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Midwest Clinic Recording 101

by Dr. Ross Walter
Virginia Commonwealth University

The details of the recording process are often the last thing on the minds of ensemble directors preparing to submit a recording for consideration for The Midwest Clinic.  Preparation for this type of submission is usually years in the making, with aspects such as selection of repertoire, development of ensemble sound, intonation, accuracy and musicality rightfully taking prominence in the preparation regimen.  Therefore, producing a recording that represents the excellence of an ensemble can be a challenge.  Variation in recording techniques alone could make the difference between an acceptance and rejection of a recording when it is compared to others in an extremely competitive setting.  The purpose of this article is to assist those wishing to make a recording that accurately represents the sound of a group to a reviewing panel.

The following four sections focus on specific topics related to producing a representative Midwest Clinic recording. Click on the link for the appropriate section or scroll down to read all of the recommendations.  The "Top 5 Ways to Make a Better Midwest Recording," provides quick audio recording reminders.  "Making a Midwest Recording in the Rehearsal Room" provides assistance to those directors wishing to get the recording done quickly in their normal rehearsal space.  For those directors who have a bit more time to spend on the details, "Making an Improved Recording with Available Tools" concentrates on getting the best quality recording with standard and easy to use equipment, and the "Frequently Asked Questions" section provides quick answers to common problems.

Top 5 Ways to Make a Better Midwest Clinic Recording

1.  Choose an appropriate space
• Use a large room or hall with a high ceiling.
• Choose a room that has minimal background noise.

2.  Use the proper equipment
• Use condenser microphones, if possible.
• Record directly to CD, if possible

3.  Place the microphones for a better blend
• Use two microphones on a bar on one stand, or two stands about 4 feet apart.
• Set the microphones about 15 feet high and 12-15 feet in front of the ensemble.
• Plug the left microphone (when facing the ensemble) into the left of the recorder.

4.  Set the recording levels carefully
• Check levels using the loudest passage of the piece. 
• Set the levels just under the loudest level on the meter.
• If using a mixer, set input level first, then mix, then main, then recorder levels.

5.  Don't adjust any levels during the recording

Making a Midwest Recording in the Rehearsal Room

Making a recording in the rehearsal room can be the most expedient way of completing an application to perform at The Midwest Clinic or other event.  Though this often will not provide the level of quality that an additional investment of time could, there are things that can be done to enhance the quality of a recording done in this way.  Read the "Top 5 Ways to Make a Better Midwest Clinic Recording" and then consider these additional tips:

1.  Consider re-positioning the ensemble in the room

When recording in a rehearsal room, it can be difficult to get the microphones high enough and far enough away from the ensemble to allow the sound to blend well.  To combat this problem, try putting the ensemble into one end of the long dimension of a rectangular rehearsal room and moving the microphones back from the ensemble about 12-15 feet, as mentioned in the "Top 5 Ways."

2.  Choose the best microphones available

Try to avoid using ball type vocal microphones of the type generally used for public address systems.  They work well for voices in close proximity, but not well for recording at a distance.  If possible, choose microphones that have either battery power or which use phantom power (provided by most mixers and some recorders).  Use one microphone for each channel, left and right, and be sure that the microphones are a matching pair.  A single stereo microphone can be used in place of the matched pair, but the placement remains the same—high and away.

3.  Be creative to get the correct microphone placement

If using short microphone stands, extend them all the way up and place them on tables to get them as high as possible and at an even height.  If the ceiling is low, however, then the microphone stand height is limited because the microphones should be at least three feet from any flat surface (ceiling or wall).  As mentioned in the "Top 5 Ways," place the microphones about four feet apart.

4.  Set recording levels properly

A frequent cause of poor recording quality is improperly set levels.  A recording level set too high anywhere in the chain between the microphone and the recorder will result in a fuzzy, distorted sound and could produce popping noises (especially on digital equipment).  If the recording level is set too low, however, the reviewing committee will have to turn up the volume to the extent that background noise will be altogether too present in the recording. 

The best way to set the levels is to use the loudest passage of the pieces to be recorded.  Often this will be a percussion hit involving bass drum and cymbal together.  If a level setting opportunity using the music is not available, setting the level based on the combined crash of these two instruments will generally result in safety from too high a level setting.  When using a loud sound, set the levels just under the loudest level or maximum on the meter.  For cassette decks with Dolby HX Pro, this level will be high into the red on the meter. Without HX Pro, set the levels to just touch the red.  On digital equipment, such as a mini-disk recorder set the level below the maximum as the maximum level will pop enough to make the recording unusable.

