Recording Gear for Trombone
Recording yourself is such an important thing for any musician to be able to do. Unfortunately, so many musicians avoid it because they do it so infrequently and/or are unsure of what equipment they need to get started. Here are a few reasons why you may want/need to be able to record yourself:
- To submit recorded auditions for jobs, summer festivals, or extracurricular ensembles.
- (**My favorite**) To listen back to your practice session.
- Whether working on simple fundamentals or complicated solo repertoire, it can be eye-opening to perform something while recording and then listen back with a more critical ear… It also gives you a chance to turn off the analytical part of your brain while running through something – an extremely important skill as a perform (and one that I’ve struggled with).
- To share the music you make with others (e.g. family and friends via social media, professionally via your website, etc.)
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to recording. A 5th-grade beginner, high-schooler applying to college, and professional musician looking to record some demo materials will likely all use different equipment. Consider the following thoughts before you read on and get your heart set on any one method:
- No device is useful if you never use it (too complicated to setup, etc.)
- Expensive equipment used poorly can sound worse than cheap equipment
How does digital audio recording work?
My simplified explanation is this: A microphone converts sound waves into an electrical current. Microphone preamplifiers boost the weak electrical signal from the microphone, and the analog signal is converted into digital data.
Let’s start with the simplest methods first… you may even have one in your pocket! Most people understand that a device like their phone can record and save audio on it. Unfortunately, these are designed primarily for speaking and not a musical instrument so, for several reasons, you’re unlikely to be happy with this for long unless you really just need a quick, low-quality recording for reference purposes.
Next up is the more specialized category of portable recorders. These devices have higher quality built-in microphones and preamps, as well as the ability to store on internal storage or SD cards, etc. The big advantage of these is that you have a complete recording package in one relatively cheap, small device. One drawback though is that you’re stuck using everything on these devices… The user interface for these is not very intuitive, and the microphones/preamp are just ok. But, that doesn’t mean these are bad products! If you take the time to read the manual, truly understand the interface and their capabilities, and practice recording with various mic positions/gain levels, you can get a lot out of these devices.
I’ve had many students ask about recording gear specifically because they want something “better than a Zoom” but, upon further investigation, discover they haven’t really taken the time to max out its capabilities.
I’ve owned many devices like this made by Zoom, but several other brands, like Tascam & Roland, make comparable products. When you’re looking through these products in the $100-300 range, the biggest differences will be in the interface and features rather than the recording quality itself. If you go this route, it should have a dial or buttons to easily adjust the gain (input volume), and not just a switch or auto-gain. I also always recommend something with XLR inputs like the Zoom H4n Pro. They cost only slightly more, but will allow you to easily step into using external microphones down the road.
What will you record onto?
The next step is to decide what you’ll be recording onto – a computer, or a portable recorder.
The all-in-one devices mentioned above can serve this purpose, but top-of-the-line dedicated field recorders can cost up to several thousand dollars. These devices are intended for capturing audio and have limited playback abilities.
If you are looking to record in just one place (home studio, etc.), then this is the obvious route. If you have a laptop, you can still use this option for a portable setup. The big benefit to using a computer is that you’re recording directly to the device you’ll edit/share from. Since I like to record my own stuff both in practice and performance, I primarily use this method because I can either keep my computer near me for ease of playback & multiple takes, or get really fancy with Apple’s Logic Remote app and remotely toggle things from my phone/tablet.
While a computer-based setup gives you a lot of functionality, it’s also much more complicated to move around (more things to connect, power cords, etc.). Note that some portable recorders can be connected to your computer via USB, allowing them to serve as an audio interface as well. This is handy if you’re working with a portable setup, but want to explore using your computer too.
If you’re using a computer, the next step is your audio interface. The obvious part of the interface’s job is to allow for a physical connection between the microphone(s) and your computer. The more complex part of its job is the conversion of analog/digital signals and the role of microphone preamplifiers. Dedicated audio interfaces should do these things much better than comparably priced, or even more expensive, all-in-one devices.
**One common question I get asked is “Can I skip the interface and just connect the microphone directly to a mic-in jack on my computer?” Even if you can connect them, you will very rarely be able to do this and get good results (USB mics are an exception, and they are discussed later).
Do your homework to find one that works for you, but I settled on the Focusrite Scarlett series. I recommend the 2i2 because it has two mic inputs (useful if you decide to record stereo), is very crisp/clear (no hiss or buzz in quiet recordings), and has very low latency (delay sending signal back and forth from computer.
Digital Audio Workstations
If you’re recording directly to your computer, or if you want to do any editing/enhancing of things you’ve recorded elsewhere, you’ll need specific software on your computer known as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). There are many options out there, but start with something free like Audacity (Mac/PC) or Garageband (Mac). Personally, I use Logic Pro X (Mac).
