How to record an 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 recording an ocarina and getting the best sound.
The first part of this page gives a general overview of recording equipment. Audio engineers and others experienced with this can skip forward to the heading Good microphones for recording ocarinas.
An introduction to recording equipment
The 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.
Different options exist which require more or less equipment to get started. All in one music recorders are the simplest option, then you have USB microphones, and XLR microphones:
Portable audio recorders
The simplest option are portable music recorders. They are all-in-one devices with built-in microphones, and record onto an SD card or internal memory. 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 are the least flexible of the available options. If you don't like the sound of the built in microphones, you are stuck.
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.
USB microphones connect to your computer and use software for recording. They range in quality from basic ones for making voice calls, to low-end professional grade microphones like the AT2020 USB, featuring a USB interface instead of XLR (see next heading).
USB microphones are a great option for amateur music recording as the only things that you need are the microphone, a microphone stand and a computer. Quite a lot of different options are available on the market, although less than for XLR microphones.
Pretty much any USB microphone of reasonable quality is going to sound much better than a phone or laptop's built-in microphone.
XLR is a standard for connecting microphones to other audio equipment, much like USB is a standard interface for computer peripherals. A huge number of different microphones are available that feature an XLR connector, ranging from inexpensive to high end.
The diversity of XLR microphones comes with increased complexity and higher initial cost as multiple pieces of equipment are needed. At minimum you will need:
- An XLR microphone.
- An XLR cable.
- An XLR to USB audio interface, or a dedicated XLR audio recorder.
An audio interface is a device which connects one or more XLR microphones to a computer over USB. XLR recorders on the other hand are stand-alone devices that record from an XLR microphone to an SD card or similar. Note that a lot of these can also act as an audio interface for computer recording.
Some high-end 'all in one' recorders like the Zoom H5 feature XLR inputs in addition to the built in microphones. They provide the advantages of a portable recorder, but are frequently the most expensive option.
If you are looking for the most flexibility and the best possible recording quality getting into XLR audio equipment may be worthwhile. The initial set up cost can be amortised over time as once you have an interface, if you want to try a different microphone you only need the microphone.
This equipment also has a good used market, and tends to hold its value well.
Some microphones require 'phantom power'. Most audio interfaces have this feature, but it is worth checking to be sure.
Recording from a microphone (Digital audio workstations)
Dedicated recording software will be required If you opt to go with either a USB microphone, or XLR microphone with an interface. If you are using an all in one recorder, or a XLR microphone with a stand-alone recorder, you won't need anything else to record, though software will be needed if you wish to edit your recordings.
The software in question is called a digital audio workstation (DAW, often pronounced like 'door'). These tools also allow you to edit the audio once you have recorded it, layer multiple recorded tracks together, and even combine multiple takes to cut out mistakes.
Audio interfaces often come with bundled software, and there are quite a few of these tools available on the market at varying cost:
- Audacity, free open source software, works for basic things.
- Reaper, quite easy to use, and inexpensive for personal use.
- Ableton Live, Logic Pro and Pro Tools are other options.
A very general description of the usage of this kind of software is given later, but you will need to look at the different options, and find guides for using the program you choose.
If you look at the microphones on the market you will quickly find that a lot of different types of microphone exist. They are described by technical terms like 'dynamic', 'condenser', 'cardioid', 'figure-8', and 'frequency response'. It could all feel overwhelming, and this section will help you understand the terminology.
How the microphone detects sound
A microphone may be described as dynamic, condenser, or ribbon. These terms describe the mechanics of how the microphone detects sound.
Dynamic microphones are technically simple. They detect sound using a cone and electromagnet, like a loudspeaker working in reverse.
Their simplicity comes with the cost that they do not detect high frequencies well, and are not very sensitive. You have to be close to them to pick up usable volume.
They have wide application in stage audio, and for recording very loud sources like guitar amplifiers. Some well known examples are the Sure SM57, and Sure SM7B.
Condenser microphones instead work by detecting changes in capacitance between two metal disks that are placed very close together.
Unlike dynamic microphones, they very sensitive and easily cover the full frequency range of human hearing. They can capture finer details in a performance, but will also pick up more room sound.
Good ones tend to have a higher cost, and cheap models often have a lot of self-noise (background hiss).
Ribbon microphones detect sound using a thin metal ribbon. They are mostly known for having a sound described as 'warm' and 'natural', caused by a gentle roll off of high frequencies.
Note that, unlike the other two options, ribbon microphones are quite fragile and the ribbon will stretch if subjected to a sharp puff of air. They must be shielded when moved and should be stored upright.
