Here’s the tech and know-how you’ll need to produce a remote ensemble recording
By Laurel Thomsen
Whether lockdown caught you in the middle of a recording project or you hope to find ways to keep your ensemble going in 2020, COVID-19 has complicated how we create and capture music with friends and colleagues. Thankfully, with minimal investment, it’s possible to record and overdub quality audio and video from the comfort of your “shelter-in-place” abode.
Besides your own musical preparation, the microphone you use will make the biggest difference in the sound quality of your project. Unfortunately, the mics built into phones and computers, while fine for speaking, usually make string-family instruments sound too compressed and tinny. To avoid the need to purchase an interface that will allow a studio or performance mic to connect to your computer, consider making a modest investment in a USB microphone that you can plug in directly. I’ve used a Rode NT-USB ($169) for home recording and online teaching for several years. Throughout the quarantine I recorded several tracks remotely for various outside projects that were otherwise being produced in professional recording studios. In each case, the sound engineers on the other side were completely satisfied with the audio quality. Before trading up to the Rode, I’d enjoyed a couple of more budget-minded mics by Blue—the Snowball ($69.99) and the Yeti ($129.99).
All three mics are condensers, meaning they are more sensitive and capture a broader frequency range than a typical dynamic (stage) mic. All are Windows- and Mac-compatible, come with a desk stand, and feature a cardioid recording pattern (the Snowball and Yeti offer other recording patterns as well) and a 16-bit sample rate. The Rode and Yeti capture a frequency range of 20Hz–20kHz while the Snowball has a more narrow recording range of 40Hz–18kHz, though still within the range of a violin’s frequencies. While I personally prefer the audio quality the Rode captures, I wish it could also automatically attach to a traditional mic stand for more flexible mic placements like the Blue mics do. However, Rode does sell the SMR shock mount ($79) that serves this purpose.
In addition to a mic, you’ll need multitrack recording software—also known as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)—to layer the parts of friends or colleagues. Thankfully, GarageBand for Mac and Audacity for Mac and Windows are free software choices that give the home-recording artist all the tools they need to create, overdub, and edit.
For casual multitrack recordings, Spire by iZotope is a free app available for iPhone and iPad that allows musicians to overdub, edit, and share parts with others. Android offers a range of DAW apps as well.
You’ll also need a set of headphones and a way to plug them into your computer to monitor your own sound and minimize bleed while still being able to hear the other parts you need to play along with.
Finally, you’ll need a cloud storage service like Dropbox or Google Drive in order to share tracks between musicians. While MP3s are fine for demos and are usually small enough to be sent via email or text, in the more serious phases of your recording project you’ll want to convert your tracks to WAV files, which can easily be 50MB or more.
Audio Recording Tips
While it’s important to sit down and learn your DAW of choice before launching into an actual project, these general recording tips can save a lot of headache.
1. Make sure to select your microphone as the audio input for your recording software (output on the other hand should not be the mic, but rather your built-in speakers or your headphones). Simply plugging your mic into your computer usually doesn’t switch it from defaulting to the built-in mic.
2. Plan out the order in which the group will record. For instance, while the first violin often carries more of the melody lines in a string quartet, it often makes sense to record a part that is the most beat centric and continuous first, likely the cello. Decide on the tempo and have the cellist play the entire piece to a click track (a feature of any DAW). From there, record the other rhythm-centric parts—perhaps the viola or second violin. If the remaining parts are primarily melody and harmony lines, it makes more sense to record the melody part next and finish with the harmony parts. A nice benefit of playing to a click track is that even if, for instance, the cellist records first but feels she would have given a better performance had she been able to play off the melody and other parts, it’s easy to go back and re-record the cello.
3. Experiment with room choice. While a very lively room might be glorious to play in, too much natural reverb can muddy a track. Find a space that is quiet (record at night, unplug refrigerators and overhead lights, silence phones, etc.) and has a balance of reflective and absorptive surfaces to ensure your recording is not too dull or too echoey. Thankfully, with the editing abilities of most software, if you do end up wanting to sound like you’re in a grand cathedral, it’s easy to add reverb and echo later on.
4. Experiment with mic placement and always record a short “sound check” before the actual take. First off, make sure you know where the front of your mic is. Then for violins and violas, it’s usually best to get the mic on a boom stand up over the F-holes and anywhere from several inches to a foot or more away. For cello, the mic should be out in front, several inches to a foot or more away from the bridge. Placing the mic closer to the highest string versus the lowest string will also make a difference. Experiment until you find the tone you prefer.
5. Consider using headphones on only one ear. Especially with an instrument like a violin, with intonation that needs to be constantly kept in check, it can be helpful to hear the mix of parts you’re recording with in one ear and the acoustic sound of the instrument in the other.
6. Verbally count off at the beginning of the first track of a new project and if you’re overdubbing a part, don’t cut the intro length or initial count. These will be edited out during the mixing process but are essential for synching up the parts.
7. Don’t forget to pan your parts. While it’s usually best to record each track in stereo, when it comes time to mix your project, panning allows you to place each track in a different section of the stereo spectrum, creating sonic space and helping define each part for the listener. To help ground the track, it’s usually best to keep the melody voice as well as the instrument driving the rhythm towards the center and then to place other parts to either side.
While it’s possible to sync individual performance videos to a single pre-recorded track, a less involved way to create a virtual group video is by using Acapella. This app by Mixcord became popular during the early months of quarantine because it allows musicians to create a video collage of overdubbed parts performed in real time. With a variety of screen layouts and the ability to edit volume, EQ, and add reverb, each member of a group records in the “cell” of their choice, sharing the project around the group and layering parts much as they would a virtual audio project. Unfortunately, the app is only available for iPad and iPhone at this time and while they offer a seven-day trial, thereafter each band member will need to pay $9.99 monthly or $47.99 per year to keep using it. Still, for ensembles looking for ways to collaborate and keep social media fans engaged, a collage video is about as close to a live performance as we might be able to get for a while longer.