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Home Recording – Part 3
I didn’t think for a moment that home studio recordings were going to be easy. Never mind that I wasn’t going to do both video and audio recordings and any mistakes would be very hard to correct. I reckon professional musicians typically do multiple takes when doing studio recordings, then splice and re-edit them so that what you get is often a piece that comprises the best bits of multiple takes. That’s why live recordings are often regarded as the most authentic performances.
Moreover, the fairly small living room and its odd shape, coupled with the against-wall placement of our piano also meant that sound would be bouncing everywhere and creating echos and reverbs that would be very tough to correct in post-processing. What I was totally unprepared for though was the physical exertion involved. I was perspiring buckets after a two-hour recording session on a weekday morning, even though the living room was air-conditioned!
Microphone-placement was also extremely difficult to get right, compounded also by the awful reverb in the room – so it’s something I’ll have to keep trying until I find something that works. The raw video and audio files were at least manageable, though I was able to clean up only a small part of the echoing and muddy bass in Audacity. Also another part of the workflow I’ll have to read up more on.
I did a total of 23 takes of eight pieces over the two hours, of which seven takes for seven songs were the least sloppy LOL. Here’s the first one: Mika’s Song, a lovely piece written and performed originally by Korean pianist, Yiruma. The tempo I used for this song is a little more brisk than the original recording:
Home Recording – Part 2
Coming out a crash course on home recording equipment, the basic outlay seemed to be:
Microphones: two basic types are dynamic, and condenser – with the former more suitable for low-frequency audio signals (e.g. drums), and latter for higher-frequency audio (e.g. piano). Condenser microphones can be several orders more expensive and in the thousands of dollars range though, but I found Amazon selling pretty decent large diaphragm condensers for USD70 each – the Samson C01. And these weren’t run of the mill ones either, but well-regarded and fairly well-reviewed too.
Microphone cables: these can cost a bit too, but I went with the cheapest that could be delivered to Singapore through expedited and free shipping – at USD7 each. Hooray for cheap Amazon house-brand stuff! Had to make sure that the connector ends were of the correct type with the microphone and audio interface unit though.
Microphone stands: again, not willing to spend a lot on this. The cheapest decent stands – I needed two of them – was available on Amazon: the Samson MK-10 Boom Stand with a very attractive price-tag of USD20 @ Amazon, but the item would not ship with free expedited international shipping. Even Amazon’s slightly cheaper house-brand required shipping fees. Boo! Fortunately, Lazada lists local resellers who carry this item, so two were picked up at SGD40 apiece.
Audio interface: another item I had to read up about as a total noob. Basically, this is a electronic box that interfaces between the computer’s digital audio software and the recording equipment, and the best (i.e. most expensive) ones permit large numbers of audio inputs of multiple types. These can cost several hundred USDs. And as I was just trying out home recording, I got lucky again finding one – the U-Phoria UMC202HD – that was rated highly, and from Behringer, a German audio equipment manufacturer, that cost USD60. Perhaps as a testament to how popular this particular model is, I pretty much bought the last available unit on Amazon – as immediately after ordering it, the item went out of stock – with the next availability at 4-6 months as reported by Amazon.
Digital Audio Workstation: is really just a fancy name for the application software that takes care of the editing and post-processing parts of an audio recording. The professional versions can run to thousands of moola, so I went with the open-source and very free equivalent: Audacity, the widely-praised digital audio editor that I’ve been using for about ten years now after getting introduced to it as part of work.
And since I’ll still be recording video that I’ll merge the new audio layer into, I dug up my old copy of Adobe Premiere Elements and have to start learning how to use it.
All in, the expenditure was about SGD377 – quite a bit lower than what I’d earlier resigned to spending during the initial exploration phase. With two of the key items – namely the microphones and audio interface – high-quality models even!
