Recording the Home Musician

An acquaintance of mine, who’s an accomplished amateur pianist, reached out with some questions about recording himself playing. I thought my response might be useful to others researching self/home recording so I’m publishing a version of it here.

Hey Bill,

Thanks for reaching out.

My professional expertise is recording the spoken word but I take those skills an apply to them to music and/or live performance when I can. Many of the concepts are the same even if I’m not as practiced in the particulars. So this is my take on your questions, there may be better ones out there.

Short answer: If you haven’t already, take your phone find a way to mount it about 18-24” from the hammers (upright) or strings (grand) and record a song. See how it sounds to you. If you like it, you’re done. If you don’t, decide if this is a one-time effort (find a studio/recordist you can afford) or a something you’d like to do more again (invest in a two channel interface, a pair of microphones, and a stand).

Long answer: The technology crammed into our cell “phones” is truly amazing and that includes the quality of the microphones; however, there are two hard limits when it comes to quality recording. First the microphones in a cell phones (and there are at least 2-3 these days) are tiny. The diaphragm (the physical component that picks up sound) is less than a tenth of the size of the one in a professional microphone. Cell phones use multiple microphones/diaphragms and complex programming to overcome those limitations but you can’t cheat physics and expect a free lunch—there is a cost in quality and control. You, the recordist in this case, can’t make many decisions about how and where that microphone is picking up sound.

My second concern is that cell phone microphones are less directional. They designed around the human face/ interaction so some can be “aimed” with trial and error but you are likely to get as much of the reflections from the room as the sound from the instrument—or, almost as bad, the phone will try to cancel out the reflected sound in the room and change the sound of the instrument. Is this enough to ruin the recording? I can’t give you a broad answer to that, except to try it and see what you think. It won’t stand up against a professional recording but that may not be the right standard here.

If you want more, and this is a one-time thing, hire a person or a studio. I’d nudge you towards a studio if you can afford it. They should have a tuned instrument and a tuned recording space which is half the battle won right there. If that’s out of your budget, I’m sure there are a lot of freelance or location sound engineers looking for work right now. One may be willing to come to your house and record you there.

If you think you’ll want to record again, and some musicians find it very rewarding, here’s my summary of where to start. Luckily this has also gotten significantly cheaper in the last decade. Plan to spend about $500 to get a reasonable start. You’ll need:

1. a two channel audio interface (Focusrite, Apogee, SSL, and Audient are solid brands) for ~$200

2. Pair of matched, small diaphragm microphones (or large ones but IMO not necessary) for ~$200 Some good options at that price:

  • Se Electronics Se7
  • Samson C02
  • LyxPro SDPC-2 (recommended to me, no personal experience)
  • Many, many options—Sweetwater, or B&H locally, have knowledgable staff I’d trust to give good recommendations

3. Cables, microphone stand, and a stereo mic mount (or a second mic stand) ~$100

4. (Optional) “neutral” headphones (Sony 7506, Beyer DT880, etc.) or “neutral” speakers (called studio monitors): these become more critical the more you share your recordings, but if recording mostly for your benefit just use whatever you currently listen to music with. That won’t give you an accurate impression of what a recording will sound like generally, but that may not be important yet.

Whatever you already have for a computer, iPad, or phone will work (although verify your particular device before purchasing and interface). You’ll find (too many!) tutorials online and through YouTube. Great starter software (Audacity, Ocen, TwistedWave, Reaper) is free and/or cheap. This can be a real rabbit hole but it can also lead to fun and rewarding experimentation.

Story Stool

I want to get to that place where I can create but not hold my ideas and my efforts as “precious”.

I think a lot of this preciousness come from putting a lot of weight on my stories and ideas. I see them as being redemptive in-themselves instead of the struggle of their creation as a journey/opportunity to learn and expand my own mind so that I can share/teach/help others. My desire to share/express my own stories should be about wanting the journey—and taking that seriously—without taking any of one steps along the way too seriously.

A story can change the world, it can outlast a lifetime, but no one knows who/when/what that story will be (I think) because the story is only one point of the three-legged stool. The audience is just as much a part of what props it up. If there isn’t a self-perpetuation gestalt behind a story it’s import/relevance will falter. Shakespeare thought he’d be remembered for his poems, but the only reason we read those is because of the trashy plays he wrote that he could even be bothered to collectively publish—many of his plays have no definitive edition, what you read is an amalgam of the actors’ copies, many with “improvements” made a long the way.

Taking the stool metaphor to the breaking point, the story leg of the stool isn’t made of solid wood but mostly of fragments/splinters of earlier, harder wood epoxied together and shaped (yes, I’ve gotten sucked down the rabbit hole of wood turning videos on YouTube). Much of what I’m bringing is just epoxy holding earlier pieces together. When my stories fall into irrelevance pieces of my story leg—epoxy and all—may make their way into other’s stories. And so the cycle continues.

