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A decade in UPOU

I’m not here to preach about how you should always persevere and never quit, that tomorrow is a better day, or that God loves you and will always be with you, going ra-ra with fluffy pom-poms and all that. If you know me at all, you would know it would all be bullshit, coming from me.

To my recollection, I have drafted at least four resignation letters, the most recent of which is less than a year old. And yet… earlier this week, I had this plaque handed to me by my superiors.

I started with utmost gratitude. I had not distinguished myself an exemplary student since sixth grade. As far as I knew, UPOU was banking on my potential because I had very little else to offer based on what credentials I had back then. But maybe some of my dad’s attributes had rubbed off to me — enough to help me become a competent teacher, at least. Maybe they were able to somehow able to account for intangibles, since some of the decision makers knew who I was personally. Whichever the case, the point is, UPOU took a chance with me, and I will never forget that.

At my third year, I had already started to believe that I did not have what it takes to make this my career. A college teacher, sure… but a faculty member at UPOU… that felt like a different thing altogether. It still does. There were challenges, difficulties, sacrifices and outright burdens which I had not expected to take on, let alone carry long-term.

At my sixth or seventh year, I had to make a conscious effort to change my approach to work. I had shifted to survival mode. I had to drop the notion of aspiring for awards and taking part of the more glamorous parts of the job. It had let to harboring less than positive thoughts towards everything, as everyone else seemed to be getting all the attention. But it allowed me to march on.

At my ninth year, I felt the need to make another adjustment, and start thinking about my own advancement — whether it’s in or out of UPOU. And it is now, that I have begun to think more clearly of what I need and want to do. I still won’t be distinguishing myself in the university, but I am slowly getting back into doing things that I want to do.

It seems contradictory — that I have to act more selfishly in order to figure out how to do better in a job that is, for all intents and purposes, public service. But whatever. It’s working.

I managed to survive.

That is probably what this plaque symbolizes for me — resilience — ten years worth of it. No one else with the same career path within UPOU has ever lasted even half as long. And while I still do not have nearly enough optimism needed to happily look forward to the next day of work, I can tell you that I can get through it.

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MMS 173: Self Portraiture Exercise

Note to readers:

I did this exercise way back in 2013. Unfortunately, I lost my original write-up for the whole experience. Fortunately, my actual photos, both the unedited and edited versions, remain in my possession. Those are what you will see below (unless stated otherwise). The narrative, I have done my best to reconstruct from memory.

 

There is one personal rule that I have always abided by as a teacher. I would never, ever, subject my students to any task or requirement that I had not gone through myself. That actually backed me into a little corner when I started believing that requiring that students do honest to goodness self-portraiture was a good idea – that anyone who has been in my class would at least know how to do better than the usual selfies which litter social media on a massive scale. The thing is, I don’t like having my picture taken either. I don’t like being in group pictures. And I certainly had never taken self-portraits, not the way I would want my students to.

So, it’s either I forget about this idea, or put in the work myself before talking big to my students. Your reading this article will probably be a clear indication of the choice I made. Besides, I’m always game for the chance to take students out of the comfort zones, even if it means I have to do the same.

I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I’ve always been fond of dark, moody themes in just about anything. This was my chance to apply that to myself. I then set up my black background and my studio lights. But after taking a few trial shots and thinking about it some more, I decided that it was not the look I wanted. I needed to be more low-key. So, I put the lights aside and settled with my small portable LED pack. Back then I did not have the means to set up my flash gun off-camera the way I wanted. So I had to rely on continuous lighting, which means I would have to contend with slow shutter speeds and high ISOs. Hopefully, I could sit still enough throughout this session.

The good news is that I had the space to make use of my Nikkor 50mm/1.8D with my Nikon D7000. I could use my remote trigger while the camera sat on the tripod. But I wouldn’t be able to see what I’m shooting on the fly. Repeatedly having to aim, pose, shoot and then run to the camera to preview the shot would have made it a long night for me. Luckily, I came across digiCamControl, a USB tether software that supports Nikon cameras. I can control the camera with live view engaged from a laptop which I would have in front of me the whole time, significantly speeding up my process.

 

Equipment Used

  • Nikon D7000 body
  • Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D prime lens
  • Z96 LED light panel
  • Laptop with Digicamcontrol Pro
  • 2 tripods
  • black muslin cloth background
  • electric guitar as prop

 

Headshot

The idea for the headshot was simple – I’ll be facing the camera up front and aim the light source diagonally towards one side of my face. The reality of the matter turned out to be more complicated. I ended up taking dozens of shots. I was starting to doubt if I could pull this off.

Headshot diagram

 

I tried several poses. I didn’t like how most of them turned out. But I was able to pick three whose results I liked.

