Recording yourself can be a great way to review your practice sessions and performances and identify problems (and successes!) so that you can either adjust or build upon your approach for next time. There are (at least) two primary benefits of recording yourself: (1) you are able to hear what you are producing musically without having to worry too much about technique; and (2), at least with video recording, you are able to see where you need improvement in terms of technique or in terms of those places where you are playing with too much tension in either or both hands (or elsewhere). Playing musically requires solid technique, and solid, effortless technique requires a relaxed (or tense-free) approach with economy of movement. Recording helps you isolate those factors so you can take them to the practice room for revision—or overhaul, as the case may sometimes be.
How to go about recording yourself, however, can be a difficult enough procedure without the added (and perfectly normal) performance anxieties of playing in front of a recorder or video camera (that little red flashing light can set off that performance anxiety almost as much as getting up on stage!). This guide will give you some straightforward tips on how best to begin from the technical point of view.
There are different cameras you can use, which will give varying results in terms of quality. Nevertheless, whether you use a videocamera, a webcam, your smartphone or tablet, or a DSLR with a professional cine lens, more important will be how you shoot your video. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
As with any photography, video requires special attention to light. In general, you will most often need more light than you think. Your camera’s lens, even those with the widest apertures, or openings, can’t see in the dark all that well—not without adding “noise” (or, grain) to the picture. This is especially true if you use a camera that has a small sensor—your webcam, smartphone/tablet, and even certain dedicated video cameras have very small sensors (what is called an “full-frame” DSLR have large sensors and can see in darker atmospheres much better). Thus it’s really important to utilize light to illuminate the subject—that’d be you.
If you don’t have bright lights that will point at you like photographers use in their studios—not to worry, here’s a tip. Try and take your video next to an open window during the day. We can discuss techniques for pleasing lighting setups further later, but for now, you want to avoid placing your body where you have the light directly behind you, unless you’re going for that silhouette look (which won’t let you see what your hands are doing all that well). Instead, place yourself either with the light directly in front of you or position your body with the light hitting you from the side and turn yourself slightly toward the light. If the light is directly in front of you, beware that this can make you look so bright to your camera’s lens that your camera will have a difficult time making out details in the frame (for photographers out there, this is often referred to as “blowing out” or “burning” the “highlights”—essentially, overexposing the picture). In such situations you either need to lower the aperture (the “f-stop” number—which works backwards, by the way: the higher the number the lower the aperture) or lower your ISO on your camera.
If you’re unable to shoot video during the day or you don’t have a place to shoot with a window nearby, one solution is to pick up one or two clamp work lights—they can be had for cheap at most hardware stores and can usually handle pretty bright bulbs. These can run hot so you can’t leave them on for too long at a time, but they’re a budget-friendly alternative to expensive lighting setups—especially when our goal is recording for practical purposes.
Those of you familiar with photography will know that photographers use a simple rule for how to place the subject in the frame called “the rule of thirds.” Basically it dictates that the primary subject should be placed in the top, or bottom, or left, or right third of the frame. For our purposes, however, what is more important is being able to see both hands and your guitar in the frame. Thus you want to place your camera (or yourself) in such a way that you can see all of what you’re doing in the frame.
There are three different options for audio recording: with microphones, usually connected to a USB interface that plugs directly into your computer; with a standalone recorder, which either has microphones built-in or can utilize external microphones; or with the built-in microphone(s) on your camera.
(a) Camera audio
First off, while mics in cameras are getting a bit better with advancing technology, they’re still not of the highest of quality. They often add a lot more noise than is desirable to the original sound (or the “analog to digital
(b) Microphones / USB Interface
If you wish to have as true a representation of your guitar’s sound as possible when you listen/watch back what you’ve done in the practice room, using microphones to record is the best route to go. Deciding what microphones will best suit your recording needs can often be a black hole where expensive gear pulls you in like the forces of gravity, only to swallow you whole. High-priced microphones, mic stands, mic clips, cables, A/D converters, preamps, interfaces, reverb and other plugins, software, treated sound panels for your room, etc., etc., can be an endless rabbit hole that can cost you thousands. But for home recording and especially for recording your practice sessions, cheaper will usually work just fine, and will still produce high-quality results. There are some key things to look for in microphones and in your digital interface.
