Skip to main content

Help Please - Church Choir on Very Tight Budget


We are going to be recording the first album for our children's choir at our church. It involves vocals for about 10 kids and one instrument, a keyboard synthesizer. We are going to be using a small interior room in the church that is about 15 X 10 or so. We have an unbelievably tight budget, so the goal here is to make the best of what we have. Also, please keep in mind that the person doing the recording and editing has no professional experience so simple is best and also won't have time to do extensive editing - thus making on the fly effects like reverb preferable.

Here is equipment that we already have (don't need to purchase) would be:

1) An iphone
2) Various XLR dynamic mics (Shure, Radio Shack, etc)
3) A laptop
4) Keyboard synthesizer
5) Various mic cables and cables to connect to computer or iPhone

We might get approved any one of the following budgets. Anyone who can provide the best solution for the best quality at each of these budget levels it would be very much appreciated:

1) $0 - I imagine this involves only an iPhone app or free software in the PC.
2) $100
3) $200

We've experimented with the following already:

1) Music Studio app - This seems to have nice in-app effects like rever
2) VocaLive app - same but seems more limited
3) iRig Mic with iPhone
4) Tascam DR-40 (borrowed) This would be at the $200 budget. Seems to provide a very clean sound an the in-device reverb is great.

Any help would be appreciated.


Boswell Wed, 12/28/2011 - 10:03
Hi, and welcome!

You give the floor dimensions of the room but not the height or mention of the wall and floor coverings, furniture etc, as these make an important difference to the sound reflections. This affects the type of microphones to use and where to place them relative to the voices. The layout of the choir and how it is positioned in the room are also important factors, although these two are usually things that can be adjusted during the course of a few trial recordings.

Depending on the room, you could make this work using two Shure dynamic mics (SM57s, SM58s) set up as a stereo pair, but the important point is that the microphone signals should be captured by an external interface unit connected to the laptop. An iPhone might be just about acceptable for something like a YouTube video, but you should not be considering it when it comes to recording a CD.

The Tascam DR-40 sits somewhere in between the iPhone and a proper interface unit. It's possible that it could make a reasonable job of recording the choir using its built-in microphones, but since they are condenser mics, the room acoustics would become a critical factor. Alternatively, you could plug a couple of SM57s into its external microphone inputs and use it simply as a recording device, but its internal noise levels are not the greatest and the amount of gain is limited. It's important not to use any internal reverbs or other effects when recording - the aim is to capture as clean tracks as possible, and any necessary effects can be applied when processing the tracks after capture.

All the above ignores the keyboard, presumably with its own loudspeakers. How had you imagined that this would fit in the recording? If it is being played during the choir singing and captured along with the choir on their microphones, it's going to sound pretty bad. There are fancy techniques you can use where you record just the keyboard part both directly and via the microphones with the choir present but silent and then replay the direct keyboard recording as you record the choir singing. The microphone recording of the keyboard part is then subtracted from the choir tracks and you are left with just the choir and the direct keyboard. This technique sounds complicated, but I have used it under similar conditions to yours and it can be made to work surprisingly well.

If you can solve the keyboard problem, I think you would be best served by an interface unit for your laptop computer into which you plug a pair of your microphones and possibly the direct outputs (from the headphone socket?) of the keyboard. However, the budget of $200 is a tall order. To advise further, we would need to know at least (1) the make/models of the microphones you have, (2) more about the height and other furnishing characteristics of the room, (3) the model of keyboard and (4) how you had planned to include the keyboard in the recordings.

Paul999 Wed, 12/28/2011 - 10:20
If you get approved on the $200 budget I'd see if any mid to low end studio will bite. Likely even the most incompetent studio will do better then what guaranteed inexperience will do. If not give your self a lot of time and a couple of people to help you test things out. Get a couple of kids to sing while you move mic's around. Don't worry about following any particular rules. In fact an amoral approach will likely be your best asset. See if you can rent an all in one zoom unit with mics and everything built in.

The reverb you are talking about is likely a classic beginner mistake. I would not touch any f/x yet. Not having things sound direct enough is what most amateur recording sound like. Reverb will highlight this. But then again don't follow that as a rule. Go with your gut and have fun.

p_bishopp28@ya… Wed, 12/28/2011 - 10:59
Boswell and Paul999,

Thank you very much for taking the time to reply. Your feedback is greatly appreciated. I do realize that the budgets we are talking about here are extremely low but we are trying to make the best of it as the kids are very excited about it. The Shure Mics that we have are indeed S58s. The room is carpeted and has bare painted walls aside from one single pane window at one end. There are no closets. It is about 10 feet high. I was thinking of having the choir stand shoulder to shoulder in one row along the 15 foot side, although I'll probably be experimenting with the arrangement. The only furniture is padded metal chairs.

