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How to Make Successful Recordings

Bill Thomas | March 2013

    Recording an ensemble does not have to be difficult. Technology has changed dramatically in the last few years, not the least of which is the advent of smart phone technology. From the simplest rehearsal recording using a smart phone to using multiple pieces of equipment to produce a high-quality recording useful as a CD master, there are many options and tricks for getting the best possible sound.

Recording Rehearsals
    Rehearsal recordings should be a snapshot in time. A student might have a bad reed or a school bell might ring, but such things should be little concern. In case of a major interruption, simply restart the tune.
    The easiest method to record rehearsals is with a portable digital recorder with built-in microphones. There are several manufacturers from which to choose. Some of the biggest names are Zoom and Tascam with others being made by Sony, RCA and Korg. Handheld recorders range in price from less than $100 up to over $600. All of these recorders use solid-state media, meaning the recorder has no moving parts but instead records to a memory card just like a digital camera. SD cards are the primary method of storage but some use micro SD cards or memory sticks. The quality of many of these recorders is actually quite remarkable. If you own an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, the Tascam iM2 is a stereo microphone that will plug into the dock connector of your device. In addition, a search for audio recorder in the app store of any smart phone will produce many results.
    If you can place the recorder in the front center of the performance space so the microphones on the recorder can pick up the entire room without being obstructed by other students, equipment, or music stands, it will offer a fairly realistic representation of the ensemble’s performance that day. Finding the correct distance is important. A microphone that is too far away records extraneous room noise and an ensemble level that may be too low. If a mic is too close, certain players may dominate the sound. This is especially true with outstanding players. Sometimes outstanding players cause grief because they play with such exceptional tone and rhythmic accuracy that they stick out. Distance mitigates that and gives you a more blended sound. Try to leave enough space between the ensemble front to back, or by height, to avoid such a thing.
    Most recorders can record in WAV (Wave Form Audio file) format, but another option might be a compressed MP3 file. WAV files offer the highest sound quality, but are the largest size. MP3 files are smaller; using this format will means more music can be recorded at once, although some of the quality is sacrificed.
    Using a handheld device makes it easy to play back the recording immediately by plugging the recorder into a PA system or stereo in the room. Some also offer the possibility of plugging in external microphones that may enhance your recording. In addition, any of these devices can download their files to a computer for trimming or cutting into tracks (songs) for easier sharing with students, or other directors or staff members.

High-Quality Recordings
    Directors planning to make a high quality recording for an audition or to sell as a fundraiser will need better equipment than a handheld recorder. There are two types of microphones: condenser and dynamic. Recordings should be made using condenser microphones. A condenser mic is more sensitive and requires external power. In the old days condensers would have a battery built into the microphone, but these days, most mixers, even low-priced, two-channel mixers, have a feature called phantom power that runs electricity through microphone cables to power these mics.
    Condensers produce better tonal characteristics because they are more sensitive. With dynamic microphones you lose much of the crystaline clarity that condensers give. In addition, the extreme high ranges are lost with dynamic microphones; they cannot reproduce sounds in the extreme high register as well as a condenser. Such softer instruments as bowed strings, flutes, clarinets, and guitars can be recorded with dynamic microphones and will sound okay, but they sound exceptional with condensers.
    Two to three condenser mics will be sufficient to produce a good recording. Avoid recording with two different microphones. Use two identical mics. It is easy to fall into the mistaken logic that the side of the band with all the woodwinds should have a stronger mic than the side with the brass, but in your ears the resulting recording will sound unpleasant. It is better to go with one microphone and get a mono recording that get a stereo one with mismatched microphones. Good condenser microphones include the Shure SM81, the Rode NT1, and several options from MXL if you are on a tight budget. Take care using condenser microphones. Condensers have an extremely fragile diaphragm that looks like a piece of onionskin. Never blow into or tap on condenser mics to test them. It will create too much pressure and rip the diaphragm.

Microphone Set-Up
    If using two microphones they can be equally spaced across the front of your ensemble, dividing the group into thirds, or set up right in the center of the group behind the conductor. If spaced in thirds, the mics can just be faced straight to the back of the band perpendicular to the front of the group. If placed behind the conductor, I recommend they be crossed in an X pattern facing opposite corners of the group. (As shown left.) This allows for a uniform recording that will sound very much like what you hear standing in front of the group. Try both setups and see which version sounds better to you. Everyone has a favorite. If using three microphones, place one behind the conductor and the other two equally spaced in front of the band facing straight to the back of your group.

