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Recording music at home

Simon Highfiled is an audio technical producer with the BBC Philharmonic and has a background of working with BBC Research & Development.

During lockdown, Simon found inventive ways to work with the orchestra's musicians, supporting the players to record themselves in their own homes, and mixing and arranging the work so that it could be enjoyed by audiences online. Here, Simon provides his top tips, workarounds and digital tech that has made the recordings of concerts created at home possible.

Key points for home recording

  • The ambition is to capture instruments cleanly; clean of the room acoustic, background noise, and recording noise and distortions
  • You also want to capture the full range of the instrument’s timbre and dynamics
  • You don’t want the sound of the room the instrument was recorded in, or background noise

Summary of recoding fundamentals

  • Dry room acoustics are best
  • Minimise background noise
  • Record 1-2m from instrument, slightly above the instrument often best, or in front of the bell
  • External microphones are best, inbuilt phone mics are okay, inbuilt laptop mics are poor
  • Set the microphone gain carefully: too low = noisey; too high = distortion
  • Record using full quality uncompressed audio (24b 48k .wav), or the highest quality compressed audio possible (e.g. 320 kbps .aac)
  • Do a sound check before recording, and listen back to recordings before submitting them

Summary of recording to a click track

Wear headphones whilst recording so you can hear the click track but the microphones can’t;

Choices

1. (BEST quality) Record using one device:
    record in sync by using software that replays the click track and recordings the audio
    e.g. a DAW such as Audacity (free for apple / windows) or Spire (free for iOS; Android if you purchase the hardware);
2. Record using two devices:
    If you can’t use Audacity or Spire, record using Audiophonic (free for iOS)
    or Audio Recorder (free for Android) whilst listening to the click track playing on another device

Summary of choices when recording and filming

1. (BEST quality) Record audio on one device; film on another
    Allows you to optimise sound a video capture
2. Record and film on the same device
    Slightly compromises microphone and camera position, and decreases sound quality, but easier for musicians
3. (ALSO BEST) Record audio first, and then video another performance after
    Allows you to optimise sound and video capture.
    Although the sound won’t perfectly match the video, will anyone notice?

Details on key points

Recording fundamentals

- Room acoustics
- ‘Dead’ room acoustics are best (the less echoic the better):
    - Soft furnishings absorb reflections (such as cushions, curtains, carpets);
    - Furniture that breaks up reflections (book cases, shelves, framed photos);
    - Medium sized rooms;
- Home offices, libraries, living rooms, and bedrooms are best;
- Kitchens or open plan spaces are worse as echoic;
- Broom cupboards etc. are probably too small and boxy sounding.

- Minimal Background Noise
- If you can clearly hear noise, then it will probably be picked up on the recording;
- Try recording when the roads are quieter;
- Make sure that any extractor fans or noisey appliances are switched off.

- Microphone position
- Around 1–2m from the instrument is best:
    - That’s closer than usual, but it ensures more of the instrument is captured, and less acoustic
    - Too far = roomy acoustic;
    - Too close = nasty, small sound;
- Normally positioning the mic slightly from above helps capture the full instrument sound and helps isolate it (good for strings, winds, percussion);
- Positioning in front of the bell good to capture brass instruments cleanly (although at an angle might help slightly).
- Position with a clear line of site to the instrument
    - Not blocked by the music stand, or the player’s body
    - If you turn or move at all, will the microphone still have a good line of site?

