Managing an Audio Dossier
By Eileen Meyer Russell
Editor’s Note: This article is an edited version of a paper first presented by the author at the College Music Society South Central Chapter Conference in Norman, Oklahoma on March 14, 2009. The title of the original paper was “Managing an Audio Dossier: Preparing Student Performers for Today’s Job Market.”
An audio dossier, or a collection of recordings ready for submission and review, can be created and maintained by any performer who has access to recording equipment, editing software, and a computer application that organizes and prepares audio files for distribution. With today’s advanced technology, students and teachers alike can produce excellent recordings with digital hand-held devices. Depending upon your hobbies and your age, your music students may know more about today’s digital recording technology than you do. If our students do know more that we do about audio (and visual technology) it doesn’t mean they know what to do with it. In the same way that we might assist our students as they create and submit written documents, for example resumes and application letters, we can assist them with creating and distributing their audio materials. By guiding students to recognize and produce quality recordings, we practice quality control. In a time when it is so easy to record and self-promote, it is crucial that applied instructors address the positive and negative products and consequences of 21st century technology.
Technology cannot replace good teaching—in other words, like Charlie said in the opening scene of The Music Man, “you gotta know the territory.” You have to know the pedagogy to foster artistry in order to coach students to capture digital audio of artistic performances. And while the primary goal of creating and collecting recordings might be self-promotion, there are many additional positive outcomes to time dedicated to recording projects. Two skills that pave the path to independence and maturity in performance and teaching are hearing and discerning or the ability to detect errors and recognize quality. Many of us experienced our lessons played back at full speed or half-speed on reel-to-reel or cassettes recorders. Working with digital audio software to create audio files offers potential for playback with an added visual component. This article documents research on recording equipment and editing software, outlines the steps needed to edit and prepare digital audio files for distribution, and provide examples of recording projects that can be integrated into the applied studio curriculum.
The highest quality recordings are created in sessions with professional audio engineers. Hand-held digital recorders make it possible to create CD quality recordings at affordable prices with portable equipment. With hand-held recording devices, sessions can be done in an ideal location and time for the performer, and sound files can be reviewed and edited immediately. Word processing has not replaced editors or copyists, and hand-held digital recorders will not replace professional audio technicians, but working with a hand-held device can be an excellent prelude to a professional recording session. The technological development of the hand-held digital recording device provides the best option yet for use in the private studio both as a tool for improvement and a tool for self-promotion.
While MP3 recorders are portable and create quality recordings, they have some disadvantages, such as no built in microphone, limited space to record in uncompressed modes, and many complicated user issues, for example, reading the display, resetting of the recording format and input level, manipulating minuscule control buttons, and mastering the complicated process of transferring sound files to a computer for editing and storing. An iPod with an attached microphone can record digital audio, but none of the microphones that attach to iPods are of very high quality, the iPod often makes a whirring sound that is detected with the microphone, and there is little ability to adjust the gain or the level of recording. Recordings created with a digital voice recorder have the lack of gain control and are often in Windows Media Audio or WMA format, which are not compatible with iTunes and require third party software, such as Flip4Mac, to function on Mac computers. With devices such as the iPod or digital voice recorders, or with any device that records without manual gain control, sound waves are constrained so as not to spike, or peak out of control, and therefore the final product is less than beautiful and not a realistic representation of an acoustic sound.
Recording directly onto a computer hard drive is an option that produces excellent quality digital audio files but is far less portable than a hand-held digital recording. The gain or input level can be controlled both within the computer preferences and on the recording software menu bar, and the audio can be exported in uncompressed formats. The value of recording directly onto a computer is the ample storage space and accessibility to files. The disadvantage of using a computer to record live events is that the equipment is much less portable and less discreet than a handheld device, and that a quality microphone must be purchased (the sound quality with a built-in microphone is satisfactory for study purposes but not for promotional purposes). Recording directly onto a computer is an easy option for use in private lessons and an option available to most every student.
For digital recording, I use a Zoom H4 “Handy Recorder.” Recording with the Zoom H4 is so much easier than recording with an MP3 recorder. You press a button on one side of the display to choose your preference for recording format, and then hit the record button twice. Setting the level of the input can be done as you monitor the recordings, in other words, without having to stop the recording mode.
