The Digital Musician: A Takeover Special
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
From audition tapes to online teaching, it's now almost impossible to be a musician without any digital equipment! But where on earth do you start? What do you actually need? If you're a slight technophobe like me then the world of recording equipment can be more than overwhelming. Don't get me wrong, technology is great - but the process of recording an audition tape always feels like a stressful baptism of fire that I'd rather avoid!
So knowing my strengths are not in this department, this fortnight I'm handing over to my wonderful friend and techy-whizz, Ashby Mayes!
Hello and welcome to my takeover! My name is Ashby and I am a bassoonist studying at the Royal College of Music. I am really keen on sound engineering/videography/photography and basically anything tech, so I’m delighted to share my top tips/advice on recording equipment for musicians.
I’m going to talk about four main topics (but they will all connect somewhat!):
What you need to record an audition tape
What you need for social media posts (good videos/photos for personal promotion)
What to use for online teaching
When to get a professional in!
Links to all devices covered in this article are at the bottom, along with the equipment I use!
First, let's start with recording an audition tape:
A panel is always looking to be able to hear you as clearly as possible so the audio is definitely the most important. Video is also important but as you (probably) won’t be sharing it publicly for personal promotion it doesn’t matter if it isn’t top quality.
Usually you can get away with using your phone if your built in camera is good enough. Make sure to use the back camera as it will always be better than the selfie camera, and the selfie camera will probably flip your image.
I wouldn’t recommend filming at a resolution lower than 720p as you might look a bit blurry. I recommend filming at 1080p if you can - recording resolution can be found on your phone settings or the settings in your camera. 4K is great, but it means you’ll have huge file sizes to work with, and for an audition tape, I don’t think they’d ever request for a 4K video.
Make sure you read carefully what the orchestra/panel has specified for recording angle - most of the time they will want to see your hands or request a specific angle (eg. 45 degrees from the right hand side - this is one I’ve been asked for before). If you’re recording on a mobile phone, I’d recommend getting a cheap tripod & phone adapter to make sure that you are framed nicely on the video (it’s also less precarious than balancing on a music stand..). I wouldn’t trust a nice camera on one of the cheap tripods but they will be fine for holding a mobile phone!
A great device I have used and recommend for general filming is the Shure MV88. It is an iPhone microphone that plugs straight into your iPhone (or iPad). The Shure app lets you record video with your phone camera and record audio through the good quality microphone. This saves the hassle of editing together a separate audio file & video file after recording it.
If you don’t have an iPhone (like me), a Zoom handheld recorder is a great portable device for recording audio on the go. It does mean you have to join the video & audio together separately, but the top of the range Zoom H4n will produce a better sound than the Shure MV88. I use Adobe Premiere Pro for my video editing and it is very easy to sync video & audio together, but there is other free software out there that can do this, like iMovie.
Zoom also makes portable video recorders with good inbuilt microphones (and camera) which are also good devices for filming this kind of thing. If you are a keen videographer (like me) then I wouldn’t recommend getting one of these as the video quality is not as good as most good mobile phones/cameras.
For any of these audio devices, make sure you do a test recording in the room you’re in BEFORE recording the whole take. If the gain is too high, then the recording will be distorted and there is nothing you can do to fix that. If it is too low, then it is possible to increase it, but you can’t get rid of distortion. Don’t put the microphone/camera too close to you when you are recording either, unless you are aiming for a really direct/close sound. It is better to use them a little bit further away.
What you need for social media posts:
Most people nowadays have pretty good built-in cameras in their mobile phones. Basically all of my posts on my music account are taken on my phone. If you’re filming practice videos and want really good audio to go with it, then I’d recommend the same equipment as above.
If you’re keen on vlogging/making videos, then you might consider getting a separate camera for filming - there are plenty of budget vlogging cameras out there which would be great if that is what you’re wanting to do. Most digital cameras, mirrorless cameras or DSLRs will be great for vlogging and also taking photos of your day to day activities. If you want any specific recommendations on additional equipment, then do get in touch! (details at the bottom of the blog)
When filming yourself, don’t have bright lights/windows behind you or you will come out very dark and under-exposed (looking like a silhouette). If you’re using a front facing camera for filming yourself doing practice videos/other playing bits, do make sure that the video is not flipped as it always looks strange seeing videos of people playing with a mirror image. This also applies with selfies!
