My How Far We’ve Come

Closeup of original Adolphe Sax alto

Closeup of original Adolphe Sax alto

I wanted to take a break from the recording stuff for a little bit but don’t worry I’ll get back to it soon – assuming you’re a fan of course. If you’re not a fan of the recording posts it’s more like, “Oh geez, he’s going to write more of that nonsense?”. But I digress.

A good buddy of mine and an excellent sax player named Scott Paddock posted this video on my Facebook wall a while back. It’s a quick overview of an original Adolphe Sax alto and it’s absolutely fascinating. I mean I’ve seen a lot of vintage horns in my day and some of them had some pretty interesting key work but this is just so bare bones. It only goes down to low B instead of Bb but it does go all the way up to F above the staff. There are far fewer linkages and rods – the left and right hand stacks don’t interact whatsoever. One of the most mind-blowing things is the two octave keys. We actually have two octave keys on modern horns but we access them through the same mechanism and the horn automatically makes the switch for us. On the original horn there is one octave key for D to G# and then another for A and up. I’m sure it’s something you could get used to but it makes me glad for my modern horn.

One of the BIG changes is weight because of the major difference in the amount of keys, posts, and ribs.  I imagine this horn is maybe half the weight of a modern one..especially something like my Buffet or a Keilwerth. I’m also a big fan of the very simple G# mechanism because that’s one of the keys that seems to always stick with the modern mechanism.

When I look at this video I find it fascinating but I also find myself really appreciating all of the advancements that help me play with more facility and probably more in tune. I have an old college buddy named Ellery Eskelin, though, who has made a career out of studying old horns and adjusting his approach to try to make the most out of them – I think his current main horn is from the 1920’s. He posted on my Facebook page about how much he would love to try it and I think he would probably make it sound awesome.

I’ll get back to the recording stuff soon with a discussion of the actual software you can use. I’m also looking forward to some fun shows in February after a very empty January. I have gigs with both Technicolor Motor Home and Jr. Cline and the Recliners and I also am meeting with some great musicians and good friends about starting a recording project that could also turn into a live band. Wish me luck.

Recording Basics: Computer (Outputs)

Once you have your inputs squared away and you’ve recorded something it’s time to worry about hearing it back. This can be as simple as using the speakers built into your laptop or the speakers hooked up to your desktop or it could be a more major investment into studio monitors. Ultimately, the choice will come down to your intentions and your disposable income.

Sony MDR 7506

Sony MDR 7506

Like I said, you can use computer speakers but you should listen to them critically with some pre-recorded music and decide if you even think they are giving you the full frequency range. Many of these speakers are lacking bass and high end and the end up sounding rather tinny and full of mid range like a transistor radio. Some computer speakers have separate bass boosters but these tend to be really bass heavy and not at all representative of what you want when trying to mix your recordings. They will definitely do in a pinch to get you started but you will probably want to move away from them rather quickly.

That brings us to headphones. This is an excellent choice early on and it can be easy on your budget but there are lots of choices. There are many different kinds of headphones from ear buds to open and closed back designs. The open and closed back headphones are further differentiated by how they fit on your ear. Some fit right on your ears and some are meant to go over them. Open back are good if you want to hear more bleed from the room and closed back are better if you want to be in your own world. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference for fit, comfort, and sound. Try to find a place that has a few different types in stock and see what fits you best both physically and aurally and remember that you might have them on for extended periods of time so comfort is a prime factor.

I like to use Sony MDR-V900 because they sound great, they are comfortable, they have a coiled cable that stays out of the way, and they pack up into a small bag. They are also very flat in their response and that’s important. They aren’t made anymore though but there are lots of options out there. You should probably look for studio headphones and steer clear of pairs that advertise extra bass. In the beginning it doesn’t matter but if you ever want to mix for commercial release you will want something flat so you don’t get a misrepresentation  of the frequency range of your music.

M-Audio BX5A

M-Audio BX5A

Finally, you will eventually want some nice speakers but you should look for studio monitors rather than stereo speakers. Why? Well stereo speakers are made to enhance pre-recorded music and fill the room. They also usually favor lows and highs because those are the kinds of things people are impressed by when listening. Studio monitors are made to be flat across the whole frequency range and are also usually meant for “near field” listening.  In other words, you make a equilateral triangle with your head and the two speakers and that’s the best place to listen. If you go to big studios or even many home studios you will often find several pairs of monitors of various sizes in a switchable array but one good pair will take you pretty far. I use some self-powered monitors from M-Audio called the BX5-a but they are no longer made.  I like having self-powered monitors because the amplifiers are already matched to the speakers and I don’t have to do any additional wiring.

