Guest Article: Advice on Recording
This RMS Guest Article is written by David Cook, Assistant Professor of Clarinet at Millikin University and Principal Clarinet of the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra.
Recording yourself, whether it be for a competition, a university or ensemble prescreening, or for a summer festival/camp, can be a stressful process. Professional recording studios and experienced sound engineers are luxuries that not everyone can access or afford, so a basic knowledge of how to assemble a “do-it-yourself” recording is indispensable. Although careful and diligent practice and preparation are the most essential elements to a successful recording session, there are other things that you can do before and during the recording process to ensure that your recording portrays you at your best!
- Select your audio (and video) equipment. Different recording devices (and different audio file formats) can yield considerably different recordings; try multiple devices and settings to find the best fit for you. More and more applications require video recordings these days, so I always encourage people to record high-quality video in addition to audio. If your video recorder does not record audio as well as a standalone audio recorder, it is easy to record video and audio simultaneously (with separate devices) and then sync them on a computer. iMovie is a good program for this task.
- Identify a good space for recording. Depending on your recording setup, this may not be the same thing as the best performing space; recital halls run the risk of being excessively “wet” from an acoustical perspective. Classrooms and rehearsal halls tend to be more neutral and can allow for a better balance between resonance and clarity. Also, experiment with microphone placement and audio levels prior to your session—you don’t want to capture great performances on your recording only to realize that the input gain was set too high and everything distorted.
- Determine an order for recording. If you have multiple selections to record (and are not required to record all selections in one continuous take), have a sequence ready to record. You may choose to record a less taxing selection first, or you might decide to record excerpts with similar difficulties (i.e. articulation) together.
- Find a recording partner. In addition to starting and stopping the recording device, this person can provide an objective perspective on different takes during the recording process. For instance, they might hear a pitch with poor intonation that you didn’t notice while you were playing, or they might be able to say that the articulation you felt was too aggressive was actually fine! They can also be a good source of encouragement and reinforcement during the recording process.
- Make notes after each take. Either your recording partner (preferable) or you should number each take and write down how you felt about each attempt (be specific!). Comments like “good tone,” “steady rhythm,” or “squeaked in m. 7” are much more helpful than simply “good” or “bad.”
- Reflect upon and identify what needs improvement between takes. It’s often tempting to jump immediately into another take without considering what specifically needs to improve and how to produce that change. For instance, was an undesirable articulation in the scherzo from Sibelius’s First Symphony the result of a deficiency in airstream, voicing, or finger coordination?
- Don’t confuse quantity of takes with quality of takes. It is tempting to record until you get a pristine, perfect take of each selection. However, I’ve found that people’s best takes of something generally come between the first and fifth attempts at a given passage. Beyond that, there seems to be a point of diminishing returns (or even negative returns) where additional effort only yields marginally better recordings or perhaps recordings of lower quality than the initial takes. In scenarios like this, I find it helpful to take a break and move on to a different selection and cycle back to the problematic parts once I’ve had a chance to walk away from them.
- If possible, wait before you listen and make selections. If you have the luxury of time, allow for few days to pass before listening to your recordings. This allows you to listen from an outsider’s perspective rather than the performer’s and helps you listen with a fresh set of ears. Often what felt the best during the recording process is actually surpassed by a different take under further review.
- Solicit input from others. Ask others to listen to your recordings and see which takes they prefer. This is especially helpful if you are torn between a few different takes of the same selection. Be sure to ask musicians beyond clarinetists, as they are often attuned to different aspects of the performance.
- Trim empty space at the beginning and ending of each take. Don’t leave too much silence before or after you play—this lends to an unprofessional appearance. I once watched a recording for a substitute position in my orchestra where the performer left their walk from the recording device to their music stand as well as their tuning note in their submission! However, be careful to allow ample time at the end of the recording for the resonance of the recording space to decay naturally.
An exemplary recording can often be the difference between earning a scholarship or not, or being admitted versus placed on a wait list, or the chance to audition for a prestigious ensemble. Make sure you are putting your best musical foot forward in your recordings. Good luck!
David Cook is Assistant Professor of Clarinet at Millikin University and Principal Clarinet of the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra. www.davidcookclarinet.com
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