I will check on the make and model of the keyboard as I am not quite sure. I thought that perhaps the best way to capture the keyboard would be to record the choir with the vocals only and then record the keyboard seperately on a different track. The keyboard has a headphone-like output that I was going to connect to the PC or Tascam. As far as interfaces are concerned, are there any in particular that are suitable for us. I imagine the cost of one would be over the $200 max.

Paul, what is an all in one zoom unit - is that like the Zoom H4n for instance?

Cucco Wed, 12/28/2011 - 12:13
I'd like to point out a couple things here as well.

You say that you're "recording the first album..." Do you intend to state that this will be something that will be manufactured and sold?

First things first - if you're making more than 1 copy of your album, make sure you purchase the rights to the music you're recording (there goes the budget).

Second - Given the equipment you have and the experience being brought to the table, you're not going to get good results. Don't take this personally - it's just a fact. You wouldn't go to the dentist's office and expect to hear - "Well, Mr. Johnson - we're going to need to pull 3 teeth and put fillings in 5 more. We don't have the right tools for the job - we have this Dremel and this Dewalt and Bob here, our "surgeon" doesn't actually have any experience doing this. But there's an iPhone app that will help..." You'd probably leave.

My best advice is to take advantage of the resources you have at your disposal and get as good of a result as you can by just goofing around. If you've pitched it to the kids and the families as "We're going to do a professional album" - this would be the time to call them and explain that it's not going to be what they expect.

Also, given that you're in Rochester - a town steeped in music, you should EASILY be able to find an Eastman kid that probably can come and do all of this for a hundred or $200. (Again, there goes the budget).

If you must go "free" or dirt cheap, look into something like Reaper as a software package. Use the mics you have. Having all the kids stand in a long straight line will not sound good though. Get them lumped together. There's a reason no professional chorus sings all in a straight line.

Best of luck.

p_bishopp28@ya… Wed, 12/28/2011 - 12:31

Thanks for your advice, however, I don't see the analogy that you gave as being very fitting. Messing up an album of 10 kids in a church choir is not the same as messing up teeth extractions. Sorry, they're not even on the same plane.

I was a little hesitant to post this knowing I'd get a few "You're out of your mind, you don't know what you're doing" posts. So, while I appreciate everyone's response, if your response is going to be "your budget is not adequate, it's not going to be any good" kindly save your time. My request was to make the best of what we have.

Cucco, since you were curteous enough to reply, I will answer your questions. We do not have to worry about rights. We are recording hymns which date back hundreds of years. They are ethnic hymns without any known author or composer. Parents are not expecting something that would have been recorded in a Sony Music Studio or Def Jam Studio.

Thanks for the link to Reaper.

Cucco Wed, 12/28/2011 - 13:00
The problem is - you don't see how the analogy is apropos. The fact is, I and many others here have advanced degrees in doing stuff like this. We have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in stuff like this. And people come along and say "well, it's just a recording. I can use half-assed gear and get the job done." True - no one's health or well-being are being affected. However, it's one thing to goof around with your own stuff on your own time. But when kids get involved and they get their hopes up for a genuine recording and a hack with no gear (no biggie) and no knowledge (problem) and no willingness to actually invest in the process (big problem) tells them that they're going to get an album, it gets my goat.

What I'm trying to tell you is that you're going to get a crap recording with what you have. IF (and that's a BIG IF), you had the know how. And IF you had the right room. And IF you had spent years practicing this, then MAYBE you could pull it off with what you have.

What I'm suggesting is that you take whatever budget you have, scrape together some more and hire someone who knows what they're doing.

If you're interested in learning the art and science of recording - please do. Hang around here, ask questions, learn and contribute. However, if you're coming here asking professionals "Hey guys - how can I take money away from people like you so that I can do this for free, put out a sh*tty product and profit from it" then expect a little honesty.

So, your response to me was:
So, while I appreciate everyone's response, if your response is going to be "your budget is not adequate, it's not going to be any good" kindly save your time. My request was to make the best of what we have.

Here's my response -
Your budget is not adequate. Your knowledge is not adequate. You're insulting the children for whom you're attempting to record.

As for the licenses - don't be too positive. It doesn't have to be "Def Jam" Studio stuff that needs licenses. In fact, if my math and memory serve me well, you'd need rights to anything that has been touched since 1922. So, if you're doing any ARRANGEMENTS of hymns, regardless of the age of the hymn, you will need to procure the license. Since most "Ethnic hymns" weren't written for children's choir, I'd lay a fair bit of money on the fact that you're doing arrangements. In which case, you need to procure licenses.

