Benjamin Coy

Trombonist

Recording sessions

July 23, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Since it’s the middle of the summer and I don’t have to allocate much of my practice time for other people’s projects, I’ve been working on making some recordings of myself. I don’t have anywhere in particular to send them right now, but by the time I do, it’ll be too late. In many ways, recording is like all the rest of the playing we do: every note should be the best it can be, nothing can be taken for granted, and perfection is only a starting point. But, there are some important points to keep in mind that I think are particularly applicable to the recording process.

1. You’re not as good as you think you are

No matter how hard you practice, no matter how confident you feel, you’re going to dislike something you hear in the playback. That means that you can’t count on doing one or two takes and being done. Consider John Mackey’s account of his recording session with Joe Alessi: “Alessi nails the high F (of course), and then says, ‘I’d like to get a few more takes of that. I think I can do about 10 more, but that’s it.'” Alessi didn’t just want a clean take – he wanted many clean takes so he could pick the best one. So, count on spending way more time than you could imagine filling. I schedule a 2-hour session for each movement I want to record, and still feel rushed. Mackey goes on to say that Alessi recorded for nine hours on his 18-minute concerto.

2. Nobody is as good as they sound on a recording

Because every blemish sounds worse in a recording than it does live, professional recordings are spliced and edited to perfection. Nobody’s perfect, but we have come to expect perfection in recordings. While you should try to get as close to a completely clean take as you can, at some point you should recognize that unless you employ the same high-tech studio processing that the pros do, you’re not going to get that sound.

3. You’re only as good as your equipment

If you play on a cheap student-level instrument, you’re never going to sound the way you want. Similarly, if you record on a cheap student-level microphone, you’ll sound just as bad. Similarly, recording with improperly calibrated and placed equipment is like trying to play with a stuck valve or a dented slide. The more you can learn about recording technology, the better your recordings will turn out. And no matter what, find a good-quality microphone appropriate for your instrument!

4. Size matters

The acoustics of your recording space are as much a part of your recording as anything else. While there’s a pretty wide range of acceptability, try to avoid a room that’s too small or too big. A little reverb is nice, but too much reverb will destroy a perfectly good performance. You want a big enough room where you can move your microphones out away from your bell a bit, but not so big that your articulations get swallowed up.

5. Get your priorities straight

When preparing for a recital or worse, an audition, flexibility is key. You have to be able to move between many pieces and trust your chops to make the switch with you. When you’re recording, you can stay with one piece as long as you need to until you get the right take. That means that instead of working on teaching your chops diversity, you need to develop consistency. You want to be able to play the same movement many times in a row without feeling fatigue or losing sight of your interpretive decisions.

6. You’re not as good as you think you are

There comes a point in every recording project when you’ve used every minute of time you had allocated, you’ve edited the recordings as far they’ll go, and you’re still not happy with the result. It just doesn’t sound the way you thought it did while you were playing. The fact is, we hear a combination of what we intended to play and what actually comes out of the bell. These are usually related but not the same. There is a point (usually when there are no other options) when you have to determine a final product, and take notes for what you want to improve in your own playing before your next recording session.

Now, just to show the exception to all my statements above, take a listen to Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony playing the last movement of Scheherazade. This recording was done in one take with no splicing. Any time I try and record, this is my inspiration!

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