Ribbon microphones are technically simple and quite cheap to buy, but require an XLR interface. Quite a few people have found good results using them for recording ocarinas.
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 following image. The X axis spans 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz; the left corresponds to low bass notes and the right to ear-splitting squeaks.
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.
This example shows a hypothetical 'perfect' microphone which captures all frequencies equally.
Pick up patterns
When you are recording an ocarina, you want to record the instrument, not the sounds in the room next door or the road outside. This is where choosing a microphone with an appropriate pick up pattern will help.
The pick up pattern describes from which directions a microphone will pick up sound. They may be 'omnidirectional', pick up sound equally from all directions, or 'directional', responding to sound from a given direction.
Microphones may have pick up patterns including:
- Cardioid, capturing sound from the front and sides, rejecting sound from behind.
- Shotgun, capturing sound almost exclusively from the front.
- Figure eight, detecting equally from the front and back, but rejecting sound from the sides.
A microphone's pick up pattern is shown as a radial line graph. The centre of this graph represents zero sensitivity and the outermost ring 100% sensitivity. To read this graph, you visualise a line from the centre in the desired direction, and look at the distance between the centre and plot line.
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.
Both cardioid and shotgun microphones work well for recording ocarinas as they are great at rejecting background room sounds. Shotgun mics will do this better, but are also more expensive on average.
The importance of speakers or headphones
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 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 is indispensable, as it allows you to hear your playing exactly as it is being recorded (look up audio recording monitoring), and allow you to hear a metronome, reference pitch or backing track, without it being audible in your final recording.
Good microphones for recording ocarinas
Different microphones emphasise different parts of the frequency range in differing ways, which are more or less flattering to different instruments. A lot of mainstream microphones boost high frequencies similar to the following chart. This is done as it gives the human voice and some instruments a more 'spacious' sound.
That characteristic isn't really desirable for recording ocarinas, as it tends to overemphasise its wind noise. For ocarinas you usually want a microphone with a relatively flat frequency response, or even a slight roll of on high frequencies.
I have had good results using both small diaphragm condenser, and ribbon microphones for recording ocarinas. Both of these have fast response time, and usually do not excessively emphasise high frequencies. In fact, ribbon microphones naturally have gradual roll off on the high end.
If you are looking at USB microphones your options are going to be more limited, as you may only be able to find large diaphragm options. These will work for recording ocarinas, although I have personally found the above mentioned options to give better results without further editing.
So you have a good microphone, interface, and software if applicable. You put the microphone on the table and try to make a recording... Then you may end up thinking 'my ocarina doesn't sound this airy to me...'
Ocarinas, like all acoustic instruments, do not project their sound equally in all directions, and where you place the microphone matters. As their voicing is below the instrument, ocarinas project a lot of their wind noise downwards.
I strongly advise Investing in a boom microphone stand, so that you can position the microphone where you want, and not be constrained by your furniture.
- As a starting point, Id suggest positioning your microphone somewhat above the ocarina and slightly to the left or right. Placing a microphone either above, or behind the ocarina will capture a sound closer to what you hear as a player.
- If you position the microphone closer to the ocarina it will capture less room sound, while putting it farther away will capture more of the sound of the room. If what you are recording is a slow song, capturing some reverb from the room may sound good, while high tempo music tends to benefit from the crisper sound of closer placement.
- Take care placing a microphone in front of the voicing because putting a microphone in the air stream is essentially the same as blowing on the microphone, and will sound very airy. If you want to do that, you'll need a 'pop filter', a screen that goes in front of the mic and diffuses the air stream.
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.
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 acoustic effect called 'comb filtering'.
Comb filtering can make an ocarina sound very harsh, making some notes much louder than others. You may observe it first-hand if you move within your room while playing a single note. In some places, it will sound louder to you than it does in others. If you instead play in an open outdoor environment, these volume spikes will be gone.
The effect it is also easy to demonstrate in a recording. If you record yourself playing a scale, your recording software will visualise the volume of the sound. Notice in the following example 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.
Acoustic treatment is how you get rid of the problem. It is a soft material that you hang on the walls that absorbs and diffuses sound waves entering it, greatly reducing sound echo.
One important thing to stress is that Acoustic treatment and soundproofing are not the same thing!
- Acoustic treatment is about reducing the reflected sound within a room.
- Soundproofing means to prevent sound in one room being heard in other rooms.
Acoustic treatment is easy and pretty cheap, while soundproofing requires considerable building modifications. It is very expensive to do properly and not required to get good recordings.
