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My daughter will be preparing a solo viola recording to include with her college applications. We are hoping for good sound quality without spending too much money, and know little or nothing about making recordings so simple advice for newbies would be appreciated. We have a windowless, very quiet room in our basement where there should be little or no background noise for recording. We have a PC, an iPad, and access to other Mac laptops. We were thinking of using a Mac in order to be able to use Garage Band. Here are my questions:

  1. Can someone recommend a good, but inexpensive mic, preferable that we can plug right into the computer via its USB port or audio inputs. I have been told we want something with a "flat frequency response" for strings. We were hoping to keep it to about $100, but would go higher if it's really necessary. One's we've looked at are: Shure PG 27 USB---$$$, as well as other Shure products Samson Meteor Mic and C01U Blue Yeti If one of those is good enough or best, or if there is something else better, please let us know.

  2. At our local music store, they had small mics that you attach right to the instrument. I was concerned that these might not pick up the fullness of the sound, as one might hear when sitting in the audience. Am I wrong on this one?

  3. Will we need anything besides a mic, the stand, and some sort of adaptor if it is not USB-ready? We are going with simple and inexpensive. If we do need an adaptor of some sort for a non-USB mic, what exactly will this adaptor be called, lol?

  4. Any recommendations on mic placement when recording?

Thanks so much in advance for the help and I hope I didn't phrase anything in a way that sounded too dumb :-)!

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In short...

Q1. I've never used a usb microphone, but have never heard good things about them from anyone who has a good understanding of audio. Here's a review of the Samson from Sound on Sound (who are a good trustworthy source for audio advice, incidentally):

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul11/articles/samson-meteor.htm

The third paragraph from the end is the one which really puts me off:

"this problem is typical of USB microphones, and tends to occur in different amounts on different machines. It’s really the luck of the draw whether or not you’re affected."

Another problem with the usb mic is that you can never upgrade and are asking for your gear to be obsolete when we move from usb. So if you can stretch to it get a separate interface and microphone. The SE X1 is a superb mic for the money and will last you for years if you treat it well. Then get a cheap audio interface like this Yamaha Audiogram 3 for instance. I've not tried it before, but any cheap interface from the big manufactures (Yamaha, Tascam etc) should do. It's a bit more than you are wanting to spend, but it should be worth it in the future. If you can find one with two mic inputs then even better - you could then upgrade to a stereo setup in the future.

Q2. Those are probably more aimed at live sound or orchestral recording where feedback or isolation of individual instruments is a problem. With all recording you need to find the perspective which gets the sound you are after. Proximity of the microphone is one of the key factors, adjusting which frequencies are present and controlling the mix of direct and reflected sound. You may find that your room does not have a flattering sound when recorded and may want to record more direct sound (closer in). Best thing to do is experiment.

Definitely read this:

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr99/articles/recstrings.htm

You may also want to go down to your local church and ask if you can record there with the natural reverb of the space.

Q3. Depends what you buy. A mic stand is essential, as is a cable if you don't go with the usb. Another advantage of not using the usb (now I think of it) is that with a regular mic you could also use a long cable and have your computer away from the microphone.. they tend to make a bit of unwanted noise too. To attach the mic you can use a mic clip. Most come with one. Another option is the shockmount which further isolates the mic.

Q4. Start with directly in front or slightly off to the players right (1 o'clock) and not too close, strings sound a bit scratchy close miked. Experimentation here is the key though (and the fun bit!). Remember that there are guidelines, but nothing is really 'wrong', if it sounds good then it is good.

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Mark,

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer. So, no on the USB mics then. I will check out the mic and interface you recommend. In the meantime, for our pretty rudimentary purposes here, what do you think of Zoom recorders? My local music store just pointed me toward the Zoom H1. I know it wouldn't be replicating recording studio sound, but do you think they have pretty decent sound quality? They certainly sound easy to use, handy, and cost-effective, satisfying 75% of my criteria. However, good sound is the primary issue.

I also appreciate the suggestions on mic placement.

  • Well, see what everyone else has to say before you decide. The zoom recorders are good for what they are. I own the H4 and it's a good machine for the money. The world is a better place for them! Do they have decent sound quality? Well, amazing for how much they cost and maybe the perfect thing for you. Like any measure of quality it's all on different scales. You can take a photo on your phone which resembles what you photographed, a $70 compact will take a better photo, an slr better still... Perhaps the key point is that you cannot blow up a photo taken on a phone to the size of a billboard – Mark Durham Aug 5 '13 at 21:09
  • ... and it's the same with a recording. If you listen on small domestic speakers it will sound fine, but on higher end systems you hear the imperfections. Depends on what you need really. – Mark Durham Aug 5 '13 at 21:12
  • Final thought, maybe you need to borrow one and see if it does the job. If you were in London you could borrow mine, but I guess you're in the US as you're talking $$. Good luck with it whatever you choose! – Mark Durham Aug 5 '13 at 21:15
  • Thanks again and great analogy. I got a lovely offer today from a local guy at a music shop that she could record at his home recording studio for a very low fee. So, we may just go ahead and pick up a handheld and see how it does with the other option also available. I'm thinking portable device will have plenty of uses regardless. Now I have to decide between 2 of those, but perhaps I'll post that as a separate question. – Nan Aug 5 '13 at 23:59
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I use my Zoom H2 to record my cello lessons. It can work as a USB mic or a stand alone recorder. You will also find it useful for rehearsals. It is a little bit noisy but well worth the price.

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