So, my points here are:

1 - The truth only hurts when it's supposed to. You're asking how to accomplish the impossible and you're going about it in a way that will disappoint kids.
2 - Your budget and knowledge are inadequate.
3 - Hire someone who has STUDIED this stuff. Again - you're in the same town as Eastman School of Music and the Rochester Phil. There are PLENTY of musicians around that probably have this kind of gear in their living room and they probably wouldn't mind making a quick buck for recording a kiddy choir.

So, instead of getting defensive, why don't you take the advice of someone who has been doing this for decades and does nothing but record choirs and orchestras?

p_bishopp28@ya… Wed, 12/28/2011 - 13:23

Oh boy. Ok. I also have many years invested in my career as well and offer professional services, same as you. However, if someone came along and asked how they can get by with their budget I won't be offended and put out an all out attack that they are somehow taking money from me. The fact of the matter is that no professional recording individual will see any money from our church because we don't have the budget. I wish that wasn't the case but unfortunately it is the reality. If you don't want to help a church make the best of what they have then don't waste your time posting here.

With the licensing, you are completely wrong. There are no rights on our hymns. Sorry, but this is one area where your experience won't help you. There are no rights on these hymns. Period. There is no Eastman student who would agree to record our album for $200. That would not be fair anyways. Our hymns are melismatic and complex and require quite a bit of practice and many takes to record properly. You are thinking of Western styles hymns of which these are not.

My "Def Jam" comment had nothing to do with the licensing aspect as much as it with the parents expectations regarding the quality. You also have no idea what you're talking about regarding "insulting the children". This project is exciting for them because they are learning these chants, the album is icing on the cake. I am not profiting from this. Any proceeds go to the church and benefit families in need. My involvement is as a volunteer. I suggest you reset your way of thinking and not make assumptions about things which you have zero knowledge of.

So at the end of the day you are offended that I would even attempt to do what you have been doing for decades. I didn't mean you any offense. Take it easy. I didn't claim that I would be producing anything near what a professional would produce. Calm down.

TheJackAttack Wed, 12/28/2011 - 14:36
Just for a point of reference to the OP, I regularly record schools and churches on location for concerts for a reduced/discounted session fee under $200. This is with equipment that is high quality and expensive though not as expensive as Cucco's. I could charge more but don't usually for these types of organizations and for prospective college audition CD/DVD's but don't for a variety of personal reasons. I also am always willing to say no if the parameters are unreasonable or unrealistic. All that is to say, you CAN find someone in Rochester willing to produce a decent enough CD recording for $200 that will knock the socks off of a silly iPhone or the DR40. Spend your effort researching references instead.

By all means, observe and learn from whatever intern or post grad recording sciences student you find, or a professional musician and engineer like myself. This all can be learned by an intelligent and thoughtful individual especially if the finished product is moderate in scope if one is willing to put in the effort. It just won't be in a weeks time or a single observation.

Cucco Wed, 12/28/2011 - 14:37
Dude -
You need to take a chill pill and go read my first post then read your reply.
My post was friendly and helpful. I gave you suggestions including:
1 - Double check the royalty issue
2 - Do your best with the gear you have but don't expect "pro" results
3 - Consult a professional

Given what you have and your budget, these are your only options. And then you have the audacity to come back with a post that basically says "screw your advice." You're going to make it far in life, buddy. If you don't like my advice (which is sound and based in experience) then feel free to ignore it. But coming back with some snotty reply is not necessary.

The funny thing is, I have a reputation around here for being the guy who sticks up for the newbies and the folks without gear and/or experience. But when people basically throw good advice back in my face, I stop giving a crap about them.

The fact is, I do recordings like this for church groups all the time and I only charge $300 for the job. Oh, and by the way, part of that service includes ALL of the following:
1 - Checking all tracks for royalties (my **experience** tells me that even tracks that I thought had no ownership on them sometimes do!)
2 - Brining in appropriate gear (including $50K in mics, $20K in preamps and converters, custom built computers and 20 years experience as well as my extensive background as a performing classical musician)
3 - 5 Error checked master discs with all fades, track indexes, etc.
4 - Discounts on mass production using high-quality dye sublimation disc imprinting

So, your budget of $200 could ALMOST afford someone like me (though I wouldn't go to Rochester for $300).

My advice was and still is - take the $200 that you may get, scrape a little more together and hire a professional. As for my other advice - when you come onto an Internet forum and have 4 posts to your name, try not to be a giant douche and throw the advice you get back in the other posters' faces.

Now - if you'd like to get back to audio, I'd be GLAD to help you. If not and you'd rather continue to compare the sizes of our respective penises, let's rock.


