Clark Media Productions

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Does YOUR engineer run a backup???

You have probably heard the old adage, “Two is one, one is none”. Or maybe another thing my mom used to say to me, “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

How does that apply to the recording arts? And what does it mean?

I have had the pleasure of getting to know, and learn from, some excellent engineers over the past few years. Backing up computer data, and audio files, is always on their minds. File management, and being able to FIND the audio you’ve recorded, and avoid unnecessary duplication of tracks is a large topic. For the engineers I’ve learned from, it all starts with the initial capture at the live concert or session. Both Christian Amonson and Mike Ducassoux have different systems, but they both serve the need to stave off any visit from Mr. Murphy very well.

So, after listening to these gentlemen for a good amount of time, I decided it would be prudent to incorporate some of their methods in to my own workflow. So, I took their advice and developed my own backup system.

A backup system is, simply, a 2nd recording that runs in parallel to the primary recording equipment. In my case, my microphones run into both my laptop, as well as a Zoom 8-channel SD recorder. Why does this matter? Well, in case of catastrophic laptop failure, the Zoom captures the source audio, even if my laptop is turned off completely.

So, when you book an engineer to record your concert, ask them, “do you have backup”? If their answer is “no”, give me a call! ;)

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Economics of Audio Recording (or why you should pay good money to record your performance!)

 

A couple of years ago, I was interested in applying for a college teaching job near me, and I started combing through recent recordings I had of recitals I had done while I was a DMA student at Catholic University in Washington, DC.  I did five recitals as part of my degree program, and I felt like I had played quite well on most of them.  To my surprise and disappointment, I discovered that I had one pretty good recording of one recital, a very mediocre quality recording of another recital (that was also missing a couple of pieces), and a terrible quality (audio AND video) recording of my lecture recital.  To be fair, I had attempted to hire someone to record one of the recitals, but he never showed up!   Sigh.   

It’s no surprise that a recording engineer and producer would want to sell you on RECORDING.  I mean, that is, after all, how we afford all these cool microphones and all the other stuff that audio people drag around everywhere with them….!  However, I feel pretty passionate about WHY we make recordings, and especially when I relate it to my own experiences as a performing musician.  I mean, music is built on live performance, for better or worse.  The recording arts has given us so many different versions of performance, through all the “magic” that engineers can work, and the way that contemporary music is recorded and assembled.  But, what does that mean for you as a musician?  

Why spend hundreds of dollars recording a live recital?  I mean, if you’re like me, you don’t have money to burn, especially for something that doesn’t always seem critical to our growth and musical career.  Well, I’m here to tell you, you’re missing out! 

I’m sure you’ve heard about the “gig economy” until you’re blue in the face.  I know I have.  I get it.  But, one thing classical musicians haven’t done, at least not to a large extent, is to build a portfolio, at least one that is easily visible to the general public.  Portfolios are for visual artists, photographers, and graphic designers, right?  I would say that most classical musicians would even sneer or make derisive comments if you admitted you were putting together a “portfolio” of your best work.  I would also guess that those same musicians have little or nothing to show for their best performances, other than a nice memory. 

So, we can address the obvious question of why assemble a portfolio, or RECORDED HISTORY of you as an artist.  But, I think if you are reading this, you are already far enough ahead to know the many reasons that can be important.  So, let’s talk about what I think of when I think of hiring someone to record an important live performance….

A guy or girl with a Zoom recorder!  Yay!  That’s all I need!  

Well, OK, maybe that will suffice for you.  The above-mentioned recordings of my own recitals?  All recorded on a Zoom.  Now, I’m not knocking the venerable Zoom recorder.  These devices have a prominent place in the toolbox of many musicians and recording engineers. They serve a great purpose, and they have some amazing capabilities for such a small package.  But, after all the hard work, sweat, and tears you have shed over your instrument, don’t you want something worthy of sharing with the public, something that will still sound great 10 (or 50) years from now, and something that you can really use to show yourself in the very best light?  I know I do.  

"But Chris, I don’t have 300, 400, 600 dollars, or more to spend on a recital recording!!!"

Well, let me ask you a few questions:

How much did you pay your accompanist?

