A couple of years ago, I was interested in applying for a college teaching job near me, and I started combing through recent recordings I had of recitals I had done while I was a DMA student at Catholic University in Washington, DC. I did five recitals as part of my degree program, and I felt like I had played quite well on most of them. To my surprise and disappointment, I discovered that I had one pretty good recording of one recital, a very mediocre quality recording of another recital (that was also missing a couple of pieces), and a terrible quality (audio AND video) recording of my lecture recital. To be fair, I had attempted to hire someone to record one of the recitals, but he never showed up! Sigh.
It’s no surprise that a recording engineer and producer would want to sell you on RECORDING. I mean, that is, after all, how we afford all these cool microphones and all the other stuff that audio people drag around everywhere with them….! However, I feel pretty passionate about WHY we make recordings, and especially when I relate it to my own experiences as a performing musician. I mean, music is built on live performance, for better or worse. The recording arts has given us so many different versions of performance, through all the “magic” that engineers can work, and the way that contemporary music is recorded and assembled. But, what does that mean for you as a musician?
Why spend hundreds of dollars recording a live recital? I mean, if you’re like me, you don’t have money to burn, especially for something that doesn’t always seem critical to our growth and musical career. Well, I’m here to tell you, you’re missing out!
I’m sure you’ve heard about the “gig economy” until you’re blue in the face. I know I have. I get it. But, one thing classical musicians haven’t done, at least not to a large extent, is to build a portfolio, at least one that is easily visible to the general public. Portfolios are for visual artists, photographers, and graphic designers, right? I would say that most classical musicians would even sneer or make derisive comments if you admitted you were putting together a “portfolio” of your best work. I would also guess that those same musicians have little or nothing to show for their best performances, other than a nice memory.
So, we can address the obvious question of why assemble a portfolio, or RECORDED HISTORY of you as an artist. But, I think if you are reading this, you are already far enough ahead to know the many reasons that can be important. So, let’s talk about what I think of when I think of hiring someone to record an important live performance….
A guy or girl with a Zoom recorder! Yay! That’s all I need!
Well, OK, maybe that will suffice for you. The above-mentioned recordings of my own recitals? All recorded on a Zoom. Now, I’m not knocking the venerable Zoom recorder. These devices have a prominent place in the toolbox of many musicians and recording engineers. They serve a great purpose, and they have some amazing capabilities for such a small package. But, after all the hard work, sweat, and tears you have shed over your instrument, don’t you want something worthy of sharing with the public, something that will still sound great 10 (or 50) years from now, and something that you can really use to show yourself in the very best light? I know I do.
"But Chris, I don’t have 300, 400, 600 dollars, or more to spend on a recital recording!!!"
Well, let me ask you a few questions:
How much did you pay your accompanist?
How many hours did you practice JUST for this one recital?
How much are you spending to get that crazy expensive degree from that amazing school?
How much do you stand to earn, OVER THE COURSE OF A CAREER, from getting hired for that tenure-track teaching gig, or getting invited to that audition, or winning that life-changing competition?
Often times, recordings are the key to the gate. The very first barrier to entry you come across. Want to get invited to interview on campus? Send a tape. Want to get invited to that audition? Send a tape. Want to get a spot at that prestigious summer festival? Send a tape. I’ve judged a number of high level competitions via recorded entries, and let me tell you, a quality recording puts you at a SIGNIFICANT advantage!
Here’s the basics that I offer when I record a live performance, and what I consider the best way to make FULL USE of the tremendous amount of work you have done:
High quality equipment. That goes without saying. Microphones that are complementary to the type of music and the instrument that you play. You don’t have to know microphones yourself, but ask the prospective engineer about their sound concept when they record your instrument. They should have a well articulated concept about how to begin, and be willing to have a dialogue with you about what you desire to hear from a recording.
Knowledgeable placement of those microphones! Where should they go? What kind of space are you performing in? What are its limitations? Should we try multiple things so that we have sonic options in post production?
An engineer that has a musical ear, and can also act as your producer.
An engineer that shows up on time, without fail, and is set up long before you are ready to play.
A backup recording system...in case Murphy’s law strikes, your performance WILL be recorded, no matter what.
Reference video of your performance, recorded in a high quality format, with the final audio synced to the video
Recent examples of completed work for other clients, easily accessible for you to judge for yourself
Can the engineer remove excessive crowd noise, or HVAC system noise? We’ve all had the person with the hacking cough or crinkley plastic bag making noise through the whole concert....
Those are just the basics. Let’s talk about some other ways you can get the most out of your recording…
One excellent option to consider is to spend the extra money on a dress rehearsal recording. While adding to the cost, this can have significant benefits. First of all, this gives you flexibility to have both an un-edited live album or your performance, as well as a second edited performance using material from both the dress and the performance. Most of us feel way more comfortable at our dress rehearsal than we do at the actual performance, and I find that many artists can have some quality backup material to use for their edited album, all recorded in the same space, with the same piano, and at the same level of preparation. Again, you’re spending more up front, but in the end, you have more material and much more flexibility with what you can create from the one live performance.
Now, that takes care of the audio! What about video?! You know as well as I do, that video is THE medium for social media and internet presence. If you are developing a Youtube channel, website, or Instagram stories, or you simply just want to send grandma a video of her precious baby to watch, you ought to consider video capture as well. With high quality video gear, we’ve reached the point that you can pull still photos from the video footage, making it even more valuable.
So, with audio recording, video recording, and recording the dress rehearsal, we’ve reached a fairly high price point, no? Yes, we have! But, consider all the time and energy you’ve put in to making a recital program performance ready, especially if we’re talking about the culminating performances of a degree program. You may not be in this kind of shape, or have an opportunity to play a recital again for some time. Take advantage of all that you can, and get the most out of your hard work and musicianship. I guarantee you will create something that you can look back on with pride for years to come.