5.  If using a recorder with automatic level setting, switch it off and set levels manually

Many recorders, particularly mini-disc recorders and portable Digital Audio Tape recorders may have automatic volume setting and limiting inputs.  These should be switched off and the levels set manually.  The advantage to setting levels manually is that the levels will stay constant throughout the work to be recorded.  If left on, the automatic level setting devices move the volume up and down throughout the recording dependent on the volume level of the ensemble.  This reduces the dynamic variation of the ensemble, effectively taking away musicality, and can actually result in the soft parts of the music being louder than the loud parts.

6.  Avoid unnecessary noise

Do not position the microphones near an air-conditioning or heat vent.  Air movement from these vents causes significant background noise.  If this is unavoidable, place foam wind screens on the microphones to reduce the wind noise.  Avoid placement near fluorescent lights as they usually emit a considerable hum.  Turn off all sound-producing items in the room to avoid losing the best take because of an interruption.

7.  Don’t adjust any levels during the recording

Although there is a temptation to turn the levels up and down while recording so as to be able to hear solos and soft passages more easily, this defeats the musical expression brought about by the dynamic shifts.  Once the levels are set to the maximum, as outlined above, leave them set and proceed with the recording.  Only in the event that the level was far too low overall or was high enough to distort should the level be changed, and in this instance the work should be recorded again at the new level.  It is important to avoid changing levels during the course of a recording.

8.  Listen all the way through the copy of the recording to be sent before putting it in the mail

Problems can happen when copying tapes and compact discs.  Always play back the copy that is to be sent and listen for pops, clicks, and poor sound quality.  If it is unlike the original, re-copy onto another CD or tape.  If recording to CD, play the disc in more than one player to be sure it will play in a variety of CD players, and always try one player not connected to a computer as some CD's will play well in a computer but not a standard audio CD player.


Making an Improved Recording with Available Tools

Included below are more details about how to undertake a better recording with tools most ensemble directors have at their disposal.  Though these techniques may take a bit more time than just putting up a couple of microphones, the results will be worth the extra time.  Before reading this, review the "Top 5 Ways to Make a Better Midwest Recording" and "Making a Midwest Recording in the Rehearsal Room" for some basics that may also be of help.

The tools used for an improved recording are similar to those used for a simple recording in the rehearsal room and might include basic microphones or a stereo microphone, a hard-drive recorder, a CD-recorder, a cassette recorder with microphone inputs or a mini disk recorder with a microphone input, and normal microphone stands customarily used for public address or tall stands for recording.  The techniques for recording the ensembles, however, may take a bit more preparation, since they are different from the normal activities related to rehearsal and performance.

1.  Plan ahead—record more than once

Few things are as frustrating and stressful as recording at the last possible moment before it is due.  When recording only once, the microphones can be intimidating to the performers and can cause problems that had not happened in rehearsal.  There is also a law of diminishing returns when recording in a single session.  Most ensembles perform best within the first or second take of a given work.  After that, concentration begins to slip and fatigue becomes an issue.  Multiple opportunities to record, on the other hand, can bring out the best in an ensemble.  As performers work with the microphone more routinely, they tend to play more naturally instead of trying to play perfectly, resulting in a more musical performance.

Because it is difficult to critique performance when participating in it, even as a conductor, the recording can be reviewed in a quiet room to see what things might need to be changed for the next session.  Ensemble problems not easily heard in a rehearsal can be heard quite easily on a recording.  The need for microphone or ensemble re-positioning can also be heard and adjusted for the next recording.  More recording sessions, therefore, provide more opportunities to get an excellent recording.

Note: When reviewing the recording, check to see that the treble and bass on the amplifier are in normal positions and that any "loudness" buttons are not engaged.  This will allow the system to better match that of the auditioning panel.  Also, invest some time to find and prepare an appropriate space for the recording to take place.
2.  Use a large room or hall with a high ceiling

Large rooms will help to avoid the harsh "in your face" sounds of a recording done in a small room.  They serve to enhance the natural blend of the instruments, amplify dynamic contrasts, and even provide an opportunity for instrument sounds to blossom a bit more than they would in a confined space.  Large rooms with high ceilings tend to have longer natural reverberations, and therefore help to enrich the sound.  Too large a room, however, could actually cause other problems. For instance, recording in a cathedral, for most ensembles, would not be particularly helpful as the reverberations would be too great and would tend to distract from the primary sound.