How many hours did you practice JUST for this one recital?

How much are you spending to get that crazy expensive degree from that amazing school?

How much do you stand to earn, OVER THE COURSE OF A CAREER, from getting hired for that tenure-track teaching gig, or getting invited to that audition, or winning that life-changing competition?  

Often times, recordings are the key to the gate.  The very first barrier to entry you come across.  Want to get invited to interview on campus?  Send a tape.  Want to get invited to that audition?  Send a tape. Want to get a spot at that prestigious summer festival?  Send a tape.  I’ve judged a number of high level competitions via recorded entries, and let me tell you, a quality recording puts you at a SIGNIFICANT advantage!

Here’s the basics that I offer when I record a live performance, and what I consider the best way to make FULL USE of the tremendous amount of work you have done:

  • High quality equipment.  That goes without saying.  Microphones that are complementary to the type of music and the instrument that you play.  You don’t have to know microphones yourself, but ask the prospective engineer about their sound concept when they record your instrument.  They should have a well articulated concept about how to begin, and be willing to have a dialogue with you about what you desire to hear from a recording.

  • Knowledgeable placement of those microphones!  Where should they go?  What kind of space are you performing in?  What are its limitations?  Should we try multiple things so that we have sonic options in post production?

  • An engineer that has a musical ear, and can also act as your producer.  

  • An engineer that shows up on time, without fail, and is set up long before you are ready to play.

  • A backup recording system...in case Murphy’s law strikes, your performance WILL be recorded, no matter what.

  • Reference video of your performance, recorded in a high quality format, with the final audio synced to the video

  • Recent examples of completed work for other clients, easily accessible for you to judge for yourself

  • Can the engineer remove excessive crowd noise, or HVAC system noise?  We’ve all had the person with the hacking cough or crinkley plastic bag making noise through the whole concert....

Those are just the basics.  Let’s talk about some other ways you can get the most out of your recording…

One excellent option to consider is to spend the extra money on a dress rehearsal recording.  While adding to the cost, this can have significant benefits.  First of all, this gives you flexibility to have both an un-edited live album or your performance, as well as a second edited performance using material from both the dress and the performance.  Most of us feel way more comfortable at our dress rehearsal than we do at the actual performance, and I find that many artists can have some quality backup material to use for their edited album, all recorded in the same space, with the same piano, and at the same level of preparation.  Again, you’re spending more up front, but in the end, you have more material and much more flexibility with what you can create from the one live performance.

Now, that takes care of the audio!  What about video?!  You know as well as I do, that video is THE medium for social media and internet presence.  If you are developing a Youtube channel, website, or Instagram stories, or you simply just want to send grandma a video of her precious baby to watch, you ought to consider video capture as well.  With high quality video gear, we’ve reached the point that you can pull still photos from the video footage, making it even more valuable.  

So, with audio recording, video recording, and recording the dress rehearsal, we’ve reached a fairly high price point, no?  Yes, we have!  But, consider all the time and energy you’ve put in to making a recital program performance ready, especially if we’re talking about the culminating performances of a degree program.  You may not be in this kind of shape, or have an opportunity to play a recital again for some time.  Take advantage of all that you can, and get the most out of your hard work and musicianship.  I guarantee you will create something that you can look back on with pride for years to come.  

 

 

I never thought I would discuss this!?!?

This week's post feels a little gratuitous, but it's a service that I have found quite useful over the past couple of months, so much so that I have been surprised by it!  Thanks for watching and let me know if you've found this useful as well. :)

A little gear review (and maybe a little making fun of trumpet players) 😃

There’s something about trombone players and our toys.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’re not near as bad as trumpet players.  I only own about 25 mouthpieces; however, I’m embarrassed to say I do own 7 different straight mutes… must be all that time hanging out with trumpet players, who always seem to have some crazy new mute to try… “Have you heard the new XYZ cup mute?  It’s made out of titanium, with a rosewood bottom, and organic whiskey-pressed hemp corks!”  No joke, it’s like a disease with these people… 

So, after all that, what am I gonna post this week?  Yep, a GEAR REVIEW.  Groan.  But, hey, it’s cool recording gear, so it’s all good!