Boswell Thu, 12/29/2011 - 04:42
It saddens me that this thread went confrontational.

My suggestion is that the OP (p_bishop28) should do a trial recording using just the borrowed Tascam DR-40 and its built-in microphones, and transfer the raw files to a computer for listening. NO reverb or other effects to be added. A sample could then be posted for us to listen to and advise on.

The choir should be grouped as two rows (of 5?) with the rear row standing on low risers so that their mouths are above the heads of the front row, but not by too much. It would probably be best to position them not parallel to a wall but across a room corner at 30 degrees or so (not 45 degrees). The DR-40 should be on a tripod in front of the conductor 4-5 feet in front of the choir, probably facing slightly upwards at the rear row of faces.

It wasn't clear from the posts whether the keyboard player is the conductor or a separate person, but the sound of the keyboard should be included in whatever way works best.

I, for one, promise to be constructive in any reply.

p_bishopp28@ya… Thu, 12/29/2011 - 10:33

Thanks for the direction on the setup with the DR40. I will definitely try that out. I appreciate you taking the time to explain this for me. We have a practice coming up soon so I will setup a trial recording this way.

The keyboard player is going to be the musician but I will conducting.

Thanks again


Thanks for the advice. I'm not too interested in continuing our exchange regarding either of the two topics you offered at the end of your post so I'm signing off from our exchange. Again, thanks for the advice you've offered.

RemyRAD Thu, 12/29/2011 - 10:52
I would like to ask you why you are trying to make this recording in this room you mentioned? Why is the main sanctuary off limits for this? The reason I ask this is because most churches have some kind of PA system installed. And the audio mixers in use are generally of a decent usable variety. So this already makes for a good front end to record with. The natural acoustics of the main sanctuary would probably be a lot better than this general-purpose room. I'm largely with Boswell however on his suggestions in pertaining to that room you indicated. While you're solid-state digital recorder is a fine device, it is somewhat limited. All is not lost however if it's combined with the churches main sanctuary P.A. system. That device can accept line level input sources as well as microphone inputs. But with the churches PA console, plugged into your solid-state recorder, you have the advantages of the equalizers & more convenient mixing if more then just 2 microphones can be utilized. Such as a pair on the choir and a highlight microphone for the keyboard or direct input. You'll be much better off with the acoustics in the main sanctuary and the sound will melt together much nicer that way.

I've made many a professional recording under bad acoustical situations. It's much more difficult to attain a professional product under those conditions. Overdubbing the keyboard may make for more complications that are beyond the scope of your capabilities. So we will assume you are going to make these recordings, with the keyboard, in a single pass. Direct to stereo 2 track, à la live broadcast as I did for NBC for over 20 years. There are numerous pieces of quality shareware audio software such as Audacity & others available out there. So once you have completed your recording on your solid-state recorder, you'll simply transfer that digitally via USB into a dedicated folder on your hard drive. You'll then be able to do numerous things with this software that offers most of the tools we use in our professional control rooms & Digital Audio Workstations. So once you have made your recording, you could post your raw stereo audio for us to help you make the finishing touches to it. There are those of us who would even provide you with this help, gratis. I for one would be one of those people and with Grammy & Emmy along with a Soul Train Music Award nomination for live gospel recording, I ain't shabby at this. So I would be happy to do your mastering of this project from your raw recording. It's all for a good cause and humanity's sake.

Sincerely yours
Remy Ann David

moonbaby Thu, 12/29/2011 - 15:00
IMGhttp:recording.orgi… IMGhttp:recording.orgo…

INDENTBoswell: "It saddens me that this thread went confrontational". Me too. And that's coming from someone who has been known as a curmudgeon around here on more than one occasion...LOL!!!!!
Cucco has been away for a while, maybe he didn't realize that this OP was posting in the now-at-the-top "Newbie" section. The expectations of our clients are not always the same. I don't know how many church ensembles of various ilks that I have recorded andor mixed sound for over the years. But in many cases, it's
a simple case of the parents wanting an archive of little Bobby's talent, no matter how rough it may be.
I don't think I ever had a parent come up to me and bitch about the stereo perspective, the ambience, or the fact that little Judy Jones was drowning out their buck-toothed Bobby. Maybe the latter....:)
Jeremy takes his profession totally seriously, and it shows in his work. But I think that the dentist analogy was a little - over the top - as they say in the circus world. I have a cousin who is a dentist, it took him 6 years of university, plus residency, before he stuck his hands into his first patient. And I don't recall a situation where a poorly-recorded CD caused a cardiac arrest like they say that dental placque can!!!!!