Pipehacker Project: Recording Your Professional Personal Piping Performances
You’re serious about your bagpiping, right? Of course you are. You take all the necessary steps to treat your instrument with care and acquire all the skills and knowledge you need to play good music. So why wouldn’t you treat other aspects of your bagpipe progress with the same import? It always surprises me that, for a group of musicians who make a lot of noise, so many bagpipers are so reluctant to record the result of their efforts or worse, completely in the dark about how to go about it. Recording yourself is just another component of the bagpiping skill and knowledge set and it behooves you to be as serious about it as you are with your bagpipe playing. This project will get you set up and creating professional-quality tracks of your piping performance.
The value of personal recordings as an educational tool cannot be overstated. But recording yourself can be daunting. Yes, hearing yourself can be a bit demoralizing. The prospects of creating a permanent record of all the flaws in your playing for all to hear for all time is frankly, frightening. Which is probably what keeps people from doing it. People might also be afraid of the absence of skills needed to work hardware and software, but these are no different than learning learning the skills required for a new tune. Well, it’s time to abandon the fear. Recording your playing is essential to your progress as a musician. Learning to critique a bagpipe performance is a great skill, but it is even more important to apply that skill to your own performances. There are elements of your bagpiping that you are just not going to hear when playing in your practice room, or worse still, there are elements that you think you hear that are then shown to be absent. The recording reveals all. In addition to listening to my own playing, I use recordings to get a better sense of my personal bagpipe sound. I’m always striving for a better quality sound and experimenting with different set ups. Recording the results of these experiments and listening to the results is the only real way to create the sound you want. Like a sculptor chiseling a large block of marble, you need to step back every now and then to get a true view of how your work is coming along.
For me, I know having a personal archive of my playing is a useful tool to check progress. But it also has other purposes. These days, folks hiring pipers for gigs are savvy enough to request music samples. Many websites that host pipers for hire have places for links to audio files and video. Are you going to be hire-able if you don’t have any samples or if your samples sound like they were recorded inside of a barrel? (Plus, I’m sure your grandma would love to check Facebook and listen to a file of you playing “Amazing Grace.”)
Any self-respecting piper with a computer and/or an Android phone or iPhone can record themselves for learning purposes. But if you really want to produce a high-quality recorded result, an awesome-sounding, studio-level piece of audio that is pleasing to listen to and worth sharing and won’t give your instructor an earache, you’re going to need the right tools and the right techniques. Here are some set up tips and equipment advice to get you recording your bagpiping like a pro.
What You Need
We’re going to skip over the many cheap digital recording devices and players that are out there. They are not up to the task of recording bagpipes. Your smartphone and/or computer can do the job, but the results are less than clear and the lack of clarity makes it difficult to assess what is being heard. The main reason is that the microphones in these devices are not designed to capture the acoustic range and volume levels of the Highland bagpipe. Most high-end portable digital recording devices will have this capability but, they can be very expensive. The best device that is equipped with all the right stuff for the Highland piper has got to be the Zoom H2 Handy Portable Stereo Recorder. (Note: About three months ago, the Zoom H2 was priced at almost $100 less than it is now. I can’t explain it and don’t know what to make of it. You can probably find the H2 cheaper somewhere other than Amazon—like Ebay perhaps.)
Here is a review of the Zoom H2 I posted way back in 2011. The Zoom H2 is designed for live music and has a microphone equipped for loud sessions. It is a studio-quality digital recording device that is stripped down of all the bells and whistles one finds on higher-end devices—even Zoom’s own H2n and H4. The H2 is perfect for the Highland piper. But to make it more perfect, you’ll need some additional equipment and set it up to do what you want.
- Windsock or windscreen. The foam windsock is a very good thing to use for recording bagpipes. Much of the hard-edged distortion you’ll get is removed with it on. If your Zoom didn’t come with one, you can get these at your local Guitar Center, Radio Shack, or online.
- Small tripod. Setting the Zoom directly on a surface will pick up unwanted vibrations and create distortions for sure. The Zoom comes with a little plastic stand, but that just makes things worse. Get yourself a small adjustable camera tripod. It acts as a great handle when holding the Zoom in the field and is practical for just about every surface you’ll set it upon. If you happen to have a microphone stand at home, all the better. The goal is to suspend the unit and keep it off any vibrating surface.
- Rechargeable AA batteries. You’ll discover this soon enough but the Zoom chews through battery power like nobody’s business. Save yourself the headache and waste and get any of the newer rechargeable battery setups that are out there. At this point, I’ve got a recharge dock that’s always plugged in and juicing up batteries.
- Standard USB/mini-USB cord. The Zoom has a standard mini-USB port just like on many other devices. You’ll need this for connecting the device with your computer. The Zoom will likely come with one, but these days they are standard fare and available everywhere.
- Extra 4GB SD cards. The Zoom H2 stores all media on an SD card. They fill up fast and having extras leaves you free to record willy nilly.
- A feature-rich audio editing program. See below.
How to Do It
Step 1: Set up the device. Your Zoom (or whatever device you’re going to use) will need to be set up for maximum potential. Set the device to record raw .WAV files at maximum size/quality. A good record mode is 44.1 kHz at 16 bit. Record level should be 24 dB. Mono mix set to off. Set the mic gain to M. Set the device to record at 90° with front mic only and 2 channels.
