Jazz musicians spend years mastering their instruments, but when it comes to recording Their instruments, many don’t know where to begin. In the eras of Bird, Trane, and Wynton, that was okay, because their total content production usually amounted to just one or two albums a year. But in the 2020s, successful musicians are expected to produce fresh content on a regular basis, whether it’s bonus tracks to keep listeners coming back to them on streaming services or YouTube and TikTok videos to reach new listeners. Even local players who just want to pick up a few casuals need to have a website or Facebook page with good-quality recordings.
The cost of DIY recording has dropped radically in the last two decades, so any jazz musician can afford to produce and distribute music. Still, I get frequent calls from fellow players asking me how they can record their gigs, put together demos for their Facebook page, and record their own albums.
The path to good-quality DIY recording can be simple—and it starts at around $100. No, a few pieces of entry-level gear and a few hours of experimentation won’t turn you into Rudy Van Gelder, but you can get solid demos going quickly, and you’ll improve with every new project.
Mastering the Fundamentals
If you can find a reasonably quiet venue, all it takes to make a decent gig recording is a basic portable stereo recorder, such as the Tascam DR-05X or Zoom H1n. They’re usually all you need for recording acoustic jazz, and both cost about $120. Put one on a stool in front of the band, next to the tip jar, and it’ll probably sound pretty good.
There are caveats, though. The balance between the different instruments won’t be as even as it would be if they were all recorded on separate tracks, but you can fix that to some degree by experimenting with the position of the recorder; farther away and you may get a better balance, but you’ll also pick up more crowd noise and reverberance from the room. You can also improve the sound by moving some instruments closer to or farther from the recorder.
If you have a singer who’s using a PA system, you can try recording in stereo, but to get closer to real professional results, you need to put the singer on a separate track and mix it later—which means you’ll have to invest in a recorder like the Tascam DR-40X ($199) or Zoom H4n ($249) that can accept external mics and capture at least four tracks simultaneously.
If you’re recording performance videos, it might be easier to just get a high-quality microphone that lets you do the whole production on your phone. These mics, such as the Shure MV88 and Zoom iQ7 (for Apple iOS), or the Zoom Am7 (for Android), can elevate your smartphone videos to roughly the same audio quality as a good standalone recorder achieves, at about the same cost.
Fixing It in the Mix
No matter how much care you put into the recording, it’s unlikely to sound just the way you want. However, by using a computer equipped with digital audio workstation (DAW) software, you can fix the flaws and also edit a long recording into separate tunes. Take the memory card from the recorder, put it into the computer and transfer the files, and you’re ready to work.
Audacity DAW software—available free from audacityteam.org—is a great place to start. It lets you equalize a recording to get the balance of bass to midrange to treble just right, and apply effects such as dynamic range compression, which will tame excessively loud sounds while also bringing out softer details. You can render your recordings in MP3, high-quality WAV files, or whatever a streaming service requires.
If you want to get more ambitious, you can upgrade to a more powerful DAW package, such as Reaper (which starts at $60) or Apple Logic ($199.99). These are sophisticated programs that let you do complicated edits very quickly. As your skills grow, they’ll let you do multitrack recording, mixing, and mastering at a professional level. All of these programs can import and export audio files of many types, so other musicians at remote locations can record overdubs for you. And if you need, say, a trumpet player or percussionist but don’t know one, you can hire players from sites such as Fivrr, then easily mix their tracks into your own.
DIY recording can be intimidating, but the best way to face that intimidation is to go get a recorder, hit that red Record button, and start playing. And if you need help, there are loads of great YouTube videos that can talk you through every step.
WHAT’S A PLUGIN?
Plugins are software that add capabilities, including reverb, compression and noise reduction, to a DAW. All DAWs include plugins for free, but third-party plugins can provide more functionality. One of my favorites is Acon Digital Deverberate, which removes much of the excess echo and crowd noise from live recordings. It costs $99, but any reservations I had about the cost disappeared the first time I used it.