- Microphone selection
- 3 choices for different budgets + complexity:
1. Top end: professional microphone, with an interface or sound card that allows recording to a computer
    - Best results
    - Can get kits for £200, or could spend 10s of 1000s if you want
    - But more complicated
    - Requires more space
2. Mid range: USB microphone that plugs in to computer directly, or external microphone for phones:
    - Can still get great results
    - Can spend £50-£200
    - Simpler
    - Less space
3. Low end: phone or laptop inbuilt microphone
    - Can still get good results
    - No extra investment
    - Simplest
    - Phone microphones are typically much better than laptops

- Set microphone gain
- Recording at too low a level creates a noisey recording; too high a level creates a distorted recording.
- You control the recording level by changing the gain.
- You might control the gain with a slider (which looks like a volume slider) or by specifying a number

an illustration of music recording appsMusic recording apps

- You can see the recording level by looking at meters which show the level as proportion of a bar.
    - You probably want to be peaking at around 2/3 of the bar
    - Sometimes they are also colour coded (e.g. red = too loud)
    - Sometimes the bars are numbered with decibels: 0 dBFS is max level, you want to peak around -12 or less.
- You can check your recording by playing your instrument and watching the meters to check the level is reasonable.
- You can also make a recording and replay it, watching the meters, and also listening back for any noise (if too quiet) or distortions (too loud)

- Audio quality
- You want to record uncompressed (full quality audio), such as 24bit 48kHz .wav files
    - Other filetypes are .aiff or .caf
- OR the highest quality compressed audio possible, such as 320 kbps .aac files
    - Other compressed audio filetypes (codecs) are .mp3, .m4a
    - Examples of lower quality bitrates might be 256 kbps, 128 kbsp, etc.
- This is possible using the DAW’s mentioned above, and apps like Spire
- Change this in the app settings

- Sound Check
- Before you start recording full takes, try recording 30s of the LOUDEST section
    - Check that the recording doesn’t peak on the meters, and that you can’t hear distortions

- Also take this opportunity to check the fundamentals described above:
    - Does the acoustic sound dead enough?
    - Can you hear any background noise?
    - Does the microphone pick your instrument up directly?

If not recording to a click track

Use these simple but effective recording apps:

    - iOS
        - Audiophonic (free)
    - Android
        - Audio Recorder (free)

Recording to a click track

Wear headphones to hear the click track ...
… Otherwise the click track will be picked up on the recording.
Set the volume so that you can hear the click comfortably, but not excessively loud that the recording will hear it.

Use wired headphones if you can
If using wireless headphones, there is a delay between you pressing play and you actually hearing the click, as the audio needs to be transmitted over blue tooth.
That delay also means that you’re recording will be out of sync with the click by the same amount.
This can be corrected when editing, but it takes time, so use wired headphones if possible.

Choices when recording

1. Record using one device (best):
    Record perfectly in sync by using one device—running software that both replays the click track, and records the audio.
    Start the recording precisely at the start of the click / guide track
    Still clap sync, just so the editor can very easily see that you’re in sync.

    - Mac or Windows computers
        - Musicians can use a digital audio workstation (DAW) such as:
            - ProTools (standard ~£400 for apple / windows)
            - Reaper (solo licence ~£60 for apple / windows)
            - Cubase (~£200 for apple / windows)
            - Logic (~£200 for apple)
            - Garage Band (free for apple and iOS)
            - Audacity (Free for apple / windows)
    - iOS
        - Use Spire Studio app (free)
    - Android
        - Spire Studio app (if you purchase the Spire hardware)

2. Record using two devices:
    Use one device to replay the click / guide track; use a second device to monitor.
    The clap sync is absolutely vital if using this technique.

    This option might suit certain people who find the apps described in (1.) complicated to use, or there might not be software available for their device (namely Android devices).
    However it creates more work for the editor, and it’s tricky to get it perfectly in sync.

    - iOS
        - Audiophonic (free)
    - Android
        - Audio Recorder (free)

List of useful links

BBC Philharmonic

- The Great Northern Playlist: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08gt4vj
- Pick A Part: https://www.bbc.co.uk/taster/pilots/pick-a-part

Producing click tracks

Recording

  • Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) for apple and/or windows such as ProTools, Reaper, Logic Pro X, Audacity(free)
  • Spire iOS (and Android if you purchase the hardware)
  • Simple recording apps, that don’t allow synchronisation, but can record at desired quality:
  • - ios: Audiophnic
  • - Andoid: audio recorder