Kick-Ass Shame: Gym-time Reflections on Mel Robbins Podcast

Listening to an interesting podcast at the gym this morning (Kick-Ass by Mel Robbins). Brought up a couple of self reflection questions.

What are triggers for my own narcissistic behaviors?

What in my Life came easy or energized me?

Procrastination is a stress response. A way of coping with stress/anxiety. There may a root to that stress that is planted in a traumatic or shameful memory. One way to free myself from some of the stress that catalyzes my procrastinating is to discover and root out that shame.

I think my procrastination plan should change:

1. Prepare for success using positive visualization (cleansing breath, visualize a stressful/triggering moment, visualize addressing that stress directly with exercise, breathing, etc.)

2. When I catch myself slipping: pause for recognition, forgive, and refocus

3. When I am mindful of growing stress (angry/defensive thoughts, agitation, fidgeting in my seat, etc.): pause for a breath & address the stress

More fully adopt a Growth Mindset. The concept of Growth Mindsets isn’t new, but when Mel brought it up, I felt uncomfortable and asked myself, “do I still have a fixed mindset?” I don’t know if Dweck would agree, but I feel stuck in a hybrid mindset.

I want to be believe in growth. In many situations I feel I can improve and I even have some examples to fall back on in my life (my voice-over success came only slowly and after many months of consistent, deliberate practice) but there are other situations that are still suffused in shame that feel out of my control and yet all-my-fault (learned helplessness?!).

For example, when I get a correction sheet back from an audiobook I always take that personally. If there are more errors than I feel there should be I get mired in fractured self-talk. I feel both ashamed and victimized. On the flip side if there are too few errors I feel suspicious. It confirms my helplessness—I worked hard on both books, why does this one have an error rate of .1 mistakes an hour and the other one 20 mistakes an hour?! Or I self-recriminate and tell myself that the dramatic increase in accuracy must be because I focused too much on accuracy and not enough on the performance. “Sure, you were accurate, but who’s going to want to listen to that?”

I also want to get into (back into?) developing original content. Both professionally and personally that has felt—for years—like the next step. However, years of well honed procrastination and the shame of failed accomplishments are twin weights that mire me in my old fixed mindset. If you could do this, you’d have done it already. Clearly you are not “one of those people” you are not capable of completing a project of your own devising.

A significant factor in both procrastination and mindset for me seems to be shame. I disagree with Mel that you have to always go to the root before you can change. Navel gazing is its own trap but I am seeing some, albeit nebulous at the moment, shameful memories that could be triggering or reinforcing behaviors that I want to change.


We live in a world where everything seems known.

Thriller and mystery stories (adventure stories too) ride on

mystery. Which used to be very external—well in some genres still is—

but there is so inner that is knowable if not actually known

by a person. Reading the scriptures just now I was struck

how my children will never really know the “wilderness”

and how little I knew it. At her fingertips is at least a view of every part of the world. So what is unknown—what

is mystery—is no longer the unmapped or unseen parts but the

places that have been seen and hidden by Power to preserve that power. Literally the only places unseen on Google Earth/Maps are those areas mandated by governments to be obfuscated. What’s more the deception is not always clearly marked.

The other limits are resolution and refresh rate. Even as I was growing

up and developing my viewpoint there was a sense that the world

was mapped and known. But access to that mapping inherently limited

the scope or resolution any one person could hold access to. Now

the majority of people hold an unfathomable level of access in their

phones, tablets, and computers. How often are these maps updated?

I don’t know other than that it depends on the map. Some

only every few years (decades?) some (small) portions, thanks to

GPS enabled camera phones, are essentially updated minute by


External (as opposed to interal, psychological) mystery can only happen

in between these refreshes or as a power dynamic between those who

know the topography and those who seek to find it. Obviously this

isn’t true only for cartography but I can’t think of anything for

which it is more true and since cartography is the pursuit of a discrete

truth its language is very precise in this matter.

“All American” (A-Z blog post)

“Oh, do you know The American?”

Now I knew many Americans (obviously I was one myself) but within days arriving in the town of Bragança in the State of Pará, Brazil it seemed everyone was only concerned about one in particular.

I gleaned a bit about him, a draft dodging blue-blood (New Englander?) with a half-built “American style” house out in the jungle, but what glommed onto my imagination was that no one seemed to know his name or where exactly he lived except “deep in the jungle…on the other end of town”.

Not entirely convinced The American was real, but knowing that the uncertainly would always naw at my gut if I left Bragança without finding out for myself, I convinced E. Smith to come with me to find out.

Knowing that we would have to head farther than we had ever ventured, E. Smith convinced a local friend to loan us several bicycles. Our noble quest inspiring enough that he agreed to let us ride them far across town “as long as you are back by sundown”.

