Sometimes the best teacher you ever have will be yourself. Yes, it’s true! Many of us are used to listening to recording of ‘the greats’ performing the pieces that we are learning, and we know how they sound through our headphones, stereo or computer speakers. Why not listen to yourself like that too? By doing so, you have the opportunity to find out what it that ‘the greats’ have that you don’t (or even vice versa!).
Here is my attempt at trying to persuade you to do some homework and record yourself. How to do it, however, is another question, so I will give you a common set-up which you can follow.
Firstly, the recording equipment you use is very important. Your computer microphone can be of use, but due to the limited frequency range of the small mics, you may not hear what you actually sound like. It will give you an idea but for the purposes of learning you need something better.
Don’t get me wrong, the recording doesn’t have to be done in a professional recording studio (but if you can afford a couple of hours at Abbey Road go for it!). The best thing to do is to buy a stand-alone HD recorder like the Yamaha Pocketrak C24 or the Zoom H2N, or, if you want a little more flexibility, go for the Zoom H4n. All of these include an SD memory card slot and a USB plug, so that, after you have finished playing, the recording can be transferred directly to your PC or Mac.
The Yamaha Pocketrak C24 Digital Recorder is a great machine with two medium sized mics and a frequency response range of 20Hz-20KHz, which is suitable for most uses. The USB stick is built in, so there are no cables co carry. The whole thing is powered by a single AAA battery (which lasts a long time), takes up little space and weighs virtually nothing.
For a more sophisticated machine, one should look at the Zoom H2N Digital Recorder. This features 4 microphones, two of which are at a 90° angle, the other two at 180°. The 90° microphones are ideal for solo recordings, and the latter is suitable for recording larger ensembles, such as a quintet or even a chamber orchestra. Power supply is by mains or batteries, which last for about a day of recording.
The H2N has the capability to record at different ‘sampling rates’. The sample rate is the number of times a second that the audio is ‘sampled’; the higher the sample rate, the better the quality of the recording. 44.1kHz is CD-quality, or you can opt for 48kHz or 96kHz, which is DVD-Audio quality. A higher sample rate means that the end audio file will be larger. Now, the SD card that comes with the H2 has 512MB of storage space, which is enough for general recording, but not enough if you are recording at higher sample rates, so a 1GB or 4GB SD card is preferable.
The H4N, also from Zoom, does even more. Apart from having two XY formation microphones, which can be adjusted from 90° to 180° degrees, at the back of the device there are two XLR inputs (for connecting external microphones) and a built-in four-track recorder. On top as this, it has a built-in effects module, with which you can add reverb, echo, chorus, fizz-wah and distortion effects to your recordings. Essentially, you could plug an electric guitar into it and use it as an amp!
Furthermore, if you plug the H4N into a computer, you can use it as an audio interface, enabling you to record straight into your computer using the Zoom’s mics.
The Basic Set-Up
So you are in your practice room. You have your music stand, the music, the instrument in your hands. The best place to put the recorder is about 2ft away, directly in front of you, preferably at the same height as your instrument when you’re playing it. The microphones on the recording device need to be pointing straight towards you: if you are using the Zoom H2N or H4N, make sure the mics are set to the 90° angle and not 180°; if you are using the Yamaha Pocketrak C24, you can clip it to your music stand.
Next, set the ‘gain’ of the input. This is the level at which the mic will record the sound, and on most devices there are three settings: low, medium and high. Use ‘low’ if you are recordings something loud; ‘high’ is used for very quiet audio sources. If you are not sure how loud or quiet you play, stick to ‘medium’. Press the record button and off you go!
Assessing Your Practice
Sometimes it can prove useful to record just one piece, or even just one movement, although it is highly useful to record long chunks of practice too – for example 15-30 minutes at a time. If you think about it, with one hour recording and one hour listening back to it and analysing, you can say you practiced for two hours! When listening, have the music in front of you: it is incredibly useful to mark wrong notes, rhythms and articulation, as well as make general notes. Don’t forget to stick the metronome on every now and again to check the speed. You can also use these devices to record your lessons (with the teacher’s consent), concerts and recitals.
I find that it is best to listen back to the longer recordings a couple of hours later, or maybe even the following day. Doing so gives you a better perspective on all aspects of your playing.
You can listen back to the recording on the actual devices, or you can connect to a speaker system or headphones, but what if you want to transfer it to your PC and edit, enhance or simply send it to someone? Here is where the USB connection comes handy: simply connect to your PC or Mac, and the recorder will mount as an external hard drive, then it’s just a drag and drop action to transfer the files to your computer. Editing software (usually Cubase) is provided with most recorders, but if you are unsure of what to do, I would suggest steering clear of this part.
Hopefully you now have enough information to give you confidence and encourage you to get recording; many professional musicians in orchestras today have used this method while studying at conservatories, and these days the hardware and software is priced so competitively, one can’t afford not to try it!