Setup for recording voice lessons? (mic, digital recorder?)

Discussion in 'Digital Recorders' started by vkottas, Oct 12, 2005.

  1. vkottas

    vkottas Guest

    I'm looking to help my voice teacher improve her lesson recording setup. Right now she records lessons with a Sony cassette walkman with the built-in mic and the results are poor quality and inconvenient (I've actually dubbed lessons to my DAW for playback from an ipod).

    I'm thinking that a simple setup that allows her to burn a CD at the end of the lesson for the student (and one for herself later, if she chooses) is the way to go.

    Here are some details:
    1)The teacher sits at a grand piano with the student sitting on a bar stool/standing on the other side of the piano facing her
    2)She would like the setup to be as unintimidating as possible. To me this translates to (ideally) a single mic that can just sit on top of the piano (definitely not a mic with a mic stand in front of the student and I'm not sure if she'll go for two mics, period).
    3)In my mind the setup should not require the use of a computer during the lesson, since that's disruptive. It should pretty much just require starting the recording at the beginning, stopping the recording at the end, inserting a CD and burning it

    Uneducated Proposal
    Here's an idea based on my arm chair analysis. I welcome alternate ideas, concerns, hints from's finest.

    Use a self-contained, cheap digital studio-in-a-box for the recording. The parameters of the box should be:
    - hard disk recording (for multiple long lessons)
    - built-in CD burner
    - powered XLR jacks for mic choice flexibility and quality
    - ability to connect to a computer and transfer files (she expressed the desire to be able to move the recordings to her computer)

    I'm looking for the cheapest solution that will work, and so far am liking the specs/reviews on the TASCAM DP-01FX, which matches all of the above and goes for $500. The only thing I need to verify is that the transfer to computer over USB will work with a Mac (apparently the recorder 'pushes' the files to a FAT file system, rather than acting as a drive).

    I have even less knowledge here but it would seem to me the key problem is that the mic is going to be sitting on a piano that is likely to overpower it (that happens to some extent with the current recordings). We're not looking for publishable recordings here, but the goal is to hear the student's and teacher's voices as cleanly as possible from a single mic. Here are my thoughts:
    1)place the mic on a tiny desktop stand with some kind of isolation (e.g. rubber/foam pad) between it and the piano to reduce direct transfer of vibrations
    2)since the student and teacher are facing each other with the mic in the middle, I would imagine a figure 8 pattern would capture both of them while rejecting some of the room/piano sound.

    I have no idea in terms of mic models and types. I think there are some fairly inexpensive condenser mics out there now with switchable patterns that support figure 8, but this is all hugely speculative on my part.

    Thought? Suggestions?

    This is my first post here - thanks in advance for your help!

  2. bounce

    bounce Guest

    This thing rules! Mac/pc compatible USB 2 transfer 24/96 recording, comes with stereo mic, sounds really great and would be perfect for voice lessons or field recording. Street price is $399.

  3. vkottas

    vkottas Guest

    Wow. That thing does look sweet. I want one for me!

    I'm trying to imagine the workflow here - pop out compact flash card (or take the entire thing over to the computer) and plug it into the computer. Copy the recorded file over. Burn to CD.

    On the plus side for this solution, I'm a bit worried about the speed of the built-in CD burners on these digital studio boxes. I know her computer could be setup with a really fast drive so the CD wouldn't take long (the length of her lessons is about 60-80 minutes). On the minus side, that's a bit more involved than the close to 'one button burning' of the portastudios.

    A key thing I'm trying to factor in is that a student will be in the room waiting before and after the lesson for her to setup and then to burn the disc. Not sure how the simplicity of this device and speed of the transfer to computer followed by a quick CD burn compare to the workflow and performance of the studio boxes.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Mar 8, 2004
    Tacoma, WA
    Okay - here's another possibility:

    Alesis Masterlink with a cheap mixer (needed for the mic pre - but you could just buy an el-cheapo mic pre too - Presonus Blue Tube or Art or something along that lines.)

    As for the mic, an inexpensive omni mic along the lines of the Audix TR-40.

