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.

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.