Home Recording – Part 1
One of my life-long ambitions has always been to do a proper studio recording of pieces I play on the piano. There’s been sporadic occasions over the years where I’ve attempted to do variations of that. For example, using a Korg keyboard work station to record my piano compositions in the early to mid ’90s and then using sampled notes from a Steinway & Sons Grand Piano to render the MIDI files to CD-quality audio recordings. And more recently, HD video recordings using the E-M1 – which I’m still not yet brave enough to make public on YouTube LOL.
I’ve never been fully satisfied with either method. Recording via MIDI format results in pristine audio quality, but the approach always felt a little unauthentic. You’re essentially recording computer data that gets next mapped via instrument samples, then finally rendered to an actual audio recording. The benefit of a MIDI approach though is that you can fix note errors and dynamic issues before mapping.
Recording via camcorders and digital cameras is closer to a studio recording – but the built-in microphones in these camera devices are usually second fiddle to imaging. These devices are first and foremost imaging devices not sound-recorders! The camera microphones do not offer good dynamic range, pick up all kinds of odd noises, and most significant, do not present a proper stereophonic experience.
So, earlier this year I resolved to get round to trying the real deal: I’ll find out and learn what is necessary and how to do home studio recordings. This is of course a highly specialised and professional industry, and those beautiful and warm-sounding acoustic piano recordings we hear are the intentional results of a whole host of contributing factors: including the performance of the artiste, the ambiance in the recording venue, the equipment setup, and the sound engineering.
The initial survey was pretty intimidating and learning curve very steep: a lot of the learning material both text and videos, and even equipment documentation seem to be written for persons who’re already familiar with the domain of professional-standard recording. I wasn’t ready to throw a lot of money into this thing either – professional level condenser microphones can easily cost thousands each – but I found very well-regarded branded equipment that were at entry-level prices, and was lucky enough that Amazon was able to ship them here too using free international shipping. More on that in the next post.
There’s a last method too: using digital pianos, or acoustic pianos with silent piano modules – like the Yamaha U30BL upright we have at home. The U30BL’s module though hasn’t quite resulted in the kind of audio fidelity that I need, so in case this simple home recording studio setup still doesn’t work well, I’ll have to either revisit recording using the U30BL’s silent piano module, or think very hard about getting a digital piano – if we can find space at home for it to begin with!
The Piano Project – Part 7
Hannah has been attending piano lessons using the Suzuki method for about a year now. From the looks of it, I reckon she’s at a level of technical competency higher than what I was able to reach at her age and at this point after a year. A good deal of it I think is because of her teacher’s emphasis on grounding his students on sound fundamentals. I accompanied H on one such lesson a few months ago – a very rare occasion since her lessons are typically on weekday afternoons when I’m still at work – and later quipped to Ling that I don’t recall my own piano teacher at the lower ABRSM grades ever being so exacting in how my fingers were landing on notes, or how they were to be curled in a specific fashion. According to the Suzuki method, parental involvement at home is important too, so the techniques that she is taught in her lessons get practised at home too.
However, the downside of this level of rigor is that H, of late, seems to ever be slightly reluctant to get on the piano to practise. She’d still do so dutifully of course, but the enthusiasm we saw in the early months has clearly diminished quite a bit. I wondered whether it was because the reinforcement instruction at home can sometimes be a little negative, or it’s because she’s only playing pieces in the Suzuki books. To be honest, I don’t recall my piano lessons in the early grades to be much fun either, and there were (many) points where I absolutely wanted to give up, and even one time where I had to be literally dragged to piano lessons by my mom.
I remember though that I only started to really enjoy the piano around Grade IV, when I was able to improv on a lot of music I heard by ear, e.g. from the locally produced TV drama serials. I think our neighbors around our old home at Sembawang Hills Estate were probably annoyed that I was belting day-in-day-out the main title of The Awakening, an early 1980s television drama series! And then in the mid-1980s, I started playing Richard Clayderman. Our intention for H to learn the piano has never been for her to pass exams or reach a certain level of ability – though as parents, we’d be happy if she did. But no – we want her first and foremost to enjoy herself, in good part also because my learning the piano as a young boy is one of the two most important skills (the other being in computing) I acquired in my growing years, and we wanted her to be exposed to the same opportunities.