    I wouldn't go fig-8 - in the setup you're looking at, there would be much in the way of phasing problems which would make the sound pretty wierd.

    You could easily set the TR-40 on a small tripod stand (also available from Audix) (only about 6 inches tall with the microphone mounted on it --- IOW, very unobtrusive!)

    Some of that (like the Alesis and the mixer/mic pre) you could get cheap on ebay.

    You could easily hit a single button to burn the CD and then burn another copy to take it to the PC.

    Kind of a win-win based on what you're describing.

  5. vkottas

    vkottas Guest

    Cucco, thanks for another good suggestion.

    The MasterLink looks about as simple as it gets. I took a look at the detailed specs that Alesis is kind enough to provide (unlike most of the all-in-one box makers - sigh) and sure enough, the burner is 4x speed. So a one-hour lesson would take 15 minutes to burn to disc (not sure if mono cuts that in half, but still...a long time to wait).

    I'm start to think that on the CD production end of this chain a computer-based burner may be necessary to get the performance needed.

    Fostex has an even cheaper studio in a box/hard disk recorder called the MR-8HD that runs for about $300:

    It doesn't come with a burner but says that it will be able to burn directly to an external CD burner via its USB port. Unfortunately, the model of burner and the actual support for this function is pending an announcement/software update in 'late 2005'. If the supported drive were fast enough (not just specs, but in actual use fed by this machine) that would be an elegant solution.

    On the front end of the chain, thanks for the suggestion of using an omni mic; makes sense. I took a quick browse around the net regarding the Audix TR-40 and it seems to come well recommended. Some people were also recommending the Behringer ECM8000 as an even cheaper alternative (~$50) with decent sound. At that price, I'd be willing to buy one and keep it as a toy if it didn't work for the teacher.

    I like the idea of using a separate little preamp; that opens up the possibilities for the capture device (and makes her investment a bit more modular if she ever wants to do anything else). Maybe the MicroTrack mentioned above and a few 1GB compact flash cards would do the trick (they're down to $50 each).

    I wonder if there's any external burners that can operate directly from a USB drive or CF cards - THAT would be cool...(though come to think of it, they probably would create ISO data CDs, not Redbook audio).

    Thanks for the info - hugely helpful.

  6. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Member

    Sep 26, 2005
    Another suggestion I would make.... You can buy a brand-new inexpensive PC for around $300 (with mail in rebate) with a Sound Blaster card or equivalent already on the motherboard. It will already have a high-speed CD cutter. A 15 inch to 17 inch CRT monitor will run about $50 or a flat-panel LCD from $150 to $250 (slightly more in California). I think you absolutely need a single floor Mic stand. I would not recommend putting any microphones on top of the Piano. You will need a decent but inexpensive directional condenser microphone from RadioShaft, $20, $40 if you want real studio quality! just kidding Get something better at the music store. Even a Shure SM58 is a good choice. With an adapter or patch cord, you could go directly into the computers microphone input, I don't recommend that because it is terrible and noisy, without any headroom. Like Cucco suggests one of the rather low-cost single channel microphone preamplifier would be a better way to go and still be completely affordable. Taking its output to the line input to the computer, instead. Aim the microphone towards the singers keeping it approximately 3 feet from them. It will be less intimidating, picking them up and the piano in a reasonable mix together, while being more positionable.

    You should also download a reasonable shareware recording program. Back in 1996, I procured "Cool Edit". Don't know how hard it is to find a copy of that shareware program but it is still awesome. The computer will already come with some CD recording software. Make sure the program is set for ".wav", stereo, 44.1kHz sampling rate.

    What I have suggested here will be far less money than the Alesis Master Link (which is still an awesome suggestion). This is a little more intimidating and complicated perhaps, far more versatile, faster CD burns, upgradable. You can set the operating system to open a simple text file explaining how to use the software and the audio program, so, the program and the help file will automatically open, when the computer is turned on. Then you'll just hit the record button in software, edit, save, burn. Fast and simple editing along with rearranging cuts will also be possible this wayspace (which you can still do with the Master Link with its built-in hard drive). But yes, this is slightly more intimidating but how many people do know that don't know how to work a PC computer anymore?
  7. vkottas

    vkottas Guest


    Thanks for more good suggestsions.