ISO 400 ; 1/8sec ; f/5.6

My camera was having a hard time focusing with the whole room being so dimly lit, forcing me to work with slow shutter speeds. It’s a good thing I managed to hold still. At the same time, that small light was pretty hard and intense.  You can even see behind the black muslin background, even with the intensity dialed down. But I could work with this. I didn’t want to do a lot of editing. Against my own vanity, I opted to leave the blemishes of my face alone or maybe even accentuate them.

I only needed to do two things: accentuate the blacks, dial down the highlights and add more warmth. No sharpening was needed. A little bit of blurring might have been of benefit, but I didn’t bother. Cropping to a 4:3 ratio was my final step — trimming down the background and providing more emphasis to my profile.

 

The only thing I would have wanted to improve upon here is the highlights of my hair. The hard light really harshly emphasized the white streaks on my hair. A reflector on the other side of my face would have also helped balance out the highlights a bit.

 

Freestyle

I wanted a picture of myself holding a guitar. The question was how. Again, I tried a number of things. Then I was suddenly reminded of the album cover of U2’s Rattle and Hum and thought how cool it looked, with Bono aiming a spotlight over The Edge. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to do the exact same thing. But I can take inspiration from it.

 

With the camera in the same spot as before, I’d be facing the background diagonally, with my light aimed slightly towards my left side. The hard light which I had an issue with while taking my headshot, worked wonders simulating a spotlight aimed at my upper body and the guitar’s neck. The hard shadow on my hand seemed like a nice touch to augment the effect, as well.

ISO 1600 ; 1/10sec ; f/3.2

I got a shot that I thought was perfectly framed, which was surprising given how I was shooting. Maybe it helped that I was literally looking at the laptop while I was posing so, I was really seeing what I was going to get, at least composition-wise. But there were issues which I felt required some retouching.

 

Spots that needed fixing

First, I needed to increase the exposure value a full stop to recover some brightness. After that, I proceeded with working on the issues. Visible folds on the background, a stray thread and a speck of dust — they all needed to go. The folds would disappear by blackening the frame, like I did with the headshot. The rest would also be easy fixes. Quick dabs of Photoshop’s healing brush tool removed those nicely. And again, as before, warming up what colors were present added life to the frame.

Final edit (2013)

2018 Note

I was happy with this back then. But looking at it now, I don’t think the highlights are warm enough. And the reflections on my hair is still too harsh.

Final edit (2018)

Today, I would go with an even warmer look. And then I’d use a paintbrush tool over my hair to decrease the overall exposure one whole stop. My face is still a bit shinier than I would like, but it’s something I can live with (then again, by 2023, who knows?). Overall, it’s significantly easier to look at now, don’t you think?

 

Conclusion

I did the shoot in one sitting. But between conceptualizing, setting up, shooting and packing up, I spend several hours. And then I spent more hours during post production. It’s more work than most of my students will realize. It was also a test for my confidence and self-esteem. Like most other guys, I look at the mirror every morning thinking how good looking I am. But the reality is that I don’t believe that, and I start thinking the opposite whenever I see a camera aimed at me. This is a challenge for me, for anyone, on many levels. And that is why, more than ever, I believe this is the most important assignment I can ever require in my photography class.

This walkthrough obviously does not cover everything. It’s not supposed to. So, if you are one of the students in my class, I urge you to head back to the course site and raise any comments or questions in the discussion forums. Because I will expect more details from your assignment than what you see here.

Good luck!

Sharing of Experiences: The Role as System Administrator

It’s a little strange for me to be talking about me experiences as a system administrator. I am known to indulge in a little bit of complaining here and there, but never really seriously. Or perhaps my colleagues don’t take it seriously. I suppose it doesn’t matter. However, actually sitting down and discussing how I do my job and talk about the lessons I’ve learned… I’ve never really done that. Recently, I was asked to do just that for training specialists working across the archipelago whose new task was to learn how to operate learning management systems and disseminate what they’ve learned. Amusingly enough, what ensued was a bit of a demotivational presentation. Well… ok, I am exaggerating. But the audience did fully realize that the work of an IT administrator in UP, or perhaps the government in general, is more difficult than it looks.

 

As of this writing, I am on the final month of my ninth year as an employee of the UP Open University. Back in October 2007, I was barely a month into my job as a junior faculty and was looking forward to being just that in my foreseeable future. Little did I know that the direction of my career had practically been planned for me, the moment I was accepted in the fold.

I was quickly assigned into what was then the Management Information Systems Office of the university. It sounds rather heavy, but it was actually a room with two people who were little more than kids at the time. I wasn’t that much older than them and I had less relevant professional experience. Yet, I was expected to lead them and make sense of what, to the untrained eye, looked like a convoluted pile of hardware and software they called their network infrastructure. My job was to help effect a major transition in the university of which I had been ignorant of. I was expected to have a hand in some of the biggest decisions that needed to be made on behalf of a university which I quickly realized I knew so much less about than I initially thought. And what made matters worse for me was that nothing I had done prior to that time would have helped me prepare for that challenge. I was never given time to adjust and familiarize myself with my new environment without the risk of committing mistakes that can have campus-wide ramifications. I didn’t think it was fair. It was stressful. It was frightening. All I wanted was a relatively quiet job as an online teacher. And now, this…

One of the biggest moves UPOU made at the time I came in was the migration of all courses under all degree programs, and eventually all non-formal courses, to an online learning management system. Face to face sessions were being phased out.