So, I decided to give that approach a try: encouraging H to play things she likes, rather than the pieces she has to play. And we got lucky: the pieces from Frozen are a little complex for her, but she loved the songs from The Sound of Music. So after having us watch the 1965 film on Blu-Ray several times, and buying and listening intently to four different editions of the recorded music – Telarc’s 1987 studio recording of the musical’s music, the 50th Anniversary edition of the film soundtrack, a 2006 recording from the London Palladium Cast, and finally the soundtrack from NBC’s live adaption of the musical – I picked up beginner versions of several songs that she liked the most: including The Lonely Goatherd, Do-Re-Mi, and Edelweiss, and got her started several days ago.
All three pieces involve both hands, so it’s going to take weeks before she can properly play all three – but at least she’s enjoying herself again!
iPad Pro 12.9 (2017)
While the stunning form factor and premium design language are traits no longer exclusively in Apple’s purview, Apple fans will still have us believe that the Cupertino super company creates products that never fail, or at least are more reliable than everyone else’s.
That might indeed be true from a general sampling perspective, but that has – simply – not been my personal experience of Apple devices. I’ve had, at this point, owned about just over three dozen Windows/Android devices across the years, and the only two devices I can recall that catastrophically failed with no warning was an Acer Travelmate 3001 from a decade ago, and – very recently – the Lenovo X1 Carbon.
Compare that to the about nine Apple devices I’ve had: three have failed:
MacBook Pro 13″ – selected keys failed just after 18 months.
MacBook Pro 15″ – catastrophically failed just after the one year warranty period ended. And even after repair, continued to fail – to the point that even when it was discovered that the source of persistent failure seemed to had been a fault of a faulty batch of hardware, Apple refused to replace my laptop unit or repair at their cost.
Apple iPad Air 2 – started failing 3 days ago. Specifically, the tablet seems to be running on full 100% load all the time, with the battery draining from full to zero in 6 hours even when set to standby mode. My guess is that the Touch sensor has failed in a way that might be causing the tablet’s Mainboard to get stuck in a continuous detection loop. So, even when the Air 2 is in standby mode, the tablet is still running on full processing, causing the battery to drain at top speed and also for thermals to rocket. Factory resetting has not done a thing either.
3 out of 9 devices – not a good rate at all. And none of these three have ever been mistreated.
Barring the couple of trips out of the country, the most recent one being the trip to Western Australian, the iPad Air 2 had been largely used at home to display music scores when I’m on the piano. Or put in another way, with the Air 2 failing, I needed a replacement. I’ve blogged previously about the relatively small display canvas on this iPad when compared to the typical A4 score sheet sizes, and figured this was just about as good an opportunity to look into the iPad Pro 12.9″ tablets.
Comments and observations from one purchase of the iPad Pro 12.9″ 64GB:
The tablet was first released in 2015, with a recent 2017 refresh from just a few months back. The older model is available at Apple’s refurbished store about 20% cheaper. But the 2017 upgraded model features a couple of significant upgrades, two of which are particularly important for my usage profile: the Pro Motion 120 Hz display, and also that the screen is brighter and displays obviously richer colors.
The larger 12.9″ display canvas really helps. I was squinting all these months using the Air 2’s 9.7″ display!
The tablet is really heavy. This is not something you’ll want to hold on one hand for long.
iOS 10 is not optimized for the large screen. The 5×4 grid of icons looks silly on the 12.9″ screen, what with all the unused space between icons. Hopefully this will change with the upcoming iOS 11.
The 10 hour-rated battery life seems slightly conservative. I was on the piano for about 90 minutes Sunday yesterday, and battery dropped from 100% to about 88%.
The iPad Pro 12.9″ is pretty expensive though, even for the cheapest model with cellular data support, and with the educational discount I got. Still, it’s a device that I use for the piano and thus necessary expense. And the convenience of being able to carry around dozens of piano score books everywhere cannot be understated. Hopefully this one lasts longer than the Air 2!