I use my audio interface to handle all of the output stage stuff but I do use an external mixer  so it’s easy to tun down the speakers while recording. You could definitely plug either the headphones or the studio monitors right into your computer with the right cables though.

Recording Basics: More Inputs

AKG Perception 100

AKG Perception 100

I realized that I glossed over microphones completely in my last post and since they’re such an important part of the process I thought I would give them a little more time. I mentioned one particular microphone, the USB one, but I didn’t even mention what type it was.  So here’s a quick take on a couple different kinds of microphones and what they can be used for.

Shure SM 57 & 58

Shure SM 57 & 58

One of the most common types, especially when you’re playing out live, is the dynamic microphone. These microphones can generally handle very high sound pressure levels and usually have good rejection of sounds that don’t come right into the pattern which is usually cardioid or hyper cardioid. One of the most used microphones for live purposes and in the studio for horns and lots of other things is the Shure SM 57 followed closely by its brother the SM 58 (used mostly for vocals). PRO TIP: You can save money by buying an SM58 and using it with the bulb-shaped screen on for vocals and then take it off for recording horns.  The element is the same so you get two types of uses for the price of one. Some other famous dynamic microphones are the Sennheiser MD 421, the AKG D112, and the Electro Voice RE20. I have used a Sennheiser MD 421 for years both live and for recording and I love it.

Condensors are quite possibly the most commonly used microphones in studios throughout the world. They are divided into several sizes based on the size of the capsule used. Large diaphragm condensors are useful for pretty much every type of instrument and they’re especially good at capturing the warmth of the instrument. Small diaphragm condensors are great at capturing higher overtones and are used extensively for things like acoustic guitars and drum overheads. My USB microphone is a large diaphragm condensor and I also use an AKG Perception 100. I have a small diaphragm condensor as well, the AKG C1000S.

The SM 58 with the wind screen removed...looks kind of like an SM57...because it is just like an SM 57

The SM 58 with the wind screen removed…looks kind of like an SM57…because it is just like an SM 57

Condensor mics usually require something called phantom power in order to work correctly. Some of them are as simple as putting in a 9-volt battery, some come with their own plug-in power source, and some require an external power input from your mixer or your audio interface. Even if you don’t have a need for it now, it might be a good idea to make sure your interface has phantom power…most of them do these days.

There are other kinds of microphones as well like ribbon microphones. You can spend as much or as little as you want but it’s a good idea to probably try to do research and save up for a microphone in the 150-250 dollar range to get started. You’ll thank yourself later for not buying something cheap. One microphone will get you started. Later you can try to fill in with a different type or maybe a matched stereo pair. You will also need some XLR microphone cables and some stands.

This was a very basic overview but it should be enough to get you started. Have fun.

Recording Basics: Computer (Input)

 

Audacity - Full-featured and FREE

Audacity – Full-featured and FREE

It’s actually pretty easy to start recording on your computer and it’s relatively inexpensive since most people already have one. Even a computer that is several years old can be powerful enough to get started provided you use the right software and can work around any potential limitations. Many computers have built in microphones and all have headphone outputs so you don’t need a ton of additional hardware to get started but you will probably outgrow these limited accessories pretty quickly. Here’s a quick guide for some essential gear that won’t break the bank

Input

As I said above, a built-in microphone will get you started but that’s about it. Built-in microphones often sound very compressed and they have a very limited frequency response range. They are also rather noisy so getting a better input device is possibly the thing to do first.

There are several options here but the two simplest ones are a USB recording microphone or an audio interface that can be used with any microphone you may already have access to. There are several really nice USB microphones. I use an Audio Technica 2020 USB but I have some friends that swear by the Blue Snowball.  There are other models from these companies as well as numerous models from other manufacturers like Shure, Samson, Apogee, and AKG. Many of these microphones feature large-diaphragm condensors and those are very good for recording saxophones and woodwinds in general. Depending on the model and what computer you are using (Mac or PC) you may have to install a driver but these things are pretty painless and you get good results. For the most part, these microphones are made for audio podcasting and Internet radio but they’re very workable for getting started.