First, you want gear that won’t add too much to the analog sound—we want your guitar to sound as much like your guitar in real life as we can get it. For microphones, that typically means you are looking for mics that have what is called a “flat” frequency response. That is, you don’t want mics that will be overly boomy in the bass or overly hissy in the trebles (just as you don’t want something with “scooped” mids). Flatter, to overgeneralize just a little bit, is better. An example of cheap mics with a good flat frequency response would be several of MXL’s small-diaphragm condenser mics (such as the MXL 606’s, which are only around $50 a piece). Much more expensive mics with a similar frequency response are the Neumann KM 184s (these will run you $1600 for a matched pair). These are “cardioid” mics, which means that, for the most part, they only hear what is directly in front of them (and maybe a bit to the side), but they are deaf to what is directly behind them. The advantage of this kind of microphone is that it doesn’t pick up too much room noise—they are “dry” mics in that regard (“wet” is a way of referring to the saturation of sound by external elements, “effects,” like reverb from the sound bouncing off the walls and ceiling of a room). A cardioid can also pick up a more realistic representation of the “highs” (or trebles) in the frequency response—omni mics (which, as you probably already guessed, hear sound in all directions) are typically better at representing the “lows.”
For most home recording situations your mics will connect to your computer via a USB interface. The same advice with mics goes for a USB interface: the best are the ones that have fast (“low latency”) and clean (little added noise) conversion of analog to digital sound, that add as little as possible to your guitar’s sound. Many of the lower-end interfaces will work well for this purpose, but the one that I think has the best A/D (analog/digital) converters and the best preamps built-in (which helps boost the signal without adding much noise) is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. It is cheap (only about a hundred bucks) and produces crisp, accurate results. The 2i2, like many starter interfaces, only supports two channels, but for most classical guitar recording applications this will work perfectly.
While using only one microphone can work just fine—especially if you have a stereo mic, like the Rode NT5—a “stereo” setup (generally two mics) will produce a truer sound representation of your instrument.
Setting up your mics:
Here are a few different setups you can try for where to place your mics in relation to the guitar.
- Place your mics at the height of your guitar somewhere between one to two feet away from your guitar. Place one mic close to the bridge, pointing slightly toward the soundhole, and place the other pointing toward the twelfth fret. This setup can give a very up-close and intimate sound. It will pick up nail and string noise and your breathing a bit more than some other setups, but it’s a tried and tested method that can work in some rooms really well.
- Place your mics again at the height of your guitar (they should ideally be at the same height) and around two feet away from the guitar, but this time space the mics about twelve to eighteen inches from one another, both pointing directly at the guitar. This is called an “A/B” setup. One thing to keep in mind with this setup, which will add more of the room sound to the final recording, is that you want your mics to be the same distance from your source (the guitar), otherwise you can run into phase problems. Just use a ruler or tape measure to be sure that each mic is about equal distance from your guitar.
- If you only have one mic, try placing the mic first around twelve to eighteen inches from the twelfth fret and then compare that with the mic placed in front of the bridge pointing toward the soundhole and decide which works best for you.
There are no fast and hard rules here. Mic placement is really a trial-and-error thing and you may need to try different placements that will suit your room before you find the sound you want.
(c) Standalone Recorders
There are also portable devices that have microphones built into them. These will also usually be capable of serving as a USB interface or of transferring recordings from the device to your computer with a memory card. These devices can be really handy—and many of them are in fact called “handy recorders”!—but even the best have a difficult time with noise and the analog to digital conversion is not always the best. You save on having to buy multiple microphones, cables, mic stands, and a USB interface, but there are tradeoffs here in terms of quality, which means, unless you are using external mics with these recorders, they won’t help you record your next album. What they will help you do, though, is record your practice sessions efficiently—and still with decent quality. I’d recommend keeping a Zoom H2, or Zoom H4n, if you can afford it, handy for your practice sessions. Other companies like Edirol and Tascam make good ones too.
Once you have your light(s) and mic(s)/recorder all setup, now you need a recording software. There are many free recording softwares out there that will work really well, but the two most popular are Audacity and Garage Band. Learning the in’s and out’s of recording softwares will take some time, but these are great places to start. For video editing, if you don’t have Adobe Photoshop or Mac’s popular Final Cut Pro, iMovie (Mac) or Windows Movie Maker (PC) are also great free places to start.
If you are not using the audio from your camera, you will have to sync your video with your audio in software later. If you don’t have software that can automatically sync video and audio tracks (neither of the free options above will do this) then clap your hands together once loudly (this will much like the click of the sticks in a film: “Scene 1, take two, [CLAP], Action!”). The clap will cause a spike in the audio, which will make it easy to line up with the video’s audio. Once you sync them up, be sure to mute the audio from your camera, leaving only the audio from either your mics or standalone recorder.
Finally, when you have your video all ready, head over to YouTube, start an account if you don’t have one, and upload your video to your channel. Once you’re signed into your account you’ll see a button for “Upload” toward the top right of the page—just to the left of your user avatar. Click that button and it will take you to the upload page. There you’ll see a drop-down button right in the middle of the page that (usually, I think by default) says “Public.” Click on that and change your privacy setting to “Unlisted.”
Posting your video to the CGC forum
After your video file has been uploaded to YouTube, start a new post at CGC and simply paste the URL (the web address) of the video directly into the body of the message. That’s it!