By Blair Jackson
Thanks to the ongoing digital audio revolution, it’s never been easier or more affordable to make high-quality music recordings in your own home or work space. Whether you want to make casual reference recordings to assess your progress in learning a piece, or document the brilliance of your small ensemble for posterity—or commercial purposes—there is a universe of sophisticated audio tools in a wide range of prices that will accommodate almost any budget and level of technical knowledge.
While some traditional recording studios, with their enormous mixing consoles, racks of signal-processing gear, and carefully constructed acoustic spaces still thrive (and produce magnificent-sounding recordings), more and more musicians are finding they can achieve satisfactory results with minimal gear—a computer with a decent DAW (digital audio workstation) program, a couple of microphones, some sort of outboard interface, a set of reference monitors (speakers), and headphones. There are a multitude of products in each of those categories, at prices ranging from under $100 to many thousands, and of course there is also the potential for purchasing a zillion other pieces of specialized gear—from dedicated microphone preamps and signal-processing programs (or hardware) to acoustic treatments for the recording space (which can include everything from diffusers to baffles to full-on iso booths). It all depends on what your needs are—and are likely to be in the future.
Violinist, violist, composer, and teacher Laurel Thomsen, who lives in the Santa Cruz mountains in northern California, notes, “The things that I personally record are mostly casual, in the sense that it’s not stuff I’m selling; it’s not at that level. It might be demos for myself and my students, and I do all my podcasts, so I don’t need too much. Recently I’ve been using the Røde NT-USB microphone, which sounds really good and plugs right into the computer, and recording with [Apple’s] GarageBand [recording and mixing program], which is fine for my purposes.
“For me, positioning the mic is really important. What I like to do is get the mic on a boom stand above the instrument, and then listen on headphones—I’ll move around, or move the mic around until I find the best spot. I find it’s a little different between the violin and the viola, and also whether I want it to be more close-miked—for a slightly grittier sound—or whether I want more of the sound of the room.
“I play in a variety of different genres, so with classical I don’t like as much of the bow sound; I want it to be smoother, so I want more of the overall sound. But if it’s something that’s more folky, I’ll mic a little closer. I do a lot of trial and error listening back and seeing if it’s capturing what I’m looking for. It takes a little time, but it’s important to do.”
Producer/engineer and long-time audio journalist George Petersen notes that there are “plenty of DAW software products you can use, for Mac or PC, that are steps above what GarageBand offers but are still inexpensive,” mentioning Apple’s Logic Pro X, PreSonus’ Studio One, and the Reaper audio production system as popular choices. He further recommends purchasing an outboard interface to accommodate conventional microphones: “USB microphones tend to be fairly limited in what you can do with them,” he says. “Most are mono, but even with a stereo USB mic, you’re limited by where you place the mic, and what separation you have, because the left and right capsules are built into a single mic.
“There are also a lot of good, inexpensive interfaces on the market that have two [or more] professional microphone inputs with mic preamps built into them, and also direct-box capability. The Focusrite Scarlett is a good one, for example. Once you have an outboard interface that’s plugged into your computer that’s running your DAW software, you can use any kind of microphone you want.
“You might start out with something as simple as a Shure SM57, which is actually a very good microphone for high sound pressure level sources, or you can find reasonably priced condenser microphones from just about everybody—Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Shure; there are so many.”
Thomsen often records and performs with multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Dan Frechette, but those folk/roots projects require much more than Thomsen’s modest recording setup; their 2016 release, Between the Rain, was cut at the well-equipped Santa Cruz–area home studio of a friend. Still Frechette does have his own ever-evolving recording setup which, at various times, has been built around a Zoom recorder and its SD card, with tracks dropped into Steinberg’s Cubase software on his laptop; Tascam’s DP-24SD 24-track system; and more recently the Tascam 2488 Neo, “which is what I’ve been using for all my recordings for demos and for albums. I like to use good microphones—condensers mostly—because they really capture acoustic instruments. I’ll use a pair of Røde NT5s in an X pattern and it sounds very warm.”
Because Thomsen and Frechette live in quiet, forested hills, they have not had to deal with soundproofing and other acoustic issues in their personal recordings. “Occasionally there’ll be a plane overhead or a barking dog or maybe some refrigerator rumble,” Thomsen says. “When you’re a renter, you usually can’t do too much to the place, so one of the things I look for when I’m renting is that it doesn’t sound horrible. And then, of course, there’s always the bathroom . . .”
No lie. As Petersen advices, “Look around for the best spots to record. It could be a big room with a high ceiling, or a tiny room, even a closet. Hey, set up a violin player in a tub or shower and if you like the sound of it, all that natural echo, do it! That’s what it’s all about.”
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A version of this article originally ran in the June 2017 issue of Strings.