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The Musical and Pedagogical Benefits of Home Recording

Josh Massicot, Nazareth College 

From old reel and cassette tapes to YouTube and smartphones, recording technology continues to have a profound influence on us as pedagogues and artists. We now take for granted how easy it is to pull up a recording, make a short audio or video clip for a student, or review recorded assignments in between lessons. The quality of these recordings and the ease with which to make and share them continue to improve: this past year, a student of mine recorded, edited, mixed, and submitted all of her college audition materials on her iPhone. The quality of the representation of her work was outstanding.

In my job as both a private teacher and a collegiate instructor working with future music therapists, educators, and performers, my students desire the knowledge and ability to create multi-layered, quality recordings in their practice rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms. These musicians want to create their own accompaniments and loops to help improve the meaningfulness and fluidity of their improvisations; they want to write and record their own original music; they want to hear themselves as part of something much larger.

Studio recording and production is the process of capturing performances (acoustic, electronic, and/or pre-recorded), editing, mixing, and mastering them for listening. Up until recently, this required expensive professional equipment, a studio large enough to hold all of it, and a great deal of knowledge and experience to execute a vision. A sound engineer generally needed to enroll in a specialized program and/or serve as an apprentice in a studio, thus affording access to this equipment. And if musicians wanted to put their performances on record – even just to make a passable demo recording before being professionally recorded – they needed to spend significant money to buy studio time. Their time was also limited by their medium – tape was expensive, so each take added up quickly.

This has changed. The ever more powerful consumer electronic devices we use everyday – our laptops, tablets, and smartphones – are now capable of powering a low-cost recording setup that the vast majority of musicians can afford. With a few well-chosen pieces of recording gear, just about anyone can set up and operate a fully functional mobile home studio.

While learning to use these tools effectively and efficiently and creatively remains a highly-skilled art, the software and hardware has evolved specifically with the consumer musician and recording hobbyist in mind to be as user-friendly as possible. What follows is a short description of the main components of setting up a mobile home studio and equipment recommendations that I have both used successfully with my students and which they have used on their own. 

Most of us already possess a desktop or laptop that is more than capable of serving as a workstation. While this article will focus on recommendations for equipment for use with a Mac or PC, it should be noted that there are a number of high-quality apps that can be used with a tablet or smartphone.
Recording Software (Free):
A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is a piece of software that fully emulates and models the tools of the traditional analog studio. These programs are capable of producing industry-standard recordings. While professional DAWs cost hundreds of dollars, there are many low-cost or free DAWs that are incredibly powerful. All Macs come preloaded with Garageband, a free, intuitive and capable first DAW. Avid Technology’s Pro Tools, one of the industry’s most popular professional DAWs, updates and supports “Pro Tools First”, an entry-level free DAW that supports up to 16 audio tracks, simultaneous recording, and a number of effects. Similarly, Pre Sonus’ “Studio One Prime” is a free, streamlined, single-window workstation complete with professional features. While both Pro Tools First and Studio One Prime do have their limitations, the benefit of learning how to use them means that a student or studio looking to upgrade to a more fully-featured version will be making a seamless transition.

Audio Interface ($40 - $120):
An audio interface is the intermediary between your DAW and all of your recording equipment: it helps your computer ampily, process and transfer in real time the performances from your microphone or instrument. They also provide outputs to speakers, headphones, and level/line adjustments. These pieces of equipment used to cost thousands of dollars, but they are now incredibly affordable. Focusrite’s Scarlett and Behringer’s U-Phoria lines of interfaces deliver excellent audio quality, contain nicer features like direct monitoring (the ability to hear the playback of your recorded sound without any latency) and phantom power (the ability to use a greater variety of microphones). I’d recommend starting with a “2 IN / 2 OUT” interface – two inputs allow you to record two tracks simultaneously or one track in stereo.

Microphones ($50 - $200):
Microphones convert acoustical energy into electrical energy. Different types of microphones have different ways of converting that energy. Dynamic and condenser microphones are two of the most common microphones used in a studio. Dynamic microphones, which use a wire coil and magnet, are sturdy microphones suited to live performance and louder levels (drums, horns, guitar cabinets, and vocals). Condenser microphones, which require power for their capacitors, tend to be more sensitive and responsive than dynamic microphones. While more delicate, they are excellent at capturing the nuances of the human voice and recording a vast array of acoustic instruments.

For home recording, condenser microphones are a fantastic place to begin. A pair of studio condenser mics would excel at capturing the nuances of a grand piano. A large diaphragm condenser excels at vocals and stringed instruments. If looking at dynamic microphones, I’ve had great success at using a Shure SM-57 for vocals (with a pop filter) and acoustic instruments. SM-57s also transition perfectly to live performance.

Accessories ($100 - $150):
Studio headphones, cables (XLR for mis, ¼” for instrument line inputs), a pop filter for vocals, and a boom mic stand are all essential pieces of gear. If you don’t own some of this equipment already, you can easily acquire it used through a variety of local and online means.

The pedagogical and creative implications for you and your students having access to this kind of equipment are immense.
When artists record themselves, they almost always utilize a click track (a metronome). While automation can smooth the edges, every audio engineer is always looking to capture something as close to perfection as possible. Students will record passages again and again, seeking that level of mastery, and their sense of pulse will improve.

Playing the piano is often a solitary pursuit. Students invite their peers to play and sing on their recordings. I’ve had students literally learn how to play other instruments just so they could track them. As they do this, they hone their aural skills and develop preferences for harmony and voice-leading. We forget that the “rules” of counterpoint came out of what we liked to hear naturally. Students explore these concepts organically and artistically.

Learning a song or writing your own puts a lot of theoretical concepts into practice: a song has a structure, a flow, a beginning, an arrival, an ending. It has dissonance and consonance and harmony and syncopation and poetry. When students immerse themselves in this kind of process, they begin to hear music differently.

Students develop their own voices – vocally and artistically. Every teacher I’ve ever had sang in a lesson. We sing because it’s the closest and most intimate physical representation of our musicality. I’ve had students sing politely in lessons, only to find an incredible voice develop when they record. An instrument is a tool for musical expression, and recording gives us the ability to explore that expression in ways that we don’t always have access to in the moment.

These are just a few of the many joys I’ve had recording my students over the years and helping them with their own projects. As technology continues to develop, these tools will become even more integrated into our studios and musical lives. It is my sincere hope that with a little patience and a small investment that audio recording and the basic tools of production can become a valuable and meaningful tool to the studio teacher.

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