Let the Tape Roll
Recently, I had a wonderful opportunity to participate in the International Trombone Association's annual competitions as a preliminary judge. The particular competition I helped with is called the Gilberto Gagliardi Competition, and it is open to trombonists aged 18 and under. If I remember correctly, there were about 33 entries this year, and the prescribed music was the Concerto by Rimsky-Korsakov. First of all, I heard some fantastic young musicians. Prelim judging was accomplished via recordings residing on a web server, and all candidates were assigned a random number. There were a number of fine trombonists in this group. The level of playing for high school and college-level freshman was very high! While judging, each candidate was known only by their number with no other identifying information, and in fact, we (judges) have never seen the names matched with their audition numbers. You can read the names of the Finalists, alternates, and honorable mentions here. Notably, 3 of the 6 names appear to be female, which is an awesome trend to see in young trombonists!
This blog post is not about trombone playing per se, but more about the "delivery method" when you are performing via a "tape" round. The competition has clear guidelines about submitting your recording (one continuous file, no edits within movements, live pianist required).
One of the biggest weaknesses I heard in many of the tapes was a lack of awareness in mic placement. Many of the recordings were recorded with levels set too high, which made for a distorted final product. You could tell the player was making music and had worked hard, but I would have loved to have heard a few candidates under better recording conditions. Now, I am no recording engineer, but I do believe through experimentation in your practicing (you do record your practice sessions, right???) you can get a good handle on a simple placement that works well in most general settings. You can make a quite good tape with very limited equipment, but it will take some experimentation to maximize any approach. The first thing I would suggest is, get your mic/recorder placement figured out first. Try different placents during your practice sessions and rehearsals with your pianist. I would start with your recorder centered left to right in your room, and about 1/3 of the way from the back wall. If your room is small or an odd shape, I would put it about 10 feet away and centered on your position, or as far away as you can get it without putting it right up against a wall.
If you are using an iPhone or Android device, know that the built in voice memo recorder uses automatic levels to adjust for the source volume. This is good and bad. Good because you recording likely won't be distorted, bad because you get a constant "limiting" effect when listening back. The phone adjusts the volume down once it gets too loud, which in a piece like the Rimsky-Korsakov, happens frequently! There are a ton of recording apps for the iPhone. Look for one that records WAV files, and that allows for manual control of the recording level. The new lightning connector mic from Zoom makes a lot of sense. At $99.00, it's a pretty economical solution. I haven't tried one, but it says it works with the iOS version of Garageband, so that ought to be a pretty simple solution. For a little more flexibility, and something that might not become useless with the next generation of idevice, you could go with a Zoom H4n or H5. The advantage of the higher-priced Zoom units is that both recorders have 48 volt phantom power. This means you can eventually plug an external mic into the recorder, offering much better sound quality. The H5 in particular offers a lot of advanced features, and will likely be the only recorder you ever need for personal/portable use. It has an adapter that allows it to use 4 different XLR mic inputs. Of course, like all things electronic, there are many more opinions and solutions available, at all price points! Other companies like Marantz and Tascam make great options, as well. Look to YouTube for the many online reviews of personal recorders.
Most of all, when you record an audition tape, take your time. Plan to make your recording at least a couple of weeks out from the submission deadline. That way, if you have a bad playing day on your one-and-only recording session, you can always schedule another day! Along that same line, do yourself a favor up front and plan for two sessions of recording if possible. This will take a lot of the pressure and stress off by not requiring that everything be recorded in one session. The ITA submissions allow for different movements to be recorded on different days, you just can't edit WITHIN a movement! So, you could have done the first and third movements of Rimsky-Korsakov in one session, and saved the softer and more sustained second movement for another day.
Finally, listen to your recording. I know this sounds painfully obvious, but some of the candidates I heard would have no doubt heard the undesirable recording outcomes had they listened back to them. If you hear a problem and don't know how to fix it, then ask someone! There are many resources online, your own teacher, band director, or feel free to email ME! I will do my best to help or put you in touch with someone that can.
As always, happy practicing and enjoy experimenting with recording. It's a great way to make practicing new and interesting when you get in a rut, and it can be very useful down the road!
The Virtual Trombonist