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Thread: Best setup for opera recordings and music lessons at home

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    Best setup for opera recordings and music lessons at home

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    Hi all,

    I am a semi-professional opera singer (i.e. not professional, but training), soprano, based in Oxford, UK; as a result of the pandemic, all lessons and performances have moved online, necessitating me suddenly to learn a lot more about recording equipment, and I would like to invest in equipment that will allow me to function well in the confines of my home. I am a complete noobie when it comes to tech, so any assistance would be very gratefully received.

    There are 2 purposes I have essentially:

    1) Having singing lessons with my teacher via Skype/Zoom. Presentation of these doesn't matter, but sound quality needs to be representative/good. My basic laptop/iPad microphone basically doesn't work - the high notes cut out, although it sometimes just about works if I stand 3-4 metres away and face sideways.

    2) Making audio and video recordings at home for auditions [I tried to post a link but can't because this is my first post - you can find a representative recording on the Youtube page for Eglesfield Music Society; I am Antonida Kocharova - it's quite easy to find].
    The setup for these currently is: the piano recording is made separately (the pianist in this case is the same, but may vary - this is outside my control); I listen to the backing track through headphones (Bluetooth); I record both sound and video on a GoPro; I mix the audio tracks separately using Audacity; I mix the video tracks separately using Lightworks (free version); I then mix audio and video together using (don't laugh) Windows Photos.

    One of the key issues for me for recordings is that I want to be able to record video at the same time as sound, and I need to be able to act, so I need my venue to look suitable enough to be a 'stage', and I need to be able to move around.

    The venues currently available to me are:
    a) A currently unfurnished house, which you can see in two of the three videos in the link - part of the reason why the quality is so bad is because it is currently a literal building site, so I have to zoom in quite a lot to stop wires coming out of walls and half-removed wallpaper being visible. There are bare wooden floors, now plasterboard on walls, now ceilings (not very high). Not a lot of background noise. I use this venue for recordings.
    b) The room in the flat I am currently staying in, which is about 4*5m2, ordinarily furnished, carpets, not very high ceilings. I use this venue for lessons, but it is not suitable for recordings.

    My current assets are:
    - An ok Asus laptop (it does its best but it struggles - but it will have to do for now), with Windows 10, Windows Photos video editor, Audacity, Lightworks (free version 14 or something), USB ports, but not much else (also running out of memory massively, but I have external hard drives I can use);
    - A medium-size, not bad iPad, with whatever proprietary stuff comes with it including Garageband (I am not a natural Apple person, so don't really know what's what);
    - An old Samsung S5 phone with a basic voice recorder and camera but zero space left - on my jobs list to replace;
    - A Tascam DM-40 recorder - which is fairly good, but I am not good with capabilities (have only used to record and then transfer the files off the SD card); as far as I can tell I can't connect it to my laptop to use as an external microphone with Skype, and I have checked the manual, but tell me if I'm wrong;
    - A GoPro video camera.

    So the questions are:

    1) What microphone should I get? As part of that, is there any point considering USB microphones, or should I just splash out for a proper mic and audio interface?
    It needs to deal with loud high notes. I have seen lots of recommendations for condenser microphones. Rode NT1A seems to be the most consistently recommended, but I have also seen recommendations for AKG Lyra, Sennheiser MK-4, Shure, Behringer C-1U USB condenser, Blue Yeti USB, Zoom H4n, H2n, H6 etc. There are so many, it is very hard to tell the difference if, like me, you don't know the stuff.

    2) Connected to this, how do I get the right volume?
    I often find that using either of my recorders I end up with recordings that are too quiet, and I cannot amplify them enough without clipping - how do I deal with this?

    3) If I should get an interface, which one?
    I have heard people getting the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, but have also read about M-Audio.

    4) Do the right cables tend to be included, or do I have to get them separately? If the latter, which should I get?
    I have read about XLR3 male to female cables, but that means nothing to me.

    The next few are linked:

    5) How far away from the microphone should I stand?
    6) Is there point getting that semi-circle of soft material to dampen the sound?
    7) Can Audacity provide the tools to add in decent reverb if I do this?
    8) If not, is there a free or cheap alternative programme I could use for sound editing?

    I know that the impact of the room acoustics is massive, and I have read about whether to dampen the sound as much as possible and then add reverb back in or to use a mixer on recording - again, apologies, I didn't really understand what that all meant. I have previously been told to stand 3-4 metres away from the recorder, but I have seen the recommendation on other threads to be more like 1-2 metres. I have also once done a studio recording with a proper condenser mic and dampener around it, in a dampened studio, with significant editing to make it sound decent, but I doubt I have the skills to do this. The problem is that operatic singing without reverb is (to my ears) awful, and I would rather have the acoustics of a small room than no acoustics or bad steely reverb. Assume for the purposes of this that a better space is not an option, and that I do not have the resources to add extra dampening to venue A other than by buying the right equipment.

