Scott's Valley is an excellent example of what an educational recording studio curriculum can look like in a secondary school setting but teachers don't have to go that far in order to reap the benefits that even a small studio can provide. Teachers can turn a modest investment in equipment into a recording studio that will meet a wide variety of needs. Richard McCreedy, music technology teacher at River Hill High School in Clarksville, MD and Dennis Mauricio, music technology teacher at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, CA are two such teachers with a wide range of ideas and experiences to share on the topic.
Building Your Own Studio
McCreedy recommends that any studio setup needs to focus first on the essentials of recording. "You need to have a variety of microphones including some good Sure SM58 dynamic mics as well as a range of small and large diaphragm condensers. You can also invest in some boundary or floor mics if you have the funds." In a smaller, lower cost setup he also mentions that a number of good quality USB mics can be used, particularly those from companies such as Blue Microphones. The big benefit of a USB mic is that it allows you to bypass the need for a dedicated audio interface between the microphones and the computer. This can cut down on some of the costs associated with a recording setup, however he also points out that USB mics are less likely to be seen in a professional recording studio. He recommends that if you are teaching a class primarily on USB mics be sure to also expose the students to the use of standard XLR cables and mics.
Dennis Mauricio points out that the equipment you need to purchase is very dependent on the way you intend to use it. "If you are a music teacher that simply wants to make recordings of their student's performances, burn them to CD, and then submit them for contests or festivals then you do not need to spend tons of money." In that kind of situation a teacher can get by with a simple USB mic, a computer, and free copies of Audacity and iTunes. If there is the possibility that this studio may one day grow into something bigger then Mauricio suggests investing in equipment from major manufacturers that can be easily upgraded or expanded rather than in the lower cost Studio In A Box packages that often lose their support, driver, and resource updates when the next model comes out.
Tips For Choosing A Room For The Studio
Before settling on a room for your studio make sure it is acoustically appropriate for your needs. Avoid square rooms with solid, hard surfaces as they tend to cause acoustic reflections known as standing waves. Also avoid cinder block walls in favor of drywall or wood. If you have no choice on the room shape be prepared to treat them with acoustic foam or other solutions to reduce echoes. If the space allows you can sometimes consider putting up sound absorbing fabrics or carpet on the walls to reduce echoes. Also, be sure there is no air leaking into or out of the room around the door frame or window frames. Many professional studios use double glazing and double-entry doors.
Be aware of the mechanics of the building. Even when nothing is happening in a room the noise from the HVAC system or sounds infiltrating from the hallway outside the door may make producing a clean recording difficult. See if it is possible for your building maintenance people to install a temporary cut off switch to allow you to turn off the HVAC blowers while recording. Better still, if your school is planning a new addition or remodel talk to the architects in advance and insist that they take plant noise into consideration when building the new room. Also try to avoid the use of fluorescent lighting in any room being used for recording. This type of lighting fixture can produce a 60 cycle hum that might not be noticed until after the recording has already been made.
Recording an ensemble requires special considerations. In many cases either you must mic and mix each instrument individually or record in a large enough room that the sound has a chance to blend properly before it reaches the microphone. As an example, placing one mic directly behind the conductor's podium might produce a recording that is heavy on the flutes and clarinets but lacking the sounds from the back of the band. Always try to get the microphone out at least 20-30 feet in front of the band and elevate it up about ten feet in the air to get a good stereo mix. Well placed boundary mics can help pick up the whole sound of the ensemble, and are very good for the school musicals as they do not mask the performers. However, an elevated pair of condensers is always the best option for excellent recording quality.
Studying Up On Recording
Getting the equipment and committing to teaching a class with it is just the first step for many educators, especially if the teacher does not fully understand the ins and outs of the art of recording. All of the educators mentioned in this article agree with the need for any teacher to be adequately trained in the techniques of recording before trying to teach a class on the subject. For some people local colleges and universities may offer beginner courses in these areas, but for those without access to local professionals there are many online offerings from colleges such as the Berklee School Of Music and others.
For a self-study method of learning about recording take a look at the Hal Leonard Recording Method, a six book set with CD's recommended by Mauricio. Both Hollenbeck and McCreedy are fans of the videos provided by Alan Parson's Art and Science of Sound Recording. These instructional videos are available online a la carte or schools can purchase educational licenses for use in the classroom as a supplement to other instruction.
For those who find their budget to be very restrictive McCreedy goes on to recommend an interesting book by Karl Coryat titled Guerrilla Home Recording, Second Edition . This 200+ page book does exactly what the title suggests, allowing you to get great results from mediocre recording gear.
Even if a music program has no interest in starting a full scale recording arts class the inclusion of a recording studio setup can be a huge benefit to the musicians that practice within its walls. All it really takes is a computer, a microphone, and the right educational motivation.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the February 2013 issue of NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine on page 31 Under the title Putting A Studio In The Mix. A copy for personal research use may be downloaded but no further use of this article is permitted without written permission from the National Association for Music Education.