Laptop Recording Equipment for School Band Concerts

As a parent of two children in school band programs, and as a former band student myself (from the 1980's), I look forward to and love the experience of listening to school band music. In my case, these bands are elementary, middle, and high school wind ensembles. It's wonderful to see and hear the progression of talent as our kids grow up and develop their skills, so I try to record as many of their concerts as I can.

Music, especially music that one has performed, has a unique capacity to capture and preserve the emotions that we felt at the time we heard/performed it. I find this to be true when I listen to old recordings of my own school band performances. It is a wonderful experience that I hope I can share with my children when they are grown.

If you're interested in making professional sounding recordings of your children's band concerts, I hope you will find the information on this page helpful.

Begin with the End in Mind

Before talking about specific equipment, some thought should be given to what you want as your final product. In the 1980's, the only reasonable option was cassette tape dubs of the concert, ideally from an open reel master. These days, most students, parents, and band directors are happy with good quality MP3 files, but you should consider donating a few CDs to the band directors and the school library. Finally, you should consider keeping high resolution master recordings on file and possibly recorded to DVD-R's or DVD-Audio discs.

A good recordist in the 1980's would carefully copy the track listening from the concert programme onto the small ruled card that sits inside the cassette case for each copy. These days, the job only needs doing once, so it's worth taking the time to do it right. Although you will probably arrive early to the concert (more on that later), be sure to get a program before you leave. Most audio file formats these days can contain metadata, that is data about the data, such as track name, composer, director, band name, date of recording, and even a photograph (called cover art). It's a good idea to capture all of this information before you leave the concert venue so that you'll have it to embed into your finished files for search and historical purposes. For most concerts, all you'll need to remember is to grab a copy of the program and a few snapshots of the band and director on stage.

Pulling it Off

It's amazing what you can get away with when you just act like you know what you are doing! I have had good luck just showing up at the concert venue an hour early, selecting a front and center seat, and setting up my gear. However, it's always best to ask the band director a few days in advance if it's ok for you to come out and make a recording of the concert. Let him/her know that you'll be glad to share the recording with the school and interested parents. I've never had a band director turn me down!

Although you could consider selling CDs as a way to raise money to support the music program, etc., I recommend against it because of potential performance royalty issues with the music publishers. If you are making money with their music (even if it's for a good cause), it only seems fair that they would get a cut. If you plan to distribute your recordings beyond the school and interested parents, you'll probably need to get permission from the music copyright holders too, so consider that carefully. You don't want to break the law trying to do a good deed.

Bits and Frequencies

Digital audio recording devices measure the signals from the microphones many thousands of times per second, and record the amplitude of those signals using one of two different numbering systems, referred to as 16-bit or 24-bit. The 16-bit numbering system can record 65,536 different levels of sound intensity, while the 24-bit numbering system can record 16,777,216 different levels of intensity (much greater precision) at a cost of just 50% more storage space. The greater precision of 24-bit recordings is nice when you have to adjust levels or perform other edits in post production because these types of edits tend to reduce the effective resolution of the recording. Working with 24-bit sources helps to ensure that you'll always have at least 16-bits of resolution when you're ready to burn your recording to CD.

Recording systems usually come with a number of sampling frequency options as well, including 32 kHz, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, and 192 kHz. The sampling frequency used to make CDs is 44.1 kHz, meaning that the audio signal is sampled 44,100 times per second for each channel. Since you plan to make CDs, you'll want to stick with digital recording devices that have native support for (integer multiples of) 44.1 kHz. The reason for this is that it is very difficult to downsample a 96 kHz recording to 44.1 kHz because 44.1 does not divide evenly into 96. As a result, unless very fancy (expensive) software is used, CDs made from 96 kHz recordings usually sound unnatural, especially in the treble. However, it's trivial to downsample a 88.2 (or 176.4) kHz recording to 44.1 kHz. Even though these sampling frequencies are less popular, make sure that the digital recording device that you select has at least native support for 44.1 kHz, and ideally 88.2 kHz (with 176.4 kHz as over-kill but "nice to have").

Finally, the Equipment

There is so much great, inexpensive gear out there for doing this sort of thing. I've even seen little iPod attachments that do a respectable job, but if you are serious and you plan to share your recordings with other parents and the school, you'll want them to sound as professional as they can. Fortunately, you don't have to spend a fortune to pull it off.

