of a specific instrument (of your choosing) as well as a sound engineering project. Having been away from the OU since 1998 I also noticed they have updated several aspects of studying with them. You now receive a username and password for their website which allows you to check on your progress, access course materials and other useful student information. TMAs can now also be submitted using an online electronic TMA system, which I found very useful and worked well throughout the course, as well as not having to worry about your TMA getting lost in the post or arriving late.