AT 2020 USB

AT 2020 USB

While I do have a USB microphone I only use it when I’m being really lazy or when I’m traveling. My son actually uses it more when he works on his You Tube stuff. What I prefer is the next step up and that’s a dedicated audio interface. These are better for several reasons. First, they usually allow multiple simultaneous input channels and that’s important if you want to try to record other instruments at the same time or if you need to record drums. Second, they also provide an upgraded output section over the headphone jack built into your computer. Third, many of them also provide a MIDI in and out in addition to the audio and that’s good if you want to access soft synths in your computer or if you want to sequence into an external sound module. I have several of these but the one I use most is the M-Audio Fast Track Ultra. It’s an 8 in/8 out interface with MIDI, 4 mic preamps, built in digital signal processing (DSP) and routing, and 2 separate headphone sends. You don’t have to get anything nearly that elaborate but you will probably want something with 2 ins and 2 outs, MIDI, and it helps if it has XLR inputs although you could also get a separate mic preamp but that’s more money.

If you’re using these things on a Mac then they are pretty much plug and play. On a PC you will want to make sure that the interface has available ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) drivers to cut down on the latency. Latency is the lag between the input and the output while recording and shorter is not only better, it’s practically a requirement. One tip, if there are no ASIO drivers for your interface you can try downloading ASIO4all drivers. Of course, no matter what you will need a microphone (or microphones) and cables to make this system work. It’s more money but it’s also more flexible.

Well that’s enough for one day.  I will get to the output section in a future post and then I’ll move on to software. After that we’ll see how it goes.

Top Five Reasons You Should be Recording Yourself

Abbey Road Studios

Abbey Road Studios

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years both recording myself at home with various rigs and also being recorded in various studios for a string of demos, albums, jingles, and other things. It’s something I have always enjoyed and something I have sought out for myself as well. I’ve recorded on cassette four and eight tracks, on reel to reel tapes with sound on sound, in all-in-one digital 8-track recorder, in various computers, directly onto my phone or tablet, and on super high-end professional gear and there’s something new to be learned every time. Here are some reasons why you might want to get more recording time in especially on your own at home.

It’s enlightening

One cold hard fact about playing a saxophone is you rarely hear the sound the way everyone else hears it. You’re on the wrong side of the bell and because your top teeth are usually on the mouthpiece you end up hearing more through bone conduction than through the air. That’s why four saxophone players in a room will all gravitate to their own wall to hear the bounce-back. Even hearing wall bounce-back isn’t the same as being able to critically listen to a recording because while you are playing your mind is split.

Having a recording allows you to listen to yourself either in the context of a backing track or as a raw audio file. You can immediately pick out things like tone, intonation, note choice, and technique. You can find out once and for all whether one setup sounds better than a another or whether that fancy ligature really opens up your sound. You can put a lot of things into a perspective you can actually review objectively rather than subjectively.

It will make you better player

Many players spend too much time and money trying to chase equipment to capture a particular sound, whether it’s to try to sound like their idol or sound appropriate for a particular style of music. This approach is often expensive and ignores one of the biggest strengths of the saxophone in that it is an incredibly versatile instrument. I believe that recording yourself and listening critically will actually get you closer to your target than an equipment change will. As I mentioned in a previous post, the most important part of your setup is your concept and the way to get in touch with your concept is through critical listening. So recording yourself might even save you some money – you’re welcome. 🙂

Of course, recording yourself and listening critically will also expose everything you are doing – good and especially bad. As musicians, we are often our own worst critics and recordings are brutal when used in this context. If you keep a healthy attitude then you can use this as a call to action rather than a reason to get down on yourself. Hearing your intonation problems or missed chord changes is tough but keeping old recordings will let you truly hear the progress you are making. The best way to fix an issue is to start by knowing the true extent of it.

It sparks creativity

One of the beauties of digital cameras is that there is no film and memory is cheap. Photographers can take as many pictures as they want and experiment to their heart’s content. They can delete the ones they don’t like and start fresh in seconds. With the advent of accessible digital recording, the same freedom is available to any musician. If you get set up for recording you can just play and try things over and over. Keep the stuff you like, delete the stuff you don’t. You can experiment with harmonies, mess around with crazy outside note choices or just turn the lights off and wail. No one has to know but you…unless you find something cool. Some of the most creative musical events have happened when musicians have the ability to experiment without time or money constraints and you can be one of those people now.