A friend just asked today what kind of digital recorder I recommend, with the choices being made up of the Zoom family of recorders that have XLR mic inputs.  I own and use a Zoom H5 regularly, and that’s what I suggested to him as a good tool for his needs.  So, I decided a full review is in order!

Now, there are plenty of places to go for technical details, sampling rates, nitty-gritty that many people are into, but most people can’t hear/use/tell anyway when it comes to technology.  What I wanted to review was the ways you can USE this piece of tech.  I’ve had my H5 for a year or so now, and it has so many uses, it’s hard to nail them all down.  So, I’m going to talk about the features I use regularly, and that are particularly handy to the performing/rehearsing/practicing musician...

  1.  Built in mics - pretty obvious, but this feature alone is what really built the Zoom family of recorders into the commonplace gear they have become… The H5 built in mics are fine.  You have the option of swapping out the mic capsule/cartridge for some other options.  Among those options are:  a “better” pair of mics that allow 90 and 120 degree (ORTF) stereo angle (this mic comes standard on the H6), a mid-side mic capsule (similar to what the Zoom H2 does natively), a shotgun mic capsule, and another input containing to XLR combo inputs.  It is important to note that when you add the additional XLR inputs via the cartridge, it does NOT provide phantom power… You would have to get that from somewhere else… 
  2. Audio Interface mode - if you plug the Zoom in to your computer via USB, you get a selection menu on the H5 asking you if you want to use it as a card reader, or as an audio interface.  Silly me, I didn’t realize when I bought it that it essentially does what other units like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 does… Allows you to run audio from your microphones into your computer for recording, plus monitor through headphones.  Well, the Zoom does all that and then some!  If I were starting over, I would just by the Zoom and save the $150 I spent on the Focusrite.  I might note that I have had problems with my Scarlett 2i2 unit, but my Zoom has functioned flawlessly.  Hmm… 
  3. Phantom power and 2 XLR mic inputs - plug in your pro microphones as needed, and power them with the correct voltage, easy-peasy.
  4. Backup track - this has become a feature I rely on consistently.  Oftentimes, when I’m the one performing, I want a recording but I may not have the time or focus to spend on getting recording levels set perfectly.  I may arrive at a gig early, set up the recording gear, then I need to spend the rest of my pre-concert time warming up, preparing music, and getting ready to actually perform.  The Zoom H5 will record a backup track, at -12db below the levels you set on the unit.  This allows you to make your best guess as to what the best level is for your performance, but if you get it wrong and have some clipping, you can just use the lower level backup track as a substitute.  With modern DAWs, this is very easy to do and get the same audio quality out of the lower gain track.  Very handy.
  5. AA battery power - common battery anywhere in the world, and the unit runs a long time on a fresh set, enough said.
  6. Files/folder storage structure - I really like this feature.  On the surface, and in its use, it seems to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but I find it very useful.  I can record multiple practice sessions or performances, and just make each one a different folder.  Useful for when I’m too lazy to go home and download what I’ve recorded, right away, or for when I need to preserve multiple sessions on the same memory card.
  7. tripod mount - 1/4”-20 female thread on the bottom, makes this unit easy to mount on a camera tripod.  I carry a Bogen tabletop tripod with mine, which keeps it stable on whatever surface I rest it.  
  8. Audio-for-video - mount the H5 on the hot shoe of your DSLR and you can connect it to the audio in of your camera.  On some DSLRs, you may need an aftermarket cable, but you will be able to provide excellent audio to your videos, as well as monitor your audio through headphones while you’re recording.  Alternatively, use your smartphone for the video and record your audio separately on the Zoom, then sync up in your editing software.  Use a loud clap at the beginning of your video to give yourself a sharp spike in the audio waveform - this will make aligning to the video and audio very easy.  
  9. Multi-channel recording ability - normally, the H5 is set up to record through its stereo microphone pair.  If you set it to multi-channel recording, you may record separate inputs simultaneously.  I most often use this to record through my Rode NT1s as a stereo pair, while adding my Rode Videomic Pro through the line in/mic-in jack located right by the built in microphone pair.  Very handy.  You can also use the stereo pair built in to the Zoom as well as a separate pair of lavalier mics for video dialogue.  