UPOU had already chosen to adopt MOODLE by the time I took over the MIS Office. Everyone was calling it our learning management system. But the reality of the matter was that, with respect to how we were using it, MOODLE was our course management system. I suppose the difference is subtle enough for me to not mind and leave uncorrected. But it was significant enough for me to warrant addressing, albeit in a discreet fashion.

To me, it was clear that MOODLE cannot solve everything for us. And it did not help that its early versions were, shall we say, rough around the edges. The code was buggy and inefficient. For a relatively small number of users, it required a huge amount of server power and Internet bandwidth, both of which we were in extremely short supply of.

Over the course of several years, I was mindful of three things:

  1. Finding ways to improve how MOODLE itself run.
  2. Filling the gaps unaddressed by MOODLE as the university’s needs change and grow.
  3. Being aware if and when something better than MOODLE comes along.

 

Running MOODLE

UPOU started with running MOODLE with an in-house server. However, bandwidth limitations forced us to have our server co-located off-site. While this made hardware maintenance inconvenient, at least it partially solved daily accessibility issues for users. But it didn’t take long for the university to outgrow that setup.

Playing catchup with our needs proved difficult, as doing so required constant maintenance, upgrade and replacement of our own servers. The logical next step for us was to find a way to bypass the need for it altogether.

By 2008, we eventually negotiated a hosting contract with what is referred to as a MOODLE partner. It was one of several companies across the world that is certified by MOODLE HQ and its community to administer systems for organizations of all sizes. This solves our dilemma regarding hardware. And with a datacenter outside the Philippines, better access was all but assured. Lastly, as part of the MOODLE partner’s service, day-to-day administration of the system itself were taken off our hands to further lighten my office’s workload.

It was a comfortable arrangement that lasted for a number of years. We would have kept it to this day, had the service remained consistently good. Unfortunately, for some reason that remains unclear to me, the partner’s quality of service declined to a point when we were already within our rights to declare a breach of contract. That did not happen, but it did herald yet another shift for the university.

It was around 2011 when we ended our working relationship with the MOODLE partner. This was also the time when another team took over administration duties, at least for UPOU’s MOODLE system. But from what I have pieced together, hosting changed hands twice. Administrative responsibilities were relegated back to me in 2013, when the MIS Office was re-tooled as the ICT Development Office. Even though I had been doing the job since 2007, it was only six years after, when I was formally designated as a director in UPOU. By this time a local company was under the outgoing MOODLE hosting contract. It proved capable of performing the duties of a MOODLE partner. But the more interesting aspect of this arrangement was that this was UPOU’s early foray into employing a Cloud-based system. I had recommended exploring it a few years earlier, but perhaps up until that point, Cloud hosting was not particularly feasible. And while actual hosting management still changed hands one more time in these last three years, we have essentially maintained the same setup to this day.

Augmenting MOODLE

MOODLE is commonly referred to as a learning management system. But the reality is that it is rarely fully utilized as such. UPOU certainly is no exception. We do not need all its features. While at the same time, we had several needs which MOODLE cannot provide. In order to address this issue, we had to augment MOODLE with other applications.

Perhaps the most important addition to the UPOU Learning Management System was Google Apps, which we implemented in 2008. The availability of the whole suite of Google’s online applications solve a number of issues, such as official email, Cloud storage and collaboration tools. UPOU had also developed its own academic information management system that handles student admission, records and registration. Unfortunately, circumstances leave us hesitant to implement full integration of these systems to finally implement single sign on, which has been requested for years now.

The exploration and testing of new systems that can possibly complement MOODLE’s feature set is an on-going endeavor at UPOU. My colleagues conduct work of this nature on a regular basis. I am currently studying the use of an ePortfolio system and its full integration with MOODLE. The technical aspect is not difficult to figure out, as both systems have been designed to seamlessly integrate with one another. But it does have administrative and budget implications, which I hope to address in the near future.

Options Aside from MOODLE

Whether it is on behalf of the ICT Development Office or the Faculty of Information and Communication Studies, we are constantly keeping ourselves apprised of the development of learning management systems aside from MOODLE. We are currently active in testing Canvas and are in constant contact with their representatives to assess the prospect of employing the platform. Both parties understand that even if it were to end up being the case, it would still be several years away. However, this is notable in the sense that this has been the farthest the university has come to consider giving up MOODLE.

Lessons Learned

While it is presumptive, even arrogant, to declare UPOU as the foremost user of MOODLE in the country, I can safely say that we have never done better with MOODLE than we have right now. We also accumulated a considerable amount of experience over the past 10 or so years. There were also a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned which I’ll try to highlight the most important here.

