I’ve been asked numerous times how I manage to get my solo piano recordings to sound so crisp and clear on my YouTube videos. It wasn’t long ago that a home setup of audio and video gear yielded very poor results for pianists wishing to record their music. When I look back at some of my videos from 2008, I’m reminded of this and surprised at just how far technology has improved in this regard. With a modern smartphone and an investment of about $100, you can make impressive looking and sounding music videos. The most important way to improve the quality of your videos is to not use the audio that was recorded by the camcorder or smartphone— use a digital audio recorder. Once you have a solid take of a performance, you just need to know what to do with it once you have that sound file. So, let me discuss the gear and software that I use to turn that audio file into something impressive.
Digital Audio Recorder: Tascam DR-05
This is the most important investment for a HUGE improvement in quality. The Tascam DR-05 is the least expensive digital audio recorder on the market and will do what you need it to. Any extra money thrown on a higher model within the Tascam family of recorders will yield only slight improvements for what you NEED compared to the improvement over the audio from the video recorder. What you need is a way of adjusting the gain in your recording and a way to produce a high bitrate wav file. Let me go through my settings on the device so you can achieve similar results.
When using a portable digital audio recorder like the Tascam DR-05 to record piano music, it is best to consider placement first. Don’t set the recorder on the piano itself, as distortion through vibration will occur. If you have a grand piano, like I do, you should open the lid and point the recorder into the piano. I’ve used this device to record on upright pianos as well and I place the recorder behind the upright piano pointing toward the soundboard. The recorder should not be touching the piano, so I use a tripod. The Tascam DR-05 has a screw mount for a tripod. You should experiment with different placements as this makes a really big difference in the sound of the recording. Here is a photo of my usual setup:
Next, I’m going to go through the settings within the Tascam DR-05 that I have found to provide the best results for recording acoustic piano music. I record using the highest settings available on the device:
Format: WAV 24bit
Level control: off
Recording level (Gain) : 5
The Format and Sample settings can be found in the menu and adjusted from there. The quick button allows you to control the level align, just leave it off. This feature causes the gain to adjust based on the volume of sound that the mic is picking up. I find this to be distracting and ultimately unnecessary for recording acoustic piano music. The gain can be set after hitting REC one time ( the red REC light will begin blinking). Using the right or left arrows you can set the gain. I choose a very low gain setting because I don’t want to pick up unwanted ambient sound, i.e. breathing, pedal mechanics, airplanes, the refrigerator. Using this placement and settings, you can get a really good wav file to bring to your computer and make some big improvements.
Take a close look at my photos above that I took from a recent trip to the mountains and compare the photo right out of the camera to the same photo with adjustments made through the use of software. Think of this WAV file like a RAW photo right out of the camera— it may not be great yet, but it has all the data to become a great finished product. I use Audacity, which is a free audio editor with a lot of power giving it results close to that of a professional recording studio.
In Audacity, I only use a very small fraction of its features.
1. Open the wav file in Audacity.
2. Trim any unwanted sound before and after the music recording.
3. Select the audio and go to Effect in the menu and select Reverb.
4. Set the Reverb Room Size to 45% and the Reverberance to 45%. Try tweaking these adjustments to find the right reverb for your taste, these are the settings I like for my setup and piano.
5. Select the audio and go to Effect in the menu and select Normalize using Audacity’s generic settings for Normalize.
6. Finally, Export the audio. This is your finished audio file!
If you just want an audio recording, congratulations, you’re done. If you also shot video during your recording session, you need to remove the audio from the video recording and simply replace it with this vastly improved new WAV file. I’m a Mac user so I use iMovie to produce the video and replace the audio of the original video recording with the WAV file. Once imported into iMovie, simply select the audio portion of the video and delete it. Upload the new WAV file and sync it to the video. Don’t try to sync the audio by estimating. Make sure the sound file from the video is visible as a waveform and match the finished audio to the one from the camera. During your recording session, sometimes it helps to clap once after you hit record because a clap is very visible in this waveform and easy to sync. Using iMovie is very simple, but getting into the details of video production is beyond the scope of this article.
Lastly, you can produce great videos with a smartphone, but I like to use a DSLR because of the quality of lenses they offer. Plus, having a DSLR around gives me the opportunity to add another camera angle should I choose to use multiple angles to my video in addition to my smartphone. I like the Canon Rebels as they are very affordable and offer a lot of flexibility with all those lenses. But, as you know, just like your smartphone, the audio recorded with these is TERRIBLE.
Video recorder: Canon Rebel DSLR
Lastly, I’d like to compare different recording techniques I’ve used over the years, from straight out of the camera to the method above all the way to a professional recording studio.
The Worst Scenario:
Let me begin with the worst— a video from 2008 in my home using a 2004 video tape recorder with the audio straight out of the camera. While, at the time, I was fairly happy with the way I played, the recording didn’t provide a good way for me to critique the details because of the distorted sound. Maybe I was using too much pedal, maybe I wasn’t, who knows?
A HUGE improvement with the Tascam DR-05:
In these two videos, I use the exact setup as I illustrated from above. Also, it is the same piano as the above video (Steinway O, 1909).
The Professional Route:
Sometimes I need to take the extra step and use a professional. Whether I am recording an album or recording music like the John Cage prepared piano works which demand a greater quality to capture all the nuances, I sometimes need to use the expertise of a professional engineer and their equipment.
Have you found other methods of recording that work well for you? Did you try my method? If so, please comment and let me know!