The Piano Project – Part 6
There are two things I’m especially grateful my parents did when I was a child: buy us an Apple II computer, and let my two brothers and I learn the piano. Both of these things had immeasurable impacts on what I’ve done since that point. As a direct result of the first – I learned programming as a 12 year old by reading books, programmed my first video game in secondary one, did computing at University, did a PhD centered on video games, and now work in an Information Technology school.
My journey as a result of the second is a little more convoluted: I had piano lessons, experienced a few junctures where I wanted to give up learning, had a wonderful teacher in my later grades who was a much more effective instructor, started listening to classical music, wrote and recorded my own piano music. And now it’s come full-circle – our daughter now also learns the same instrument!
One of the reasons why I wanted the Silent Piano module when looking for our home piano last year came from an interest to record. Like debating: there’s no better way to learn where your mistakes are than listening to your own self performances. There are a couple of ways of recording music on our Yamaha U30BL, each with its own advantages and challenges:
Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece on MIDI.
Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece directly via headphone jack.
Using a camcorder LOL.
The first method will only record audio, and using a MIDI sequencer, you’d also be able to correct very minor mistakes in the performance. You’d also get pretty clean audio, no noise, and you can fine-tune the soundscape as you like. Recording via MIDI though is a crazy amount of work though, and while I have a fairly systematic workflow, the process is not something I relish.
I haven’t tried the second method yet. You won’t be able to correct any mistakes and the quality of the sound is entirely dependent on the note samples embedded in the Silent Piano module – which is adequate but not great.
The third method is the most convenient, and as a bonus, I get video to see all my fingering goofs! The acoustics in our living room aren’t really very good, and there’s pretty poor clarity in the lower registers. A better and fourth method would be to record video but use the audio output of the Silent Piano – but I lack sufficiently long audio cables at the moment to run those things about the piano.
So, in the mean time, I’ve been doing some video recordings. Oddly, the Panasonic TM700’s microphone input resulted in heavily muffled audio, while the E-M1 fared somewhat better – though neither methods were producing an ideal audio experience – with limited aural range, reverberations caused by the living room acoustics, creaking from the piano seat, and my next door neighbor moving house LOL.
Learning Music for Kids
Both Ling and I started our formal music and piano lessons when we were in junior Primary school, which is about the age that many parents here today still get their children started at too. Both of us learned the piano using what many music teachers refer to as the ‘traditional’ method: basically, you learn to read notes first before getting onto the keyboard.
Hannah’s piano teacher – who himself is also a Minton resident – has been teaching her using the Suzuki method. There are many apparent differences between this method against the traditional form of learning, one of them being the emphasis of listening to a piece of music extensively to learn how to play it. Which sounds like a perfectly right way to learn – and one that Hannah has really taken to, since she’s inherited one of my old Sony MP3 players and listens to the pieces of her current Suzuki music book whenever we’re in the car. I reckon that even my piano teacher had the chops to teach me all those years ago with such a method, it would had been a lot harder anyway since personal audio players weren’t the norm as they are today.
There’s one other key difference between learning music today yesteryear and today: and it’s that young learners today have access to all kinds of learning aids. Like these:
And that’s not counting music software you can find on on computers and tablets. How I learned music theory was through a lot of rote: my teacher made me draw pages of stave lines for both clefts, and then all manner of notes on them as though I was learning calligraphy LOL. I think our old Lentor family home still has several of these books from more than 35 years ago – and I’ll find one such and scan those pictures in to show Hannah how her parents learned!
The Malaysian publisher Poco Studio has a decent catalog of music books, and their line is carried on international retailers including Book Depository and Amazon UK. The former in particular lists the books from a shade under S$10 to S$13 including shipping. The Magnetic Board is also of interest: it allows young learners to arrange music notations and learn rudimentary concepts of timing and such. This particular board is from Yamaha Music School. Hannah isn’t enrolled in one of course, so we got one pre-loved.