  • A system administrator does not need to be the most skilled technocrat in the team. His or her role is, on one hand, to be able to articulate what the team is doing to the rest of the organization. On the other hand, the administrator has to make sure his or her team has the breathing room to work at its best.
  • It is a given that technical staff in UP or the government in general are underpaid, especially with respect to their counterparts in the private sector. That is why you need to find ways to keep your people from leaving.
  • Technology advances quickly. But that doesn’t mean new tech is always readily available to you.
  • Government procurement rules cannot keep up with new technology, services and platforms. Therefore, it is always a good idea to consult with your Legal Office before proposing to adopt anything new.
  • Many people have trouble distinguishing between needs and wants when it comes to ICT. It is your job to help them do so, while at the same time not making them feel like you are imposing how you think they should do their
  • Always have contingencies. Don’t EVER allow yourself to be backed into a corner where you don’t have at least a few possible solutions for every issue thrown your way. When faced with a crisis, few things will infuriate the rest of your organization than telling them there’s nothing you can do about it.

Yes, working as a system administrator in an organization like UP is not easy by any means. You will feel underpaid and underappreciated. Managing UPOU’s learning management system for nearly a decade has been an arduous task, that is for sure. But I have learned a LOT from my experiences and that has helped me adapt. I can’t say I’m a happy employee, but through these basic pointers, I can live with the burden. And if you are reading this, maybe you can take these few pointers, as well.

The point(lessness) of student evaluation of teachers in UPOU

I’d been going back and forth as to whether or not I should, or should even bother writing about this. It’s definitely not a new issue. But it does continue to bother us at UPOU on a regular basis. Then there is this thing about confidentiality which may or may not apply (I’ve never actually asked nor would I care to, at this stage). But here we go.

Student Evaluation of Teachers (SET) — if you’re a UP student, you have already had filled that survey form to assess the performance of your prof on all your courses. You’ve become so used to it that answering it has become second nature to you. If not, you will.

Unless you are a UPOU student, of course.

The problem in UPOU is that there is no procedure that will ensure that students will answer the evaluation sheets, like in other campuses. Neither is there any policy that will deter students from ignoring the call for evaluation. That leaves the university putting faith on the proactiveness of students…

LOL… ???

With confidentiality potentially becoming an issue, I’ll stick with only one set of data — mine.

From 2010 to 2014, I earned a SET average of 2.68. Breaking this down is going to be a little complicated, but I’ll do my best here by showing the actual sheet forwarded to me. I hope you’ll be able to follow.

SET_LibreroAFD

 

Scores seem straightforward enough. However, there is one important fact which the spreadsheet does not account for. It doesn’t say how many students actually evaluated me. I wish I still had all the numbers as proof, but I don’t. You’re just gonna have to trust that I’m being honest about it. As far as I can tell, the number of respondents exceeded ten only once here — for LVM 202 FS 2012-2013. Now, with the exception of maybe CMSC G in SS 2011-2012, when I only had three students, I typically have at least a few dozen students in a class. That LVM 202 class had 70 students, of which 17 evaluated me. I know because the Faculty of Management and Development Studies gave me the actual detailed results for both LVM 202 classes indicated here (in the second class, there were 6 out 34 respondents). In other classes, I’d typically get between 1-4 respondents. Another noteworthy fact here is that LVM 202 is the only course in that list which is taken by new students.  The rest are taken by students midway through or at the end of their residency.

Seventeen out of seventy was the best the SET could do for me — a response rate of less than 25%. In any other campus that would be unacceptable. But it would be the most normalized score I would ever get. Is it a coincidence that it is the also the highest rating in the list? I don’t know, really.

Now, make no mistake — I have never claimed to be the best teacher anywhere. But I do try to be good. But I have a style that not everybody would take well. No method does. That is why there will always be people who will not regard me or my methods kindly.

From what I have observed, I can surmise that students are more likely to evaluate teachers if a) they are new and are still enthusiastic towards this activity, and b) they have an axe to grind and the SET is a great opportunity for retribution, so to speak.

I admit that I felt hurt the first time I saw these scores last year. It was a big issue, not just for me, but for nearly everyone at UPOU. I don’t think anybody was spared. Do we deserve it? I can only speak for myself, but what I will say is that the only way I’m going to accept such low scores is if they are representative of the majority. If that’s what most of my students think, then so be it. That would also be the time when I say to myself that I really am not good at this and step away from teaching.

I didn’t mind the detractors by themselves. Like I said, there will always be those people who will not appreciate what I do and will make sure the university knows about it. What bugged me a little was that those who do like what I do couldn’t be bothered to evaluate me. But you know what? That was last year.

I saw the above sheet again the other day. And I was like, yeah, whatever… There is, however, a bigger questions to be answered.

Does this even matter?

