A Musician’s Guide to Recording Bowed Instruments

Mike Lawson • String Section • April 10, 2019

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I would like to provide a general outline for how to go about recording the kinds of things string players, educators, composers, and ensembles find themselves wanting to have copies of to share and to evaluate, and to learn from and be proud of.

Ever since I was old enough to press play/record (on those Sony tape recorders it seemed every household had in the ‘80s), I was hooked. As much as I was driven to make and create, I was (and am) equally excited with capturing and recording music. Those old cassette-tapes have priceless personal sentimental value.

Even ones that – well, imagine the sweet sound of young sisters sitting around a cassette deck in pajamas belting out Christmas carols together. The transcription goes something like this:

“Silent Night…Holy Night…all is ….”

“You messed it up!”

“Nuh-uh… you messed it up!”

“Oh, yeah? Wanna rewind it and find out?”


Even these are cherished memories recorded on tape forever. I loved every minute of creating, recording, and listening – and later (with the development of specifically creative content), the sharing of them.

A Personal Venture – A Community to Validate

Fast forward 30 years and I am still just as fascinated. I never took formal courses, but I have made it into a lifelong study and research and experience that continues to fulfill a vital aspect of life. In the current environment of social media, the volume of demands for screen-time can easily overwhelm. Remember to factor in that it is a favour you are asking of someone when you give them a track or album to listen to. It is a generous gift of their time and attention to do so.

It is a good idea to decide on some of the websites that suit your purpose, often put together by other musicians and artists to provide a community of like-minded people. Be willing to give some of your time to their posts as you expect others to do for you.

A Word on Storage (and Files)

Regardless of what current form is used for accessing and storing recorded work, it is worth recognizing the strengths and weaknesses and physical sustainability each has.

• Cassette tapes: keep them from heat and sunlight, they are prone to melt (especially hazardous are attics and vehicles).

• CDs are magnets to both harmless and damaging scratches – even when using CD binders or portable cases. Additionally, they can stick to the plastic or fabric and flakes from the recorded side can peel away. Paper and cardstock/ cardboard sleeves have proven themselves most protective of the options. Discs also inevitably collect dust that can harm the CD drive or player used to play it.

• SD cards are particularly worrisome: I have had at least five of them break during active use. The housing is not designed for the kind of hard and frequent use I require of them daily. Now I use micro SD chips in an SD adapter, and those are so easy to lose.

I recommend copying your files to a designated hard drive or external storage drive after every session so when one comes apart, the loss is minimized. Be sure your storage drives (ex. WD USB “passport,” “element,” or other popular smaller products such as the very useful SanDisk “dual drive”) are compatible with the OS and is recognized properly by the device you intend to use for any part of the process between raw recording and final .wav or .mp3 sharing. You don’t want all your hard work to rely upon a medium unable to sustain physical integrity equal to your needs. [Editor’s note: SSD, or solid state drives, as highly recommended due to their lack of moving internal parts and longer lifespan]

It is critical that you have developed an organized system for keeping files and tracks. Save often, but be diligent as to where you are saving and how you will locate the correct one in the re-used and reformatted; many recording devices have unique formatting. It is all too easy to record over original tracks or song platforms you still need.

My Gear Guide

Making great recordings comes down to three components:

• A high-end Minidisc recorder or similar product (though I have not seen a worthy replacement-there probably is an alternative). The important qualities: mic and line in, in which you have complete control over the microphone and/or the original sound feeding into the device. This will be what captures and keeps the recorded material

• Good microphones for various uses, but all capable of holding their own (flexible)

• Microphone and/or sound engineering basic techniques

Very briefly I want to clarify what exactly the setup I recommend will include. The biggest investment usually jumps around from one person to the next; price tags are not everything you need. I have found that in situations which call for live recording or capturing a rehearsal or any kind of single sounding (in time) source, there is a very flexible and customizable way to build your arsenal and know that new additions to your recording repertoire will not require more and more spending for compatibility. The two best portable options are the Tascam portable trackers and the minidisc recorder.

Both can be used to provide a way for the track to manually be recorded onto a single file that need not be formatted or fussed with. The microphone I suggest starting with is either the high-quality and concert-hall-friendly Sony Electret condenser stereo mic, or a good sturdy small diaphragm condenser mic that has a battery in the housing that provides the necessary power (this convenience has become more and more appreciated over the years).

You will need a microphone cable that has XLR three pin on the mic end and a 1/8 (3.5cm/headphone sized jack out to plug into the line in on the recorder. That leaves a lot of room while also being perfectly adequate and able to provide awesome results once you have experience with setting volumes/gain/EQ et cetera skillfully.

Portable Recorders

Most musicians will require a portable kit that works independent of a computer. The goal is to record in the easiest way possible to achieve a decent sound. It is common to record with quality portable gear and then transfer the files onto a computer to edit using software of choice.

A Few Important Things to Focus on:

• competence with setting up the gear you choose

• careful and observant discipline operating the equipment

• avoiding the kinds of mistakes that cannot be fixed

• controlling line in sound and volume etc., either present or “manned”


For multitrack or multichannel, or just about any recording needing more than one source, I would stand by a single product recommendation for recording (tracking): Tascam DP-008EX or the 4/6 track smaller Tascam portable digital stand-alone units. They are affordable, durable, and learnable (they still include detailed user manuals with the equipment. No YouTube tutorials to learn this stuff!)

Build an arsenal of useful cables and connecting cores that keep studio standards in your setup without requiring new or additional gear to use individual pieces of new gear. My very favorite is one which I use to record from anything using a headphone size output to run into any of my multitracking units.

To Edit or Not to Edit

To the beginner, often the limitless options for manipulating an audio file can be overwhelming. Most of us have gone through the “OMG reverb!” experience. Effects can be tempting, but if you recorded well, editing will be minimal. (Most required editing will be found in assembly/arranging; those creative endeavors in which a lot of options offer control over the process).

A Word on Using Cell Phones and Tablets for Recording

The only recording experience I have had that was positive and useful and somewhat comparable to studio quality equipment done the hard way is a handy little Samson clip mic that has a hard case and fits in little pockets. It has decent condenser and omnidirectional switches with a 10dB pad, and a headphone jack on the side to allow you to monitor despite that stupidity of single jacks for headphone and recording. WHAAA??

Jennifer Steinfeldt Warren began studying violin at age three with her father in Alberta, Canada. After receiving a B.M. in violin performance and a M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to university to study the viola. Currently, Warren performs with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, the Murfreesboro Symphony, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, the Parthenon Chamber Orchestra, Wire Cabal, and with her quartet, the Tulsianni Ensemble.

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