January 22

My First House Concert

house concert

    I’m one of those people you know who dreams (big and small) and are determined to make them come true (sooner or later). People often tell me how they admire my determination, but for me it is simply an obsession over something I truly desire. One of my dreams was to one day make enough money to buy a big house, so I can have a Steinway grand piano, and hold house concerts.  The house and piano happened a few years ago, but it took me a few more years to get back to my piano practice routine plus make enough friends locally who were interested in classical piano music.

Two months ago my friend June came to visit me. We met at the School of Music at Indiana University and have been great friend since. She has a recital at the end of this month and I invited her to come stay with me and practice at my house until her recital date. Then it occurred to me  that this may be a great opportunity for me to hold my first house concert. My original plan was to get a full concert program ready myself and do a solo concert later this year, but then I thought — wouldn’t it be more fun for the audience if they could hear two pianists in one concert? That way each of us only need to be responsible for half of the program. Also, just because we do a concert in January, doesn’t mean there can’t be another one later in the year.

June gladly said yes and we started working on the details. We have never played together but decided to learn some duets for the concert. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4 through 7 by Brahms) We carefully considered potential audience’s availability and decided to hold the concert in the evening on 1/11, which was a Saturday. A few days before the concert, Mike moved the furniture out of the living room and steam-cleaned the carpet. Then his dad and our friend Siong came to help move the piano from the piano room to our big living room. Mike’s step mom also volunteered to help with the reception table, after learning about my pathetic dinnerware collection and poor presentation skills. We arranged the chairs and the whole space looked cozy and professional.

   20140111_010148

    Invites were sent and everything seemed to go very well, until a thunderstorm started a few hours before the concert! Even though it prevented a few people from coming, the rest who came arrived on time. My friend Dawn (owner of Single Smile Cafe) brought some amazing chocolate fondue, and Lynn made the reception table so much prettier than I expected. Everyone went straight to the reception table (wait, aren’t you here for the concert? — alright, I admit I couldn’t help getting a few bites too…) and started chatting. I was glad to see the guests enjoying their time. Meanwhile, my piano studio (next to the living room) was now turned into the pianists’ greenroom, and June was still there practicing on my Yamaha keyboard (with the headphone on so the audience wouldn’t hear her) because she was to play first. She presented the whole Schubert’s last Sonata, D. 960.

20140111_184523

     The concert turned out great. June and I both talked a little about our pieces before we started playing — the background of the composer and the piece, and how we felt about them as the interpreters. There was a 15 min intermission during when everyone (oh, yes, me included of course….) ate, drank, and chatted more. We started the second half on time with my performance of Chopin Ballade no. 4, and the whole concert ended with our duet. After that there was another round of eating, drinking and chatting.

It was a dream come true and it was more fun than I imagined. Needless to say I decided to do more house concerts in the future.  I already have more ideas for them, one being getting this girl to play …

Kirby Easler

   This is my little friend Kirby (guitarist/pianist), trying out my piano after the concert. I think she liked it!

 

 

 

 

November 20

Piano Recording Tutorial – Reverb

DSC_0607

My home studio is a small room. When I record in this room with two microphones directly above the soundboard, I get a very bare piano sound without much reverberation from the room. This sounds very different from a live performance in a concert hall. Personally I do like this clean and intimate sound, but just for some fun acoustic effect, say, if I want to create an effec of a piano performance in a concert hall, I can edit the “reverb” in the DAW.

There are two basic reverb types in a reverb plugin. The “convolution reverb” is basically a “preset” with reverb effects from a real space such as a cathedral, a football field, or a concert hall. There are usually quite a few convolusion reverbs to choose from in a reverb plugin.

The “algorithmic reverb” is an “artificial reverb”, with every reverb parameter being adjustable by the music producer.

Let’s hear some music samples to get a better understanding of these reverbs. The first music sample is the original recording without any reverb (click link to listen) —

NO REVERB

assignment5-1

 This is the “Concert Hall” preset (convolution reverb) in my DAW. And  this is what it sounds like —

CONCERT HALL REVERB

 

 

 

 

 

assignment5-2 Even though this reverb was sampled from an actual concert hall, I prefer a more subtle acoustic effect, so I did  some fine tuning and saved my setting as “custom concert hall”. This is the benefit of an algorithmic reverb — I can adjust the details any way I want. Now let’s have a listen —  

CUSTOM CONCERT HALL REVERB

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Which version of the performance do you prefer? It’s fun to experiment different reverb settings to find the best “color” for your piano recordings.

