In Response to Juilliard Pre-College’s Pre-C Post “Recording Tips”
In November 2011, Juilliard’s Pre-College Division provided their students with some recording tips (“Pre-C Post”, Vol. 1 Issue 2).
First, I cannot agree more with the following statement: “An audition committee is not going to try to imagine how good you are—they need to hear it.” This is a crucial point that most students fail to grasp. Let me give you some history…
Around the time when audio-cassette tapes became old-school and the MiniDisc format started to become popular, it somehow became “good enough” to use low quality commercial grade recorders for audition recordings. Yes, these recorders can create decent reproductions of your performance. However, is that how an aspiring musician should want to present themselves? Decent? I think not.
When I was applying to music schools, a prominent school in New York City, which will remain nameless, informed me to just “use a MiniDisc recorder – it’ll do the trick.” I knew better than to trust that suggestion. Today, MiniDisc has become a technology of the past and Flash recorders have become king. However, these consumer grade devices are only as good as the microphones connected to them. Juilliard’s suggestion of purchasing a device with an XLR input is key. Without XLR, you cannot connect a professional microphone. What Juilliard’s article fails to mention is that there are different grades of XLR cables. Personally, I would recommend mid-range cables for most productions. A great example would be Pro Co Sound’s Merlin series cables. Also, don’t forget that your recording device needs to offer phantom power. There is a very good chance that your microphone will need it. But, be careful! Some microphones can be easily damaged by misusing phantom power. Make sure to do your research.
The Pre-C Post article also makes suggestions for microphones and recommends that you buy two of them (to enable stereo recording). However, the author also mentions that mono recordings can be good enough for your audition. That is absurd and akin to the old “MiniDisc will do the trick” mantra. No aspiring musician should ever want to portray his or her skills using mono; stereo recording is a must! Mono recording does still have its purposes, but most definitely not for classical music.
In addition, the common conception that two microphones are all you need to record an audition is fiction. Yes, two recording inputs create a stereo recording, but in classical music recording, one generally should not point the main microphones directly at the musician. You should use a matched stereo pair (this means that the microphones were made as a pair – usually the serial numbers are one digit apart) to record the ambiance of the room and then use strategically placed pickup microphones to mix in a direct sound from your instrument. This means that to make a great sounding recording you really need a minimum of three microphones. You can’t do this with your typical consumer-level gear.
Putting that aside, if you still want to record yourself, and you want to save some money, do so on your recording device purchase. The article is correct. “Digital recorders and computers [do not make] … good investment[s]. Put your money into microphones, not recorders.” If it is not inherently clear, today’s recorders are not all that it takes to make a high quality recording. Getting the best possible microphones, knowing which types to use, and knowing where to place each microphone are the most important details. As an aspiring musician, you must learn this information to some degree; not necessarily, so that you can make your own recordings, but so that you can know if your recording engineer knows what they are doing.
A common concept of on location recording is “location, location, location.” The better acoustically designed your venue is, the better the quality of your recording. However, as the Pre-College suggests, “you want to make sure you have access to a place where you can concentrate and play well.” This is essential – although giving an audition in Carnegie Hall would be awesome – are you going to feel most comfortable there? Most likely not. Some of the best recording locations are in your home or at your school . You will give your best performance where you can feel the most relaxed.
The author seems to think that self-recording yourself is a good idea. However, from personal experience, I can tell you it is much more difficult. You constantly are thinking about the recording, instead of about your performance. Did I remember to hit record? Are my levels peaking? Did I run out of disk space? Am I going to be able to edit that out? Should I stop and redo that? The mind chatter is never ending. This is not what you want running through your head while trying to record an audition. It is always helpful to have somebody with you while you record – a teacher or family member is a great suggestion –in fact, I encourage my clients to invite their teachers to their recording sessions – but a professional audio engineer is crucial! A good engineer can make technical corrections, let you know when there is an issue, make suggestions, etc. However, even more important is finding the right recording engineer. You need to find somebody who is experienced in recording classical music. They should know how to set up equipment in a fashion that best suits your instrument. They also need to know what adjustments need to be made in order to optimize your recording’s quality.
I want to end this post by stressing the biggest piece of advice that the article gave: “You should attempt to make a ‘final’ recording weeks before you actually need it.” The best audio recordings are produced by “great listening, problem solving, and practicing.” Trying to get a recording done in the last moment is a huge mistake. Not only will you be nervous and rushing to get it done, but you won’t have the necessary time to reflect on your work and make any necessary changes. Prepare ahead of time to save headaches.
Remember this is your audition. How do you want to represent yourself? Are you ready to compete? If so contact a Musical Horizon® engineer by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling us at 973-287-4029.
– Max Sverdlove
Musical Horizon, LLC