Strategies and Pitfalls for Recording Successfully

’Tis the time of year when many of my students, friends, and colleagues are preparing audition recordings for auditions, schools, competitions, and festivals. The whole recording process can be a wonderful learning experience, but also a very honest and real indication of the current state of one’s musicianship. The process essentially consists of three basic parts: preparation, recording, and editing.

Preparing for a recording can be a daunting task. Many of my students simply do not make a focused effort to do this. It is too easy to simply continue one’s normal practice routine up until the time of the recording without giving it any special consideration. When preparing for a recording, it is wise to always consider the parameters and nature of the recording itself.

Will entire works be recorded? Can movements be recorded individually? Is editing allowed? Will just excerpts be recorded? What type of recording equipment will be used? Where will the recording likely be made? How long must the recording be? How many sessions will likely be had for the recording? Is there a choice of repertoire for the recording? Will accompaniment be necessary? The answers to each of these questions will often shape how best to prepare for the recording. Many students make the mistake of waiting until the recording process has already gone to begin addressing these concerns. At that point it is often too late to make any changes or adjustments.

It is worthwhile to record oneself to some extent on a regular basis within the context of a weekly practice routine. This doesn’t mean just setting up a recording device for the entire practice session. Practice sessions often consist of moments when you are trying to sound your best, moments when you are working on something that isn’t going well, and moments when you have completely lost your concentration. When listening to the recording many hours or even days later it is impossible to tell which is which.

Instead, I have advised students to dedicate an extended period of their weekly practice to trying to record themselves playing at their very best. Listen to the recording immediately after it was made, then listen to it again a few days later. Make a list of critical reactions each time and compare the two lists. You will notice certain things immediately after the recording has ended, and you will notice other things only several days later when you have forgotten the whole experience.

In the process of doing this it is very important to get to know all the features of your recording equipment. What does the manufacturer suggest in terms of placement? Are there different recording modes? How do you export files to your computer? Is there an equalizer? How do you set the recording levels? It is always a good idea, if possible, to do several test runs of the recording on a smaller scale before the session begins.

Preparing well for the recording is probably the most important part of the whole process. Many people make the mistake of showing up to recording sessions wholly unprepared for what they are about to do. They might have to record all three movements of a concerto in order without stopping, but they have not yet successfully run through the entire piece in their practice. They would never consider showing up for a live recital in this state, but somehow it seems different for a recording session with no audience present. It isn’t.

It is always important to secure a time and location to record as soon as possible. There are always external circumstances that can complicate this, but planning ahead has its advantages. Always schedule too many recording sessions and too much time per session. If a session doesn’t go well (maybe you just contracted an intense case of influenza), you can always postpone it and still easily make the deadline.

At the beginning of a recording session, plan to spend at least 30 minutes testing stage and microphone placement. In many instances it will take much longer than this, depending on the complexity and nature of the recording. Record about 30 seconds of various parts of the recording and then listen. Repeat this until everything is properly set up for your needs. Make sure the recording system can get a good level without peaking. The levels should spike well above the background noise of the room. Many musicians make the mistake of placing the recorder too far away in order to get a more reverberant tone quality, which almost always reduces clarity. However, too close of a placement can make the tone sound excessively thin and harsh. If there is accompaniment, the recording should pick up a good balance of each instrument/voice.

Once everything is set, the recording is ready to begin. I always recommend playing the whole way through something no matter what happens, exactly as one would do in a live recital. If an entrance is especially botched, if the accompanist goes into a coughing fit, or something else goes horribly wrong in some other random way it certainly makes sense to stop recording and start over. However, in most cases restarting over and over again will just waste time and tire you out. A typical run-through will simply capture an average instance of how you currently sound. If you don’t normally sound like (insert name of favorite professional musician here), you are not going to suddenly sound like that person as soon as you press the record button. Fix it for the next time in your daily/weekly/monthy practice routines. By the time you have already begun recording, it is too late.

Go and make takes of everything you need to record, no matter what it sounds like. Get everything recorded and plan to listen to it later. While recording, keep a written list of things you might want to re-record if you have time. Prioritize that list. If time remains at the end or on a successive day, go back and re-record everything as many times as you feel that you need to. Eventually you will run out of time in the studio/hall and will have to pick between the various takes. This is how it works. There is no such thing as a perfect recording. Everyone does as much as they can within the time they have to work, and then they are finished and must move on no matter how it went.

The last phase of the process is editing. Before listening through any of the takes, make a list prioritizing the most important attributes of this recording. Maybe it is best to have a strong beginning. Maybe it is best to nail that difficult passage that most people can’t play very well. Maybe it is more important to have a more musical take that might be a little out of tune than the opposite. Maybe rhythm is mostly what matters for this piece. The process of making this list will organize your thinking and listening while evaluating the takes.

Go through and rank all of the takes from best to worst based on your criteria. Don’t delete anything! You may have difficulty making final decisions. This is totally normal. You will also probably notice a “sameness” about all of your takes. They all sound like you. In one instance you chip this note, and in the next you chip a different one. This should help to relax you. The decision about which take to select is not as crucial as most people think. If you prepared well and stayed relaxed during the recording process, all of the takes are probably a good indication of your current playing abilities. If you are allowed to edit, you might be able to splice between various takes.

Once you pick the takes you want to use, learn how to use computer software to edit them. No one wants to hear 35 seconds on the front of your file while you walk up to the stage, adjust your music stand, cough twice, and then begin. There is plenty of good sound editing software available for free download on the internet (I recommend Audacity). Learn how to use it. Learn how to adjust the output volume so you don’t have to overload the volume on your stereo just to hear it, but also so that it isn’t peaking at the loud sections. If uploading to a web server, making sure the files are in the correct format (.mp3, .wav, .aiff, etc.). If burning an audio CD, make sure to test it (listen to the whole thing) in several CD players to make sure there were no errors.

There is an art to recording successfully. Many who work in professional recording studios have studied and devoted their entire lives to mastering that art. However, I think all musicians should take the time to learn the fundamentals of the recording process. We live in an age where the vast majority of music that is heard has been recorded. If you cannot record successfully, your talents will be invisible. By recording yourself, the world is your stage!

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