Like the Sony PCM models and Edirol R models, the Zoom H4 has built in stereo microphones, and can record uncompressed audio onto Secure Digital (SD) media or a flash memory card just like the memory cards used for cameras. The Zoom H4 can be connected directly to a computer while recording, which allows a huge amount of storage space (depending upon your hard drive capacity) but limits portability.
Two issues that I have about the Zoom H4—that the date and time is not stamped on recordings and that the maximum size file that can be created with a Zoom H4 (not connected to a computer) is 2GB—have been corrected in the new Zoom H4n (next), which was just released in January 2009. In addition, the ZoomH4n has a tuner and playback at different speeds.
After working with Audacity, Logic, and Peak, I choose to work with Audacity as my digital audio workstation. Audacity is “share ware” and a free download. Audacity can be used for recording, editing, and for play back at any tempo and any pitch. Most students own laptops and therefore can make recordings with the free download of Audacity shareware. Audacity audio is saved immediately and in relatively small files because the program breaks up long tracks into pieces so that they can be edited efficiently. Computer applications such as iTunes can be used to organize audio files. The actual progression from digital recorder to organization in iTunes is incredibly easy—demonstrated in these 10 easy steps.
- Record with the digital recorder set on format of your choice
- Recorded files are launched onto the desktop once the digital recorder is connected to the computer with a USB cord
- Rename your file (especially if you use the Zoom H4 with date and time stamp issues)
- Open Audacity and open the file
- The file opens and you can visually navigate to the last take
- Listen to the take to decide if you wish to keep it
- If you wish to keep it, trim around the take by highlighting and deleting unwanted sound
- You might wish to “fade in” and “fade out” (especially if there is applause)
- If you wish to save the audio in a small file (for e-mail for example), compress it as an MP3 file or if you wish to save the file in a higher quality uncompressed file, save as a WAV file
- Import into iTunes for organization and possible distribution
In addition to easy editing, examining the visuals of sound waves in digital audio windows can be quite revealing. Dr. Doug Bristol, trombonist and composer and Professor of Music Theory and Technology at Alabama State University, documented the benefits of digital audio window visuals in his article, “Using Computer Wave Forms in the Evaluation of Air Control and Articulation,” published in the most recent International Trombone Association Journal. Studying sound waves in a program such as Audacity can teach you and your students much about air control, articulation, phrasing, and intonation. I have Audacity running during lessons and many times it takes seconds rather than minutes to convince a student they are not playing legato, or not articulating with consistency, or not making a musical phrase. Sometimes it takes a visual to teach a student to listen a little more carefully.
Before projects can be assigned, you and your students need to agree upon who is going to purchase a hand-held recording device. In my case, I have done all of the following.
- Purchased a recorder with my own money
- Purchased a recorder with new faculty start-up funds
- Purchased a recorder with departmental funds
- Asked students to purchase their own recorders
- Asked students to purchase their own flash drive or SD card
Once the equipment is purchased you might make sure that each of your students is able to download and edit with Audacity. Even when students are familiar with Audacity, I usually coach them through an editing exercise that shows them how to fade in and out, keeping some applause if there was an audience. If you have no experience with Audacity, you can read the user-friendly Audacity website. Since your goal is not to edit in the sense of cutting and pasting in notes but to capture unedited performances with perhaps a fade in and fade out, you will find that the commands are very similar to those used in word processing (cut, paste, highlight) with pull down menus that are easy to comprehend (fade it, fade out, save as WAV). Both you and your students will want to record samples of loud and soft playing to determine the best input level for your instrument or voice.
Most students need to have incentive to collect and organize recordings. In his excellent book, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey encourages highly successful people to begin with the end in mind. To begin with the end in mind, students might consider repertoire requirements for summer employment, age-appropriate competitions, or professional ensemble audition lists. The studio teacher might also start with the end in mind by determining which recording projects will help particular students succeed in their end-of-semester jury exams and solo and ensemble performances.