So, as you can see, there are a ton of ways to use the Zoom H5 as a creative tool, and to make it the cornerstone of your portable audio/video setup.  Like I said, no crazy technical discussion with this review, but I wanted to highlight some real world functions that make these little units such a great investment for the performing musician.  For sheer portability, versatility, and ease of use, the H5 is very hard to beat.  If you need 4 mic preamps, go ahead and get the H6.  If you just need the most basic of the basic, check out the H1 and H2.  The small size and mid-side stereo capabilities of the H2 are quite amazing for the price.  Here’s my favorite places to purchase the H5:  B&H Photo-Video, Adorama Camera, and Amazon.

Thanks for reading, as always.  If you have found other handy uses for the Zoom series of recorders, please post in the comments!  If you aren’t subscribed to the Virtual Trombonist, then please sign up!

 

10 Best Pieces of Gear for Musicians

So, who doesn’t love a good gear list???!!!  As with any good gear list, I included things that cover a range of prices, and just had to list one thing that is very difficult to find!  There is so much stuff out there to help us as musicians, it can be hard to zero in on things that actually help us improve.  Read on to see what makes up my favorite brass-nerd-band-geek top 10!

10. K&M trombone stand - $65 - coming in last...the lowly trombone stand...  I know, not terribly exciting, but essential nonetheless… Having recently done some minor damage to my primary instrument by knocking it over on an older Hamilton trombone stand, I decided it was time for something heavier duty.  The knock-over was my own dumb fault, but it wouldn’t have happened on a larger stand with a wider base.  So, problem solved, and K&M stuff is generally pretty good quality.  These stands aren’t super cheap or compact, but they are very stable and sturdy.  

9.  McAdams metronome - $??? - if you grew up in Texas during the 1980s, and you were in marching band, the McAdams metronome was likely a fixture of your high school band life.  Big, loud, indestructible, the Model 10-A was the current model back then.  My dad picked one up for me many years ago when a new model was out and the 10-A was on closeout…love that thing.  They have some new fancier models that are digital and have all kinds of bells and whistles, but I love my old analog McAdams… huge metal switches, a large dial, and a 1/4” output for distribution to your favorite bass-amp-hooked-up-to-an-inverter-powered-by-a-car-battery.  Yes, that is really how we used to get that super loud click out on the marching band field!  Old school, bay-bee!

8.  Logic Pro X - $200 - I should really put Garageband in this slot, but I’m continually amazed at what Logic Pro can do, and for only $200!  Most DAWs are quite pricey for the home user to buy into, and I know for my uses, I am unlikely to outgrow the capabilities of this software.  Logic has a pretty amazing feature that many people don’t know about - that is sheet music/score production.  I have yet to get in to this aspect of the program, but you can produce scores and parts from recorded tracks, as well as import Finale files into Logic.  Pretty powerful stuff.

7.  Rode Video mic pro - $229 - you might look at a shotgun video mic and think, on the surface, it only does one thing.  I have had a Videomic Pro for a few years not, and I’m continually amazed at what they can do.  Obviously, it accels at recording spoken word into a DSLR or other camera.  It does this very well, and with a fuzzy windscreen (dead cat), it can do it just about anywhere.  For Youtube videos, Periscope, and other casual video production, these things are gold.  Where I became really enamored of mine was in recording solo trombone.  I know, go figure.  This mic, when set about 10’ back and aimed at a 45 degree angle to the bell, produces a warm and very complementary sound for me when recording myself playing trombone.  That was a surprise to me.  Usually I run it in to my Zoom H5.  Simple setup, great results.

