Recording your Musical Ensembles – What Tech Is Good Enough To Use?

What do I use to record my musical ensembles?
What do I use to record my musical ensembles?

What recorder do I buy? Do I need external microphones? Is there an app for that? Is my iPhone good enough? But it’s just an iPad mic! Don’t I have to use professional equipment? How about a soundboard? Won’t people make fun of me?

All questions I get asked when people want to record their musical ensemble (well… maybe not the last question! 🙂  )

Seriously though, we have all this technology available and it does get very overwhelming when music directors want to record their ensemble. In fact, some just don’t even get started because they are at a loss for where and how to start!

SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST FOR SOME EXAMPLES!

What you really need to know is that the best recorder you can use is the one that you have with you at any given time! Now, I know…. my iPhone is NOT going to make as nice of a recording as having professional quality microphones running into preamps, which is all getting recorded by a high quality recorder. BUT if we don’t have time or the equipment to get all of that stuff up and running then can our iPads/Phone’s make do? The short answer is a resounding YES! In fact, there are several free apps out there that are amazing to work with and allow you to edit your recording later. But I get sidetracked… that’s the next post!

For this post I want to share with you 5 different versions of the same ensemble recorded and edited 5 different ways. Then you can listen and make some of your own judgements.

At Band Festival this past weekend I used three different devices to record our performances, just because I’m that kind of guy. I’m curious, I’m interested in listening to what the final product sounds like in comparison to each other. Here’s what I used….

  1. A Zoom H4N hooked up to high quality external microphones which were on a mic stand allowing the mics to be elevated about 10 feet in the air and 15 feet in front of the ensemble.
  2. A Marantz PMD620 recorder using the built in stereo microphones but this recorder was sitting on the front edge of the stage, on the floor. (basically at the base of the microphone stand mentioned above.)
  3. My iPad Air, using the built in microphone and Cubasis. I could have used any app but I was very interested in trying out the new FX packs Steinberg had just released this past week. In that FX Pack 1 there is a stereo width FX that I hoped would enhance the mono recording that the iPad mic gives us.

In the end, after editing the recordings so that I could use just one track to do these comparisons with, I ended up with 5 different versions of Belgian Paratroopers. Here are the differences…

  1. The first version is the iPad Air recording – no FX at all, just straight off the mic. This is of course a Mono recording.
  2. The 2nd version is that same recording but with the Stereo Width FX turned on giving us recording that has more width to it in the stereo field.
  3. In the 3rd version I took recording No1 (straight from the iPad Air mic) and processed it through an app called Audio Mastering Small IconAudio Mastering. I’ve used this app frequently to enhance my recordings in the past. Because the original file was a mono recording though, I do not feel as if Audio Mastering did anything at all to enhance the effect of spreading out the stereo width of the recording. Audio Mastering did enhance the recording though by adding a bit of reverb, EQ, and Dynamics to it.
  4. The 4th version is straight from the Marantz – When recording this version I had the Marantz set to manual level control and I had to monitor the recording level to make sure there was not clipping on the final recording. While editing this recording I simply went in and used the Normalize feature to bump up the final audio level so it wasn’t so soft.
  5. The final version is from the Zoom H4N and the high quality stereo mics. This recording had the Zoom set to Auto Level Controls because of the way we run our recording at our festival. This ALC setting helps eliminate user error that leads to that clipping of the final recording (which means an unusable recording). The ALC also means that some of the ensembles actual dynamics are skewed. I think you will notice that the recording starts out a bit louder and then it gets turned down because the band playing was so much louder than the announcer talking.

Listen and compare for yourself. Is the quality of just the iPad mic good enough for you? You probably already own an iPad or iPhone and this isn’t going to cost you any extra. (unless you really like what the Cubasis small iconCubasis Stereo Width FX Pack gives you or what Audio Mastering Small IconAudio Mastering can do)

Is the quality of a handheld recorder what you are looking for? The Zoom H4n is about $200 and does have built in mics that are pretty decent by themselves. The Marantz PDM 620 MKII recorder is about $400.

Do you want the even better quality of the external stereo mics? Those are going to run you $200 and up.

I think one final part of the decision here is the event that you are recording. If we are talking about recording your rehearsals for a quick listen to – or is it an important event like our Band Festival?

CONCLUSION:

Being able to record these days is an extremely easy endeavor that anyone of you can figure out with little work. Finding the money for the equipment should not be that difficult. Our District bought four recorders and the stereo microphones for less then what we used to get charged by the recording company that would come to record. Since that initial expense we have then saved money every year and our recordings are every bit the same quality as before!

THE RECORDINGS TO LISTEN TO:

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