What to use for online teaching:
There are various external mics you can use for online teaching. The ones I tend to recommend are the:
Blue Yeti microphone - a USB plugin microphone which is a good quality although not comparable to normal condenser microphones
Zoom handheld mics - a bonus feature of these is that as well as having the portability of a handheld microphone, you can actually plug these into your computer via USB cable and use it as a microphone on Zoom/Skype/whatever you teach with
Condenser microphones - if you want to get a bit more advanced with your recording equipment, then invest in a good condenser microphone. I have a pair of AKG P120s and a pair of Rode NT5s and I have used them for online teaching (and recording). These do need an external interface to plug into which will also cost a little bit more. This is the priciest option but is worth it if you can invest in it, and will also use it elsewhere. If you want to chat more about these advanced options then do get in touch (details at the bottom of the blog!).
Do make sure you have your software (Skype/Zoom etc) set up well to avoid dodgy noise cancellation and compression. If you have some regular background noise (a fan on, or a continuous hum), this is what the noise cancelation gets rid of. Unfortunately, long notes from a musical instrument register as background noise - this is why it is important to enable original sound when teaching/learning online. Zoom has a feature called ‘Original Sound’ which basically transmits the original sound you make without activating their noise cancelation.
When to get a professional in!
If you’re happy just recording yourself with a single shot camera, and decent audio from a handheld recorder then you’re alright to avoid using a professional.
If you want top quality audio, and multi-camera (multiangle) video in HD, this is when you should hire a professional. I think it is really important to keep your online profile up to date with new, good quality recordings. It’s best not to delete existing footage online (as it’s good to have a record of it) so I usually archive videos/posts to make things private but still available to make public if you want to.
There are many great student professionals who own their own equipment and offer really good rates for this kind of recording. I offer professional quality multi camera recording so do get in touch if you’re interested. It is always worth posting on Facebook if you’re after a video recording/audio recording/headshots as people will tag away and recommend others they’ve worked with.
As with most equipment, if they are the same brand and the same range, the more you pay, the better the quality is the general rule. I’ve also listed the equipment I use when doing recordings.
Cheap tripod with phone mount: Here
Better tripod: Here
Video tripod (with fluid head for filming - this is only if you want to do some panning whilst filming so that the footage is very smooth): Here
(anything above the H4n is for advanced users and you’ll know what you’re looking for if you need something above the H4n)
Zoom video recorders:
What equipment I use:
Nikon D7000 - DSLR - I use this for filming and also headshots
Nikon D3100 - DSLR - this is my old camera which I still sometime use for filming as a secondary camera
Canon Legria HF G26 - Camcorder - this is my main camera for filming
OnePlus 6T - mobile phone - I use this for most of my social media posts and occasionally filming as an additional camera, or a main camera if it doesn’t need to be top quality
DJI Ronin SC - camera stabiliser) - this helps me make super smooth moving shots (google it!)
Manfrotto befree travel tripod - Video tripod - this tripod has a Befree ‘fluid head’ which means you can do very smooth panning shots with a video camera - it costs more than a regular tripod but is definitely worth it
Velbon DF50 - regular tripod - this is a solid tripod I’ve had for a few years and is great for still shots.
Rode NT5 (pair) - small diaphragm condenser microphones - these are great to use as overhead microphones and to record an ensemble, these are my go to microphones mostly
AKG P120 (pair) - large diaphragm condenser microphones - I used these as overheads/close mics for years before getting my Rode pair, most videos on my social media were recorded with these
Zoom H4n Pro - handheld recorder - great for portable recording and also to use as a USB microphone for online teaching
Shure SM58 - vocal microphone - not great for instruments but great for karaoke + live vocals
EDIROL U-25EX - this is my USB interface I use to plug microphones into my computer - don’t get the cheapest one out there and don’t get anything from Behringer either, it won’t be worth it
Beyerdynamic DT770 PRO (80ohm) - headphones - these are flat headphones that basically don’t boost any frequencies. I use these for mixing and mastering recordings
Adobe Photoshop 2020 - great for photo editing of all levels
Adobe Premiere Pro 2020 - great for video editing of all levels
Final Cut Pro - great for video editing of all levels (only available on Mac)
Logic Pro X - audio editing software (only available on Mac - others to try include Cubase, Ableton, Pro Tools and Audacity)
Thank you so much for reading the blog, and thank you to Ruth for letting me takeover this week! If anyone has any specific requests on equipment or any general questions then don’t hesitate to get in touch with me - all of my details are below. If you’re wanting to get more advanced with recording then I’d be very happy to make another blog going into more detail.
Thank you and stay safe out there!
Studio website: https://www.ashbymayes.com/studio