Zoom and Zune
Amateur Music Recording

Zune AV PlayerZoom H4n    This essay is about home music recording and in that context touches on two small gadgets, one called Zoom and the other, Zune. My earliest recollection of home recording reaches back to childhood, when one day my father brought home a Webcor wire recorder he had borrowed.  Dad demonstrated this magical device by singing a few bars into the microphone, then playing back the sound of his voice.  Some years later he bought a portable tape recorder, the kind that fits in a case with latching lid.

    Tape recorders improved greatly over the years and morphed into various forms (8-track, cassette, and ever shrinking versions thereof).  Likewise
the arts of analog recording and the faithful reproduction of sound advanced by leaps and bounds. All this is common knowledge.

During the heyday of the open-reel tape recorder it was possible to purchase high quality commercial recordings that would exercise a home music system to its limits—Tschaikowskys 1812 Overture with real cannons and bells, for example, or Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.

    Before long, home recording technology surpassed the studio recording capabilities of previous eras and even more spectacular advances were yet to come.
Although it might be difficult to pinpoint the exact beginning of digital recording technology, the first practical devices date to the early 1970’s, around the same time that I acquired a Sony model TC-377 stereo tape recorder. (It still works, by the way.)

Boss Micro BR    My first personal experience with digital music recording resulted from an impulse purchase.  One day in the music store I espied a shiny object under the glass display case. It was a stereo recorder small enough to fit in the palm of the
hand. On one side of the device was a USB connector for transferring recordings from the unit’s SD card to a computer—both WAV and MP3 formats were supported.

    Although the Boss Micro BR included a built-in microphone, accessory microphones were needed for stereo recording. I still had a couple of fair quality dynamic microphones, artifacts of reel-to-reel recording days. However, these did not work very well with the Micro BR.  Their output was not robust enough for the amount of pre-amplification available at the unit’s microphone input jack. The Micro BR needed a stereo microphone of the integrated battery-powered pre-amplifier type.
Yamaha Electronic Piano
    Even with pre-a
mplified microphones, the sound quality of piano recordings remained poor.  Possibly the Micro BR’s circuitry could not accommodate the large dynamic range of the piano, or perhaps I had not configured its settings optimally.  The unit did work well with the Yamaha YPG-635 electronic piano, however.  For recording from the Yamaha keyboard, a splitter in the headphone jack transferred the audio signal concurrently to the phones and recorder.  The resulting sound quality was almost indistinguishable from the instrument’s original output.
    I should mention that the Yamaha instrument also had the capability of recording internally in midi format, as well as playing pre-recorded midi files. There are certainly advantages to this format.  For example, one can slow down or speed up a recording by twirling the tempo knob, without diminishing sound quality. The trouble was that my interests did not coincide with the rich feature set of the Yamaha
—it could do many things that were useful in producing a multi-voice or multi-track recording, but these capabilities were not immediately relevant to my goals.  

    For better or worse, having bought a Micro BR I felt obliged to stick with it, and for the next couple of years I experimented with producing piano accompaniments for violin music, using either the piano (and microphones) or the Yamaha (line out/in).

* * *

    The most basic problem of home recording is to produce a relatively error-free performance, in other words, one that does not contain conspicuous wrong notes or other intrusive sounds.  The probability of error varies in proportion to the length of the piece to be recorded.  Once again, digital technology in the form of computer software suggests a solution. It is a way to cheat when a wrong note or other event spoils the recording.

Audacity Example

    The sound-editing program Audacity is free and open-source software.  Using Audacity it is possible to join separate or overlapping segments into one continuous recording.  If one is careful with dynamics and tempi while recording successive parts, the resulting output can be made to sound virtually seamless, as if the entire piece had been recorded in one take.

    Wrong notes and extraneous sounds are not the only problems that affect amateur piano recording.  Another rather tricky challenge is page turning.  If one’s mental capacity is not up to remembering all the notes, then it is necessary somehow to address the problem of turning pages, at least whenever the piece is marked allegro and there is no natural break in the music.  If the piece is short enough to fit on the music stand as side-by-side copied pages, then well and good.  But what if it is a dozen pages in length?  One idea is to shrink the pages and paste them to a poster boardyes, I have tried that idea—it is only feasible for youthful eyes.
MobileSheets Pro
    While the page-turning problem may represent another application for Audacity, this problem now has an alternative solution in the form of an Android music reader called MobileSheets. The illustration
on the left, taken from the ‘pro’ version, shows three lines of piano music as they are displayed in landscape mode on the Samsung tablet.

