New Best Practices with Digital Recording

Mike Lawson • Technology • January 23, 2012

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Battery-powered hand-held and mini digital recorders are capable of making professional-quality recordings anytime, anywhere. When routinely and regularly recorded, students listen, analyze and respond with more perfect practice results. Kevin Mead, Band Director at Churchville-Chili High School in Churchville, N.Y. has observed, “My students have learned that I listen and analyze their SmartMusic assignments very carefully. This has taught them to listen to their own performance more critically and make improvements before they submit their recorded assessments.”

I’d like to share five ways in which I have effectively applied recording technology in my teaching: audition recordings; rehearsal recordings; concerts recordings; podcasts; and lesson assignments and instruction.

Audition Recording

I’ve discovered that stress levels are reduced when I regularly record students in preparation for their auditions. They become accustomed to self-assessment strategies and develop a natural ability to shine in the moment of accountability that an audition recording requires. Honor bands, summer camps and colleges routinely request recordings for their screening auditions. I have my recorder, headphones, and speakers set up and ready to go at the touch of a button. This easy, convenient, non-threatening feedback is a regular feature at every lesson. I recently recorded a student’s honor band audition, which he analyzed and compared to recordings made a week later to see what needed further improvement. Once I can get students to regularly make and listen to digital recordings, both their practice sessions and lessons are more productive.

Rehearsal Recording

For hundreds of years, verbal reflection was the primary assessment tool from teachers. Not anymore. Short, real-time rehearsal recordings can perk up ears, direct instant focus, and motivate an ensemble like nothing else. Rehearsal time is maximized beyond mere review. Now add the option of slowing down the recording, and students can clearly identify what needs attention.

Wiley Cruse, band director of Evergreen High School in Evergreen, Colorado, regularly records segments of his band and orchestra rehearsals with a Superscope PSD450 recorder plugged into his classroom sound system in his classroom for instant playback. His digital recorder lets him selectively alter the playback tempo in a split-second to add clarity to his rehearsals. This instant playback adds vital color commentary to his rehearsals and his students respond well to this rehearsal technique.

Wiley notes, “Not only do I regularly make recordings of my students, I also slow down the recordings so they can easily and accurately hear their musical and technical flaws. Often, students ‘think’ they are performing correctly, when, in fact, a recording will reveal timing problems, lack of dynamics, or poor tone or intonation problems. Recording a student’s performance, along with periodic evaluations, is key to developing good technique and practice habits.”

Concert Recordings

Concerts represent the climax of goals achieved and efforts validated. A concert need not be forgotten in pursuit of the next one. While most directors play a recording of the concert during the next class rehearsal, the ease of a digital recording can take the learning experience and ownership to a higher level. With little effort, a professional level recording can be posted as a student assignment to listen and assess in terms of balance, timing, intonation, dynamics, phrasing, and articulation. Portable mini-size recorders with wireless remote control can be operated from the podium.


Everyone benefits from creative lessons and adjudication comments. Take a revolutionary leap and make them available via podcasting on a computer or smartphone. Something as simple as a good interview can make a great podcast. A few months ago, I spoke with noted jazz historian Kevin Whitehead and recorded the conversation on a Marantz D620 recorder connected to the telephone. This excellent audio quality podcast entitled, “Why Jazz?” (online at: makes an excellent in-service or curriculum enrichment.

At a recent solo & ensemble festival, I digitally recorded my student’s performance and the adjudicator’s comments. These comments were worth saving for future improvement. I also slowed down the recording a bit so the student could clearly hear his intonation and vibrato inconsistencies.

Revolutions & Innovations

My students range from pre-school to adult. I’ll share how I have integrated recording technology with several students. It has been a remarkably seamless inclusion of easy-to-use technology for both lesson and practice innovation. On this article’s web supplement at, you will find posted a number of URLs for each student to better understand how I integrated digital recorder technology to enhance individual practice.

Natalie is a semi-professional clarinet player who is looking for ways to showcase her performance at a higher level. At each lesson, I record scale exercises plus excerpts of etudes and a solo. Natalie responds to the recordings identifying what she likes and what needs improvement. She had a perplexing reed choice issue. Listening to these recordings, she more fully appreciates how quickly reeds respond, yet have darker sound. She now adjusts her reeds with reed rush to match the preferred sound with the best response. Each lesson recording becomes a blueprint for the sound she builds as she practices.

Asher is a four-year-old learning how to play the trumpet. Each week, I give his mother a recording of some important things to do while supervising Asher’s home practice. Each week, he continues to make impressive progress. Using a method book with CD accompaniments allows Asher to accurately match pitches with each exercise accompaniment. Tempos are not an issue right now, but eventually the method accompaniment will go at speeds that may need to be slowed – something that can be easily accomplished with a digital recorder that has speed control.

Robert recently came to me as a potential college tuba major who needed help to prepare for his college audition. He was playing below the level needed to reach his goals. Lesson recordings helped pinpoint what needed to be accomplished each week. To his credit, within six lessons, he qualified for two high school district honor bands and made demo recordings for four state colleges that are interested in recruiting him. His ownership of his practice is impressive to behold.