Ensemble Set-Up
    If I know something might dominate the sound, such as an extremely high piccolo part, we start recording right on this section of the music and immediately listen back. If the sound is dominant, we move the student to a different location, play that section again, and listen back. When I’m satisfied with how that section sounds, we leave the player in the best spot and record the entire piece. This keeps pacing going, and students enjoy this part because they get to hear their results right away and be part of the discussion. It makes them feel like they are in a studio setting and have input into that final product. With a rehearsal recording, I do not worry about such things because I just want to hear how the group sounds.
    To keep track of multiple takes, when I make recordings, I always say which take it is. I start the recorder, let it run for a few seconds in silence, check it to make sure it’s running, say the date and which take it is, then give it three to five seconds of silence before starting the tune. We might record three takes of a piece. The silent space around the take announcement makes an easy-to-spot visual marker when I look at the waveform on the computer screen. It is also a good way to check which take of a piece I am listening to.
    When choosing which take to use, I sometimes include students in the decision. I can identify from up front how I felt about a take, but they know better how they played. If there is a difference of opinion, we can discuss why one take was better than another; this is an excellent educational tool that forces students to analyze and defend their opinions. A student might admit to poor tone on a high passage or complain that the tempo felt unsteady in one section. Sometimes students are more critical of their performance than their teachers, and that is a good thing.

Tweaking Audio
    An audio interface will be necessary when recording directly to a computer. This is a basic mixer with one, two, four, or eight channels made specifically to hook into a computer via USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt ports. It is not a device that you would hook into a professional audio system or use to mix a performance. M-Audio, Lexicon, and PreSonus manufacture great audio interfaces that start at about $50. When purchasing this type of interface, get one with at least two microphone inputs.
    The audio interface controller allows control of the microphone volume and sometimes offers control over additional parameters. Sometimes you can adjust the tone or equalization of the microphones. This should be rarely used; it is best to capture the natural sound. If you use too much equalization the sound will be a bit unnatural. Usually, it is better to record with equalization flat and neither add to nor detract from the original sound. Then you adjust it after you capture the sound.
    These controls are best used to warm up the tone slightly by giving the recording the tiniest bit of low end or take a bit of edge off shrill upper woodwinds by tweaking the equalization slightly. If you capture poor-quality sound by adjusting too much beforehand, it is unfixable. Just because the controls are available in the audio interface, that doesn’t mean they should be used. Think of them as the fine tuners near the bridge of a violin rather than the tuning pegs by the scroll.
    Sometimes more advanced interfaces have compressors or limiters to control the overall volume coming into the microphone. If the incoming sound is too loud it can ruin a recording. Microphones have a limit to how much volume they can handle, and limiters help keep sound under control so a loud bass drum attack doesn’t splat on the recording. Normally when purchasing one of these controllers you also receive bundled recording software allowing you to record your group as well as edit, enhance, and fix errors in performance.
    There is little that can be done to fix a recording of a large ensemble, because most bands and orchestras will be recorded at two or three tracks (left, right, center) at most. This is the time to brighten or darken the sound slightly by adding equalization. If a recording was made in a relatively dead space you might add some reverb to imitate the sound of a concert hall. Unfortunately, the only way to fix something like a squeaking clarinet is to rerecord the entire piece. Unless you are multitracking with a mic and channel for every instrument or section, there is little else to be done.
    For those with an iPad, Alesis came out with a device called the iO Dock that has two microphone inputs, two instrument inputs, and a headphone out jack. It is touted to work with any recording app downloaded separately from the iTunes App Store.
    The final piece of the recording puzzle if using a computer or other mixer, is setting the correct pan position. Pan is usually a control on a mixer, and will be a knob labeled L on one side and R on the other. If a microphone is panned all the way left, all the sound that mic picks up will come out the speakers or the headphones on the left side only. This is one control to check before the group plays. Panning gives a recording a realistic sound by allowing the microphone facing right to be recorded on the right track and the left mic to the left track. Think of the microphones as ears. Having our ears on opposite sides of the head means that each ear picks up a different mix of sound. If you set up two mics but pan them both center, the recording will be extremely lifeless; it has no depth. When you pan them out left and right, it’s like the flower has blossomed and there is color again. In a three-microphone set-up, the mic in the center of the ensemble should stay panned center.

    Recording an ensemble can be incredibly useful for both students and teachers. With a little experimentation and practice, you can create wonderful recordings.