6.  Foamy earplugs - $0.31 - you are conserving your hearing, right??? Huh?  Honestly, I hate playing with earplugs, but a friend of mine at work has a handy way of using them, where he keeps them basically just sitting in his ear but not pushed in so they’re not blocking any sound, and when he knows a loud part/sound is coming, he can quickly just tap the plug into his ear.  The key is it doesn't have to be shoved down deep into your ear to get some protection.  They make these in skin tones that are subtle for stage use.  😃

5.  Evernote - FREE, or $49.99 for an annual Premium plan - Really???!!! An organizational app as one of the top 10 tech tools for musicians??!!  Well, if you enjoy staying organized like me, and you have a large amount of correspondence, articles, writing, ideas, projects, receipts, and emails to keep track of, this software is simply fantastic.  When I first looked at it, I couldn’t really see the value in it, and I used an app called Notability for quite a while.  Notability is great, but it doesn’t have quite all the bells and whistles that Evernote has.  Here’s a great video (and Youtube Channel) about many of the amazing features of Evernote.  The major things that make it awesome for me:  incredibly robust search function (even searches text inside photos), keyword tagging of notes, web browser clipping extension, and an embedded email address through which you can send things directly to Evernote for saving.  It also records audio natively… cool!

4.  Best Brass practice mute (trombone, trumpet, euphonium) - $129 - These days, who doesn’t use a practice mute?  I love this one.  It’s small and light, and fits in the bell of my horn in my case.  I use it frequently.  It also can be a great practice aid to develop your multiple tonguing.  I’ll have to make another video to show what I mean!  ProTec is now making a much cheaper version of this mute.  The original Best Brass brand was/is about $120… The new ProTec copy is about $35 on Amazon.  I can’t speak for the quality of the ProTec version, so check one out before you commit.

3.  Rode NT1 microphone - $249 - As a straight up large diaphragm condenser mic for brass applications, this mic works great for me.  It sounds great and is priced reasonably.  Maybe not as ideal as some much pricier ribbon mics, tube condensers, and others, but it sounds great and also doubles as an excellent mic for voiceover, audio-for-video, podcasting, and Skype.  It requires 48 volt phantom power, so you’ll need an interface for your computer, or a Zoom recorder with XLR inputs to run it.  

2.  TE tuner - $3.99 (iOS)/$1.99 (Android) - This is probably my favorite iOS app of all time.  It is also available for Android!  This thing does it all.  Priced at $3.99 for iOS and $1.99 for Android, this app features an excellent tuner.  Besides the tuner, it has a waveform analysis function and a built in recorder.  This thing is great for recording your practicing on the go, and listening back.  Includes a good metronome as well.  Excellent value and best of all, I always have it with me.

1.  Zoom H5 (or used H4, or H6) - $270 (H5) - The Zoom family of recorders is quite an amazing piece of technology.  The H4 was the original unit that I was familiar with, and a number of years ago it was the fancy recorder that replaced everyone’s Sony DAT Walkman.  Those were great recorders too, but the ability to record to CompactFlash and transfer to the computer quickly and easily made the Zoom recorders truly a step ahead.  Now, Zoom makes a few different models that will suit just about any needs for the modern musician.  I currently have an H5.  This recorder, in my opinion, should be the cornerstone of any musicians’s audio setup.  You can make stereo recordings via the onboard X/Y microphone pair.  You can plug in two mics via the XLR inputs.  You can plug in a 3.5mm plug equipped mic (like the Rode Videomic Pro).  The H5 can serve as the audio for a DSLR while producing video recordings through its line out, and on and on… The Zoom has a 1/4” tripod mount, a built in tuner and metronome, and a small built in speaker for quick reference playback.  There are a couple of features that are not so obvious, but that come in extremely handy for the self-producing musician…. The unit will record a safety track in parallel to the main recording, but at -12db to the settings on the gain controls.  This is great when you don’t have the time or extra help to get a thorough level check.  With experience, you’ll know about where your levels need to be in most situations (especially when recording solo), but the backup track gives you insurance that you get a usable recording without any clipping.  Finally, the Zoom H5 and H6 can be used as USB audio interfaces with your computer for recording to your favorite DAW.  No need to invest in another audio interface for the computer.  So, for sheer flexibility and options that these recorders give you, they are the top of the list here!  

I hope that gives you some things to think about.  I’d love to hear about any favorite practice or productivity aids in the comments! Do me a favor, if you haven’t subscribed to virtualtrombonist.com, please head over and look for the subscribe box at the bottom of any page.

 


 

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