    9) Can anyone point me to helpful resources to understand how to properly use an audio interface and sound editing software?
    I currently play around with Audacity and occasionally refer to Youtube tutorials, but very often the level of explanation is "To add reverb, click this button and move this number to x and that number to y...", which leaves me with absolutely no idea of what any of these numbers actually mean. To demonstrate the level of my ignorance, I only recently realised that when you use Amplify, the number you put in is how much you multiply it rather than to what level you amplify it... Short of asking you all to just teach me, which would be an abuse of your time, I would like to find a consistent way of learning it.

    10) Any pointers on the video side of it? Good free/cheap software? Decent basic hardware?

    I'm sorry this has ended up such an essay, but what I have gathered from other threads is that there is no easy answer to this and it doesn't work to just get a fine mic.

    For background, I have already done a fair bit of googling, various threads among singers on Facebook, and read through four other opera/micing threads on here (again, can't link). They were quite helpful in many ways, but the level of my lack of understanding is that there are quite a lot of words in there I just don't understand, and unfortunately us singers are a bit dim when it comes to technology, so asking others for advice works for details but not for comprehensively understanding what I am actually doing. So if anyone feels able to help, I would be very grateful.

    Many many thanks in advance.

    Best wishes,
    Tonya

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    Hi Tonya and welcome.
    I can only give my thoughts as they have come to me reading your "essay"! But I can pretty much nail the software you need (called a "DAW" if you weren't aware) Cockos Reaper. It is very powerful and does limited video I understand. Free until you get fed up with the nag but only 40 iirc. Reaper is sued by a great many people at HR (not I, 'grew up' with Samplitude) and you will always find somebody to help you with it.

    Microphone: Does it matter if it is in shot? If not you will probably be best to go for a Large Diaphragm Capacitor mic. Make and type I cannot help you with* but someone here may. I would suggest you avoid the bulk of the Chinese budget LDCs and set your sights at 300 +. There is nothing WRONG with budget mics but I am reliably informed many of them can be harsh or strident in the upper registers. Poppers and rockers may not be bothered but for classical work I would go up a bracket.

    If it DOES matter if it is shot then that complicates things. You could for a Small DC, the pencil style mics and try to hide it with a fake Aspidistra (Sontronics make black ones) or still use an LDC and 'fly' it or use a boom but the latter will need an operator. SDCs may not give quite the quality you hope for but there are always going to be compromises.

    Interfaces. I am bound to suggest the Native Instruments Komplete 6 as I have one and they are a really stable, high quality device. A step up? I like the look of the new MOTU 4 and it gets a top reccy in *.

    If budget is not so much of a problem, for maximum flexibility and the last word in sound quality, Sound Devices Mix 3.

    Re the "building site" now that charity shops are open again (well they are around me) buy some cheap curtains and use those to 'dress' the walls. This will hide the mess but also improve the acoustics.

    Last but VERY much not least...Monitoring. How will you asses the quality of your recordings? There are a lot of speakers around these days that carry the name 'Monitor' I doubt many are that accurate. The 'Tv' range by Adam seem to get a good shout. You can 'do it all' on headphones but you will need good ones.

    *Check in and ask at soundonsound.com

    Dave.

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    A few more bits of information would come in handy.

    1 While yo mentioned that you are doing this because of Covd, it's not clearl what the actual purpose of you wanting to do all this is. Is it just to continue your lessons? Or is there more to it? And what is the format of these lessons?

    2 Do you have any accompaniment, or is it all a capella? IF yo have accompanimnet, where does that come from?

    3 Are you expecting a means of participating in on-line interactive lessons, or are you set tasks that you have to do i your own time, then submit?

    I agree thatr opera singing needs an acoustic space that supports the voice, and that trying to sing in a dead room is very unrewardig. However, a singing teacher can identify good and bad bits in a person's singing even under those circumastances.

    So there are two (at least) approaches).

    The most basic is to download an app such as zoom onto a laptop, ipad or phone, set up an interactive session with your tutotr, and go for it in whatever is the most comfortable room. The audio won't be outstanding, but you will be able to go through online lesson ok.

    But if you want to gain a sense of how you are progressing, you can go dwon the microphone - interface - laptop path.

    There are a number of good starter kits available that yo can couple to a laptop or desk top.

    Here are a couple:

    Basic:
    Introducing ROEDE AI-1 Kit

    A bit more elaborate:
    PreSonus Introduces AudioBox iTwo Studio Recording Kit | Press Releases | PreSonus

    The Presonus comes with software for recordng. The Rode doesn't, and you would need to dowload Reaper or similar.

    If you room is dead, you can record, apply a reverb effect and have it present as you record. In other wordsw, there are means of making up for what the room lacks.