 

 

 

 

 

November 13

Avoiding Distortion When Recording a Piano

DSC_0607

The piano is a powerful instrument and has a very wide dynamic range. When I measure my playing with a sound meter, the softest sound I make on the piano (Steinway model L) inside a closed room is 21dB, while the loudest being around 80dB. What this means is, even with the microphones positioned around one foot away from the soundboard, I still have to be very careful with the potential “distortion” during the recording.

DSC_0583Remember this old post in which I talked about how I set up my recording equipment? I wrote about how I set the microphone input level (mic gain) on the interface — “I test the sound level of my piano by playing the loudest chords I will be recording before the session starts. If the lights turn red, that means the recording input level is too high and may cause sound distortion in the recording. I adjust the input level down to make sure the lights stay green at the loudest sound.”

So exactly what does “distortion” sound like? In the following music sample, you will hear three sets of random chords. The first set is distorted (high input gain on the interface), and the second set is the desired sound (after lowering the input gain). The third set is also slightly distorted if you pay close attention to it. This set was recorded with the the correct input gain on the interface and the maximum input gain in the DAW. Be warned — this sample is LOUD and you may want to turn down your microphone or speaker before playing it.

distortion sample (click to play)

From the sample, we can see that distortion can be caused by the high input gain on the interface or DAW, but once the setting is correct on the interface, the distortion won’t be as bad even when the setting in the DAW is off. 

Distortion can also happen when the output level is set too high. Ever listened to music on crappy computer speakers and hear those “broken sounds” when the volume is turned up to the maximum?

In certain pop music, distortion may sometimes be used as a “special effect” during the music production process. However, it doesn’t work quite well in classical piano recordings, where clarity and beautiful timber are the most desirable.  

When recording classical piano (especially the dramatic music from the Romantic period), we must keep a good balance — we not only need to ensure the loudest sound is not distorted, and the softest tones also need be clearly audible.

November 4

Automation in Pro Tools – a Basic Tutorial

DSC_0607

Automation is a process when the recording engineer adjusts different aspects of a recording during the editing process. The most commonly used automation is volume automation, and a very good example is the area when the recording is fading in and out. During the recording process, the recorded sound may stay at the same volume. In order to produce a more “smooth” recording, the engineer may choose to add the volume automation at the beginning and end of a recording (fading in and out) during the post production process. Of course, volume automation can also be added in the middle of a track for a variety of acoustic reasons.

Since volume automation is easier to understand, I will talk about a slightly more challenging technique – automating inserts /plug-ins.

Please note: I am using Pro Tools MP9. If you use a different version of Pro Tools, the layout of the windows may be slightly different. (Click images to enlarge)

week 3 assignment 1Step 1: Add an insert to the track you want to edit on your mixer, and then click on the insert.

A window will open up for you to adjust the parameters of the insert, and there will be a button “Auto” at the top of the window that represents “automation”. In Pro Tools MP9, I need to click a small button UNDER the “auto” button, but in some other versions you simply click the “auto” button.

week 3 assignment 2

 

 

 

 

Step 2: the “Plug-in Automation” window will pop up, and on the left column you will see every parameter that can be automated. We will select “Master Bypass”, and then click “Add” to add it to the list of automation, and then click “ok”.

 

 

 

 

 

week 3 assignment 3

 Step 3: In the Edit window, on the lower left corner of the track to be automated, there is a little arrow (originally pointing toward right). Click it and a drop down menu will expand for you to select what you want to automate. Click the Master Bypass we just set up, and an automation lane will open right below the track.

 

 

week 3 assignment 4

 

 

Step 4: In this image, when the smart tool is selected, we can command-click to add “dots” on the automation lane, and drag sections up or down to indicate “automation on”(master bypass on) or “automation off” (master bypass off). Within the area where the automation is on, the plug in will be in effect.

 

 

 

 

week 3 assignment 5Step 5: If desired, more than one automation can be applied to the same track.

You can add extra automation lanes to the Edit view by clicking the little “+” sign next to the first automation lane. Similarly, when the “-” sign is clicked, the automation lanes will be hidden from sight (the automation will still be in effect whether they’re hidden or not)
week 3 assignment 6

 

 

 

This image shows a volume automation and plug-in automation added.

