This essay is about home music recording and in that context touches on
small gadgets, one
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
Some years later he bought a portable
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).
arts of analog recording and the faithful reproduction of sound
advanced by leaps and bounds. All this is common knowledge.
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—Tschaikowsky’s
with real cannons and bells, for example, or Richard Strauss’s
Also sprach Zarathustra.
Before long, home recording technology
studio recording capabilities of previous eras and even more
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.)
My first personal experience with digital music recording resulted from
an impulse purchase. One day in the music store I espied a
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
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
enough for the amount of pre-amplification available at the unit’s
microphone input jack. The Micro BR needed a stereo microphone
the integrated battery-powered pre-amplifier type.
Even with pre-amplified
microphones, the sound quality of piano recordings remained
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
the Yamaha YPG-635 electronic piano, however. For recording
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
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
* * *
The most basic problem of home recording
produce a relatively error-free performance, in other words, one
does not contain conspicuous wrong notes or other intrusive
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.
The sound-editing program Audacity
is free and open-source software. Using Audacity it is
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
Wrong notes and extraneous sounds are not the only
problems that affect amateur piano recording. Another rather
challenge is page turning. If one’s mental capacity is not up
to remembering all the notes, then it is necessary somehow to address
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
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 board—yes,
I have tried that idea—it
is only feasible for youthful eyes.
While the page-turning problem may
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.
But, were it not
the help of yet another device, the MobileSheets program would be
printed music, because swiping the screen is not that different from
turning a page, and it is nearly impossible to adjust the scrolling
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
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
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
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 feet—and
the left foot must not interfere
with the right foot or the hands,
mentally, that is.
* * *
One feature of digital recording
that older technology did not possess is the ability of recordings to
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
imposes a limit on the potential quality or realism of the
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
but rather to find a suitable and affordable consumer-oriented
alternative to the Micro BR. That is when I came upon the
The Zoom H4n has
built-in stereo condenser microphones. Although the unit had
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
highlighted the fact that the piano is a percussive
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
dynamic variation than concert piano pieces.
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
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
Micro BR’s, and made recording from the Steinway preferred over
recording from the electronic piano.
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
the recording can be edited or uploaded to an MP3 player or any
The first digital playback device that I
tried, other than the computer itself, was a small MP3 player labeled
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
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.
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
sophisticated devices perform at a level that was impossible to imagine
in the day when my dad brought home that early wire recorder.