Welcome to a new Flute Friday/Weekend!
Most of us, at some point, will be asked to put together a sample recording of our playing. This may be in support of a college application, a masterclass audition, a job interview, or simply to entertain our friends and family. Often our primary objectives in these recordings are to impress listeners with both our musical ability and our adaptability as an artist. With that being said, how do we go about creating a recording that accurately represents our playing across musical eras and styles? I have been putting together sample recordings ever since I figured out how to record my practice sessions using an old school tape recorder and a few blank Magnavox tapes (aka before CD players were mainstream). Today’s blog is devoted to tools and tips that will help you dive into the do-it-yourself sample recording process. Obviously, the best recordings will be made in a professional studio, so if you have the resources to go down that route, by all means, call your nearest music studio and set up an appointment ASAP! However, if you are crunched on time and/or cash, this blog will help you take matters into your own hands.
Do not recreate the wheel. Do you already have live recordings from past recitals buried within the depths of your music collection? If so, are there any pieces that really stand out to you as quality performances? I realize that listening to your own playing with a critical ear is difficult (we are musicians and, by nature, perfectionists), but once in a blue moon we all have a performance that we can point to with pride and say, “I absolutely killed it with this one! (In a good way)” Find these and save them in their own folder on your computer for safe keeping. You may label this folder anything you’d like (mine, for example, is simply titled “live performances” but you may call yours “I ROCK” or “Flute Commander of World” or “Move over, Rampal”), as long as it is saved in an easily accessed location. That way, if you need to send a sample without much notice, it will be as easy as point, click, send. If these recordings are super old, however, you may want to replace them with newer live recordings as they become available.
Track selection. Regardless of whether you are using pre-recorded or newly recorded tracks, it is very important to include a wide range of styles from a variety of musical eras. This is especially crucial if you are instructed to send a standard sample 20 minute recording, because the audition committee will more than likely be listening for your adaptability between compositional styles. A good place to start is by including 4 shorter pieces; 1 from the Baroque period (perhaps a Bach Sonata), 1 from the Classical period (a movement from one of the Mozart concerti works nicely), 1 from the Romantic period (a French Flute School piece fits in well), and an off-the-wall contemporary piece (Berio Sequenza or maybe a movement from the Ibert Concerto). Plan your program as you would a recital, keeping the opening work a bit upbeat, the inner pieces more subdued, and save the fireworks for the finale.
Recording with piano accompaniment. The golden rule is that if a piece has a piano accompaniment, you must record your piece with piano accompaniment. Some competitions state that this is “optional,” but recording with a piano will not only give you an edge over those who choose not to but also show your audition committee that you are committed to presenting the work as a cohesive whole requiring both voices. The most convenient way to do this is to purchase a handheld Zoom recorder with a stand. A Zoom recorder will give you a decent recording with a simple press of a button. Take this device with you to your next rehearsal and begin recording a few takes with your accompanist. When you are done, simply plug the card reader into your computer and select the tracks you wish to transfer to a CD. Easy peasy. A cheaper, more convenient alternative to this is to record your piece with a Smart Music accompaniment. The downside to this option is that the sound of the piano on the Smart Music tracks is not as brilliant as that from a live piano, cues are far less reliable on the computer generated program, and it is a bit difficult to obtain a proper sound balance between the flute and the piano track. However, if you are short on time and money, using Smart Music is a decent alternative to ensuring that your recording will have the necessary piano accompaniment. The Smart Music program comes equipped with an integrated recording component that records each track, with the option of converting tracks to mp3s that may be easily transferred to a CD recording. There are obvious pros and cons with both methods, but I prefer to record with a live piano whenever possible.
Record solo works in a complimentary acoustic environment. Okay, this is going to sound very odd, but some of my best recordings of solo works have been made with a Zoom recorder in a bathroom. I find that this environment gives my sound enough reverb without distorting the center and quality of the sound. Other spaces to experiment with include obvious culprits such as recital halls and churches, but also backstage greenrooms, dining room spaces, and any other indoor space with high ceilings and hardwood floors. Avoid outdoor spaces that minimize projection of sound and carpeted practice rooms.
Recording equipment. A computer is an obvious necessity for the home recording technician but investing in a handheld Zoom recorder is also a good idea for portability. Although it may seem more convenient to use a smartphone as a recording device, a Zoom recorder will give you better sound quality and correct much of the feedback that sounds in the higher register on standard recording devices. External microphones will also determine the volume of sound and likelihood of feedback on extreme high notes at louder dynamic levels. A lapel microphone works best with the Smart Music app, while a condenser microphone corrects unnecessary feedback on solo pieces featuring crazy runs in higher registers. Finally, software programs such as Smart Music and Itunes make the recording and transferring of files into mp3s and onto CDs very easy. Simply create your mp3s in Smart Music (or by downloading them from your trusty Zoom recorder or tracking them down from previous recordings), save to your desktop in an appropriately labeled file, drag each file into your Itunes library, create an Itunes playlist for your CD, and select “burn to CD.” Very easy! Technology has made it possible to easily transfer the blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put into your performances onto handy disks and mp3s that may be sent to others in the blink of an eye.
Again, I must stress that the best recordings are made in a professional studio. Soundboards and magical, highly advanced software programs can create recordings that a do-it-yourselfer simply cannot replicate. The above tips are for those times when time and money may decide whether you put your own masterpieces together or not. My very best advice is to always experiment. Experiment with new types of equipment, placement and types of microphones, software programs, piano accompaniment programs, and track selection. Whatever you do, always make sure that the recordings you send out to the world represent who you are as a complete performer. Never sell yourself short with a track that is only “good enough.”
Are you a do-it-yourself home recording technician? What software programs do you prefer to use to make sample recordings? What type of microphones do you use? What are your ideal recording environments and why? Please comment below!
Happy fluting (and recording)!