When the stay-at-home orders relative to the COVID-19 event began to be issued in mid-March I resolved early on to spend part of the time away from my normal performance schedule making multitrack recordings to share on Facebook and YouTube. My reasons for doing this were partly unselfish but, honestly, partly quite selfish. Unselfishly, I thought—as evidently many musicians and other artists did—that filling social media with music, dance, and other art forms would “take the edge off” of a difficult time. Selfishly, I knew that I needed to continue to develop and refine my skills at making audio and video recordings. I had no idea when I began that the series would eventually comprise 30 videos–really enough material for a CD-length recording–but that’s what happened.
Even a cursory viewing of this playlist will show considerable development from the first video to the last one. For the first two-thirds of the project I made the multitrack videos using the Acapella app by Mixcord. This program for iOS makes starting with multitrack recording easy for just about anybody, at least from the technical side. The ability to meaningfully edit the results is severely limited here, though, so making a quality recording in Acapella often involves playing multiple complete takes of each part, which can be rather exhausting. It also requires some added equipment to improve on the audio capturing capabilities of the phone or tablet, which I discussed in a previous post.
As I was nearing the end of the project I found myself increasingly unsatisfied with the results I was getting in Acapella, especially compared to the more polished videos some of my more tech-savvy friends and colleagues were producing. I had already figured out how to export the audio from Acapella and do some minor editing and EQ work in Adobe Audition before posting, but I resolved to learn to record audio directly into my computer using an audio interface and Audition, with video coming separately from my smartphone, tablet, or webcam. I then reassembled all of this in Adobe Premiere Pro. Recording in this way is less intuitive to the newbie than is the Acapella app and takes far longer, but as I became more proficient at mixing and editing the results became increasingly satisfactory. I still have much to learn, but my skills in this area increased tremendously over this ten-week period away from my normal schedule, and I am glad to have been able to use the time so productively in this way.
I’ll conclude these thoughts with five brief observations or reflections.
1. Today’s technology makes “starting out” cheaper, easier, and better than in the past. In previous generations multitrack recording—or really home recording of any quality—required the investment of hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to begin. While doing this well still requires one to obtain quite a bit of equipment and software, the initial experimentation really costs nothing. If you own a smartphone, you can get a free version of Acapella or some similar app and get started.
2. Nevertheless, doing this well requires effort and investment. People concerned with sound quality will not be happy for long with recording into the onboard mics on their phones, tablets, or computers. I spent several months in late 2018 and well into 2019 experimenting with equipment that could improve recording quality on smartphones and tablets (also mentioned in the aforementioned post), as well as an audio interface and software to record on the computer. I’ve still barely scratched the surface of all of this, and yet between my home and office I’ve spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000 on A/V equipment and software. If I really wanted to get into this on a more professional level that number would increase dramatically, and quickly.
3. Brass instrument sounds are notoriously difficult to capture. Perhaps the greatest frustration my students and I experienced in online lessons this past semester was the inability of the onboard microphones in smartphones, tablets, and especially laptops to capture their sounds without significant clipping or distortion. While we’ve all heard some pretty good recordings of other instruments made with “just an iPhone”—my wife has laid down some good voice/guitar tracks with her phone and no added equipment—the intense vibrations produced by brass instruments require something more robust. And then, even the best microphone requires optimal placement and setting of levels, plus mixing, EQ, and compression added after the fact in order to obtain a satisfactory result. This is the most difficult part of recording brass instruments to master, and I still have a long way to go.
4. Learning to work with digital technology is important for serious musicians. I started teaching college-level trombone lessons as a 22-year-old graduate assistant and had my first adjunct position where I was “the” low brass teacher at 24. For a long time both my self-identification and others’ perception of me was that of a “young professor.” Yet it’s as if one day I woke up and I was suddenly forty years old and there was a new crop of young folks at conferences, on YouTube, etc., playing really well and using lots of digital technology for recording enhancement, for sound effects, for looped accompaniments, and so forth. That spurred my desire to learn better recording techniques more than anything else. If we middle-aged-and-older folks don’t try to keep up with these technological developments we’re going to be left behind!
5. Digital media can augment and enhance, but not replace live performance and teaching. Once again, I am thankful for the time and resources I had available to further develop my recording skills. I’m also glad to have been forced to develop some proficiency at teaching lessons online, as I think that is going to be at least a part of how music instruction is delivered in the long term. However, I do not think that digital media can fully replace the interactive and interpersonal elements of music making and music teaching. Not even the best digital technology can replace real technical and artistic proficiency as a musician—or for that matter as an actor, a dancer, a painter, a sculptor, etc. While I love recordings and even streamed concerts, watching and listening via screen and speakers is not the same as being in the room with fellow audience members and performers. And somehow having that teacher in the room with you, encouraging you, playing along with you, and, yes, admonishing you is somehow more real, more personal, more human than that same teacher on the other half of your screen.
By all means let’s continue developing these digital technologies, let’s learn to use them better, and let’s develop business models that enable artists to do so profitably (this has been a notable lack over the past few weeks). But let’s not forget that those of us in the arts engage in what we do because creating beauty and order in the midst of an often chaotic and ugly world is part of what makes us human beings, image-bearers of the Creator who told us to meditate on the good, the true, and the beautiful. That same God exists eternally in perfect fellowship within his Triune Self, and so as the imago Dei we long to be together. Not via screens, not even “social distancing.” Just together. Let us all hope and pray that the time for that comes sooner rather than later.