The first recording projects can be as basic as scales. The benefits include (1) the practicing of scales and study of intonation and (2) becoming familiar with recording equipment. Students at all levels can record portions of assigned etudes or vocalises, solos, or ensemble repertoire. With beginning assignments, limit the maximum for recorded excerpts to two minutes. Lessons might start with listening and discussing the repertoire. Each time there is an outstanding recording of an excerpt or a scale, import the file into iTunes. There are organizations that ask for recorded scales and excerpts, for example the audition requirements for college counselors at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp
Steps to attaining good takes of live recordings of solo repertoire include recording all rehearsals with many fringe benefits such as (1) developing critical skills, (2) improving performance, and (3) perhaps capturing a better run through than the “real thing.” Guiding your students to choose the best of several rehearsals and performances is an excellent investment in time, because our students have instant access to all types of recordings—the good, bad, and ugly. We need to be involved in the process of discerning what is and isn’t worth studying. Critique of audio and video files on YouTube can be a supporting project to collecting and maintaining an audio dossier. For example, recently I guided a student in study of vibrato by listening to YouTube videos of “Bist du Bei Mier” by Bach as performed by amateur and professional vocalists. We compared the singers’ vibrato to vibrato used by brass players performing the same solo. We recorded my student playing the solo, and then we were able to compare all of the different styles with my student’s vibrato.
In addition to the recording and documentation of solo repertoire, students can be responsible for recording ensemble rehearsals. Students can make ensemble balance the focus of a semester’s recording project, perhaps discovering that there is a vast difference between what an ensemble performer hears in the section or choir versus what the audience hears. An excellent project is to record an excerpt performed alone, determining how to make the music sound the best in that situation, compare that with recording the excerpt with a complete section of instrumentalists or vocalists, and finally recording the excerpt in the ensemble by placing the recording device in the performance hall. This type of project is excellent in terms of assisting our students with professional auditions, and this complete spectrum of critical listening was nearly impossible until the versatility and quality of hand-held recorders.
My research into recording equipment and recording software began because I wanted to make my own unedited live recordings, and I wanted to have a recording of my recital immediately after the performance. To develop the skills necessary to create my own recordings, I scheduled weekly sessions over the period of an academic year in which I acted as both performer and recording engineer using an MP3 recorder. I realize that some might feel overwhelmed as they hear about the glories of new technology and recording projects in the studio. I can only encourage you by saying, “Press Record!” because it really is that easy.
Since fall 2007 I have required applied students to submit recording projects and in fall 2008, I required my low brass chamber ensemble to have at least one recording session. My students have used their collections of recordings to successfully apply for summer employment and to distribute to their family as gifts and documentation of progress. For my part, I commit to recording jury exams, which is quite helpful for everyone, as I can keep exam performances for review.
I will admit that some of my students cannot manage even one project while others really enjoy recording and reviewing their progress. I don’t force or penalize students who are not enthused or who are not interested in recording technology. I record them in lessons and would help them if they wanted additional tutorials.
Audio files of scales, etudes, and regular studio requirement can be resources for future students, similar to a collection of excellent exams, final papers, or projects that are generated in a music academic course. The audio exists, if needed, as a documentation of your success as an applied instructor. Sometimes it is easy for both professor and student to forget the progress made with a degree’s worth of excellent teaching and diligent study. A final fringe benefit of an audio dossier, beyond self-promotion, is self-satisfaction for teacher and student alike.
Works Cited and Websites of Vendors
Bach, Johann Sebastian, and Bernard Fitzgerald. Aria, Bist Du Bei Mir( If Thou Be Near). New York: G. Ricordi, 1952.
Bristol, Doug. “Using Computer Wave Forms in the Evaluation of Air Control and Articulation,” International Trombone Association Journal, 37/1 (2009): 26-28.
Covey, Steven. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Running Press, 2000.
Willson, Meredith. The Music Man. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1999.
Belkin Microphones for iPods, http://www.belkin.com/
iPod and iTunes, http://www.apple.com/itunes/
Logic Pro, http://www.apple.com/logicstudio/
Olympus Digital Voice Recorder, http://www.olympusamerica.com/
Peak Pro6, http://www.bias-inc.com/products/peakPro6/
QuickTime Player, http://www.apple.com/quicktime/
Zoom H4 and Zoom H4n(ext) by Samson, http://www.samsontech.com/
Eileen Meyer Russell teaches low brass and theory at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas and low brass at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan. She holds degrees from Indiana University (B.M. and D.M.) and the University of Northern Iowa (M.M.) and she is a trombone clinician and artist with C.G. Conn. She has presented or performed at national and international music conferences and published articles in the Instrumentalist, the Southwestern Musician, and journals published by professional brass societies. She is Chapter Coordinator for the International Tuba Euphonium Association and an active member of the International Trombone Association.