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Electric tuba

Date: 08/04/2013

My first experiences with something that could be called a home studio were my neighbor’s ancient stereo tape recorder. I borrowed it because it allowed me to record and play back my tuba playing. But more important, it made it possible to record one track, and then record a second track while listening to the first allowing me to record duets with myself!

That particular machine was not very sophisticated to say the least. The recording was delayed by half a second compared to the playback. The result was a duet where one of the players where constantly half a second behind the other! To compensate for this I had to play one of the duet parts half a second ahead of the other part while recording! It was challenging and not convenient. However, it gave me a taste for what could be done. I wanted to expand to recording tuba quartets, so I ran to the local music store to see if they had something more accurate. I came home with a four track cassette recorder, a so called portastudio. This could not be compared to today’s modern equipment in sound quality, but it was in sync and it had a small mixer. This was a revolution to me, and I had soon recorded my first tuba quartet with Baadsvik on all parts! It was done with basically the same procedure that with the duet: Record one track after the other while listening to the previously recorded tracks on a headset. The first challenge: It was extremely hard to play in time. Especially when the first recorded part had a few bars rest. I realized that I needed guidance. Using a metronome while playing was tempting, but the sound would leak into the microphone. The solution was pretty obvious: Record the metronome first on a separate track and listen to this track while recording the parts. Later I found out that this trick is used on virtually all multitrack recordings in commercial studios. Engineers calls it, you guessed it, a click track. I also brought in my brother on drums on some tunes.

Now to the mixing process: Since all parts were recorded separately I was now able to adjust the level of each part as well as individually adding reverberation. A mixer also gives me the opportunity to decide where in the stereo image they should appear, so called panning. I could put part one in the left speaker, part 2 a bit closer to the middle and so on all the way to the far right. Ok, enough technicalities.
At that time the portastudio was pure fun, a young boy exploring new toys.
Now I realize that this experimenting was dynamite for my musical development!
Without actually knowing it then, this dramatically improved all aspects of my playing. And it all happened extremely fast. Probably due to the fact that I was having fun and I was forced to concentrate hard.
I learned to be very aware of timing. It simply was not fun listening to a final mix where parts where not together. It also helped my intonation tremendously. It is embarrassing how much bad intonation you are able to get away with on a band rehearsal. Fortunately on tape, you hear everything, especially playing with yourself. Another very important lesson was the dynamic blend. When making a tutti crescendo or diminuendo it was very easy to hear if all parts where working together, or if one part was making the crescendo faster than the others. The blend of the sound itself was also an issue that grabbed my attention. Playing fast notes at the right time was (and is!) a challenge. Finally, finding the right character of the piece was crucial. Again, if one of the parts where sticking out from the general character you could tell immediately on the tape.Accuracy, intonation, dynamics, sound and style. What more can you wish for?Looking back at his period I realize that working with the portastudio had yet a serious impact on my playing. Focusing on all the elements above, made me forget about how to play the tuba. Where to put the tongue, how to hold the horn and how to breathe. The important thing was the result, how it sounded and if the music was able to excite me.
When friends asked me how much I practiced I used to say “hardly nothing!”. And I believed it. Now I realize that I actually spent four, maybe five hours a day behind the tuba in deep concentration on all the right things.

I am not saying that a portastudio is the only solution to get students to focus on their playing. We all have different needs. My message is simply that you need to light the fire in some way. To me, the portastudio did exactly this.

Now I am regularly using many of the same principals when learning new material.
The only difference is the equipment. You can still buy the old cassette recorders, but thanks to computers you can also get fine recording technology almost for nothing!

What do I need to try this?
For an inexpensive recording studio you have two choices: An old type portastudio with cassettes or you can use a computer, PC or Mac. I recommend a computer because of the sound quality and the possibilities of many more tracks, effects etc.

The Microphone
In both cases you need a microphone. The microphone is our link to the electronic world. Whatever you want to do involving electronics on an acoustic instrument, you need a microphone. If you have some extra money, a good microphone is the right thing to spend it on. This is what picks up your sound and magically turns it into electric impulses. Getting into all the aspects of buying a good microphone is a too large subject for this article, but try to borrow a microphone from a dealer and test it for some days. The microphone used for recording is usually not the right one for live performance so decide what is most important for you. Unless you want to record an orchestra or a group with one single microphone you don’t need a stereo microphone.
You must be prepared to pay from $200 USD for a decent mono microphone for recording.

Sound card

To get the sound into the PC (or Mac) you need a sound card. Get an external sound card. Why? Although almost all modern PC’s comes with a built in sound card they vary much in quality. Noise can be a problem as well as distortion. The level settings are also hard to adjust because they are all in the software. And you will not find phantom powering on a built in PC soundcard. This is needed for many recording microphones.

 

At least you will need something like the USB device Tascam US-122. Cost: around $200 USD. This can be used on both PC and Mac and is very easy to transport. Headset control, two in and two out. Powered from the USB port.

Software

You need a multi track recording program. The professionals use programs like ProTools, Logic or Cubase. Cost from $600USD. Many of the USB sound cards like the Tascam US-122 comes bundled with free recording software that will do the job more than sufficient. There are also free programs that you can download from internet. Have a look at www.download.com. These programs usually also contains effects such as reverb and echo.

Headset

Since the recording of multiple parts requires you to listen to previously recorded parts you will need a headset. You can use your speakers, but the speaker sound will bleed into the microphone and you will end up with background noise on the recorded track. Get a good, closed headset that is comfortable to wear. You can use it for mixing as well. The AKG K240 is an industry standard, used by most studios. Cost around $100. You can also get good ones for as little as $30.

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