A simple DIY recording setup
The knack of professional recording is something I have just started to explore. It’s pretty neat, and luckily there is little sound-engineering knowhow needed when recording acoustic instruments. In fact, when it comes to recording violin alone, a lot is riding on just three things:
- The Instrument
- duh, the Player
- The Hall
A little about the third item: studios are largely out of the questions when it comes to recording instruments from the fiddle family. Studios are designed to be acoustically dead so that reverberation and echo effects can be fully controlled electronically in post-production. However, instruments from the fiddle family sound best when their projected sound gets bounced around a space that reverberates naturally. In my opinion, a studio and some software cannot compete with a good hall.
I do think pianos record wonderfully in a studio, however. And Glenn Gould laid down his most famous records in such a space. But could the same thing be said for recording a harpsichord? Getting classical instruments into a fine hall with great natural acoustics is of paramount importance.
My Recording Setup
Booking a great hall does not come cheap. So let’s not waste a session by having shoddy recording equipment! Choosing the right tools for the job is not something to overlook.
Jimi Hendrix had ribbon mics on him and his guitars for the majority of his recordings, and oddly enough, ribbons are the choice mics for acoustic instruments like violin, as well. Ribbons are largely out of fashion, but there is a small market for them thanks to us classical musicians. Otherwise, they may have gone the way of the dodo decades ago. I went with a pair of Beyerdynamic M160 which have a long history of use by both recording artists and record labels. They are hand-made, not factory-made, and this violinist can really get behind that.
It’s important to have the mics up and out above the violin, which is why in concert halls you’ll find the placements of mics dangling over the orchestra. Luckily, there are very tall mic stands in the market which make it possible to have the mics twelve to fifteen out and above the violin’s sound holes. I use a Shure S15A Mic Stand for the job.
In the future I really hope the soundcards on laptops and phones will be top-notch. But right now, device soundcards are pretty terrible. I don’t want to loose all the quality I have been able to achieve because of the soundcard on my recording device (in this case a laptop). I ended up going with an RME Babyface external audio interface which might even be over-kill, but wow, does it ever make things sound amazing.
I am using my Macbook eleven-inch Air to record the music, with Audacity as my Digital Audio Workstation. Nothing fancier than Audacity is needed as I am one player and I am not going to be adding a drum-track or anything else like it. I wanted to use my command-line SoX utility initially (an incredibly powerful tool), but it was not cooperating with my external Babyface soundcard.
With some additional cables and mounts, all of the above gives me a portable set-up for recording classical music on par with anything used in any grand recording production. And the best part about it, is my costs are one-time-only; I don’t have to hire a team of recording engineers every time I get an itch to record a new solo work. I just book a hall, put on set of new strings, and press rec. Hopefully the player (me) is deemed worthy to record when it comes time next month.
Please stay tuned for the results of this little experiment.
UPDATE: Nov. 2014
In addition, I recently added a Cloudlifter CL-2 into the system which gives an extra +20dB of clean gain to the ribbon mics. With this device, I can safely turn phantom power on.
Now I don’t have to add much gain via the babyface at all. With this extra boost, setting my left & right input at 36 in the RME software seems to work well.
UPDATE: Feb. 2020
By keeping the mics just around six feet up and overhead, I can keep the gain on RME with just a +6dB (for a total of 36dB) which minimizes the hiss of the noise floor.