It’s fun

I guess I can’t speak for everyone but I have an absolute blast when I’m recording whether it’s in a big studio or in my basement. I love experimenting and I love the challenge of knowing that I will have to listen to the playback and everything it exposes. It is great fun to mess with EQ and effects especially since you can just turn them right back off if they’re terrible. I enjoy trying out a different microphones or experimenting with placement. I love learning new things and recording techniques are just fascinating to read about and experiment with. Your results may vary but I think many people would find the same enjoyment I do and you might be one of them.

It’s never been easier

If you have a smart phone in your pocket it’s likely you have a basic digital recorder available to you already. Usually you don’t even need a special app, you just need to use the voice memo function. If you download an app it’s possible you can get even more features and turn that smart phone into a full multitrack recorder. There are custom microphones that plug right in or there are custom audio interfaces available as well. You can buy handheld dedicated stereo digital recorders from companies like Tascam, Fostex, or Zoom. These units have better microphones built in than smart phones and tablets and better and easier control over input levels. There are great all-in-one digital multitrack recorders on the market from companies like Roland (and some of the previously mentioned companies like Fostex and Tascam) and as other platforms become more popular you can often find them used fairly inexpensively. These all-in-one units are good if you like to have a dedicated machine and also if you like to have more tactile control as they usually have real faders for the mixer.

One of the most popular options these days is possibly the thing you are using to read this post. Personal computers are incredibly powerful and relatively inexpensive. If you already have one then it’s a short hop to being able to use one for recording yourself. Many have built in microphones but there are also very excellent USB microphones that give you quality and a low barrier to entry without breaking the bank. Finally there is a whole range of software available with some excellent free or very cheap alternatives. In the next couple weeks I will post some tips on getting started on PC or Mac and I will continue with tips for getting better sounding recordings as the year goes on.

Caudill Productions - the Short Form

Caudill Productions – the Short Form

If you’re already recording yourself, keep it up and keep pushing the boundaries. If you haven’t taken the plunge yet, now is the time. Have fun, improve your playing, and get creative.

Analog Dreams EWI Refill for Reason

Analog Dreams

I’ve mentioned Chris Vollstadt and EWI Reason Sounds before.  I’ve been using Chris’s sounds for my virtual EWI rig for pretty much as long as I’ve been using a virtual rig.  I decided to make Reason the main engine for my virtual rig in no small part because of Chris’s patches and wonderful website.  I had bought all of his Refills (a bank of patches for Reason) but then he came out with a new concept – a mini Refill for only $9.99.  I had to get it and I’m glad I did.

Analog Dreams is a collection of 20 original “Dragon.fly” Combinator patches utilizing samples of vintage synthesizers in the NN19 sampler that is included with Reason.  It also includes 30 NN19 patches (used to make the Combinators), some effects patches, and a comprehensive user guide in pdf format.  It has sounds reminiscent of old analog synths from Moog, Roland, Oberheim, Sequential Circuits, and others.

I’ve been playing EWI and other wind synths for many years and I have done a lot of acoustic instrument emulations over the years but I’ve always preferred synth sounds for leads and solos because it’s really hard to be super creative and emulative at the same time.  Synth patches free me up to just play.  Because of that I am really happy with this collection of sounds.  Chris’s patches are always very expressive and easy to play and these sounds take that concept to a new level.

Another great thing about the package is that all of the patches are “tweakable” whether it’s changing the filters, adding effects, or adjusting the relative brightness of the patch.  Chris sets up each Combinator with knobs and buttons that are readily available and easy to understand.  See the picture at the top of the post for an example of what can be tweaked in real time.  You can even assign controllers to the knobs and buttons to make it easier to do while playing.

All of the sounds are very usable and there are no “clunkers” in the bunch.  Of course, I have some favorites and I made a little recording with 8 or 9 of them below.  Chris also has a cool audio demo on the Analog Dreams page of his website.  My demo is just a quick and dirty sampling of the sounds with no tweaking at all…the sounds are how they sound as soon as you call them up but there’s a lot of variation available to you.  I just used breath swells and other performance controls available on the EWI USB itself for this recording.

If you’re playing a wind synth and using a virtual rig then it’s likely you already have Reason.  If not, it’s something you might want to consider because it’s a very powerful engine for both the EWI and for recording in general.  If you have Reason then you really owe it to yourself to pick up Analog Dreams.  The price is amazing for what you get and there’s tools there to let you create even more sounds on your own.  Of course, if you already have Reason you should also check out Chris’s other products like Cyclone and his Rotators.  You won’t be sorry.

http://barrycaudill.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Analog-Dreams-Demo.mp3