Josh is a talented high school musician who thrives on preparing for his weekly clarinet and alto sax lessons in both classical and jazz music. Following each lesson, I send him home with an attached file of specific recordings from him to analysis and improve. His progress has been substantial and he earned first chair clarinet in his school’s symphonic band. Four days before a concert was the first time I had a chance to work with both Josh and his pianist on the Weber Concertino. I spent two hours coaching them and made two recordings resulting in a substantially improved performance without any further interaction with me.

Cliff is a middle school alto saxophone player who has never played jazz. He had no concept of performing swing rhythm patterns, which he needed to learn for a school jazz band audition. I made a recording demonstrating how to authentically play the middle school jazz band audition music with swing. Cliff listened to it and attempted to vocalize the swing rhythms correctly. His older sister, Sabrina, could sing the rhythm patterns accurately and was able to help Cliff perform. The audio recording was a good listening model. Cliff was instructed to listen, sing and then practice with the recording. Cliff made remarkable progress and, a week later, successfully auditioned for his school’s jazz band.

Sabrina is a freshman in high school but has been playing only a year. Because of her limited experience, she benefits best by listening to me perform her band parts, so she can more quickly learn the rhythms. She brings the music from school and I record it and e-mail it to her for her to practice with. Surprisingly, she earned first clarinet in her high school concert band.

Michael recently had his solo & ensemble performance. Listening to the recording of his performance and the adjudicator’s summary comments, he was able to improve his vibrato and intonation limitations.

Joey is a member of a local high school band program in which his band director regularly has students transcribe a jazz solo for a grade. They must notate the solo and play along with it. One particular Miles Davis solo was extracted from the original recording and I recorded it at a slower tempo to help him transcribe and play-along with it, which actually turned the exercise into a fun experience.

What’s Hot in Portable Digital Recorders

The market has dramatically improved since my last article on this subject, which appeared only two years ago. Hand-held digital recorders are better and cheaper. Microphones are also improving at an incredible pace. Many new devices now include features like looping, larger VU metering, and an array of possible audio file recording formats included, generally for less and less money.

Most portable digital recorders can record with two channels in uncompressed digital WAV or a compressed MP3 or WMA file format, which I recommend for web postings because the files open quicker and required less storage space. Because of technological advances, there are no significant differences between consumer and pro-quality digital recorders; it’s their playback options that you’ll want to check out. The less powerful amplifiers in the portable digital vocal recorders can be overcome with external speakers or a PA system if and when you need to playback for large groups to hear.

For a good voice-oriented recorder, look at the Yamaha and Sony recorders. Olympus, Sony, Edirol, Zoom and Marantz offer excellent music-oriented hand-held recorders. Superscope, Tascam, and Roland make the best mini-size portable field digital recorders for using XLR and quarter-inch microphone cables and ultra high audio quality. I prefer one with a hard-disk drive for more storage and transfer data capabilities. The Superscope PSD450, for example, has three ways to exchange data from their internal hard disk drive: USB port, built-in SM card (SD card), and via a CD burner. These options are very handy and fast for data transferring to a computer for post-production editing. Their 400 series models also have battery capabilities giving you more options as well as remote control to record and manage the recorder from the podium.

The compact R-05 by RolandUS is easy to use, affordable, and packed with big-ticket features that raise the bar in its price class. You get crystal-clear 24/96 capture, enhanced recording and editing features, and extended battery life (over 16 hours per charge). On stage, in rehearsal, at school, or on the street, R-05 captures music at pro levels.

Sony has introduced some powerful voice recorders that challenge professional level handhelds. The ICDUX512 has significant improvements, like the micro SD card for expanded RAM memory and adjustable microphones. The maximum recording time is three hours using the built-in 2GB flash memory, and battery life when recording in Linear PCM is 21 hours. It comes with a Lithium Ion rechargeable battery that can be charged with a USB connector and a computer, both PC and MAC.

The PCM-D10 by Sony is a 96 kHz/24-bit recorder stereo microphones, 4GB flash memory and a Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo slot. It is made out of rugged, lightweight aluminum and can record up to six hours. The recorder includes a USB high-speed port for simple uploading/downloading its native .WAV format files to/from Windows PC or Macintosh computers. For more details, go to

Recording from Computers

Can desktop and portable computers substitute for portable hand-held and min-size recorders? Yes, if you don’t mind going through a few more steps with the software, plus transporting more equipment such as notebook, microphone stands, microphones, power cords. The advantage of computers is that post-recording editing capabilities are significantly superior to what you will find on dedicated digital recorders. At a recent family recording session, my son-in-law recorded performances using a Macbook Pro with Garage Band 6.0. He then enhanced the recordings with some very basic and standard reverb and compressor effects. When I asked why he choose to use reverb and compressor effects, he stated “There were slight flaws in the live recordings. With Garage Band 6.0, I was free to do a number of other things in the post-production to enhance the quality of the original recordings.”  For examples of these recently recordings, go to

Closing Comments

There is no limit to how you can apply the revolutionary technology of digital recorders at all levels of instruction with vocal, strings, band, and general music. More remarkable is the ownership and progress students will experience. The incredible convenience of these devices lets users record anytime, anywhere. Assessment is a plus toward motivating students when they can instantly hear and critique their performance. Have fun motivating your students and building ownership of their performance. Digital recording is a dynamic teaching tool for upgrading your instruction.

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