Making a good home recording
In a hurry? Scroll to the bottom for a short synopsis at the end.
Making recordings is becoming a part of our musical lives. More and more school assignments, play tests, and auditions are being conducted by recorded submissions. Plus, even major extracurricular groups like All State Orchestra are using submitted recordings to choose their musicians each year. So it is becoming increasingly important for every student to make sure their recordings are true and clear, so your submission can represent you in the best possible light.
I am not an audio engineer, but I do have some measure of experience in home recording, and also lots of experience hearing problematic recordings made by students, so I decided to write this post so students may benefit from that experience to make better home recordings.
I would like to break the process of making recordings into 4 parts, so we can attend to each one. It is worth mentioning that important recordings should be done with a great deal of precision and care, and will therefore take a lot of time to do in your best way. Play quizzes for school typically need to be done in short order, and are not usually consequential enough to warrant an elaborate process, but I still recommend that students attend to all 4 parts detailed below, even if abbreviated under those circumstances.
Part 1: The preparation aspect of recording
First and foremost, practice and prepare your music just as you would for a live performance or audition. This much is pretty obvious to most people, at least as far the need to seek mastery of the music is concerned.
What is not always obvious to everyone is that just as you would give “mock performances” before an important recital or audition, you should also do “mock recordings” in preparation for making important recording submissions. “Mock” recordings will be real recordings that you pretend you will send in, but actually intend to discard.
This step in the preparation process has the effect of changing how we listen to ourselves, and focusing our attention on the things we can improve right now, instead of our more typical running internal commentaries. Listening back to one or more of these “mock recordings” gives us clarity on what is actually coming across to our listeners’ ears - which is not always apparent to us from our position behind the instrument, and distracted by all of the things we are thinking about while we are playing. Without this step, we tend to waste a lot of time in our practice trying to fix problems that your listener will never hear, while missing opportunities to correct others that might not take much effort to solve but for the fact we haven’t realized that they exist.
Part 2: The technical aspect of recording
Most of us have neither the time nor money to go out and buy expensive mics. If you do decide to purchase a mic, I definitely recommend a dynamic (not a condenser), omnidirectional microphone for home recording of string instruments (you would then also need additional hardware to make your recording - a mic is not enough by itself). But, I don’t think most of you will do that, and that is definitely fine. It is actually likely you have a decent recording device already, and you use it all the time.
I’m talking about your phone of course! Computers sometimes do a decent job, as may a tablet or iPad. HOWEVER! There are some serious pitfalls that you need to avoid to make sure your recording won’t be a dismal mess.
First, choose your best device, then set it up to capture the sound well. That means placing it at a good distance from the sound source, on a good surface, giving the microphone free access to the air you intend to fill with sound, and using a good app to make the recording.
Device Choice: Probably your phone, but check back with me below, I wanna talk about some other stuff first.
Distance: You can experiment with distance for yourself if you wish, as it can make a significant difference. Too close and you get a lot of brightness and bow noise that was never intended for your listener’s ear, and that they would never have an opportunity to hear in a live performance as most audience members, at least in my experience, do not sit 2-3 feet away from my sounding point. Too far and the sound becomes unfocused, and depending on the space you record in, can become dull and unsatisfying too. I find 6 feet to be within the optimal range, and easy enough for everyone to remember.
Surface: Again, a little experimentation with this can’t hurt. You neither want a surface that will absorb away reverberation, nor a surface that will rattle or buzz. Upholstered furniture may make you sound like you are playing with a mute, or worse. Putting your recording device on a metal music stand is a recipe for sounding like you keep loose paper clips inside your instrument. I recommend a wooden stool, table, or chair covered in a dishtowel.
Air: People forget this, but it’s important. Figure out where your device picks up sound from, and make sure that it is free to the air. When I record with a phone, I always remove it from its case first of all, then I slide it part way over the edge of the stool I place it on so that the bottom part (where the mic is) hangs free in the air, past the edge of the stool, pointed at my instrument. I have also sometimes propped it so that it is again free, but pointing at the ceiling instead of at me. This changes the sound profile a bit so you get more of the resonance about the room in the recording, which can be nice if you prefer it. At any rate, trapping the mic against the stool, or table, or its own case will usually result in your listener feeling like they are hearing you from inside a cave, or through an ear horn, or in some other less-than-optimal environment.
App: When I’ve recorded on an iPhone, I have found the native “Voice Record” app to be completely up to the task. If you don’t like that app, or if you are using a non-Apple device, there are many free or cheap apps available, and probably any of them will do just fine too. But NOT ALWAYS, and that brings me to this important point, one which is so important it deserves its very own paragraph...
You NEED to make sure your device isn’t processing the audio to reduce background noise. If you’ve had virtual lessons, you probably know something of what this sounds like - as soon as a sustained sound begins, it gets swallowed and devoured by the algorithmic maw of digital processing. In that case, it is usually the video call software causing the problem, as it assumes you are in a business meeting, and your cello is a particularly attractive-sounding refrigerator disrupting the meeting’s sonic background. In the case of recordings you may be making, the same or a similar effect could be caused by any number of sources. It may be caused by the app you are using to record, which you may be able to fix by changing your audio quality to “lossless”, or by adjusting other settings to ensure the sound recorded will be true and unprocessed. Or you may have a noise reduction app like “Denoise,” in which case you should disable that thing because it may be processing all your sound in the background without you even realizing it. Or, you can always just try recording with a different app. There may be other things you can do too, but each app and device is different. Since I don’t know the ins and outs of most of them, and since of course all of the settings possibilities will change the moment I publish this, I will simply leave you with the bottom line: If your device is doing this, and you can’t figure out how to make it stop, your recording is guaranteed to be awful, and you need to find another device to use make your recording.
