I had planned to address a topic like this anyway, but a couple of weeks earlier. Events surrounding the COVID-19 virus had the contradictory effects of both making this topic very timely, but also delaying my having time to write about it as I retooled for teaching entirely online for the remainder of the semester. Happily, I had this equipment on hand so that I was able to setup my home office for effective teaching, though had all of this happened just a year or so ago I would not have been so prepared.
As a teenager I was at least a bit of a gearhead when it came to home stereo systems. My first one was my dad’s old stereo with a CD player sort of spliced into it in a way that might not have been completely safe, but it worked. It was fun learning how to do that, anyway. A little later I got a proper audio/video receiver and some pretty good speakers, which I kept until a few years into married life when my wife decided she wasn’t interested in having our living room clogged with so much audio equipment. By that time the best equipment had gotten considerably smaller anyway, and I also decided that I didn’t want premium sound as much as I wanted more money in my pocket, so for over a decade I left premium audio behind except for always keeping a pretty good set of studio monitors for my home computer and some decent headphones. All that time I never got into purchasing recording equipment very much, believing that to be prohibitively expensive.
Fast-forward 10-12 years, and on all the message boards and at all the conferences for low brass players I increasingly noticed that quality audio and video recording, mixing, and production was becoming a fairly standard expectation in the profession, even for people like me that play entirely acoustic instruments. I decided that I needed to learn how to do a little better than plugging some mics into a handheld recorder linked to a camcorder, and that I needed to be able to do at least some basic recording and mixing using both computers and mobile devices. After a few months of experimentation (and not a little bit of buying and returning things to Amazon), I have arrived at setups that work for me.
The explanations that follow are simply “things that I have that work for what I do.” Others might have different or better setups, or similar equipment from different manufacturers, etc. I have little expertise in all of this, but am happy to share what I’ve discovered.
The audio interface is how one gets microphones (powered or unpowered), instruments like guitars, as well as one or more auxiliary inputs to interface with a computer. As an added bonus, these can function as external sound cards, usually providing superior audio quality to what one usually finds installed on laptop or desktop computers. I have two of these, one at home and one at work, both from Tascam. The US 1×2 is smaller and simpler. It has front inputs for a single microphone as well as an instrument (guitar, etc.), as well as a rear auxiliary input (I use these to play from my phone into the monitors or headphones). The output is into two audio channels. The US 4×4 is more complex, with front inputs for four microphones and/or instruments, MIDI in/out in the rear, and output into as many as four audio channels.
Either of these units works well for having a quality microphone to use when teaching music lessons via Zoom, Google Meet, etc.—which seems to be the most common application for this sort of thing at the moment. Having good sound makes a HUGE difference in the online lesson experience. The 4×4 in particular can be used for recording from multiple sources into four distinct channels in digital audio workstation (DAW) software such as Adobe Audition (my preference), Avid Pro Tools, etc. I’ll admit to not having explored this very much as yet, but maybe I will have time to do so in the coming weeks.
One thing I learned from months of frustrating experimentation with the above audio interfaces is that however useful they are with computers, they do not work nearly as well with smaller devices like tablets and smartphones. While desktop and laptop computers have both hardware and software capabilities to manage the audio input from multiple channels, iOS and Android devices lack these capabilities. Depending on the app being used, these devices will often only take the audio from one or maybe two inputs, and sometimes separate them into left and right channels in annoying and undesirable ways. What these devices need is something that takes care of managing and, well, mixing the audio signals from various inputs on the hardware side before sending those signals to the device in a simple L/R mix that they can understand.
To that end, I purchased a pair of very inexpensive, entry-level Behringer USB mixers, the Xenyx Q1202USB and Q802USB. (Once again, one of these stays at home, and the other at the office.) These units will take the information from as many as twelve or eight inputs, respectively, mix it all into two channels (left and right) in whatever mix you indicate, along with some basic EQ capabilities, and then to the phone or tablet via the USB output (with Lightning or USB-C adapter as needed). This has allowed me, with the same microphones I use with the audio interfaces, to record quality audio on my small devices, and even on my students’ phones when I need for whatever reason to record portions of their lessons for future reference. These mixers work equally well with audio and video recording apps, including the popular multitrack video recording app Acapella, which I have used off and on over the past year or so to record a number of enjoyable ensemble tracks. More on that later.
Incidentally, while I have primarily used the mixers with mobile devices, they also work just fine with computers and DAW software, but without quite so much control of the outputs on the software end.
I have learned in my limited experience with recording equipment that great microphones can be extremely expensive. I am very well aware that the ones I own are far from top-shelf items, but they work well without being outrageously expensive.
My “daily driver” at home, both for teaching via Zoom and for recording of just myself, is the Audio Technica AT2020. It’s a fairly basic condenser microphone that yields a reasonably good sound for not terribly great expense. (This is the mic used for all of my multitrack videos, if that provides a helpful reference at all.) It is also available in a USB version that can interface directly with a computer with no separate audio interface necessary, but I have no direct experience with this one.
At work I have used a pair of RØDE NT5 small diaphragm condenser mics for the past eight years, initially just as external mics for a Zoom H4n handheld recorder before I moved to my current equipment. These are good for capturing quality sounds in lessons and even larger ensemble rehearsals and performances. They are pricier yet still far from top-of-the-line, but deliver quality sound for a variety of situations.
We do have one other mic at the house, usually used as a vocal mic, the Shure SM58. Once again, a very basic mic but one which is considered a standard, good quality mic for what it does.
For capturing brass sound many would say that the gold standard is a ribbon mic. That was the primary type used on my 2015 solo album, and I have long considered getting one for myself. I am reticent because while these mics sound great, they are also fragile. Maybe one day I’ll take the plunge.
Speakers and Headphones
In both of these areas I know that there is far better (and far more expensive) equipment out there, but these serve my present needs reasonably well. The studio monitors in my home office are a pair of KRK Rokit 5 units. These were always “okay” with just my computer. When I added the audio interfaces their sound became much better.
I have two headsets. My favorite is the Sennheiser HD 518. The sound here is pretty good, maybe not quite as good as their more expensive cousins like the HD 600, but still good. The one problem with big over-ear headphones like this is that it is hard to play the trombone while wearing them! For that purpose I have Beyerdynamic DT 252. This unit brings both the left and right channels into a single earpiece, so I can monitor with this unit on my right ear while leaving my left ear free—and my trombones not running into headphones. I’m not as pleased with the sound from this one, so I may try to find a better unit with the same configuration at some point.
That’s about it. The real audiophiles among my readers will probably find this equipment to be basic and maybe even not-so-great, but it works for my present needs. I hope more entry-level readers (or those wanting to get into more recording, improve online teaching, etc.) will find this discussion helpful.
I’ll leave you with a little project I’ve been working on during this period of quarantine, which I’ve dubbed “CoronaTunes.” As I’m writing now I have posted seven entries to this playlist with as few as two and as many as twelve parts; I hope to add more in the coming weeks. All of these are recorded on an iPad Pro using the Acapella app, with the AT 2020 mic mentioned above and one of the Behringer mixers. Most of them do have a bit of additional audio and video editing on my PC using Adobe Audition and Adobe Premiere, respectively.