With no other direction other than “across town” and “into the jungle” we set out and stopped every few kilometers to ask a stranger where “The American” lived, our fair skin and heavily accented Portuguese justification enough to be seeking out our own. Using this social radar we slowly began to triangulate our prey. I remember this part of the trip through the snap shots I stopped to take along the way. A small market of dusty stalls, a long low bridge leading to the overgrown wetlands, the paved road giving way to gravel which taped off into dirt that withered into a path that died in front a small wooden house demarcating the end of civilization and beginning of the true jungle.

We stopped and as we dismounted our bikes three children, stair steps of about six, eight, and thirteen, came out of the house to greet us. We asked if they knew how to get to the house of The American. In the breath before they answered I knew that this would make or break our journey. If they laughed and said they had no idea what we were talking about we’d gone too far try and retrace our steps and try a different path.

Instead they pointed to a small stream at the side of the house. “Follow that stream. It will lead you to an open field and there you will find the home of The American,” they said. Excited arranged to leave our bikes with them and set off on foot, taking off our shoes and rolling up our pant legs when the stream became too deep.

Too committed to turn back we trudged on carrying our satchels and shoes until the water began the rise and jungle began to press against us and when finally we had to face the possibility that the children had played a trick on us the jungle gave way and opened up to a wide, lush clearing.

Resting in the center was a structure built with the sensibilities, if not the knowledge, of Northern American homebuilding. Instead of the wide, thin bricks common in that part of the Brazil the home was made entirely out of small, ornamental bricks like those seen in thousands of cul-de-sacs across the USA. Only there was no framing, no wood studs, no interior walls, and no outer wall at all on the side facing us. Instead the entire house stood open on one side like giant doll house. A woman hunched over, cooking at a stove, in what clearly was intended to be the kitchen.

When we called to her she greeted us warmly and said we must be there to meet her husband. Reading our confused faces she said, “he’s The American. You’re not the first to come all the way out here to meet him. He’s out tilling the far field”. She pointed the way and we dutifully trudged off.

When we cleared a small ridge we saw a man with pale skin and a mangy beard pushing a anemic gas powered tiller. It wasn’t until he spotted us, stopped the tiller, and walked over that we realized how tall he was. Well over six-and-a-half feet his gaunt frame and haggled face lent him a wraith-like appearance.

After a brief conversation—yes, he came initially to dodge the draft, he only had money to build half the house, he fell in love with a Brazilian woman and stayed—we realized we had little in common aside from our accents, thanked him for his time, and headed home.

As we retrieved our bikes from the children and began pedaling back, I reflected on how strange it was, for someone with only enough money for half a house, to build from left to right instead of from the bottom up.

Child-like vs. Childish

My first job after undergrad was working for one my professors who was a close mentor while I was a student. That isn’t terribly remarkable but let me elaborate. This professor taught movement (BFA, acting) and moonlighted as the local Kung Fu master and Tibbetan Buddhist lama (not making this up). His off campus studio space was pulling triple duty as a martial arts studio, dance studio (both he and his wife were also dancers), and meditation center. Shortly before I graduated they raised the funds to buy an old church cum gothic night club to convert into a Buddhist Gompa for the local community of believers with a separate movement studio in the basement. 
I was hired to help and later ran the final stages of renovation before moving out of state for another job. One of my last days there, my boss/mentor, with his wife and daughter, took us all out to eat. We were quite the mix and the conversation was lively and animated. It drifted away from work for a while but then suddenly hit upon a question only my boss/mentor could answer. All eyes turned to him. He sat with his young daughter at the far end of the table playing animatedly with her action figures. For a moment I saw a rare child like abandonment made even more surprising because he is a large and powerful man whose body and mind has been honed through years disciplined study. 
Someone at the table made a comment and we all, including my mentor, laughed but still smiling he said, “we should all strive to stay child like but not childish”
That was twelve years ago. If my memory is right, his daughter probably just finished her first year of college. My mentor and I hardly interact much now but when I’m back in town I always try to drive by the Gompa, just to make sure it’s there. 
What does it mean to be child like? To be childish? As (fairly) new father I get to see on a daily, if not hourly basis, the wonder and resilience of a young child unburdened with preconceptions. I believe her joy at discovering the simple wonders of the world (and are they really that simple?) is the core of “child like” quality adults like myself must actively cultivate faster than the habits and disappointments of life wear away at the wonderment. It isn’t just a pleasure response. She gets frustrated by external events—if I tripped that much or had such trouble putting both legs in the same pants, I’d give up and sit nake until I starved—but she always tries again. With this wonderment comes an empowering faith that despite her current setbacks she can and will accomplish all the amazing things she sees us doing around her. 
It isn’t all wonderment and roses. This same child who recovers from a fall faster than you can say, “uh oh” will scream like your ripping off her toenails if her bottle of milk doesn’t come fast enough. She can become fixated on inconsequential or impossible demands (crayons are way more fun than knives, I promise baby!). This inward focus and narrow fixation on base appetites is what I see was the core of “childish” behaviors. 
What does all this mean? I don’t know. When bugs grow they have to shed their skeletons but I don think we’re like that. I think we humans are more like trees gaining layer upon layer of growth. We carry our child-selves with us to manifest in child-like or childish ways. 