The audio production world can get very complicated very quickly… anybody who has done a Youtube search knows this already! If you’re trying to get decent results recording trombone, I highly recommend you get acquainted with a few key audio concepts before getting very far.
- Mono vs. Stereo
- Gain staging (audio levels)
- Equalization (EQ)
After you have a working knowledge of those things, then I’d dig into:
- Compression (some “classical” trombonists may never use compression, but it is a helpful technique in certain circumstances)
Here’s where things can really get complicated… There’s a lot to know about what microphones do and how each one varies. I’m not going to describe everything from scratch because A) it would take forever, and B) more knowledgable people than myself have already done that! Instead, I’ll point you to some great resources from Shure that discuss transducer types, frequency responses, & polar/pickup patterns, as well as the associated videos below:
What I want to make clear to anybody reading this is that, if you don’t investigate the above concepts, it’s possible/probable that you’ll be unhappy with your recordings, regardless of what microphone you buy.
There are a lot of microphones out there that can do the job for you. It can be helpful to chat with some of the sales team at a major audio retailer like Sweetwater or to pick the brain of audio engineers on gigs, etc.
Here are several microphones I have used recently and would recommend. I’ve tried to split them into two brackets of lower and higher priced, but there’s a big range in price out there.
Microphones (~$200 or less)
- Shure SM57/58: These two dynamic mics are classic workhorses. The SM57 is the industry standard for a close-mic option on stage (especially in “commercial” settings). The SM58 is slightly different and optimized for vocal applications. I use it for any sort of talking, and trombone sounds fine on both of these. The real reason these are on the list is because they are good enough to get started, they are very beginner-friendly, and are easily found used.
- Audio-Technica AT2020: These are a decent large-diaphragm condenser (LDC) to get you started. There’s also a USB variant (AT2020USB+).
- Rode M5-MP: This is a matched pair of small-diaphragm condensers (SDC). A decent option if you want to do stereo recording right off the bat.
- Golden Age Project R1 MKIII: This is a budget ribbon I recently picked up to experiment with. It’s great for the price and is also active, allowing it to be more easily used without needing extra gear.
- Shure Beta 98: A decent clip-on mic. I rarely love using a clip-on mic, but sometimes you need it. They’re a game changer if you’re doing live performances in a loud setting – especially if you need to move around a lot.
- Audio-Technica AT4050: This is a good step-up LDC.
- AKG C414: An industry standard LDC. They are a classic in studios and concert halls because they are extremely versatile.
- Shure KSM141s: A great step-up pair of SDCs.
- Neumann KM 184: An industry standard SDC pair! You’ll often see these in concert halls.
- AEA R84: This is a fantastic ribbon microphone. Even better (for most trombonists) is the active version (R84A) that will give you more gain, among other things.
- Royer R-121: Another industry standard ribbon mic.
General thoughts on microphone choice
- If you can only afford one mic, make sure it at least has a cardiod polar pattern. While other patterns, like omnidirectional and bi-directional, may actually be better in some use cases, a cardiod pattern allows for some isolation of your sound, which is much more forgiving for the inexperienced.
- Condenser mics are a good first choice. They tend to have pretty flat frequency responses, and many come with variable polar patterns, which makes them a good bang-for-your-buck
- In a great room, I really like “flat” mics, like small-diaphragm condensers, because they replicate the sound very naturally (ideally, a stereo/matched pair).
- High-end ribbon microphones are great (especially if recording mono), but they can be logistically tricky to handle and expensive for folks just starting out.
- Microphones that have an inconsistent frequency response (like a ribbon microphone or some large-diaphragm condensers) tend to “color” your sound slightly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is very hard to know if that will fit your needs without trying it out first.
- For example, during the at-home recording boom caused by COVID-19, I discovered that the frequency response of a cheap ribbon mic actually tamed the not-so-great acoustics in my house and outperformed some condensers that cost twice as much.
- If you’re playing on-stage with a lot of other loud sounds nearby, isolation is important. Something like a clip-on condenser or cardiod/hypercardiod dynamic microphone is best.
A quick note about USB microphones (and those that connect directly to iPhones, etc.)… these have become more popular recently because they connect directly to your computer , bypassing the need for a separate interface/preamp. They’re extremely convenient, but they’re made for entry-level consumer use, and won’t match the quality or features you find in most traditional equipment.
Whenever someone asks me about them, I usually suggest instead that they get an all-in-one portable recorder that can also connect to your computer via USB, like the Zoom handy recorders. If, however, you never plan to upgrade to higher quality microphones and don’t need the extra portability, a USB microphone could be a viable option for you. The AT2020USB+ I mentioned earlier is a good option, but I prefer the external gain adjustment of something like the Apogee MiC Plus.
Another exception might be if you just want something super easy to connect to your phone for a bump up in audio quality while recording yourself in the practice room (I’m looking at you, Instagram stars…). Personally, I get distracted by my phone too much already, so I’ll stick with a portable recorder for this purpose.
How will you record?