At a minimum, you'll want to have a hand-held digital recorder. These devices often come with integrated condenser microphones and sell for $150 to $600. Most, if not all of these devices support 24-bit, 44.1 kHz recording, but if you are interested in making high resolution recordings, insist on a model with native support for 88.2 kHz or even 176.4 kHz. As of this writing, my favorite device is the Edirol R-09HR. "HR" stands for "High Resolution", so make sure that you find one with the "HR" designation. Although the list price is fairly high, I have seen these at reputable retailers for less than $300.

The recordings that you can make with the built-in microphones in a hand-held device will usually sound excellent when played back through a good pair of headphones; however, they will lack the palpable stereo image that you hear in a good professional band recording when played back through a pair of loudspeakers. To achieve that sound, you're going to need a pair of external microphones.

Again, there are lots of choices here, but a stereo matched pair of small diaphragm condenser microphones is a good choice for both performance and portability. My favorites for this application are the Rode NT5 with the optional Rode SM4 shock mount. The NT5's sell for around $430 from reputable on-line retailers, and a pair of SM5's will add $100 to the kit price. This may seem like a lot of money, but the microphones are the most critical components to any recording, and these are probably the best available for less than $1,000.

If $530 for microphones is not in the budget, have a look at the list of stereo matched recording microphones at B&H and other on-line retailers to get an idea of what's out there. Prices start as low as $50 for a pair of Behringer C-2's. I've not tried them, but they have received a number of positive reviews.

Next, you'll need microphone stands and cables to get the microphones where you need them and the sound from the microphones to your recorder. The stands that I have are not fancy. Just make sure that they are sturdy enough so that there's little risk of them falling over (can be an issue with outside concerts on windy days) and light enough that you don't mind carrying them around. As for cables, I've found Audio-Technica 3-pin XLR cables to be a good value. You'll need a pair of them in at least a 30 ft. length, which should cost less than $50 for the pair.

A few hand-held digital recorders have inputs that can provide 48 volts of phantom power to external condenser microphones. Unfortunately, the Edirol R-09HR is not among them, and although I have been looking, I've not found a reasonably priced (< $300) hand-held recorder that does yet (although the M-Audio MicroTrack II looked promising, too many folks have had problems with them for me to risk my $200 to find out if it might work for me). In the meantime, I'm using a USB audio interface connected to a laptop computer to make my recordings (as the title of this article suggests), even though doing it this way is a bit more work than the "appliance" approach.

Finding a USB audio interface that supports 44.1, 88.2, and 176.4 kHz recording is almost as difficult as finding a hand-held digital recorder that does the same. Currently, I'm using a Creative E-MU 0404 USB device, although the E-MU 0202 or Tracker Pre would work almost as well. The main advantage of the 0404 USB model is that it has integrated microphone pre-amps that can supply 48v of phantom power. Unfortunately, the usefulness of these is compromised somewhat by the fact that you must turn two knobs in unison in order to make adjustments to the recording level. The advantage of the 0202 USB and Tracker Pre interfaces is that they can run off of the USB bus power provided by your laptop, which means one less power cord to pack. Oh, and they are a bit less expensive.

If you choose the E-MU 0202 USB or Tracker Pre (or decide against using the integrated pre-amps in the 0404 USB), you'll still need a phantom power source for your condenser microphones. The best low cost source for this seems to be one of the many small Behringer mixers. The Behringer XENYX 802 is a popular choice; however, the new XENYX 1002B is only $40 more and provides the option of battery powered operation, including 18v of phantom power which is adequate for many popular condenser microphones, including the Rode NT5's. To connect the mixer to the audio interface, you'll want a pair of TRS 1/4 inch phone cables. I like the "Comprehensive" brand for these. The shorter, the better: 1.5 ft. is long enough for my setup.

Putting it all Together

If you have decided to go the external microphone route, Congratulations! Here are the setup and connection tasks:

  1. Position microphone stands
  2. Attach microphone shock mounts to the stands
  3. Insert microphones into the mounts
  4. Attach XLR cables to the microphones
  5. Wrap the cable around the stands a few times close to the floor
  6. Tape the cable down to prevent folks from tripping
  7. Plug the microphone cables into the mixer
  8. Connect the mixer outputs to the audio interface with balanced TRS cables
  9. Connect the audio interface to an available USB port on the laptop

If you're running on batteries, you're all set. Otherwise, you'll need to run an extension cord, tape that down, and connect power for the audio interface and mixer. You may as well connect power for your laptop while you're at it. More to come soon...stay tuned.