Age of Adaline

I thought for something a little different my wife and I should watch Age of Adaline the the other night. Turns out my wife hates romantic comedies. How did I get so lucky? Overall I have to agree with the majority of reviewers that the film, while it has its high points, is overall very mediocre, and mediocre may be a little generous.  It is hard to fault the performances of Blake lively and Harrison Ford as well as most of the supporting cast.  However the film falls short in one key area and falls flat in many areas one of which I’d like to go into here.
The romance didn’t work.  Not part of that is the chemistry between the two romantic characters, and I’ll go into Ellis later,  but the biggest issue was the romantic dynamic itself.  In a successful romance the relationship must solve the problem.  What do I mean by that?  Every story has a conflict in almost every good story has a central conflict.  In an action movie, or action story, the central conflict is overcome by an … wait for it… action, and in a romance the central conflict should be resolved by, you guessed it, the romance (or the relationship if you want to get specific).  Sounds simple right?  It is.  And I believe that’s why the deus ex machine ending of Age of Adaline was so unfulfilling.
One reason that I believe the rom-com genre has so fallen out of favor with mainstream filmmaking (and consequently been totally absorbed by mumble core filmmakers) is that mainstream Hollywood screenwriters have discovered, at least the good ones, that they can make the central conflict of a story a relationship drama while keeping the ancillary conflicts and action-based drama and attract both men and women to the same story.   iron man is a classic example of this.  The central conflict in iron man has nothing to do with guns or fighting or any kind of physical conflict it has to do with Tony Stark’s inner pain and inability to relate to other people on a human level.  For all of the intense action sequences and sci-fi appeal this story isn’t resolved until he fights to get Pots back.
As crazy as it sounds, I actually believe Iron Man is a better romantic comedy than Age of Adeline. That isn’t to say that they couldn’t have Adeline change at the end, just that that change has to happen after she resolves the central conflict with the other romantic lead. Having her change when they do takes all of the  tension out of the central conflict.  Perhaps if there was more to relate to in her relationship with Alice or it was more tension prior to that moment they could’ve pulled it off, but there wasn’t.  Even if the central conflict had been strong enough to keep her attention throughout the entire movie I think it best this film would still exhibit the Romeo and Juliet syndrome.  After a certain age the appeal of “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t the central romantic conflict, it is all the other interesting characters that Shakespeare created around Romeo and Juliet.  In the same way the secondary relationships of Adeline with her daughter, had Adaline with Harrison Ford,  Harrison Ford with his wife, etc. are always going to be more interesting but if that central relationship, that central conflict, doesn’t hold her attention we don’t care enough to remember those interesting secondary relationships.
 Which brings me to my second point.  I found the character of Ellis was underserved.  For example why did Ellis have to be wealthy?  While watching the film I justified it by saying Adeline’s wealthy and putting them on equal socioeconomic footing  windows down potential conflicts to be only about their age.  Since the film barely had enough time to adequately explore that aspect I can see some justification.  But if that’s the  justification making them accidentally wealthy is such an apologist move and it throws away opportunities to heighten the conflict in a real way.  What I would’ve done, keeping wealthy.  Keep the back story of unobscured algorithm and made them lots of money in the tech boom. Instead of going for an idiot savant trying to save the world out of some strange sense of white guilt embrace a statistical mindset.  Make them a rogue economist who lives not for the typical, but for the chance of failure, and an obsession for beating the odds.  That gives him real motivation for pursuing Adeline despite her constant negatives.  It makes him stronger character and not just some accidentally wealthy male seeking affirmation from the one woman who won’t give it to them.  Adeline becomes more and more desirable to a man like that the harder she tries to get away.  It also gives him a very good reason to be well-versed in history and science which will help them to better understand her and also to create conflict later on when he doesn’t really understand what it was like to live through those events.  He would know the history and the improbability of the events you live through, but not the emotional experience and core.  To add a line they would be memories, and like most of our memories, they could seem to us to only have unfolded in one way. to this alternate Ellis the past as a series of events that might’ve turned out very differently.
Age of Adaline: a great concept and was remarkably well acted but it was almost as if the writers fail to appreciate the most important and most central aspects of their very own story.  Perhaps it was a producer with no storytelling ability that forced this change on the film, but in the end it trades its greatness for something stock and unfulfilling. If the film had been a more standard love story the acting might have carried it alone.  But by reaching for something more and then giving us something so bland Age of Adeline feels not just cliché but insipid.