AirTurn duo bluetooth pedals    But, were it not for the help of yet another device, the MobileSheets program would be hardly better than printed music, because swiping the screen is not that different from turning a page, and it is nearly impossible to adjust the scrolling speed of the application to keep time with the performance, especially if the music changes tempo or the number of bars per printed line changes, as in a section with more or fewer notes.

    The accessory that makes MobileSheets more flexible to use is an AirTurn Duo Bluetooth pedal kit. The pedals make it is possible to start or stop scrolling or advance to the next page without the necessity of moving a hand from the keyboard.  Sounds easy
?—it is not. First, if the technique for staying in sync relies on continuous scrolling, it is necessary to tweak scrolling speed so that it will always be possible to display the part currently being played. Second, operating the pedal requires coordination.  It is a novel skill.  Whereas playing the piano involves two hands and one foot (occasionally the other foot), working the AirTurn while playing piano requires two hands and two feetand the left foot must not interfere with the right foot or the hands, mentally, that is.  Try it!  

* * *

    One feature of digital recording that older technology did not possess is the ability of recordings to be copied faithfully without compromising sound quality.  Copying an audio file on the computer generally produces an identical file (an exact replica of the recording), unless the storage format or some other attribute is changed. However, it is not usually possible to improve the quality of a digital recording (except by eliminating noise, and so forth).  The essential step at which sound is transduced to electronic form imposes a limit on the potential quality or realism of the recording.

    At some point I came to realize that it would be necessary to learn more about digital recording technology and devices. Through Internet searches I found that studio recording equipment remained as expensive as ever, although modern devices were more compact in design than their counterparts from decades before.  However, my interest was not in studio recording, but rather to find a suitable and affordable consumer-oriented alternative to the Micro BR.  That is when I came upon the Zoom H4n.

    The Zoom H4n has built-in stereo condenser microphones.  Although the unit had received many positive reviews on the Internet, I did not expect it to perform well for piano recording, especially when using the built-in microphones.  My previous experience with consumer grade microphones had highlighted the fact that the piano is a percussive instrument.  The piano’s dynamic range seemed likely to defeat anything less than advanced studio microphones.  On the other hand, music accompaniments, such as were my primary interest, would in general have less dynamic variation than concert piano pieces.
Zoom H4n on piano
    To my surprise I found that placing the Zoom so that its microphones aimed directly into the piano produced an acceptable recording.  One advantage of this very close placement was that the device did not pick up extraneous sounds, such as nearby appliance motors, or cars passing outside.  Playing loudly did result in distortion—but very loud is a less common dynamic in the piano part of violin-piano music.  In any event the Zoom’s recording quality was a noticeable improvement over the Micro BR’s, and made recording from the Steinway preferred over recording from the electronic piano.

    Whether or not it is necessary to edit a recording, the audio file needs to be transferred from the Zoom’s storage to a computer. From the computer the recording can be edited or uploaded to an MP3 player or any playback device.
JVC mp3 player
    The first digital playback device that I tried, other than the computer itself, was a small MP3 player labeled JVC XA-F57S—the model number might have been longer than the device, which measured 7 x 4 cm.  This little player boasted a 512 MB storage capacity.  While one half gigabyte may seem a tiny amount in comparison to a typical smart phone’s capacity, it is sufficient to store several hours of MP3 encoded high resolution audio (high bit rate recordings).

    The MP3 device that I currently use is a (Microsoft) Zune Audio-Video player pictured at the top of this page.  The Zune implements features that facilitate convenient playback of accompaniments, including named play lists.  Within a play list individual recordings can be arranged in any sequence order.  Thus, if a piece becomes timeworn, it can be moved to the end or removed from the list.

    Another useful feature of the Zune is a remote control.  Playback can be started from across the room—wherever the music stand is located—and can be stopped or restarted at any time. On the flip side, although the Zune is a versatile player—it also has an HDMI interface—the Zune computer program is rather awkward to use, and not very well suited to my interests.

    This abridged description of amateur music recording activities does not adequately convey the degree of effort involved at each step. However, in the era of digital recording and playback, effort is surely rewarded to a greater degree than ever before.  These tiny but highly sophisticated devices perform at a level that was impossible to imagine in the day when my dad brought home that early wire recorder.