 

 

 

 

 

 

week 3 assignment 7 

If you prefer, you can also use the pencil tool to draw the automation line.

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed the post!

 

 

 

October 28

Recording an Acoustic Instrument Using Pro Tools – a Step by Step Tutorial

DSC_0607In my last post I talked about my recording hardware. This week I will talk about how I set up my recording software to record my piano playing.

There are many different DAW (digital audio workstation, or recording software) on the market to choose from. If you are new to home recording, the easiest one to start with is probably going to be Audacity. It is free and very user friendly.  I used Audacity for a while before buying my current interface (M-Audio Fast Track Ultra). Since it came with Pro Tools MP9, I didn’t have to worry about compatibility issues.

Below is a step-by-step guide on how I set up Pro Tools for my recording sessions.

Once I open Pro Tools, a window pops up asking me to set up my preferences.

1 starting protools

1. Create a “blank session”, which means to start a new session.

Set the “Audio File Type” to “BWF(.Wav)”, or “Broadcast Wave File”. It stores more metadata, which can be useful if the project file does crash. BWF is also an uncompressed file type, which means it will have the highest sound quality.

Set “Bit Depth” to “24 bit”. This is higher than the standard CD bit depth (16 bit) and will provide a higher sound resolution.

Set “Sample Rate” to “48 kHz”. This is also slightly higher than the standard CD sample rate of 44 kHz. (click images to enlarge)

 

 

 

2 creating new tracks

2. Create tracks. For this example, I will be recording a piano duet, which means I will need to create two separate tracks for each piano. I will record one piano track at a time, and then combine two tracks as the final recording.

To create new tracks, go to “Track – New”, and a window will pop up.  Using the drop down menu, select “create 2 new Stereo Audio Track in Samples” and then click “Create”.  (also see the next image) You can also create the tracks one at a time.

The reason I select “stereo” here is because I am recording with two microphones. If you only record with one microphone, select “mono”.

“Audio Track” is selected when recording acoustic instruments such as a  grand piano.

 

3 creating master fader

 

3. After creating the audio tracks, create one “Master Fader” track under “Track-New” like step 2.

Master Fader controls the global volume of all tracks.

 

 

 

 

4 creating click track

4. If the metronome clicks during recording sessions helps you keep the tempo and rhythm, add a “click track” by going to “Track-Create Click Track”.

After I created the click track, I also noticed the input was not correct on one of my audio tracks and needs to be changed — since my microphones are plugged into channel 1 and 2, I need to select “in 1-2” for the audio tracks input. The headphone I use to monitor the recordings is plugged into channel 1/2, so the output need to be “Out 1-2”  for me to hear the playback during the recording sessions.

 

5 setting buffer size6 setting buffer size2

5. Next we want to set the buffer size by going to “Setup-Playback Engine”. Make sure the “H/W Buffer Size” is set to “128 Samples” and then click “ok”.  A smaller buffer size during the recording will cause less latency (sound delay).

 

 

 

**After this step, click  “command = ” on a mac (or go to “window-edit”) to bring up the “edit window” as shown in the following image. Clicking the shortcut “command =” to switch between the mix window (images in step 3 and 4) and edit window (images below)** 

 

8 renaming tracks2

7 bringing up transport window

6. Be sure to rename each track for easy reference. The master fader and click track were automatically named “Master 1” and “click” when the tracks were created. However, the audio tracks were named “Audio 1” and “Audio 2” by default when they were created, which did not indicate what instrument they were for. Even though the example I am using here currently only has two audio tracks, we want to establish a good habit of re-naming tracks in case we want to add more instruments in the future. Double click “Audio 1” and “Audio 2” and rename the tracks as “Piano 1” and “Piano 2”

 

 

 

7. Next, bring up the “transport” window by going to “Window- Transport”, and then click the red “record” button.

 

 

 

 

 

9 record enable

 

8. Before you hit “play” on the transport bar to start recording  (clicking the space bar will also start/stop the recording), make sure the track you want to record onto is “record enabled” by clicking the red “record enable” button on that track. In this image we can see Piano 1 is record enabled while Piano 2 is not,  so when I click “play” or the space bar, only Piano 1 is recording.

 

 

10 bounce

 

 

9. When the recording is finished, go to “file” and save the whole session as a pro tool  project file. If you are happy with the result and want to share an mp3 file with your friend, click “File- Bounce to” and export the audio file as mp3. When doing so, be aware mp3 is a compressed file, which means it does not preserve the highest sound quality as the original recording.

