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.