Step 2: Set up your recording space. The room you’re recording in has as much an effect on your final recored result as the device you’re using. Make sure your room does not have weird echoes or other acoustic strangeness. Most rooms in your house should be fine, but others such as tiled kitchens and bathrooms are only going to create clouds of noise on your recorded file. I’ve found that the Zoom gives the best result when it is about ten feet away, standing on a table or dresser about waist-high. That’s not to say you won’t get a great result if it is right next to you, but setting it at some distance reduces harshness and distortion. Make sure the space for traveling sound is clear between you and the recorder. In other words, don’t set it on the floor with chairs, tables, beds, and other things in the way.
Step 3: Record. You might think that recording your playing is a simple matter, and you would be correct. But it is amazing how many folks don’t think this and place way more emphasis than needed on the act of doing it. The whole process need not be a gut-wrenching ordeal of hitting “record” and then playing your piece, then stopping when it’s not right, then doing it again. This is your practice room, not the solo boards. Flip your device on at the start of your session and pipe away on all the things you need to. You will be surprised at how quickly the recorder disappears from your mind. Sometimes the mere act of trying to capture a good run of something can be as nerve-wracking as playing in solo competition. For that purpose, the recording process can be a good training tool. But for getting a decent representation of your playing, free from worry and anxiety, you will need to learn to just turn it on at the start, and turn it off at the end. Doing this, you will also avoid the inevitable “Shoot, I wish I had recorded that!” moment when you have a really good run through and the recorder is dark.
Step 4: Pull your file from the device and create your catalog. While the Zoom can do just about anything you want natively and on the fly, it is much more beneficial (and faster) to simply hook the device up to your computer (which I presume you have access to if you’re reading this) with the USB cord, select “storage” on the device, and drag the audio file from the device to your computer’s hard drive. It is good practice to rename the file with the date of the recording along with any other identifying names such as the tune title, or your own name (e.g., “PH_06292012.wav). I put these in a folder aptly named “Practice.”
Step 5: Edit your file. You’ll need to use an audio editing software program if you are going to get serious about your recording. It is necessary to open your newly named file into an audio editing program for final polish. It takes fifteen minutes to do whatever you need to do and the final result is a recording that rivals the quality of tracks on your old “Worlds Greatest Pipers” CDs. Gone are the days of small cassette tapes and push button recording machines and straight playback. There is no reason to put up with a lousy recorded result that is distorted and gravely. It is essential, if you don’t have them already, to acquire the skills to use one of the many audio editing computer applications out there.
The list of audio editors and recorders (free and otherwise) for any computer OS you have is pretty endless. Many of them will suffice and it is simply a matter of choosing one that you feel comfortable with. A lot of them are set up to sequence MIDI samples and produce computer music for mixing. All we pipers need for making personal practice recordings is a multi-track editor. Depending on what you’re going to do with your piping tracks though, you’re sure to find a program that meets your needs. A great list of these tools can be found on Wikipedia.
Whichever program you use, you’ll want an awesome result, which means you’ll need some basic skills to polish the file. Audio editors allow you to view the waveform of your sound file and select, cut, paste, or delete finite pieces. This is great for pulling out select tunes or removing non-musical noise. No one (including you) wants to listen to your six minutes of chanter diddling or drone tuning.
These programs also give you the ability to put some final shine on your recording. We’re all used to hearing quality audio these days and there is no reason you should settle for less with your personal tracks. Essentially all this takes is opening up the equalizer in the program and setting up a custom filter as a baseline. After that, you can make small adjustments until it is sounding pleasing to your ear. There is no hard and fast setting that is going to be perfect. Play around and experiment. The adjustments are different for just about every recording situation (and every audio player that is used). Even personal recordings under the same conditions but with different chanter/reed or drone reed combinations will not sound the same and require different adjustments to the final result. As good as the Zoom is, it can still produce a bit of harshness and throw off a certain amount of “tininess” in the raw recording. You’re shooting for clarity and realism. Running the raw audio file through an equalizer filter smooths out the sound a bit, and depending on the final mix you want, can bring out the drone sound as well and make it a bit more true to life. (The drones have a tendency to fade into the background and get drowned out by the chanter.) Extra effects such as (my favorite) a fade-in or fade-out, are easily added and adjusted for maximum awesomeness.
For our bagpiping purposes, here are two programs that I’ve used to create great final recordings:
- Adobe Soundbooth. This program comes with Adobe Creative Suite 5 and earlier as well as a standalone program. Adobe stopped supporting this as of last year and replaced it with something far fancier but, the earlier versions are perfect for your needs. If you have access to Adobe CS or wish to purchase the program, you’ll have all the power of a professional mixing board at your fingertips. The program will convert the audio to any format you wish up to professional level quality. The list of preset equalizer filters is exhaustive but of no real use to the piper but program allows adjustments to the parametric curve of your sound file where you can get your ears dirty making really minute tweaks. If you feel like getting funky and running your piping through distortion effects and looping them into your rap mix though, you have everything you need! The program can also touch up the audio in video files as well, allowing you to overcome and minimize some of the inherent awfulness one hears in bagpiping video sound.
- Audacity. This freeware audio editor has been around forever and will do everything you need it to do. All the audio adjustments and format conversions can be done in this program. Where it falls short is in its ability to convert and/or read different audio codecs and its capability for really fine equalizer moves. But it excels when working with raw recordings needing minimal editing. And the price is right.
Step 6: Save your file and listen. The final step is to save the newly edited file in your format and quality level of choice. Save the file as an mp3 at a bit level for a high quality personal CD or a low bit level for smaller files perfect for an email attachment and sharing. Create a custom playlist of your mp3s in your music player and listen, listen, listen. It is the only sure fire way to make sure those tracks will eventually truly sound like the “Worlds Greatest Pipers.”