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    Tonya, there is another operatic lady, Daria on the forum trying to do very similar things. Maybe you should compare notes? (Boom! Boom! Quite an unintended pun I assure you! And only limeys of a 'certain age' will get the 'B! B!' reference)

    Dave.

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    Hi both,

    Many thanks for your answers so far.

    In answer to some of the questions:
    1) Purpose - to continue online lessons, but also to be able to create audition material (often companies ask for recordings, both video and audio), and also record online recitals (assuming non-live for now). Once the pandemic is over I will want to be recording concerts, recitals, audition material - hopefully in better venues but would like flexibility.
    2) As I say, I do use a pre-recorded piano accompaniment, to which I listen through my headphones while singing, so that the recording is vocals only.
    3) The lessons are interactive - we talk a bit, I sing a bit, my teacher needs to hear me and comment on the technique based on what she can see and hear. At the moment there are some bits of it she can't hear at all.
    4) Re monitoring (I assume that means how I tell if it's good or bad), I generally listen to recordings afterwards through headphones to hear, although they're not the best quality. I don't do any monitoring during recording, because my current setup doesn't have any capability for that and because I can't both sing and monitor at the same time.

    Couple of follow-up questions:
    - With interfaces, in a nutshell, what's the difference between them all that makes some better and others worse? Any comments on the Focusrite Scarlett products?
    - If I get a proper DCM mic, how close to it do I need to be?
    - With DAWs, would this be instead of Audacity? Are there capabilities I would need that Audacity does not have?

    Thanks again!

    Best wishes,
    Tonya

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    Oh yes, I read Daria's thread, that was really helpful!
    (P.S. I remember Basil! )

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    Quote Originally Posted by tonkoch View Post
    Oh yes, I read Daria's thread, that was really helpful!
    (P.S. I remember Basil! )
    Ha! THAT has got our colonial friends totally banjaxed! You will I am sure recall that one of Daria's problems was with the dynamic range of her voice? I suggested ways to mitigate this, not always with the fullest agreement of the other members here!

    To just comment on interfaces? Yes, Focusrite products are excellent and you will not go wrong with any of them. I will just say however that you would find it hard to buy a BAD interface these days! Even the stuff sub 50 with only one mic input will still give very good results and paying more really only gets you more inputs and flexibility, bells and whistles.

    BUT. Please don't go for a very basic interface. I am sure you will soon find its lack of facilities frustrating.

    The VERY bottom of the ladder would be the F'rite 2i2 but something with at least two more line inputs will I am sure be more useful (and MIDI, cos you never know?)

    Headphones are a bit tricky since you HAVE to have closed back types or the piano will 'leak' into the vocals. Problem is, closed types are not of the best sound quality for critical assessment. There is however an AKG model that was given a very good rep' in sound on sound a few months ago. I shall find it out for thee. They are in the 140 bracket but unfortunately monitoring is one area where cost is a big factor.

    AKG K275 & K371

    And good news. They are now under 100 in most places.
    Dave.

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    Thanks Dave, that's really useful. I'm currently thinking about how many mic inputs it's worth having on the AI - if I wanted to record voice and live piano in the future, would I need 1 mic for myself and 2 for the piano, or would 1 mic for voice and 1 for piano do? (It's the difference between say the 2i2 and the next one up which would be twice the price.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by tonkoch View Post
    Thanks Dave, that's really useful. I'm currently thinking about how many mic inputs it's worth having on the AI - if I wanted to record voice and live piano in the future, would I need 1 mic for myself and 2 for the piano, or would 1 mic for voice and 1 for piano do? (It's the difference between say the 2i2 and the next one up which would be twice the price.)
    Oh no! You don't get away that easy! The "next one up" to the 2i2 is the 2i4 (and they are just ripping you for MIDI I/O) Even the 4i4 does not give you four mic channels, you have to to the 18i8 to get those at 250+.

    If you really want four mic ins on an AI you need to look at the Behringers (will find the model) or Tascam might have something more 'budgety' than the F'rites?

    Another option is a budget AI with 2 mic amps plus 2 LINE inputs and small mixer. The mixer can have 2/4..n mic channels. Two lines out of a mixer (to AI line ins) give you discrete 4 track recording but other channels on the mixer and be 'mixed and panned' into the stereo picture.

    However, it might be best to get the 2i2 for now and learn the nuts and bolts? In few months you will probably be ready to go for something more ambitious?

    Behringer UMC404HD – Thomann UK

    Did not realize it was so cheap. I have had the UMC204HD and was well pleased. Have an 8i6 and an NI KA6 and the 204 was not shamed by either of them. Pretty basic facilities of course but I suspect 'Basic and simple' is what you need atmo? (you would NOT want to get into F's Mix Control!)

    Dave.

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    Haha, yes, I was amazed how many levels up you have to go to get more microphone inputs! But, as you say, have decided to go for the 2i2 for now.

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