3.  Choose a room that has minimal background noise

Often, rooms can have background noise problems that are not apparent until heard on a recording, especially when using microphones on tall stands.  Lights and climate control systems can cause undue background noise that can interfere rather intrusively with a soft solo or tutti passage.  A trip to the hall to listen to the background noise is advisable before undertaking the recording project.  Listen for light noise and climate control.  Check to see if either system could be shut off for the duration of the session.  Work lights are usually quieter than performance lights, provide enough light for reading music, and do not heat the stage as much (for intonation problems).

Other events scheduled in the same building during the recording session can impact negatively on the success of the project, so plan the session at a time when outside disturbances at the building will be at a minimum.

4.  Use the proper equipment

The assumption in this article is the use of existing equipment.  If purchasing equipment for the job, some of the following items may help guide purchases as well.

5.  Use condenser microphones designed for recording

Microphone quality is the single most important factor in proper equipment for an excellent recording.  Though most recorders are capable of producing a representative recording, not all microphones are.  Good quality microphones are, unfortunately, often expensive to purchase, but they are worth the investment.  If good microphones are not available within the department or school, consider borrowing them from another local ensemble.

To determine if a microphone is a condenser microphone or a dynamic microphone there are a few options--see the owner’s pamphlet, search for the microphone specifications by brand and model on the internet, or test the microphone by the following method:  Condenser microphones need a power source, so check for a battery in the microphone or another source of power.  (Phantom power is often used on mixers—this must be turned on for condenser microphones that do not use batteries).

6.  Record to CD

Compact disc recordings are, in general, far superior to tape.  If available, choose this option.  Compact disc recorders, hard-drive recorders, and even desktop computers can serve as devices to get the recording on to a compact disc.  Many computers are now capable of recording directly to the hard drive and then burning a CD.  Free programs such as Audacity, SparkME, ProTools Free and others are available for download on the Internet.  If recording to computer, be sure to have it in another room, as noise from cooling fans and hard drives will become background noise on the recording if in the same room.  If recording on a mini-disc recorder, consider transferring the recording to a computer to burn a compact disc for the final product.

7.  Use proper cabling

Improper cables between items in the recording setup can introduce unwanted noise into the recording.  If possible, use cables with the correct connectors instead of multiple adapters to connect a cable that has a different end. Use cables designed for the task.  Avoid running audio cables alongside power cables, as the power cables can cause magnetic interference and create noise.

8.  Place the microphones carefully

If microphone quality is the most important equipment factor, then microphone placement is the most important technique factor when producing a representative recording.  Changes in microphone placement alone can make the difference between an excellent recording and a mediocre one.  For most situations, simplicity is the best option.  The microphones need to be high and away from the ensemble to let the sounds naturally blend before they are recorded.  If the placement is too close, the sounds will be too distinct and harsh.  If too far away, the room reverberations will be too present and the sound will be blurred and distant.

The basic microphone placement has already been covered in the "Rehearsal Room" section of this article and the "Top 5 Ways," but individual situations vary somewhat.  If the opportunity exists for a sound check (recommended), start with the basic microphone placement as described above, record a bit, listen, and adjust based on how the recording sounds.  If the sound is too distant, move the microphones closer and possibly lower.  If the sound singles out a specific area of the ensemble, try moving the stands farther away.  If the sound is out of balance and the front row is too loud, try moving the microphones up. In some cases, a different placement of a few players can also cure a recording that is out of balance.

To get the best sound when recording a jazz ensemble, a mixer and 6-8 microphones will be required.  For the rhythm section, use a microphone inside the piano with the lid closed, a microphone on the bass amplifier or at the F-hole of the standup bass, and a microphone on the guitar amplifier.  For the saxophones, use a pair of microphones about 5-6 feet high and fairly close to the section.  Then pick up the entire ensemble with a pair of microphones up high, as recommended for other ensembles. 

It may also be desirable to have a solo microphone.  Set the input levels for each microphone to the mixer very carefully so as not to introduce distortion, then set the levels for the instruments in comparison to each other on the mixing board faders, and finally set the main levels to the recorder.  This project will require an isolated "control room" and someone to control the mixing board.