The Piano Project – Part 5
One of the key things I was looking forward to with our new piano was composing again – with the last piece I wrote being just about 20 years ago. Unlike trained composers though, I write while playing on the piano and often with a very large dose of improvisation. And in order for a piece I’m playing off the top of my head to be transposed to a score, the piano needs to have a recording function.
We weren’t about to convert our living room into a recording studio for sure – it would had been logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive to achieve any measure of aural accuracy. Fortunately, the SG2 module on our Yamaha U30BL permits two methods of recording: via MIDI with a good soundfont bank, or recorded directly via the SG2’s audio jack. The SG2 module is the cheaper of the two Silent Piano options currently offered by Yamaha, and uses 30MB of wave memory to reproduce the piano sounds with a Yamaha CFIIS Concert Grand used to record samples. It’s not the highest fidelity sound you can get digitally, but it’s close enough. As for the former: I fortunately still have the very high quality note samples recorded using a Steinway & Sons Type C Grand, purchased from Warren Tracthman from 20 years ago – which I used to create a new soundfont bank for.
The recordings I made in 1996 were assisted by Cakewalk Professional and Encore Music Notation, and interestingly – both products are still around in their new versions, if also slightly rebranded. Thanks in great part because of open source, my software suite is a little different now and comprised of freeware. These might be somewhat gimped in support features, but they pretty much meet my needs. They include Anvil Studio, the ubiquitous Audacity for editing, and VirtualMidiSynth – a necessary item since I no longer have a dedicated Creative soundcard in my home computers.
The result after a first attempt is below: and a couple minutes of my playing Variations from a Theme from Pachelbel’s Canon in D by David Lanz. Numerous mistakes in my performance below, including a particularly obvious timing one at around 1 min 10 second mark.
The Piano Project – Part 4
More notes on my returning to the piano after a decade of hiatus!
Of all the whole bunch of things that’s different today compared to 38 years ago, the forms of sheet music probably offer the largest changes. Scores were largely available only in print bound form, and had to be purchased from stores. My Lentor family home still has shelves of Mozart, Beethoven and Clementi sonata books, Bach Well-Tempered Clavier books, Chopin waltzes etc. The printing quality and notation type sets used were also invariably dated, though I recall that from the late 80s’ onwards, it became more common for new editions of these classical pieces to use higher quality type sets, which in turn made reading the scores less difficulty.
Buying these music books from stores today though isn’t the preferred option to obtain sheet music for classical music. There are several projects seeking to make publicly and freely available classical music sheet music, like IMSLP Petrucci Music Library, The Mutopia Project, and Musopen. The databases are well-organized, and all one needs is just a couple of minutes and a good laser printer to get reasonably good quality prints of sheet music. For example, the set of six Clementi Sonatinas that I practiced on in the 80s was from a Schirmer book that’d cost about S$15. The same pieces are available in different editions and publishers through IMSLP – free off charge.
Modern music though is a very different story. Copyright for the well-known ones from the last couple of decades still lie with publishers and authors. Interestingly, there are fan and enthusiast transcriptions of these music. I haven’t read enough to know for certain if such transcriptions aren’t running afoul of music intellectual property rights, but they are certainly a valuable resource, though the amount of music in such transcribed versions are selective and don’t nearly encompass the length and breadth of modern music.
The modern music I played in my learning years included 80s’ pop songs (think George Michael haha!), opening title themes from the local TV drama serials, and the grandfather of 80s’ piano love ballads: Richard Clayderman. I reckon that the latter is still within my current technical playing ability since his pieces were never especially challenging to begin with. That said, I doubt I’d play his music again – on account that very few persons under the age of 30 would have ever heard of him! I’ve instead been trying pieces from more recent modern day pianists, including David Lanz, David Foster, and Jim Brickman. Song sheets and books are available from Amazon and Book Depository at reasonable prices – averaging about S$25 each volume collecting several pieces.