    I guess there's a couple of things I've left out:

    1)The teacher already has a Mac in the same room. I don't know the vintage; probably not too new but certainly capable of recording a single track at a time and burning CDs. If we were to go the computer recording route, it would be with her existing computer. The one inconvenience is that the computer is at the opposite end of the room from the piano.

    2)The other is the aesthetics of the situation. Much as it pains us as seekers of a quality recordings, she has explicitly said there's no way she would put full mic stands in the room . Her teaching involves getting people to a calm, relaxed state. Overly visible recording technology would stress her students, some of whom are recording artists fighting the stress of making an album.

    As a huge tech. geek, I'm hugely biased towards a computer-based solution but I'm trying hard to factor in her true needs and the fact that she's been getting by with a $50 tape recorder on top of the piano with a built in mic. If that's even remotely good enough, I have to think a real mic (not even a great real mic) connected to better hardware will be light years better.

    Roland CD2
    I came across this interesting little device that has a similar cost to the MasterLink ($700) but seems to be almost purpose-built for music lessons (Roland CD2):

    It records to CD and CF cards. I've realized this can be used to record the lesson directly to CD in realtime (probably can do this with the MasterLink - sorry if that's what Cucco was thinking and I missed it). That way, there's no delay at the end. This is about as complicated as using her current tape recorder.

    The only limitations of direct burning are that a regular CD is 74 minutes (probably good enough - she uses tapes with a similar capacity). Also, if she wanted a copy for herself, she would probably have to walk the CD over to her computer to use a high-speed burner for the copy.

    This device has a few interesting features that I think she might appreciate - as a CD player it can do on the fly pitch shifting, and it has a mode where it will play back a CD while recording to CF, and it has an option to cancel centered sounds to help reduce vocals on the CD.

    Mic Placement Question
    I've mentioned that there's no way she would accept a stand in the room, but I appreciate RemyRAD's concerns about placement on the piano. There's some bookshelves next to the piano. Would it be helpful to put the mic on a desktop stand in the shelves facing out? I can't imagine how a single directional mic could work here, because a mic between the student and teacher needs to handle 360 degrees, and one to the side has to handle 180 degrees. See below for super-crude diagram:
           Teacher       | S  |
         -------------   | h  |
         |  Piano    |   | e  |
         |           |   | l  |
          |          |   | v  |
           |         |   | e  |
            \        |   | s  |
             \       /   |    |
              -------    |    |
         Student         |    |
                (computer)    |
    RemyRAD, thanks for your suggestions and concerns. I'm sorry I wasn't clear about her existing resources.

  8. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Mar 8, 2004
    Tacoma, WA
    Hey vkottas -

    You are correct about the burner speed in the masterlink being 4x - but mono would cut the burn time in half. Also - if you record at 33.2 kHz sampling, it would cut it down even further.

    My personal advice would be to, if you want to minimize times and still have the ability to transport to the computer -

    Buy 2 standalone CD burners. I mean the full, stand-alone, rackmount player/burner. Split the output of the mixer or pre to each of these and use the remote control (if applicable) to start both burners.

    This way - at the end of the lesson, all that has to be done is to finalize the disc. (Write the TOC).

    That's really the only good solution that I know of.

  9. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Member

    Sep 26, 2005
    Thanks for clearing that up vkottas!

    Your diagram is basically identical to my mother's voice studio as well (she's an old Metropolitan Opera star from the late forties. She's been teaching since I hit the scene 50 years ago). There is a system always set up for her students, with a floor stand directly in front of the shelves. The microphone is directional, aiming towards the students. The lid on the piano however, is closed, never opened. The stand is up as tall as it can go with an additional 3 foot extension. The piano bench is also, against the wall, along with the shelves, with the computer under the bench and monitor, keyboard and mouse are on the top of the bench as a desk. This way, she or, the accompanist/coaches that come in, operate the system and/or the students can also, if they like. The microphone preamplifiers, are old Op-Amp Lab units. Everything is plugged into one of my old Pentium II workstations from 1997. I finally got rid of the cassette deck about one year ago, finally!

