Have you ever felt like you just can’t quite determine what your ensemble needs to sound better? Maybe they just need a little extra help to sound awesome, but you can’t quite put a finger on it? I think I’ve found the answer!
I have often heard knowledgable teachers and clinicians claim that you must record your groups regularly in order to objectively determine how they truly sound. I agree completely! My problem is I always “hear” what I know I should hear, and my mind and ears sort of block out mistakes. Listening to a recording, however, gives me a much more clear and unbiassed view of the group.
I’ve also found that students benefit tremendously from hearing their own performances. We always listen to our recordings from contest, but what if I could record every rehearsal? What if I could instantly allow students to hear the changes we were making? I thought this sounded like a good idea, so I got to work.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been recording my groups in rehearsals. I discovered several ways that don’t work, but I’ve finally found the best and most affordable way to record your groups every day! Want to know how I do it?
I bought a hand-held recorder and used it quite a bit, but it often gave useless, lousy, distorted recordings. When I did record, it was a pain to import files into my computer, then open them, then convert them, then save them, then….you get the idea…it was a pain.
I finally decided I needed a permanent solution in my classroom because I knew recording rehearsals would never become a regular staple of my teaching unless it was easy to do and always ready to go.
Here’s how I created a high-quality and very low-cost recording setup in my classroom. It’s easy to use and always ready to go! I chose to record to a Mac Mini computer, though a desktop PC or laptop would work as well. Essentially, you need three items: microphones, an interface, and recording software. If you already have some of these items, then use them!
Here are my equipment choices, as well as some images of how I have it set up.
I use the Audio-Technica Pro 45 Hanging Condenser Microphone as my microphone of choice. It come attached to a 25′ thin mic cable, as well as with directional supports that you can bend to point the microphone at the area you wish to record. And if you or your admin are looking for something unobtrusive, the mic does come in either black or white.
As far as quality is concerned, these are quiet microphones, leaving almost no traceable hiss or noise on the recordings. They are also very sensitive to the nuances of musical performance. In addition, they are affordable, quality microphones, costing (new) approx. $80 each.
I chose to hang two in my room near the front, outer edges of my ensembles. The cables are run above the acoustic tile ceiling and down a piece of plastic conduit to my table, where they connect to a USB interface.
I chose the Steinberg CI1 USB Audio Interface. The device is equipped to provide phantom power (required for condenser microphones) and is powered completely by the USB power of the computer. This device does require you to download drivers in order to function, but the ease of use and exceptional functionality makes the install worth the hassle.
There are two channels that have both gain and volume controls. It took me about 3 minutes to get the desired levels dialed in the first time we used it, and they’ve virtually stayed the same ever since. I just had my students do a little playing on their own while I adjusted the levels to a good full volume that would not overdrive the inputs. Also of note for those who like to use headphones, there is a headphone jack with separate volume control on this unit so you can hear the signal you are sending to the computer!
There are tons of options when it comes to choosing a recording software. Some programs even come installed as standard equipment on new computers, but for the easiest and most cost-effective recording solution, you simply can’t beat Audacity’s Free Recording Software. It works on either PC or Mac, is very easy to learn and use, and it’s FREE!
Files can be exported using nearly any audio format you would want. Just click the mouse to start recording and tap the space bar to stop. It really is that simple! There are also ample editing tools built into the program if you need them.
Here are some ways I’ve used this setup with my students.
- My students like seeing what they sound like. With Audacity projected on the screen at the front of the room, they can clearly see a clean unison start to the sound verses a sloppy entrance. And if you have a metronome clicking in the background, it’s very easy to see where your tempo lines up with the click and when your tempo fluctuates. Also, as your dynamics change so does the size of the sound waves. Did you crescendo and decrescendo evenly? You can now hear and see the answer.
- Has your group been invited to perform at an event that they can’t attend? Why not send a CD of your group instead? I did this with two of my groups just last week and the results were great! Our ensembles got credit for putting forth the hard work to rehearse and create the majority of the music for the event that none of the students attended. We rehearsed just as if we would be giving a concert, but instead recorded our pieces in class in the days leading up to the event.
- I think it’s important to include students in making musical decisions when approaching a piece of music. Is there a question about whether we should ritard in measure 55, or should we attempt a more drastic crescendo in measure 63? Try recording the section in question a few different ways and allow your students to listen and vote on what they like best. You may be surprised at the very mature interpretive choices your students are capable of making!
- The recording doesn’t lie to you.When I started recording my groups I found the recording rarely sounded like what I thought I heard on the podium, or what the students thought they sounded like. For some reason it is so much easier to hear mistakes on recordings than live. If you hear tuning issues on the recording, there were actually tuning issues when you played. Spending some time recording and listening to yourselves will insure there are no surprises coming from the judges at contest. You’ll know exactly what your group sounds like before you ever compete.
- Listening skills have greatly improved for my students and for me! I’m not talking about simply how to listen to recordings. We have all discovered what we should listen to in a live setting based on our discoveries from the recordings. I receive much more educated comments coming from my students now. Even before hearing the most recent recording, my students can often tell me every mistake we’re about to hear. Before we started this process they didn’t have a clue!
There are countless ways you could use a setup like this, but I would strongly encourage you, if at all possible, to allow your students to be able to see what they sound like. This has been an enormous aid to our students from our high school ensembles all the way down to our beginner classes. Best of all, it’s cheap! Our entire setup cost under $150 (I purchased one mic used).
It took me about an hour to hang the microphones and run the cables, but it was a very easy install that I’ve done many times before. The educational value in this one setup far outweighs the cost, plus the return is endless! I encourage you to start recording your groups today!
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