Implementing acoustic treatment
The thickness of acoustic treatment required depends on the frequency of the sound. Very low frequency (low pitched) sounds require thick damping material, while high pitched sounds require very little.
Fortunately, achieving effective acoustic treatment for alto range ocarinas is easy. Only a thin layer of treatment is needed, and this doesn't require expensive acoustic foam:
- Firstly, if you have a wardrobe or walk-in closet, these can make very effective recording booths. Just put the microphone inside, and stand in the doorway. the clothes are great at dampening reflections.
- On a larger scale, acoustic treatment can be easily improvised using heavy curtains, blankets, or bed quilts. Either hang a few layers of these on the walls, or mount them on a cross bar using floor stands.
There are devices on the market called 'reflection filters'. They are semicircular barriers made of acoustic treatment that surround a microphone, and you play or sing into them. In principle they stop the sound before it can echo around the room.
They are better than nothing, but acoustically treating the whole room will be more effective if it is an option for you. It also removes the need for a large cumbersome device on your microphone stand.
The impact of basic acoustic treatment
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.
The two examples were recorded with the same microphone in the same location, using the same settings. The only difference is the acoustic treatment. 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.
So you have chosen a microphone, and have your recording equipment and microphone stand set up. There's one final thing to do before you can make some recordings.
Digital audio can only represent sounds up to a limited volume; if a sound is too loud, it will 'clip', which sounds terrible. To avoid this, you need to set the microphone gain. Your recorder, be it a portable recorder or a DAW, will have a gain meter which will look similar to the following images.
Play your instrument as if you were going to record it and watch the gain meter. Set the gain on your microphone so the highest value during the performance is about 80%; it should never max out. 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
Just start you recorder going and have a play around:
Portable recorders: Take a look at your device's user manual for basic usage. 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 later.
Microphone and computer: Connect your microphone to your audio interface, or USB if it's a USB microphone. Set the software to record 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.
Try to keep your recording space quiet as background noises may be audible in your final recording. Using a directional microphone will help, but try to eliminate the unwanted sounds at the source if you can.
You may want to turn off heaters or air conditioners to remove background noise. But, note that ocarinas are temperature sensitive, and having the temperature of your recording space varying while you are recording is going to cause the breath curve to vary.
Post processing is editing the audio you have recorded. Its a very broad topic and a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this website. A few suggestions are given here as a general introduction, and give a few search terms to help you find additional details. Many books have been written on it, and you will find a lot by searching.
Editing out breaths, or mistakes
You can edit out parts of an audio recording to remove breaths if you find them annoying.
Also, if you make a mistake you don't have to re-record the entire performance. Replacing only a mistake is called 'punching in', and most DAW software have features to help you do this.
Dynamic range compression
Dynamic range refers to the difference in volume between the quietest and loudest parts of a performance. It is an important part of musical expression, but the dynamic range of a lot of ocarinas can be a bit extreme. They are considerably louder on their high notes than their low notes.
Dynamic range compression can be used to bring them into balance. It is basically an automatic volume knob that turns down louder sounds to bring them into balance with the quiet ones. Note that 'compression' in this context has nothing to do with reducing the size of the final audio file.
Exactly how you would apply compression depends on the software that you choose to use. For example, the compressor in Reaper looks like this:
The key things in this interface are the 'threshold', which specifies the volume above which the compressor will turn down the volume, and 'ratio', which specifies how much the volume should be turned down. For example, a ratio of 2:1 will scale the volume by half, proportional to how much the the threshold was exceeded. The red meter to the right visualises this.
Equalisation provides a means of modifying the loudness of different frequency ranges of your recording. For recordings of ocarinas it can be used to do a few things:
- Remove low-frequency rumble.
- Compensate for microphones that boost high frequencies.
- Reduce the airiness of an ocarina.
I find Reaper's equaliser 'ReaFIR' useful as it allows you to draw arbitrary curves, and visualises the frequency graph of the playing audio in real time.
Such an equaliser can be used to notch and adjust the volume of an ocarina's individual notes. For example, boost the fundamentals of an ocarina's low notes to better balance with the high notes, or boost the fundamentals of the high notes to reduce their perceived airiness.
Getting a good recording from an ocarina isn't that difficult. Just remember to:
- Always get the best microphone you can afford.
- Pay attention to where you position your microphone.
- Choose a microphone with a flat response, or cut the high range a little with an equaliser.
- Acoustic treatment is essential as the sound of an ocarina is affected by comb filtering.
- Eliminate background noises at the source if possible.