Up until March of 2020, my experience in recording myself was insufficient, and that’s giving myself a huge benefit of the doubt. Sure, I had made successful audition tapes for college auditions and festivals. Maybe I turned on a recorder every now and then in a practice room faintly remembering that a teacher (or all of them) had said it might be a good idea to hear how I sound. But other than knowing how to turn on a Tascam DR-100 mkII Linear PCM Recorder (say that five times fast) I received as a Christmas gift in high school and thinking to put the device far enough away that it probably—hopefully—won’t distort the recording, I had no idea how to record music. In my defense, I didn’t even know what I would need to know to get started; it just wasn’t something anyone thought to teach me.
What you need to learn
If you are a musician of any kind, you need to learn how to produce a competent recording and to use basic audio and video equipment by yourself. You may be asked to make an audition tape, or you may need to start teaching online over Zoom. You may decide you want to start creating content online or perhaps you just want to be able to hear how you actually sound in the practice room. Of course, there are professional engineers who offer recording services for musicians, but unless your recording must be at the highest standard possible, learning basic recording skills will offer you a great deal of artistic freedom and save you a lot of money.
In order to start recording yourself, you’re going to need a microphone. So, what should you buy? It’s going to depend on your budget and your needs, but there are a few categories of microphones to look in to:
USB Microphones are probably the most ubiquitous type of microphone right now because they are the easiest to use with video conferencing software like Zoom or Skype. The most popular is the Blue Yeti, which is the microphone I used to start my YouTube channel and Instagram. They are powered from your computer and require a Digital Audio Workstation (more on this later) to record, but they are fairly easy to use.
Handheld Recorders like the Zoom H2N or the Tascam DR-100 I mentioned earlier are good options to start recording. They’re portable and battery powered, meaning that you can set them up anywhere you need to record. Some handheld recorders can connect to your computer via USB cable and act as a USB microphone for video conferencing, and larger models like the Zoom H4 will have inputs for XLR microphones, meaning that should you choose to upgrade your equipment, you can still use the handheld recorder as an audio interface.
XLR Microphones is admittedly a broad category, but to be as basic as possible these are all of the microphones that connect via XLR cable. There is an insane variety of microphones (Condenser, Dynamic, Ribbon, etc.) at an even wider variety of quality and price range. High-end professional audio equipment exists in this category, for example, but so does entry-level gear that can be used in a home studio. Generally, there are a few things to keep in mind when you start down the rabbit hole of these kinds of microphones:
• To use these microphones effectively you will need an Audio Interface like the Scarlett 2i2 to power the microphones, control the audio levels, and to connect the microphones to your computer to record.
• Most of the time, you will want to be recording in stereo, meaning that the Left and Right audio channels are independent and different. The acoustic space is an important part of the sound of classical music and recording in stereo helps make your recording sound like you are in the room with the music. But, in order to record this way, you are going to need two microphones and you will need to learn how to set up basic stereo patterns like XY and ORTF.
• The polar pattern of a microphone describes where the microphone picks up sound. Most common are cardioid, omnidirectional, and bidirectional or figure-8, but for recording music, especially as a beginner, it’s probably best to stick with cardioid patterns.
If you want to hear a direct comparison of some of these microphones, I’d recommend my video “How to Record the French Horn: Microphone Test and Buying Guide,” which I promise will work for all instruments too.
• If you need a microphone for a home studio to teach over video conferencing that’s easy to use, go with the Blue Yeti or a similar USB Microphone.
• If you need a microphone that can connect to your computer for video conferencing, but that you can also travel with to record your practice or record in or outside your home, purchase a Zoom H2N. You can also get a Zoom H4N or H6N if you want something more robust that you can upgrade later down the line or use with XLR microphones.
• If you are looking to start making professional level recordings and learn more advanced recording techniques, purchase a Scarlett 2i2 audio interface and a Rode M5 Matched Pair. This is a small audio set up that has a high ceiling for quality and can be used with recording a single instrument, chamber ensemble, and even does well recording larger ensembles.
None of these microphones are going to be very useful without a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, which is the software that allows you to record and edit audio. For example, the pack-in software “GarageBand” on Macbooks, iPads, and iPhones is a simplified DAW. Here are a few examples of common DAWs: Audacity is a free open-source software that runs on just about every computer. It will do everything you need to put together recordings for auditions, and is great for getting used to working in an audio editor before committing to any purchase. Logic Pro X is the professional version of GarageBand. It’s only available for MacOS, but if you are in the Apple ecosystem you can receive a 90-day free trial. It’s not the industry standard, but it’s the software I personally use for my recordings, and I’ve found it to be easy to use and efficient.
Adobe Audition is bundled with the Adobe Creative Cloud. It isn’t widely used but if you already have a subscription to use Photoshop or Premiere Pro, you have access to this software too.
AVID Pro Tools is the industry standard for audio editing. It’s the most robust software with the most support from third-party plug-ins and hardware manufacturers. There is a free-version called Pro Tools First that you can try if you want to experience a simpler version of this professional software.
No matter what software you end up choosing, you should always try to find a beginner tutorial – here’s one John Turman of the Seattle Symphony made for Logic Pro X – to learn the basics of the DAW.
These are some important functions you should know how to find:
• How to set your audio input to make sure you’re recording with the correct microphone
• How to check your audio levels so that you aren’t recording too loud or too soft
• How to add plug-ins like EQ adjustments, reverb, or compression
• How to record, and export or “bounce” your recording to mp3, wav, or other file formats
• How to cut audio to take out silence or unwanted takes
Once you can do those basic tasks, the rest comes from experimenting and finding more detailed tutorials on the internet. You don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every hotkey or function the software can do, but rather should try to develop a familiarity with your DAW so you know what questions to ask when you want to do more.
Even if you have the best gear and software, you still need to have some technique to produce a good recording. It will come with practice, like anything else, but here are a few things to keep in mine to make the recording process much smoother:
• Adjust your audio levels so that your mezzo-forte sound is at about -12dBfs. You’ll find this number on your recording or the track information in your DAW, -12 is enough space so that you won’t clip the microphone and distort your recording, but your recording won’t be too quiet either.
• Give yourself plenty of time to experiment and record before you need to. It will take many attempts to find a sound you’re happy with, especially when recording at home in a less than ideal space.
• The best equipment to start with is the gear you already have. Whatever you have is what you should start learning to use. I’ve managed some okay recordings using the iPhone headphones and the GarageBand app; you don’t have to have all the pieces to start putting together the puzzle!
• If it sounds good, it is good. This is probably the biggest one. If you’re listening back to your recording and you like how it sounds, then you can trust your instincts! Conversely, if you don’t like how you sound, then try to find out what went wrong or why you don’t like it, so you can start to find a solution.
Why you need to learn
If you’re a musician, then you already know what it means to practice and work to make yourself sound as good as possible. But as we’ve entered a more digital era of classical music, microphones and audio are as much a part of our sound as a horn, mouthpiece, or set of strings. Becoming familiar with the technology behind producing a quality recording will give you agency in the art you make, allowing you to share your art much more easily. My first videos were not very good, but every single one is always a little bit better than the last. Which, really, is all I think learning needs to be.
Scott Leger is a horn player, teacher, arranger and speaker from Houston, TX. He currently performs with the New World Symphony and produces educational videos and recordings for YouTube, Scott Leger Horn, and Instagram, @scottlegerhorn.