And that’s it! We’re done! Hope you enjoyed the post. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

October 23

Simple Recording Setup for a Grand Piano at a Home Studio

DSC_0607

I have been recording from my home studio for two years. When I first started, I spent a lot of time doing research, trying to figure out how this whole “home recording setup” thing works. I had a very simple goal — to make recordings of my own piano playing with at least “semi-professional” sound quality. If you are also a musician interested in recording an acoustic instrument (especially a grand piano), you may be interested in this simple introduction to my recording setup.

Below are the basic equipment and connections needed for a basic home recording setup when recording an acoustic instrument —

Condenser microphone(s) — Cable — Interface — USB or Firewire cable — computer (digital audio workstation, or DAW)

And these are the equipment I use to record my Steinway L grand piano —

Rode NT 5 (pair) —————- M-Audio Fast Track Ultra —————— Macbook Pro

DSC_0606 The first step of my connection is a set of condenser microphones. Condenser microphones are more sensitive than dynamic microphones and are more suitable for recording a grand piano. They are connected to the interface via XLR cables. (click images to enlarge)

I use a pair of Rode NT5 mics to make stereo recordings. Standard mic setup for grand pianos is to have one mic positioned above the higher register strings, and another above the lower register. I have considered adding another microphone to pick up the sound in the room, but since I have a small studio, I decided there was no need to add a “room mic”.

 

DSC_0582

 

Here is an image of my interface. This is where the audio signals from the mic is converted into digital signals. The microphones are plugged into channel 1 and 2, and I adjust the recording level using the gain pots of the corresponding channels.

 

 

 

 

DSC_0591The condenser microphones don’t I have batteries in them. They are powered by the “phantom power” on the interface, so I need to make sure the switch is turned on in order for them to work.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0583

To ensure the microphone input level (mic gain), I test the sound level from my piano by playing the loudest chords I will be recording before the session starts. If the lights turn red, that means the recording input level is too high and may cause sound distortion in the recording. I adjust the input level down to make sure the lights stay green at the loudest sound.

 

 

 

 

DSC_0584

This is probably not a very good habit, but instead of a good set of monitors, I actually use a headphone to monitor my sound input. It has worked for me so far, but in the future I definitely need to get some good monitors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0595

DSC_0604I connect my interface to the computer using an USB cable, and then use a recording software to edit the files. I will talk more about this in a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 4

Chopin Nocturne Op. 55 No. 2

It took me 20 min to record this Chopin Nocturne Op. 55 No. 2, but I spent the whole night making it into a video with the score for any pianist who is interested in seeing what is happening in the piece.

This is one of Chopin’s later Nocturnes and is very different from the rest in the same genre. It is gorgeous piece but rarely heard. I assume this is partly due to its technical difficulties. There are hardly any rests in either hand, hence creating an infinite flowing effect.  Voicing can be somewhat difficult in this piece, as the right hand  has to control a main melody (top voice) plus a counter melody (middle voice). Even though the left hand only has a single arpeggio line throughout the piece, it can be a challenge to keep the continuous movement smooth and expressive, as there are a lot of big leaps in the arpeggios — The way I deal with this issue, of course, is to play the top notes in the left hand with my right hand when there is not enough time for the the left hand to do the leaps, and also, of course, to practice hands separately.The most difficult part — how do you make the piano, a “percussion” instrument in nature, sound like human voice?

October 17

Untitled100512

Finally decided to start messing with the composition software Sibelius 7 last week, and here’s the first piece that I wrote. I didn’t expect to have to practice (sigh) my own composition, but apparently I had to, so I did..well, a little bit.

Here’s the first recording of it —

Untitled100512

 

Enjoy!

June 29

Lovely

I’d like to share this page of score with you. It is the first Variation of Mozart KV331. At the beginning of the variation my piano professor Edward Auer had written the word “lovely” to remind me the spirit of the piece.  That was over five years ago. I did understand how the piece should sound like, but somehow it was rather awkward for me to execute it correctly back then. I sounded more “neurotic” than “lovely” when I listened to a recording of my practice.

I certainly hope it sounds better now. I got to record KV331 from Theme through Variation IV yesterday, so you can now hear how I play this passage —

KV 331 Theme through Variation IV