So that brings me back to Device: There is no harm in setting up a little experiment. Set up all of your contending devices as best you can. Then get them all recording. Sit down, play a slow scale (1 8ve should be fine) and a few notes of a piece, and you’re done. Just make sure your sample includes some low and high sustained notes that you played with good sound, and some short notes too, somewhere along the way. Then listen back to all those recordings with the same pair of headphones or earbuds. Your phone will probably win, but whether it does or not, after you do this, you will know which device to make your recordings with!
Part 3: The process of recording
First step: TUNE! Of course, right?
Second step: Find a quiet place to record! You might be amazed how easy it is to overlook this. We are all surrounded by noise all the time and easily tune it out. You won’t pay any attention to the furnace running while you record in your basement, but it will sound like construction equipment on the recording. Also, try to get away from pets and little brothers too, if you can, and put all of your devices in “airplane mode” to avoid ruining the best take of your life with an ill-timed notification.
Third step: Check your levels! If you are using an app or device that does not give you the option of setting your levels, don’t panic. It will set them automatically, and though that may mean less satisfying dynamics, in my experience it usually chooses a good level and doesn’t hurt your dynamics too much (perhaps it assumes you are speaking and allows somewhat for the normal dynamic range that is part of expressive speech, too?). If your app does give you the option, that is a good sign! It means your dynamics will be true, and that the app is unlikely to be processing your sound in other ways either. But it also means you will need to set those levels to make sure you won’t “clip,” (distort) which will happen to some degree when the volume level goes over the red line (-0 dB). It is also important to make sure you will not sound like an expressively buzzing mosquito. It will only take a minute to set the level. Start with it somewhere up near 10, then watch the sound meter as you play. It should go over the red line. Lower the level some and play again. Repeat this process over and over until you get to the precise point where you can no longer make it get to the red line, no matter how hard you try. It is fun to try, so take the opportunity to enjoy. When you are sure it won’t go over the red line, leave the level there, and you are “set.” Given the same device, app, placement, etc, you shouldn’t need to check these for every recording unless you really want to. Just make sure the levels are at the same setting before you begin each subsequent recording.
Fourth step: So you are tired of reading my extremely long-winded post and want to just record already! Yeah, sorry about that. The good news is, you really ARE ready to record now. Do multiple takes back to back - don’t go and listen right when you finish each one. You will want to have a paper and pencil handy for keeping track of each take. Before you start, write Take 1 on the paper, and say “Take 1” loudly so the recording will pick it up clearly. Then play. When you are finished, write “Good,” “OK,” or “X” next to where you wrote Take 1, depending on your assessment. Obviously, if you didn’t make it through the whole take for some reason, you should write “X.” Then write Take 2, say “Take 2,” and play again. Repeat this process until you feel you have the take you were hoping for, or you have 10-12 takes, or 3-4 “Good” takes.
Fifth step: Go back and delete the recordings of takes labeled with an “X,” making sure to hear when you say the correct take number before deleting it. Anything labeled “OK” or “Good” should be listened to before choosing or deleting, or before going back to record again. When I listen back after making a series of recording takes, I frequently find myself surprised by which recordings are best, compared to my impressions while making the recordings. As an example, I may expect to like “take 3” the best, only to find out “take 3” is unacceptable but “take 2” was actually quite good. You will at least sometimes have this same experience, and you could end up choosing the lesser take to submit if you just make the assumption that your in-the-moment evaluations were correct. Additionally, your hearing of these takes will improve subsequent recordings, just as “mock” recordings do, but on a shorter timescale. Once you have your choice take, you can probably use the app that you used to record it to “trim” off the part before you begin playing, including where you said “take 7.”
Part 4: The post-production aspect of recording
You must listen back to any recordings you consider submitting before you send them. If you think take 1 is “great,” or even “good enough,” it may be tempting to skip this step. But you truly must always do this for any recording you ever send anyone.
There are few things more unflattering to you in any recording submission than for the adjudicator to hear that you didn’t care to listen back and notice your recording volume was nearly zero, or was too loud and constantly clipping (distorting), or you ran out of space and it stopped recording 12 seconds in, or you accidentally cut off the ending when trimming the recording, or your computer fan kept turning on and off intermittently covering your sound, or your phone case was buzzing loudly every time you played a “C,” or you didn’t think of it and set up the recorder right next to a burbling fish tank, or… you get the point. Usually these problems are easy to fix, and you will hear them when you listen back. And even when they are not easy to fix, it is highly worth exploring fixing them and re-recording, as they can be maddening for the listener.
Furthermore, your performance probably didn’t go precisely as you thought it did, as discussed above. Occasionally you may find none of the recordings you make to be up to your standards, but that too is worth knowing, so you can try again, even if you’d rather just submit and be done with it.
Finally, make sure the file is properly labeled for submission (usually with your name and piece information), and that the format is of an acceptable type (usually mp3, m4a, or wav). Then submit! And go get a cookie or something, because you just did a lot of work!
Thanks for reading all of this! You might even deserve a cookie right now.
Making a good recording:
Part 1: Prepare just as you would for a live performance. Making mock recordings are a good tool, just like mock auditions.
Part 2: You can probably make sufficiently good recordings using your phone. Remove it from its case, and set it up 6 feet away from your sounding point on a wooden stool or table covered by a dishtowel. Slide the bottom of the phone over the edge so the microphone is free to the air on all sides. VERY important: Ensure your phone is NOT processing the sound to reduce background noise. See above for more info on this.
Part 3: Tune! Find a quiet place to record. Check your recording levels. Then record a series of takes, keeping good track of them as you go (ideas above).
Part 4: You MUST listen to any recordings you intend to submit before submitting them. It is worth taking the time to solve problems and rerecord when needed.