    When the students want to make a more professional recording for an important audition/demo recording they want to make, I will frequently be called in where I will put up an additional microphone closer to them. This way also, I can pick the appropriate mic for the appropriate voice. I can also make a better quasi-stereo recording with greater control. I also make a few extra bucks on occasion as well, not bad plus, it's fun.

    Not sure why your singing teacher feels that her students would be intimidated by a microphone? Perhaps age is a factor? Putting the microphone in the bookshelf I think is a good idea. Everybody here ranges from high school age to their sixties. Microphones are something every singer should grow accustomed to. else are we going to make a living? After all, they never boo! It's more intimidating to sing in front of an audience. Also, everything that goes on "hear" is more along the lines of fine arts, classical. No rock-and-roll, no real jazz, occasionally some Celtic harp and vocal.

    Since the bench is the desk, folks that sit in front of the piano, sit in a very comfortable high-back office chair on casters (easier on the butt, when you're teaching six hours a day). So the piano bench made for a very perfect desk for the system and no scratches on the lid. We still have some guy that comes in with a portable cassette recorder because he likes to listen to himself and his lessons/coachings, on his way home in the car.
  10. vkottas

    vkottas Guest

    I'm thinking that I'm going to propose multiple options to the voice teacher, partly on the basis of the suggestions I've been getting from you guys.

    Cucco - I agree that two recorders is the simplest, most elegant way to get two CDs at the end of the lesson. If simplicity ends up being the determining factor, this is probably the way we'll go. The only wrinkle (and it's a minor one) is that the least expensive CD recorders are the consumer kind, which require slightly more expensive 'audio' media (media that's had the copyright infringement tax paid).

    RemyRAD - small world! I don't think this teacher was an opera singer but it sounds like most of the other parameters are the same.

    Your mention of an old, crappy computer for recording got me thinking. I've actually got a couple of ancient PCs lying around that I've been meaning to get rid of (possibly even a spare audio interface with balanced inputs). Hearing the way you've got it physically situated also made it sound a bit more feasible. This would be a bit slower/clumsier than the dedicated recorder hardware option, but she may go for the added flexibility and the initial outlay will probably actually be cheaper. Since I own most of this stuff already, we can 'try before we buy' anything additional (like a small LCD monitor).

    As far as mic selection/placement, I am liking the idea of using directional mics, but in order to maximize the range of positions available to the student/teacher (and open up the placement a little bit) what do you think of two directional mics placed opposite the teacher and student, aimed diagonally. See below for crude diagram (the * represents the head of the mic, the / represents the body).

           Teacher       | /  | 
         -------------   |*   | 
         |  Piano    |   | S  | 
         |           |   | h  | 
          |          |   | e  | 
           |         |   | l  | 
            \        |   | v  | 
             \       /   | e  | 
              -------    |*s  | 
         Student         | \  | 
                (computer)    | 
    I figure we can play with the angles to try to get a better piano/vocal balance (e.g. aiming the mics higher may help a bit). My concern with having just one directional mic is that it would be hard to simultaneously capture the teacher and student clearly without aiming right at the piano (particularly if the mics are that close by). And since they're in the shelves, hopefully she wouldn't mind there being two of them.

    My biggest complaint with the current tapes isn't hearing myself sing, but hearing the teacher when she's speaking, which to me is more important for later review.

    Thanks for the continued help,

  11. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Member

    Sep 26, 2005
    Sounds like a plan. Perhaps an Omni on the piano, for the teacher and general piano augmentation in the one in the bookshelf toward the student? It would certainly improve the intelligibility of the teacher and their comments.
  12. BigRay

    BigRay Guest

    FWIW, the maudio device is very buddy, unreliable, and appears to try to cram too much into too small of a price point. Whats further, they even have some cases of false advertising, at one point advertised 48V phantom capability, and the unit outputs only about 30 or so(which will underpower some mics, though not damage them)..bugs, freeze ups, wont create a new file at 2gigs, bad meters, bad battery runtimes, random shut offs, many more things..Id avoid those things until they have gotten it squared away. The edirol r-1 or marantz pmd660 or pmd 671 look to be more reliable.

