Monday, May 29, 2017

The Gear You Don't Know You Need

Ok, mea culpa....

   It's been a while since my last blog. Finals, grading papers, a jury, and a 1700 mile drive home from grad school necessitated some R&R on my part. Now, I'm a little less than a week out from another great summer at the Interlochen Arts Camp and I thought I'd share some thoughts.

   Now, from the title one might think I'm going to talk about instruments, mouthpieces, and the sort. This is incorrect. My definition of gear is basically anything which can help you on your journey as a musician. That can be an instrument, accessories for the instrument, or, in this case, things which aren't related to your instrument but still important for your development.

   If I have a student and I see them practicing, I'd darned well better see two/three things on or by their stand; a pencil and a tuner/metronome. If I have to explain why you need a pencil to make marks on your music...well...

  Ok, so, the tuner and metronome. There are a couple routes you can take here. First, you can get the outboard tuner and metronome. I'm sure most folks have seen the tuners and Dr. Beats in their respective band rooms. Those are fine options. I'm going to suggest a simpler solution. Most folks at this point have a smart phone and likely a tablet as well. It's so much easier, in my opinion, to download one of the fine tuner/metronome apps currently available. Several are free. My personal favorites are Tunable and Tonal Energy, While neither are free they generally run $2-3. That's considerably less expensive than outboard units and both can do things that the outboard ones cannot do. Both allow for a wide range of subdivisions and meters on the metronome and also allow for drones to be sustained not only in single pitches but, for example, open fifths. This is a much better way to tune. Tonal energy also has a graphing feature where one could do articulation studies and then go back and review the graph to see how even the articulations were. Cool, huh?

  Now, the downside to the smart phone/tablet driven apps is that they generally aren't very loud and as someone plays the met and tuner drone are often drowned out or difficult to hear. Headphones could be used but I've always been uncomfortable using headphones while playing. My answer has been a Bluetooth speaker. I like the Oontz Angle 3 by Cambridge Soundworks. They sell for less than $30, are very durable, and sound surprisingly good. They also have a 3.5mm (think earbud jack) input if you prefer to plug the device in directly. The sound quality is good enough to use later to just listen to tunes.

  Next, let's talk about recordings and the advent of the DAW(Digital Audio Workstation), The average Joe can now get a couple free ones. Audacity is a free download for anyone and can be used on Mac or PC. Apple users have access to the program Garage Band. Both allow for good, basic recordings. Why would someone want to do this? Well, say you have an audition coming up in a big hall. You can only practice in a bedroom or small practice room. How do you know how your articulations and releases would sound in a big hall? Well, record yourself, go into the program, and add different levels of reverb to see! (I got this idea from my professor, Mark McArthur at UNLV. I think it's genius.)

 If you're going to record or make videos of yourself (which I've recommended before), the smartphone or tablet microphones will work but are very limiting and don't give you a really accurate representation of how you sound. The good news is that for $50-150, you can actually get a microphone which will do a fabulous job and plug right in to your phone or tablet with no added software needed. $50 for a microphone might sound like a lot to a high school student. However, what do video games cost....for a single game? If you are going to do any video auditions which would you rather have, the mic on your iphone or a small professional microphone. Companies like Blue, Shure, and Zoom all have really fabulous microphones in that price range. You'll be amazed at the difference they make.

  Lastly, let's talk about listening. In a perfect world all musicians/music students would have permanent access to $5000 tube amplifiers and $10000 speakers. Since we live in the real world, however, I highly suggest that students invest in a good set of headphones. The 'industry standard' for good, decently priced headphone is the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. I have a pair and they are very good. They retail on Amazon for $100. You can't go wrong with them. Having said that I got a surprise in April. I took a chance and ordered a new set of 'ear bud' style headphones from a company called Audiophile. They were $36. To my surprise, while a touch on the bass heavy side their clarity and definition exceed that of the Sennheisers. I was really shocked!

  So....yeah, I'm suggesting you spend some money. However, the point of this blog is to give you some options which I KNOW do a good job for not a ton of money. These are all things which will help and, in the case of the tuner/metronome, aren't really an option. I'll post some links below to aid in finding the products I suggest and as a standard disclaimer, I don't work for these companies. I don't get money from them. They don't know me from Adam. I've just have good experiences with their products and personally use them for my own betterment.


Oontz Angle 3

Zoom iQ5 Iphone Mic

Blue Snowflake USB Mic

Audiophile Elite Earbuds

Well shoot, folks. Amazon is saying these aren't currently available. I'll keep checking and hopefully remember to update this if they start to sell it again.

Sennheiser HD280 Pro