I really can’t prove it, but I have this feeling that there are foolish students out there who think it doesn’t. So to address anyone who think as much, I’ll tell you why it does.

I started believing it served a purpose back when one of my profs in grad school was being reprimanded. The UPLB administration dug up his evaluation scores and used it against him, even though they were practically cherry picking. He was a highly regarded teacher who had few detractors. Unfortunately, it was those detractors who were passionate enough to detail their displeasure through additional comments. The admin made full use of those and played a small, but significant part in my prof’s departure.

SET scores are also mainstays in our university portfolios. I mean not the one that we would put out in public, but the one that is the basis of our tenure and our advancement. Higher scores earn us more points, which we need to accumulate before being promoted.

Perhaps its most important purpose as far as students are concerned is that it is the basis for the officials in determining what to do with us. Even though the indicator is a number, the SET is actually what keeps our portfolio and performance from being just a numbers game. Students’ feedback qualifies the teaching load we take every term.

Given a sufficient sample size, there are few things as indicative of a faculty’s performance in teaching than the SET. Unfortunately, we never have that benefit at UPOU.

We have now found ourselves in a conundrum. With such gross under-representation in the SET, UPOU has no choice but to stop respecting it as an assessment tool for faculty. That will only change if students stop taking it for granted and start being more proactive in its accomplishment. But since they generally don’t think it’s important in the first place (and is actually somewhat true now), it’s not going to happen.

There is another solution — find a way to make SETs mandatory and properly enforce it. But that is something I will leave to the people in power to figure out. I stopped caring last year.

If you are a UPOU student and has read up to this stage, I’m not going to beg you to start filling those SETs. Whether you do it or not is your prerogative. The important thing is that whatever you do, you accept what it entails.

Again, I never made any claims of being an outstanding teacher. But I do go out of my way to at least try to be one. I certainly believe I am better than a 2.68, so I will ignore it. But on the flipside, without SETs, teaching will completely become a numbers game. There would be no upside in trying to improve. I don’t even need to do this job well. I will earn my pay no matter what. There’s that… at least until I completely lose interest and quit teaching altogether.

Reaper Screenshot - Nasan Ka Kaya

Nasaan Ka Kaya? – the first product of the UPOU Soundtrack Project

By now, you’ve probably heard of Mix 3 for the song Nasan Ka Kaya. In case you’re still not familiar with it, this song was written by one of the BAMS students, Bem Favorito.

 

Now, Bem was kind enough to let us use his songs for what we’re currently dubbing as the UPOU Soundtrack Project.  Nasan Ka Kaya was chosen as the first guinea pig, so to speak. I grew up in the 1990s and it was probably the time when I listened to music the most. When I first listened to Bem’s demo, I was immediately reminded of the sensibilities, as well as recording qualities of rock and indie bands of that era. It was imperative that we capture some of that vibe for this song.

Three people have directly contributed to the production of this song. Bem is based in Metro Manila and recorded the vocal track. JM Agbayani played and recorded her bass guitar from the other side of the world in Dubai. I provided a basic backing track for them to follow and record with. And then they sent their recorded track to me online. I live near UPOU Headquarters in Los Baños, Laguna and I recorded the electric and acoustic guitar parts of this mix.

Reaper Screenshot - Nasan Ka Kaya

So, above is the main window of REAPER 5, the DAW software I used, or rather, am using for my audio production work. I am going to break this mix down, which I hope can give you a better understanding of how we went from Bem’s old demo to this mix.

As you can already see, the whole thing looks complicated for a relatively simple song that can be played by a three- or four-piece rock band with relative ease. It is complicated in the sense that the closer you get to the sound that you like, the difficulty in finally making it there increases. But you really don’t have to work that hard or have an extremely high level of proficiency to get something to sound decent. I would also like to say that I do not consider myself an expert in this line of work, nor do I believe that my way is the only way to get this mix to sound good. But I will say that I am happy with this whole learning experience and that while I believe there will always be room for improvement here, I can live with what I have here now.

 

Drums

Recording drums is one of those things that intimidate me in this project because I’ve never done it before. But I do look forward to learning how to do it. Unfortunately, as of this video clip, we still haven’t had the opportunity to do so. That is why we had to make do with a virtual instrument, at least for now.

I used a software plugin called EZDrummer 2. As the name implies, it is an easy-to-use virtual drum software, with a large library of MIDI-based loops and actual drum recordings. Creating a drum track for the entire song was largely just a drag and drop affair. I used stock loops, except in parts of the chorus where the snare, kick and cymbals are hit in unison with the guitars and bass.

 

This is very much usable. But I would like to point out that I look at EZDrummer more as a songwriting tool than an all-around replacement for a real drummer. I would still very much rather have live acoustic drums in the mix. Hopefully we’ll still have the opportunity to record that.