Still, It’ll be several months of continual practising before I can reach the same kind of technical agility I had 30 years ago. And if that point ever comes, there’s a long list of classical piano pieces that I’ve always wanted to play but never did in my learning years (largely on account that up till the mid-80s I hated classical music as a learner!). The list includes Bach’s Goldberg Variations, English and French Suites, Italian Concerto, most of Mozart’s piano sonatas.
The most common type of metronome that were persistent devices for piano learners years ago were the traditional mechanical ones with polished wood, and the pendulum swinging via a clockwork mechanism. Our Yamaha from Asia Piano threw in the same, though the ‘ticks’ it produces are extremely loud. We’re not limited these days to just mechanical metronomes though: there are digital ones, highly customisable metronomes you can install on your smartphones, and even web site-based ones!
The last bit for this post is a perennial problem faced by all piano learners: page turning! The music rack on our old pianos could hold up to three pages of music, while our new Yamaha’s longer rack can hold four. Many scores though are longer than that, and it becomes a real challenge to turn pages of the sheet music while you’re trying to keep up with the playing.
Thankfully, there’s technology to the rescue. Scores can be scanned and digitized as PDFs, and dropped into tablets. And swiping a sheet page from right to left is now much easier than struggling to flip a page, and risking either damaging the book, or having the entire book crash onto the keyboard. There are even Bluetooth devices operated by your feet that will turn pages. Another problem comes up now though: the absolutely minimal size of a tablet for such score displaying is a 9.7inch tablet. Anything smaller and you’d have to squint! There was the Surface Pro 3’s larger 12″ screen which provides significantly more display space than my iPad Air 2’s – except that it needs a Windows-based PDF reader that lets you swipe right-left when in portrait mode. Oddly, none of the PDF readers I’ve tried support that.
Maybe that’s a reason for me to seriously think about getting that the iPad Pro with its 12.9″ screen – and for displaying song sheets!:)
The Piano Project – Part 3
I don’t have the faintest recollection of the purchase or delivery of our first family piano, 38 years ago from 1978. My mom did write in her diary though that the piano cost $3,950 – not $4,200 as blogged earlier – and purchased from Singapore Piano Co., and my first piano teacher, Mrs. Teo, even accompanied us to select the piano at the store.
Our Yamaha U30BL arrived on Saturday afternoon. It was originally scheduled for a mid-morning delivery, but the delivery vehicle’s breakdown led to a couple of hours wait – which thankfully was the only hiccup. The piano works great, and our notes and observations after two days and about a dozen hours on it:
The piano – even at 26 years old – looks exactly like new on the outside, and the interior shows a well-cleaned and maintained unit too apart from some minor stains on the manufacturer steel plate attached near the sound board.
Over the years I took my ABRSM exams, I remembered always being a little unsettled at how different the exam pianos sounded compared to what I practiced on. Neither my teachers’ nor our family pianos were Yamahas, and they produced somewhat brighter tones. Our new Yamaha, likely because of the size of its sound board, produces fairly warm tones and similar to what to the Yamaha piano exam rooms. This would be a pretty important aspect of exam preparation for Hannah if she, at any later point, prepares for her ABRSM exams.
The SG2 Silent Piano works as advertised and is simple to operate. Power on, connect one or two headphones to the audio jacks, set the reverb and volume knobs to preference, and play away.
Playing with the Silent Piano mode on feels very different to playing with it off. Specifically, the latter requires a lot more delicate and careful playing, and a lot of concentration is required to hit the note with exactly the right amount of pressure to achieve the desired tone weight and volume. Playing on the Silent Piano mode on the other hand is a lot more forgiving, as the dynamic range seems slightly less wide.
One trait of silent pianos though: there’s no soft-mute any more. It’s normal non-dampened acoustics or on silent mode all the way.
The soft-fall hinge works as stated, and possibly maybe even too well. It takes almost 10-15 seconds for the fallboard to fully close with the hinge.
The store’s custom-designed bench is very comfortable with great support for one’s bum. Unfortunately, the bench doesn’t come with a storage facility, so we had to find space in the living room to keep the piano’s maintenance accessories.
Next post on music, metronomes, and songsheets!