How to record the ocarina

Whether you want to record yourself to share or study your playing, or you're an audio engineer tasked with recording an ocarina player, here are some tips for getting a good sound. The first section of this page gives a general overview of recording equipment. Audio engineers and others experienced with this can skip to the second section, discussing good microphone types for ocarinas.

An introduction to recording equipment

The majority of microphones in smartphones and laptops are designed to capture a legible human voice, not musical instruments. If you want to make a decent sounding recording, you need a microphone designed for this purpose. Basically, you have 3 options: dynamic microphones, condenser microphones (linked to Wikipedia), and portable audio recorders.

Portable recorder,
Zoom H1
USB condenser microphone, AT2020

The simplest option are portable recorders. They are all-in-one devices with built-in microphones which record onto an SD card. Using one is just a matter of pressing the record button. Being simple, they are a great option to get started and are useful for recording on the go, but they are less flexible than a separate microphone and interface (next paragraph). If you opt to get one, look for models designed for recording music and avoid voice recorders (Dictaphones). The Zoom H1 sounds very good for the cost, and would be fine if you are looking to record yourself for practice.

Using a dedicated dynamic or condenser microphone is more complicated but offers you a lot more flexibility. Different microphones colour the sound in differing ways, which are more or less flattering to different instruments. The main difference between dynamic and condenser microphones is their sensitivity and complexity. Dynamic microphones are less sensitive; you have to be close to them to pick up a usable volume. On the other hand, condenser microphones are more sensitive and can be positioned farther away. However, this also means that they pick up more room sound. Their increased sensitivity also comes with increased complexity. Expect to pay more for a good one as cheap models normally have notable background hiss.

While they offer more flexibility, using them is more involved as most use an XLR connector, and a computer with an audio interface, or a dedicated hardware recorder are required to capture them. There are a number of options which connect to USB directly such as the AT2020 pictured above. While they are convenient and sound a lot better than a built-in microphone, there are far fewer options available and recording quality is generally lower than an equivalently priced XLR mic. If you want to get the best possible quality, I recommend skipping USB options and going directly to XLR. Having this choice allows you to use the best microphone for any given task.

Recording from an XLR microphone can be done in two ways: using an audio interface or a dedicated recorder. An audio interface is a device which connects one or more XLR microphones to a computer over USB. Recording is done using software called a digital audio workstation (DAW). For recording, audio interfaces often come with bundled software but, failing that, Audacity works for basic things and is free. I like Reaper, which isn't expensive for home use.

The other option is to use a dedicated recorder. These are typically higher end portable recorders like the Zoom H5. This option has most of the advantages of a portable recorder, with the added ability to use your own microphones. On a downside, this setup normally costs more than a good quality dedicated audio interface, assuming that you already have a computer. Do consider that many portable XLR recorders do have the ability to act as an audio interface, recording directly onto a computer.

It may be intuitive to think that more sensitive equals better, but that is often not the case, especially when recording musical instruments. Knowing how a given microphone responds to sound can help you make an informed choice. This information can be obtained by looking at a microphones frequency response and pick up pattern. These things can often be intimidating to a newcomer, but really aren't that complicated.

Frequency response

Humans can hear from about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, and microphones are designed to capture this range. However, they rarely pick up all of these frequencies equally. How a given model behaves is described by its frequency response graph. This can be found in the data sheet, and will look similar to the example below. The X axis spans 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz; the low end of this range corresponds to low bass notes and the upper end to ear-splitting squeaks. The human voice and most instruments sit roughly in the 300 to 10,000 Hz range.

The graph's Y axis represents how the microphone handles different frequencies. Zero signifies that the sound is captured unchanged, a positive value indicates a frequency boosted in volume, and a lower value represents an attenuated (cut) frequency. The following graph shows a hypothetical 'perfect' microphone which captures all frequencies equally.

In practice, microphones are never perfect; they deviate for both stylistic and technical reasons. Dynamic microphones have trouble with higher frequencies, while condenser microphones do not have this limitation. How these factors affect recording the ocarina is covered in the next section.

Pick up patterns

Microphones are made with differing pick up patterns: they may pick up sound from all directions (omnidirectional) or a limited angle (directional). There are multiple types of directional microphone including cardioid microphones, which capture sound from about 180 degrees, to shotgun microphones that have a very narrow angle of sensitivity.

Omnidirectional
Directional

A microphone's pick up pattern is visualised as a radial line graph. The center of this graph represents zero sensitivity and the outermost ring 100% sensitivity. To read this graph, you start at the centre and draw a line outwards in the desired direction until you hit the red line. An omnidirectional microphone is equally sensitive in all directions, thus its graph is a circle at 100%. Cardioid microphones have a heart shaped lobe of sensitivity extending forwards from the centre; they are very sensitive from the front and much less so from the back.

Omnidirectional
Cardioid

Do note that this graph represents sensitivity only, not absolute distance in physical space. The distance that a microphone will pick up from depends on multiple factors including background noise and acoustics.