 

 

Bass Guitar

Just like the drums, I had a MIDI Bass Track prepared for this song. I was already resigned to the proposition that it will be as far as we will go for this song. That is why I was so happy that JM came forward and volunteered to play bass for us. She had an actual bass guitar and a USB interface. She even elected to use Reaper for the first time. All these were fortunate on my part. I asked her to send me a dry or effects-free recording. This is important because it makes thing more convenient for me while mixing. Applying effects would be easier and more predictable. And cleaning up any noise or unwanted artifacts would be less complicated.

 

While it needed some more work, the dry track sounded surprisingly good. It would probably be ok if I just left it as is. But I eventually decided that I wanted it to sound like it was being played through a bass guitar amplifier. I also wanted to reduce the faint noise that was audible when the bass track played alone. But I didn’t need to be too aggressive with the editing, because any noise in the bass track was adequately masked by the other tracks.

 

Acoustic Guitar

This is where things start to get a little fancier… well, despite outward appearances.

In a previous mix, I used an electric guitar with a synth pickup to simulate an acoustic guitar sound. It’s fine for live work, but I wasn’t particularly happy with how it sounded. So, I opted to just record this part again, but with a real acoustic guitar. This entailed a few matters that needed attending.

The reason why I first used a guitar synth was to not worry about acoustic considerations. Like everyone else in the project, I don’t have a professional grade audio studio at home. I can hear just about any noise outside or inside. I also don’t have a room with honest to goodness acoustic treatment. What I do have is some space in the middle of my house which I haven’t gotten to cleaning up. It worked out surprisingly well. In fact, I hadn’t noticed that it was lightly raining while I was recording until I took off my headphones. Luckily, the sound of the rain wasn’t picked up.

ADL_1417

My makeshift recording room

 

I had a cardioid condenser mic aimed at or near the 12th fret of my guitar at about 12 inches away. This was my intended main acoustic guitar sound. But since my guitar had a built-in pickup, I thought that I might as well, make use of it. So, I recorded the same performance with two sound sources. It turned out to be a good idea.

 

The sound from the microphone isn’t bad by itself, as you can hear. But to me, it sounded like it was a little short on bite.

As for the pickup sound, well… it sounds different. It’s also good, but is not as mellow as the mic’d sound.

I probably wouldn’t want to use it by itself for recording. But when you blend it with the microphone recording, you can get something different, and dare I say, better. They mutually make up for each other’s weaknesses.

 

Electric Guitars

These are probably the set of tracks which I put the most thought over. And yes, it does have something to do with these being my part. Most people will hear the electric guitars as if it were just one, or maybe two instruments. It’s not that simple, and I’ll show you why.

I plugged in my guitar directly through my interface and used the same software I used for the bass to simulate a guitar amplifier’s sound. I could have mic’ed a real guitar amplifier – I actually have a real version of the simulated amp that I used. But I decided against it. I didn’t want to deal with the acoustics of my work area. Of course, if it didn’t sound good to me, I would have opted to use a microphone like I did with the acoustic guitar. But BIAS FX, the software I used, made things so much easier for me. More importantly, given the circumstances, I doubt I could have gotten a better sound within the same time span.

 

The thing that helps keep the song together is the rhythm guitar track, which doubles the acoustic guitar, creating a thicker sound. But at the same time, I didn’t want it to dominate the mix, so it wasn’t really that much louder than the acoustic guitar here.

The lead guitar is also a straightforward affair. It’s nearly as loud as the vocals, and with a bit more distortion applied. The melodies themselves… well, they’re not what I would normally like to play, but they do work well for the sound and feel that Bem wanted for this song. He seemed to agree, so I kept them all.

 

I simply repeated the verse vocal melodies for the guitar solo spot, but to keep things from being too monotonous, I recorded a third guitar track to provide some harmonies. Then I added a fourth electric guitar track in the background to build up the song towards the climax at the final chorus. As far as keeping the 90s indie feel went, this was the part where I veered away from it the most. They didn’t do much ambient guitar stuff back then. But I still think it works well with the song. At the very least no one’s complaining about it, so it hasn’t been taken out.

 

Vocals

Whenever there is singing, it will almost always be the main focus of a song. That goes for just about any music genre out there and it is difficult to find exceptions. And no, this song is no exception either.

That is the point of working on mixing in the vocal track last. With the accompanying tracks close to being set, Bem sent me his recording. My job was to lay it down front and center and adjust the rest.

The dry vocal track itself needed work. But at the same time, I didn’t want to completely lose its rawness. So, I employed a technique I learned called parallel processing. It’s where I leave the dry vocal track pretty much as is, and then I send the same signal to a new track where I apply all the effects I wanted. And then like with the acoustic guitars, I had the option to easily blend the two tracks together until I get a sound that I want.

 

As far as effects were concerned, I used a plugin called IzoTope Nectar Elements. It’s a stripped down version of IzoTope’s more professional, and yes, more expensive line of effects plugins. But it has all the basic things I needed for the vocals. I started off with Nectar Elements’ Indie Warm and Dry preset. It essentially adds a little bit of reverb and then sets the EQ as a high pass filter. I further tweaked it by amplifying the signal and adding a bit more high end.