9.  Separate the "control room" from the "studio" when possible

Set up the recording gear, other than the microphones, in another room isolated from the sounds in the recording room.  This will allow an individual listening in headphones or on speakers to hear only the sound of the recording and not the combination of the recording and the ensemble.  When listening in headphones in the recording space, it is impossible to differentiate between the sounds of the room and the recording.

10.  Solicit feedback from colleagues and mentors during the process

Colleagues and mentors are a great source for assistance in improving a recording, both as an external perspective on ensemble preparation and as auditors during the recording process itself.  Having a trusted ear listening to the recording as it goes to compact disc is an invaluable asset, as changes can be made immediately if needed.

11.  Once recorded, avoid the temptation to "improve" the recording

There are many devices that change the sound of a recording, but they are, in general, difficult to use properly. Changing the timbre of the ensemble by using an equalizer can produce odd tone qualities.  Using a reverberation effects tool to give the impression of a large room tends to garble the sound and mask accurate ensemble playing as well as inaccurate.  Compressors, although they can raise the overall level, reduce the dynamic range and therefore the musicality.  It is much better to set the levels carefully and leave the recording as is.


Frequently Asked Questions

1.  Why does the sound come out scratchy or with loud pops?
The recording level somewhere in the chain is set too high.  Recheck the level and record again.

2.  To be audible, the recording has to be turned all the way up on the stereo, what is wrong?
The overall recording level is set too low.  This will cause an amplification of the background noise as well when the auditioning panel listens.  If the peaks of the recording are not approaching the limits of the recording device, recheck the level and record again.

3.  The recordings seem to focus on one individual instead of the group, what do I do?
Move the microphone back and/or up to allow the sound to blend more before being recorded.

4.  The recordings seem too distant and without definition, what do I do?
Move the microphone closer to the group and possibly lower.  Check to see that the correct type of microphone is being used.

5.  The recordings are out of balance—the front row is too loud, what do I do?
Move the microphones up and possibly away.

6.  How can I tell if a microphone is a condenser microphone?
To determine if a microphone is a condenser microphone or a dynamic microphone there are a few options--see the owner’s pamphlet, search for the microphone specifications by brand and model on the Internet, or test the microphone by the following method:  Condenser microphones need a power source, so check for a battery in the microphone or another source of power.  (Phantom power is often used on mixers—this must be turned on for condenser microphones that do not use batteries).

7.  How does the sound get digitized on CD or computer?
A-D converters (Analog to Digital converters) take a snapshot or sample of the sound, usually 44100 times per second as it comes in from the microphone.  D-A converters convert the sound back for amplification into the speakers.

8.  Why are there different sampling rates on my machine? Which do I use?
Some recorders will allow sound to be recorded at different speeds to change the quality and/or space required to hold the audio file.  The best thing to do, if the final copy will be on CD, is to use a 44100 sampling rate, because CD's are recorded at that rate.

9.  Why is the sound not affected negatively by the digitizing process?
The rate of sampling is so high that our ears process it as continuous sound.

10.  Is a CD-R the same as a CD?
No, a CD-R is a foil covered plastic disc that is burnable one time whereas a CD is a prerecorded integrated plastic disc that is slightly more durable.

11.  What about a CD-RW?
A CD-RW is a re-writable CD, which allows multiple writing on the same surface.  Not all standard CD players play these CD-RW's, so it is best not to record to them for audio.

12.  How can a CD-R be damaged?
Scratches on the play surface can cause the CD-R to skip or fail to play, but the top foil surface is most easily damaged.  Write on these only with felt tip marker and avoid scratching the upper surface.  Also, do not leave them out in the sun.

13.  Can I write on the CD?
Yes, but use only felt tip marker to do so.  Ball point pens and pencils will destroy the recording by scratching the top surface of the disc.

14.  Can I put a label on the CD?
Yes, easy to use and inexpensive labels are available for printing on any printer.

Dr. Ross Walter is assistant professor of trombone, euphonium, and tuba at the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Music in Richmond, Virginia.  He lectures in undergraduate classes and graduate seminars in Music Technology and Audio Recording.  He actively records ensembles such as the Virginia Wind Symphony, and serves as a consultant for recording projects.  Dr. Walter is president of the College Section of the Virginia Music Educators Association, and he performs and presents at regional and national conferences including the 2003 Midwest Clinic, the 2001 and 2003 Virginia Music Educators Association Conference, the 2001 U.S. Army Tuba-Euphonium Conference, and the 2001 MENC/NACWPI National Conference.

© 2004 Ross Walter