Closing notes, plus speakers and headphones

Always get the best microphone you can afford. If you are experimenting and are unsure that you will continue in the future, still get the best microphone you can afford. Microphones are not short-lived items if well cared for, and skimping often leaves you buying a better one in the future as you are unhappy with the result. Even if you do decide that this is not for you, quality microphones normally hold their value well, and should be easy to resell.

You should also note that a good microphone, and interface if applicable, is not enough. Speakers or headphones are also important and, like a recording made with a bad microphone will sound bad, a good recording reproduced on bad speakers will also sound bad. The small built-in speakers in most devices tend to resonate and distort when faced with the ocarina's pure tone. This can be misleading, making you think you have a bad recording when you don't.

I recommend getting some headphones as they are cheaper relative to their quality and are not influenced by room acoustics. A good set of headphones are indispensable, as they allow you to monitor yourself as you record (look up audio recording monitoring), and allow you to hear a metronome, reference pitch or backing track, without it being picked up by your microphone.

Good microphones for recording ocarinas

While USB microphones are convenient and sound much better than built-in ones, and portable recorders are a useful tool in their own right, neither are optimal. A lot of mainstream microphones, including many large diaphragm condenser and dynamic microphones, emphasise the high frequencies similar to the chart below. This is done as it gives the human voice and some instruments a more 'spacious' sound. Unfortunately, an ocarina's wind noise mostly exists in this range, so using such a microphone to record an ocarina greatly overemphasises its wind noise. This usually isn't desirable.

Ideally, you want a microphone with a neutral frequency response for recording ocarinas. Ribbon microphones, a type of dynamic microphone, work very well. They are known for having a very 'natural' sound with a flat frequency response over most of their range, with a gradual roll off on the high end. Ribbons are technically simple and are not expensive to obtain, with good options available in the £60 to £100 range. These microphones are only available with an XLR interface, however, so an audio interface is required. Note that, unlike other common microphones, ribbons are quite fragile; they sense sound using an extremely thin metal ribbon which will stretch if subjected to a simple puff of air. They must be shielded when moved and should be stored upright to prevent ribbon sag.

Ribbon microphones have an unusual pick up pattern, called figure 8. This means that they will actually pick up sound equally from two opposite directions, but are almost totally insensitive from the side. You need to be more conscious of sounds from behind the microphone, as these may be picked up in addition to what you are actually trying to capture. This isn't a huge issue in practice. As they are a type of dynamic microphone, ribbons are fairly insensitive. Ocarinas are loud instruments and will drown out a lot of background sounds.

It should be noted that having a good microphone in itself is not enough to get a good recording. Microphone placement, acoustic treatment, and equipment configuration are also very important.

Microphone placement

While it may be intuitive to place the microphone in front of the ocarina in line with the voicing, this usually isn't the best option. Ocarinas, like all acoustic instruments, do not project their sound equally in all directions. Assuming you want to get a 'pure' tone, positioning the microphone above the ocarina is a better option as the body shields the wind noise. Needless to say, you absolutely have to get a microphone stand.

As microphone placement has a direct impact on tone, I recommend doing your own experiments. If you have never heard an ocarina from the perspective of an observer, get someone else to play your instrument. You may be surprised how different it sounds. If you do wish to place a microphone in front of the voicing because that works for the aesthetic you want, you will need a wind screen or pop filter. Putting a microphone in the air stream is essentially the same as blowing on the microphone. A wind screen diffuses the stream.

Also note that some microphones are 'end address' while others are 'side address', meaning that they are designed to capture sound end-on or from the side. Make sure you know which of these your microphone uses and point the correct part of the microphone at your instrument. Dynamic mics normally work end-on but condensers and ribbons often pick up from the side.

Acoustic treatment

Within a typical home environment, there is little to dampen the reflection of sound waves. Hard surfaces reflect sound which will echo around the room, creating an effect called 'comb filtering'. Comb filtering changes the perceived volume of a sound depending on its pitch and your location. You may observe it first-hand if you move within your room playing a single note. In some places, it will sound louder than it does in others. If you instead play in an open outdoor environment, these volume spikes will be gone.

The following image shows the volume of different notes of an octave of an ocarina's range. Notice how the volume changes arbitrarily: starting from the left, notes 2 and 4 are very quiet, and note 7 has a large volume jump over note 6. This is caused by comb filtering.

Obviously, you don't want these irregularities in your recordings, so what can you do about it? You have to use acoustic treatment to reduce reflections. Acoustic treatment is a soft material that absorbs and diffuses sound waves entering it, greatly reducing the volume of reflected sounds.

No treatment,
most sound is reflected
With treatment (yellow),
much less sound is reflected

Achieving effective acoustic treatment for alto range ocarinas is quite easy as they sound at a high frequency and produce no sound below their fundamental. Because of this, only a thin layer of treatment is needed, and this doesn't require expensive acoustic foam. Acoustic treatment can be easily improvised using heavy curtains, blankets, or bed quilts. Layering towels in frames or using fibreglass acoustic insulation are also options.