 

Panning

I kept panning simple for this mix. Since the bass guitar and vocals work on different areas of the frequency spectrum, it’s ok to keep them both at center. Lead guitars were also at center. It should also be fine because even if it lies relatively close to the vocals in terms of frequencies, they almost never play at the same time, anyway. Acoustic guitars are slightly panned to the left, while the electric rhythm guitar is equally panned to the right. The guitar fill heard at the final chorus actually doesn’t stay in place. I’ll explain that next.

 

Automation

Automation in DAWs is something you might not know about. I don’t know if it will ever be talked about in MMS 172, but I certainly don’t remember touching on it last time. But it is possible to tweak just about any parameter in the mix while the song is playing. And you can set the DAW to do it for you and by how much.

For this song, my automations made subtle changes, but I do think they make a big enough difference. The most obvious one is with the guitar fill where I played a bunch of natural harmonics in the last chorus. I laid down this track to add just a bit of ambience to the chorus and make it sound bigger. I certainly didn’t want it to muddy up the mix. So, rather than let it sit in one place along the stereo spectrum, I thought it would be cool for the harmonics to pan from left to center and then right to center.

 

Another part, or rather, the other parts where I do it are during the choruses where I temporarily raise the volume of the rhythm electric guitar track just before the vocals go nasan ka kaya…. and anong ginagawa to emphasize the downstrokes of all the guitars with respect to the rhythm.

 

Final Words

A great deal of my work here dealt with the faders to set the volumes for each track. It may have contributed to my seemingly endless series of tweaks, but I followed no definite rules for this. The important thing for me is that, in the end, all the tracks have to be audible in a manner that are good to my ears, and none of the volume meters should go red.

The 1990s indie vibe is definitely there. I started asking other people to listen to the song. Every time somebody mentions The Eraserheads, I know that the mix worked (though such a remark may have to do with Bem’s vocals more than anything else). Still, there are other influences and aspects that shine through the mix, which I’m particularly happy with, such as the 70s-ish guitar sound and harmonies, as well as a little bit of ambient effects – my personal little imprint on the song.

It is demanding part-time work. But I do enjoy doing creative projects with colleagues and students. I hope this song will only be the first of many to come.

 

 

 

No longer just for adult learners

The degree programs of UPOU, or at least most of them, were designed and developed with the adult learner in mind. It made sense since most of what we have are graduate degree programs catering to working students. And then came the Associate in Arts program, then Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Studies, and then Bachelor in Education Studies – all formal undergraduate programs. While young students started coming into the woodwork, they were still largely a minority at the beginning, especially outside AA.

Things have started to change, though. Last year marked the first time we admitted passers of the most recent UP College Admission Test (UPCAT) – students fresh out of pre-K-12 high school. Before I knew it, a substantial contingent of 16-18 year old new students had arrived. This year, it got slightly more alarming, as we actually have students who are barely 15 years old. At that age, I don’t think I could even imagine myself being in college, let alone being sure that studying online was for me (although to be fair, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Internet when I was 15 back in 1992).

At first, I did not think too much about it. My line of thinking was that things will sort themselves out eventually. Besides, we didn’t ask these kids to come. Adjusting has to be their problem. I certainly knew it was mine when I went to college.

However, I began to realize my lack of foresight at some point. I have always treated my students like mature adults. I always aim to put up some sort of challenge for them and employ any tool or method I think is necessary to facilitate that. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I may not be able to do that without additional restrictions. I became fully conscious of this matter in my Photography class when a student initiated a discussion on the work of a well-renowned photographer who was famous for his work on nudity and erotica. Some colleagues would argue that it’s nothing new. Well, like hell it’s not. Sure, I’ve had my share of mature themes in the classroom. But it was a physical classroom and stayed there. Those were simpler times. Whatever happens in the classroom no longer stays in the classroom, or the campus, for that matter. Whatever happens in the classroom can easily spread anywhere, thanks to social media, where things can easily be taken out of context.

Yes, I acknowledge the possibility that there are kids who can handle mature topics. I’m fairly sure some in this bunch can. But it doesn’t matter. All it takes is for one strict parent or a judgmental crowd in social media to see what’s going on and blow it out of proportion. It could even lead to a formal complaint. It’s not like I’m a stranger to such things, but it doesn’t mean I enjoy it.

Effectiveness of certain teaching methods have also been affected. A skills-based topic such as photography is still best taught hands-on. I know that. That is why I do hold face to face sessions when I can in order to augment the online discussions and activities. Historically, the barriers which students deal with when trying to attend are schedule conflict, distance and maybe inclination. AY 2014-2015 was the first time I became aware of a case where the student wasn’t allowed by parents to attend for fear of kidnapping. On the other hand, maybe it’s just an excuse. I’ll probably never know, but what I am sure of is that it will always be a plausible reason.