  13. vkottas

    vkottas Guest

    BigRay, thanks for the feedback on that M-Audio unit. I have a friend who's been raving about the concept...I'll pass on the warning.

    'Client' Feedback on Our Proposals
    So I presented the two major options we've been discussing to the teacher (computer rig vs. CD recorders) and she instantly gravitated towards the simplicity of a recorder-based solution.

    As I suspected, the idea of there being delays before/after the lesson in order to burn CDs, etc. was extremely unappealing to her, so it sounds like having a recorder that's recording in real-time, and just finalizing the CD at the end, is the best option for her.

    When I presented the idea of two CD recorders she said that she doesn't always want a copy for herself - in the short term she'll just pop a tape on her current setup if she wants a reference copy.

    Mic Selection and Placement
    Unbeknownst to me, she already owns an omni mic and a very tall (floorstanding) gooseneck stand, so our default mic option will be to try using the stuff she's already got. As far as placement, presumably it would be dead center between the teacher and student, but a few feet above the piano, so not much closer to the piano than the singers. Based on my description of RemyRAD's mother's setup she agreed that closing the piano lid completely would improve the quality of the recordings.

    One other little wrinkle is that my memory of her layout was a bit off. There's no bookshelf parallel to the piano, just a bookshelf in the corner next to the teacher (certainly sufficient for holding a couple of small pieces of equipment on a shelf).

    Recording Chain
    So based on all of the above it looks like the recording chain would be something like this:
    - Omni mic (already owned; I think it's some Shure model)
    - Preamp
    - Compressor - I'm tossing this in because given the huge dynamic range of recording speech, singing, or singing plus piano some compression/volume limiting seems in order (I'm sure the current little tape recorder is doing some of this now)
    - CD Recorder

    Preamp/Compressor Selection
    To keep this cheap and simple, I'm thinking one of those all-in-one recording channel units are the way to go for the preamp and compressor. For the purposes of this setup, something moderately good is sufficient. I thought the ART Tube Pac ($100 street) looked like a perfect combination of simplicity, form factor, and price:

    CD Recorder Selection
    There seem to be a bunch of options here:
    - Sony RCD-W500C (about $230 street) - by far the cheapest option. Consumer unit that combines 5-disc cassette-style changer with a CD-RW drive for making mixes or recording. Some sketchy reliability reviews at Amazon:
    make me nervous that it could provide too unreliable for recording lessons. If this device fails, the lesson is gone forever...

    - TASCAM CD-RW750 (about $550 street) - This seems like the basic professional option. TASCAM's pro quality with no extra frills:

    - TASCAM CC-222mkII (about $700 street) - a little pricey but offers the flexibility of a tape deck and CD-RW drive in the same unit, with the ability to record to both simultaneously. This seems to provide the ultimate in terms of accomodating students (I could conceive some students wanting a tape instead of CD, misguided though that might be). Plus if she wants her reference copy on tape...

    - Alesis Masterlink ML9600 (about $800 street) - a combination hard disc recorder and CD burner. It's worth noting that this unit has pro-quality (e.g. 24-bit/96Khz) digital recording. However, I'm not sure that the extra quality and features provide much value for this particular application:

    So we're almost there. Any thoughts on the equipment choices above, additional options, general concerns, etc.? You guys have been a tremendous help so far...much appreciated.

  14. IIRs

    IIRs Well-Known Member

    Oct 23, 2005
    Personally, I would suggest recording direct to an audio editor in the the mac. I don't know if you mac people have any cheap simple audio editing options, but something like Acoustica is very simple to use, and is capable of burning CD's directly. (I taught my mum how to use Audacity for similar reasons: she records herself singing 4 part harmony and burns CDs for her choir members to learn their parts from 8) )

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