Treating a whole room requires a lot of material and thus can be expensive, but it's not necessary. Instead, you can create a 'booth' within a room using floor stands. Acoustic treatment doesn't need to span the full height of the room, either; a metre above and below the level you're playing at is adequate.

To create a rudimentary booth in a room, place acoustic treatment:

  • In front of you to dampen the main source of reflections.
  • Behind you to stop it reflecting back into the microphone.
  • To your left or right. The open side should be against a wall. Usually, you want a 'live' wall as it brightens the sound.
  • If you do not have a carpet, using a fluffy rug or putting acoustic treatment on the ceiling will also help.

This is how it would look, with the arrow indicating the direction you would play in. Another option, which creates a similar result, is to play into a walk-in closet; the clothes are great at dampening reflections and it is much more cost effective to add additional treatment to a small room.

Even very basic acoustic treatment can dramatically improve the balance of a recording. The following was achieved just by placing couch cushions in front of and behind me, and hanging a bed quilt on the right. It isn't perfect and there is still a drop out, probably because I have a hard floor, but it's still much more listenable. This was recorded with the same microphone in the same location, using the same settings. The only difference is the acoustic treatment.

Before

After

Don't bother with curved 'reflection filters'. These attempt to absorb sound before it bounces off the wall in front of you. However, they are not big or thick enough to do this effectively. Note that they do little to stop sound entering the rear of a microphone as cardioid microphones already do this well.

Also note that this acoustic treatment is not soundproofing. If there are other noises like people talking or a road, you will hear them in your final recording. You should aim to eliminate these at the source by recording when nobody is around, turning off air conditioners, and choosing a location as far from a road as is practical.

Recording

How you go about recording depends on whether you are using a portable recorder or a microphone with a computer.

Portable recorders: Take a look at your device's user manual for basic usage. Normally, it's good enough to just press record. Note that many of these recorders have auto-gain, which adjusts the volume of the recording automatically. If your recorder has this feature, disable it as it will eliminate your instrument's volume dynamics. Set the gain manually as described below.

Microphone and computer: Connect your microphone to your audio interface, or USB if it's a USB microphone. Check that your software is recording from the USB microphone or audio interface, not the built-in microphone. Normally, this can be set in your DAW's options. Read a 'getting started' guide for your DAW for more. Your software will have a microphone level meter which will look similar to the images under 'setting gain' below. If you tap the mic or speak into it, you should see the level meter change.

Setting gain (applies to both)

Digital recording can only represent sounds up to a limited volume; if a sound is too loud, it will 'clip', which sounds terrible. Your recorder, be it a portable recorder or a DAW, will have a gain meter (see below). Play through your tune as if you were going to record it and watch the gain meter. You should set the gain on your microphone so the meter hits about 80%; it should never max out.

Pictures left to right. 1: too low, 2: about right, 3: clipping.

Exactly how to set the gain depends on your device or software. Portable recorders often have buttons to set gain. XLR audio interfaces and some USB microphones have a gain knob. Many USB microphones set this in software through your computer's audio settings.

Making some recordings

With your gain set, you are now ready to make some recordings. Set your recorder going and try playing some things.

The temperature of your recording space should not change greatly during your session as the ocarina's pitch is temperature sensitive. If you play in an environment notably colder than your ocarina was tuned for and compensate by blowing harder, you will not get the best sound. The harder you blow, the more airy and harsh an ocarina will sound. It is preferable to either heat the room or play flat and re-tune your accompaniment. If something must be in concert pitch, you can correct this afterwards. All good digital audio workstations can slightly raise or lower the pitch of a recording without changing the speed or quality.

Post processing

Once you have a recording, there are a number of things you can do to improve the sound: for example, dynamic range compression and equalisation. Note that compression in this context has nothing to do with reducing the size of the stored file like an MP3.

Ocarinas are considerably louder on their high notes than their low notes, and dynamic range compression can be used to bring them into balance. Effectively, it is an automatic volume knob that turns down sounds louder than a threshold. I recommend looking for tutorials on how to do this in your DAW as the details are beyond the scope of this page.

Equalisation provides a means of modifying the loudness of different frequency ranges of your recording. When recording ocarinas, this is mostly used to remove low-frequency rumble and to compensate for microphones that boost high frequencies. You can freely cut low frequencies as ocarinas don't produce any sound below their fundamental, about 520Hz for an alto C (Equal temperament note frequencies). How you apply this depends on the software you are using.

Summary

  • Always get the best microphone you can afford.
  • Portable recorders, dynamic and condenser microphones can capture a good sound from an ocarina, but ribbons are often best.
  • Position the microphone above the ocarina to get the cleanest sound; the body shades wind noise.
  • Positioning the microphone farther away will also reduce wind noise.
  • Microphones that boost high frequencies will exaggerate wind noise, so look for one with a flat response or cut this range with an equaliser.
  • Acoustic treatment is essential as ocarinas are sensitive to comb filtering.
  • The temperature of your recording space should be constant as an ocarina's pitch is temperature sensitive.
Thoughts on...

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