While face to face classes are logged by learning centers, they are not necessarily formally part of courses. I definitely do not put out formal letters of invitation and waiver forms. At the same time, when you have a minor included in a group, you are obligated to help ensure that he or she safely makes it back home, especially at night. That is not easy to comply with. UP usually makes students sign waivers before taking them in field trips. I question the practice and how it can realistically protect the university. That is why I don’t want to bother with it. I’d rather not schedule anything at all.

I’m still, as of yet, unsure how this matter will be dealt with, if at all. However, I do think this has to be looked into more intently. When updating courses, we usually only have content in mind. It would seem now that we will also have to re-think how we teach some of our undergraduate courses. Don’t get me wrong. Change entails a lot of work which I’d rather not take on. But if it is deemed necessary, then it must be done.

Broadening research perspectives through the Gaia Hypothesis

I’ve always found the concept of the Gaia Hypothesis fascinating since hearing about it more than ten years ago (yes, I’m a late bloomer). For the uninitiated, James Lovelock proposed that the Earth is actually a self-sustaining and self-regulating organism (a superorganism, if you will), made possible by its living inhabitants, or more specifically, their interaction with the planet’s non-living components. My rather simplistic explanation belies its actual complexity, which I will not even try to tackle here. Suffice to say that the Gaia Hypothesis offers a holistic, if not New Age-y way of looking at life on Earth.

What piqued my curiosity yesterday is whether or not one can apply this hypothesis on a smaller scale. Is it possible to achieve some sort of homeostasis within a living space to maintain the overall well-being of its occupants? Of course, a single living space can’t really be self-sustaining in a literal sense. But maybe it is possible that, through the establishment of meaningful relationships between biology and technology, one can be helped to maintain conducive living conditions with greater efficiency as opposed to relying solely on conventional amenities, such as active air conditioning and lighting. Furthermore, with a geophysiology on such a small scale, information and communication technology can perhaps augment cybernetic feedback between these components.
So, I guess what I am trying to ask myself now is, would it be possible for one to look at a living space, be it a house, a dormitory, a net café, an office or whatever, along with everything in it, as a single entity? Can it give us a deeper understanding with regards to sustainable design as opposed to traditional architecture and construction? I’m sure there are people out there who have gotten into this. I only wish more people (least of all me) knew about it.

This whole thing about green living spaces and well-being has for the most part occupied my mind ever since I arrived here in Europe. And as I near the end of my short residency here at FoAM, I can expect pretty much the same in the coming months, long after I make it back home in the Philippines. But at least for now, it is interesting to see this parallel which never even occurred to me until yesterday.

Biomodd and new research ideas

While I don’t spend a lot of time with Angelo Vermeulen and Diego Maranan, being scattered across the world and all, these two are all but family to me. But the thing is, I always feel a certain initial level of inadequacy when working with them at the same time. I do not have the gift of spontaneity, or at least the ability to effectively communicate brilliant ideas and thoughts as quickly and naturally as they do. I start slowly, and then catch up near the end. Not the best way to go about things, I admit – but that’s how I always seem to do it and I’ve gotten by fine so far.

Biomodd had already been little more than a fond memory – two years since Biomodd[LBA2] and more than a year since [C]Biomodd. I sort of hinted at Angelo that I would love to be a part of other iterations, but I didn’t really expect anything to happen. I guess I should have realized that considering the pace Angelo has sustained for years, it would have been only a matter of time before he would present such an opportunity.

Biomodd[TUDelft3] has been given the go signal and both Diego and myself have been asked to fly to the Netherlands and participate. Now, that by itself has already filled me with both excitement and apprehension. It’s going to be a huge personal and professional experience. But to follow that up, we have also been encouraged to stay a while longer there (which I was planning on, anyway) and look into entering some sort of mini-residency to pursue our research ideas (which wasn’t exactly part of my plan).

Now, I have worked with Diego a number of times. But aside from a small conference paper, we have never done real research together, mainly because of different approaches and interests. So, the question I had the past few weeks was whether or not it was possible for us to bridge our respective fields and come up with something that still interests both of us. Our colleagues at UPOU know of him as an accomplished dancer. But it’s just a small part of his interests. Movement would be a more apt term (as my girlfriend would point out). I somehow related that to ergonomics. And what if we concerned ourselves to not just body motion, but that of the environment as well? I immediately thought of how such a consideration would give a more holistic approach in dealing with green living spaces – something I’ve been casually exploring recently. Diego liked the idea, and so did Angelo. We actually came up with our residency proposal in one sitting. I guess that resoundingly answered my question.

Even if this mini-residency doesn’t push through, I have already been presented a few good directions in terms of what I want to do with my career. And for that, all involved parties have my gratitude.


Copyright 2018 Al Francis D. Librero © All Rights Reserved.

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