Again, no need for me to reinvent the wheel here – There are countless resources online, and Shure has a good PDF detailing various techniques.
- If I’m recording myself alone or an ensemble all at once, I will record in stereo and adjust the distance and positioning of microphone(s) depending on the acoustics of the room.
- If I plan to do a lot of multi-tracking or adding effects, I’ll usually record mono with a close-mic.
- Generally, the better the room acoustics, the further away I’ll place my mic(s). If the acoustics aren’t ideal, the mic(s) get closer to reduce/eliminate the affect of the room.
- I almost always put the mic(s) slightly off-axis to avoid airy sounds and overly present articulations.
- If your microphone has multiple polar patterns, experiment in your space to see which sound you prefer.
- You can learn a lot about these techniques just by noticing where microphones are placed during concerts (regardless of whether you’re watching or performing, or the concert is in-person/online, etc.).
**If you don’t experiment with microphone placement, I can almost guarantee you won’t be happy with your results.**
Where will you record?
Unless you’re using a close-mic technique, the room you record in is a huge factor. Think about where you like/dislike your sound, and try recording there. Some things sound great in the extremes of a reverberant cathedral or a dead studio, but most will settle for a room/hall somewhere in between. If you’re going to add reverb after the fact, it’s best to air on the side of a drier recording space.
There are a few other necessary items. Some can be bundled with other products, but I’ll list a few things here so they aren’t overlooked:
- Monitor speakers/headphones
- If you’re looking for professional results, you won’t want to use built-in computer speakers or cheap in-ear headphones. Check out my post called “Headphones for Trombone Players” for more info and recommendations!
- My favorite little accessory for headphones is a stand-mount or desk-mount headphone hanger… There are lots of different types, but this keeps things neat and streamlines things when I’m recording a lot!
- XLR cable(s)
- To connect microphone(s) to your audio interface
- Microphone stand(s) & clip(s)
- Mic positioning is important, so you’ll want some flexibility in height/angle. If you’re doing stereo recording, be sure you have the appropriate stand attachments or multiple stands.
- In-line microphone preamp
- These are great if you need extra gain out of your dynamic or passive ribbon microphones. You’ll see a lot of recommendations for the FetHead or Cloudlifter, but I’m impressed by the results of the very affordable Klark Teknik Mic Booster CT1, which I’ve been using to bump up the gain of my SM58 to keep up with my condensers/ribbons while teaching remotely.
What about video?
I’m mostly concerned with audio recording, but video recording is becoming more popular for many auditions, and is a big draw for those that want to share on social media, etc. If you need to record video, you have 2 main routes you can go:
- An all-in-one device that has a camera built-in (e.g. iPhone, Zoom recorders with cameras, etc.)
- Recording audio using any method above and then syncing it up with video afterwards
The drawbacks to an all-in-one device are the same as if you were dealing with audio-only… it’s a tradeoff between convenience/simplicity and quality/customizability. Many students don’t need super high-quality recordings and can get away with using a combo device forever.
I prefer syncing up audio & video in post-production. Honestly, the iPhone’s camera is great (especially in good lighting), so I usually just set that up and replace the iPhone audio with what I recorded on my computer. I have a Zoom Q8 that is ok, but it’s pretty bad in low light… I really only use this for checking myself while practicing or for a really simple, low-stakes video for a student. I’ll occasionally bust out my DSLR camera if I need a little more control of exactly what’s going on in the video (zoom, particular focus, etc.), but that’s rare.
Syncing audio & video is pretty easily done nowadays… I’m not going to detail this step because there are several options and the specifics depend on the program you use – just do a quick google search for “sync audio and video (insert mac/PC, your software, etc.)”. I use Final Cut Pro, but that’s probably overkill for most situations.
**NOTE: Some video cameras, especially higher-end ones, have a 3.5mm external microphone input on them that allow you to connect better microphones to replace the built-in mics… This lets you save the step of joining audio/video in post-production, but then you have to deal with the camera’s interface to capture audio (which are not always musician friendly).
This stuff can get expensive, and it’s hard to know how much you should spend on equipment. It’s worth noting that there is a large market of used audio equipment out there, and that also means you can sell equipment as you outgrow it to help afford better gear. When buying used audio gear, be sure it is in good condition (preferably gear used in a studio and not for live audio, as that can be rough over time) or that the seller offers a return policy/trial period. Some types of gear are more sensitive to wear than others and, as a result, a riskier purchase used (e.g. ribbon mics are extremely fragile compared to dynamic microphones that are, practically, indestructible. Some good places to look include Reverb, Sweetwater, and Guitar Center.
This is just scratching the surface of recording equipment and techniques, but I hope you find this info helpful. The best way to hone in on the ideal recording setup for you is through experience, so just start recording ASAP, even if it means using lesser equipment or borrowing stuff from schools, friends, etc. As always, comment below or contact me if you have questions or if you find some gear you really like!