Monday, March 12, 2012

Recording Equipment Check

Recently, quite a few people have been asking about how I record my videos. Here's what I use for recording:

Mic: AKG Perception 200 - that's that big ol' large diaphragm condenser mic you can see in the foreground in some of my videos. It's not a really expensive one, but it does give you a much wider dynamic range than, for example, a Shure SM57. Cost is about $175.

Mixing desk/Input: Alesis Multimix8 USB 2.0. This is a great little unit that lets you record up to 8 tracks simultaneously onto your computer's hard drive (when you use a DAW - see below) at 24 bit, 44.1 KHz. Cost is about $150. Now, you don't really need the 8 tracks unless you want to record a bunch of people simultaneously on separate tracks, but actually for the price I've found it's about the best low-cost way to get the sounds into the computer (there are a few other cheaper solutions but they are mostly terrible). Having 24 bit really seems to matter to my ears, 16 bit recordings always seem to lose a lot, and even though the videos suffer through compression on YouTube, starting out with a good signal helps a lot - even though it is all 16 bit playback. 24-bit also lets you raise the volume of the recorded track significantly without losing too much quality.

DAW (recording application) on my PC is Sonar 8 Producer. Just about any DAW will do. I don't do much with it other than mix the backing track together and add a tiny bit of reverb if the recording sounds dry. Once I've mixed it and have the levels and volume right, I export it using .wma (Windows Media Advanced Streaming) format - since I've found that works well with the video app I have. I use 16 bit, 44.1 KHz settings for the output file if I'm using it for video.

I make the backing tracks myself - I have an Fender Jazz bass, which I plug straight into the mixing desk, and I also play guitar and banjo. I often include a mandolin chop rhythm track too. You'll see a fiddle hanging up in the background in some of my videos - I try to play it, but I just haven't really achieved what you might call mastery yet - or anywhere near it :)

I have have lots of sound absorbing material in my room so it isn't an echo chamber.

I think the most significant contribution to the sound quality comes from the mic, 24 bit recording, and the lack of echo in the room.

I record videos with an iPod, or with my digital camera. The digital camera has better video quality, but the advantage of the iPod is that you can use the front-facing camera and see if you're positioned correctly.

I import the movie into Windows Movie Maker and trim it. Then I add the sound, and try to sync it up, just by zooming in and wiggling it left and right until it looks and sounds right, which is always tricky.

My advice is, if you listen thoughtfully to the results you get and think about how you might tweak it to make it better, the better you'll sound, regardless of what equipment you have. Keep experimenting.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Academy Of Bluegrass - School of Mandolin Review

Many of you probably have heard about the Academy of Bluegrass, which I think started in 2010 with Tony Trishka teaching banjo. Since then they have added guitar with Bryan Sutton, fiddle with Darol Anger, Bass with Missy Raines, and Dobro with Andy Hall. My main interest of course is with the School of Mandolin, which is taught by Mike Marshall. I joined about a month ago.

If you've ever watched any of Mike Marshall's DVDs or YouTubes, you're probably aware that Mike is very interested in teaching, and is a really effective communicator. I mean, he's also a great mandolinist and musician, but having the other two qualities uniquely qualifies him for this.

For what you get I think the cost of joining the school is very reasonable. You get access to Mike's pre-recorded video lessons, many of which have accompanying tab and backing tracks to download, graded by ability level. They also feature special slowed-down videos of the tunes to help you learn them. But of course the real thing that separates the web site from a DVD product is that you are able to make your own videos and upload them for Mike to review and get back to you with a video response. Not only that, but you can also see everyone else's video submissions and the responses they got from Mike. So you get to sit in on anyone else's lessons as well as have your own, which I found an unexpected and extremely helpful feature. There are pickers on the site with a very wide range of abilities, so there are usually at least a few struggling with the same issues you are.

There are no exams, and no minimum playing level required to get started.

The video responses are normally between 6 and 12 minutes long. For most people who are posting for the first time, Mike often focuses on holding the mandolin and the pick correctly. It seems like nearly everyone gets into bad habits with this and I'm no exception. But he'll also give you plenty of musical ideas for further study and suggest the kind of thing you might work on for your next video. Mike watches what you do very carefully, and will play passages you're having trouble with. He'll even work out an arrangement of a tune you're working on. Mike clearly puts a lot of effort and thought into the video responses, and they are a mine of information and often a delight to watch.

It's called the Academy of Bluegrass, but Mike Marshall is no bluegrass cop, and while most of the lessons are focused on bluegrass type material, he will happily coach on classical, jazz, swing, Brazilian choro or any other form you want to throw at him. He's even brought Caterina Lichtenberg in to offer advice on some of the more classically oriented submissions.

With the number of members enrolled at the moment, Mike seems to add about 10 video exchanges per week. Most people don't post a video that often - in fact, quite a few seem to post one or two and then never reappear again, but I imagine that is pretty much the case for many people who enroll in lessons of any kind. But for those who do follow through, often you can see real improvements in both their technique and their improvisation skills as they progress, and that's probably the best recommendation you could have.

There are a number of tools such as Forums and chat, which don't seem to be over-used, but are regularly visited so that you can get answers on questions like how to go about making the videos. There's also an "Ask Mike" forum where you can post questions for him, although the video responses are a much more useful store of information than the forum discussions tend to be. There is also a small but growing repository of performances and interviews with well known players, including Mike Compton, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Don Stiernberg, Chris Acquavella, and of course Mike Marshall. Mike also prepares a monthly video message to his students where he makes suggestions for areas to concentrate on that month, targeted to students at each of the skill levels.

Although everything works well, there are a few things that could be better. The original design of the site seems to under-sell how useful the video exchanges with other students are. Old ones are only divided into categories of beginner, intermediate or advanced level, and listed by date. It would be more useful if they could be organized by tune and cross-referenced with particular lessons. As the amount of video exchange material grows, I suspect it may become the site's primary resource, and no doubt they will work on organizing it in more useful ways. Although you can upload videos and mp3s on your own student page, there seems to be no way for students to upload tab. If they took the trouble to develop a good online tab tool, the site could really develop into a broader resource. I would also like to see a two tier payment system, with a lower cost option where you could retain access to the material on the site without the ability to make or receive video submissions.

While the School of Mandolin may not be the equivalent of working with a good teacher who you actually meet and play with, I think it's an excellent supplement to the experience you might get from that. And if you just can't get with a real live teacher at the level you want on a regular basis, this website offers something that can be just as good or better, depending on what you are able and willing to put into it. If you're quite self-directed with your mandolin work anyway, I think it could be the ideal solution. You do get a world-class teacher, which can be hard to find locally.

Here's one of my video submissions, sadly I can't post Mike's excellent response, but if you join the Academy of course you can go and watch it.

Here's the link to the Academy.