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This Is My Music

by Clint Goss, January 12, 2012

This article appeared in Voice of the Wind, 2012, Volume 1.

One of the most useful tools we have as musicians is the ability to record and hear our own sound creations. The technology revolution has given us the ability to make high-quality recordings relatively conveniently and inexpensively.

Sometime during each of our Native Flute workshops, Vera and I offer this challenge to the group: commit to getting your music down on a CD. It’s the greatest gift you can give friends, family, and people who want to hear more of your music … a little CD package that essentially says: “This Is My Music”.

The benefits are enormous. Beyond having a heartfelt creation to offer as a gift or a calling card, the process of creating a CD can be so valuable for improving our musicality. We get to practice particular songs and focus on particular flutes, do some “deep listening” sessions during tracking and mixing, and experiment with graphic design to complete the package.

But despite these benefits, it can still be a daunting process to go from playing your flute to handing “This Is My Music” out to your friends. This article is an overview of some of the ways to get from music to recording.

One approach is to hire a producer who shares your vision, and place the project in his or her hands. The job of a producer is to coordinate and oversee every aspect of the project that is needed to bring the project to completion. This is the typical approach taken by larger record labels, and can work for musicians who have some significant finances behind the project.

If you don’t have a bountiful budget, there are many ways to approach the project, right down to recording and mixing your own project and burning CDs on your computer’s CD writer.

The first link in the recording of your sound is the microphone. One of the challenges of playing Native American flutes is that they are constructed so that we, as the player, are often in the worst location to hear our own sounds. The vibrations project from under the block and sound hole and finger holes out to our listeners better than they project back to our own ears. And one of the huge benefits of recording our sound is learning to work with this microphone.

Even if you intend to use a studio to record your music, it’s a good idea to learn to work with the microphone. A simple setup that routes the microphone back into your ears (via headphones) can let your hear the real sound of your flute for the first time. It might be as simple as connecting a microphone to your computer’s “Mic” port and ear buds to the speaker jack.

With this simple setup, you have added a lot of possibilities to your musical world. Not only can you hear your own flute playing clearly and get experience with how to use the microphone to control the volume and timbre of your sound, but you can record your playing as well as broadcast your music over the Internet. To record your own playing, you’ll need one of the many recording programs available. Audacity is a good (and free) choice, if you’re not daunted by the numerous features. For something simpler, just do a Web search for “simple recording software”.

If you’d like to get involved with other flute players, try some of the live, Internet-based audio chat rooms that function as high-tech open mic sessions. PalTalk is a free service that hosts a number of such sessions throughout the week (www.PalTalk.com). With the simple mic-and-headphones setup, you can join in and blast your live playing to all corners of the Earth.

Selecting a microphone for playing flute is always a challenge. There are many kinds and brands of microphones, and they can be confusing. The good news is that many brands of high quality microphones that are ideal for flute playing are available relatively inexpensively. You might begin with a simple all-purpose dynamic microphone such as the Shure SM-57 instrument mic, generally available for about $90. However, for more detailed recordings and a better overall sound, using a “large diaphragm condenser” microphone will get you noticeably better sound quality and recordings.

However, using a condenser microphone brings one added requirement: you have to supply power to condenser microphones. One easy way to accomplish this is to run your microphone into a small mixer and then run the output of the mixer into your computer on a USB or Firewire interface. Depending on your goals and finances, you can choose a mixer that has some added features (in addition to the “phantom power” needed for the condenser microphone):

  • the ability to add effects such as reverb and delay,
  • the ability to equalize the frequency of your sound by adjusting the balance of the high, middle, and low frequency components of the sound signal, and
  • the possibility of mixing in other instruments and/or background tracks that you can play over.  

Digital effects such as delay and reverb can add a whole new dimension to your flute playing, smoothing out any unwanted irregularities in your breath pressure and bringing you close to the sound that is typically heard on professionally mixed and mastered CDs. On the downside, digital effects can be over-used, making your sound muddy and distant. This is where deep listening over extended periods comes into play … finding just the right amount of each effect to add to get the sound you want. For my taste, the goal is to capture the ambiance of the natural environment you want your listeners to visualize. Each environment – a cathedral or a canyon or a concert hall – has its own sound reverberant profile that can be emulated with digital effects.
Getting practice on your own or during PalTalk sessions with how to set the EQ and effects can be a huge benefit during recording and mixing sessions.

Another possibility for recording is using one of the new portable digital recorders rather than a computer. These are inexpensive and can produce a great sound, especially if you use your external microphone and/or mixer. Vera and I have travelled with an older Zoom H4 to many great locations around the world and caught the sounds of many musicians and sound environments.

When you’re ready to record your music for posterity, you might consider getting someone else to handle the tasks of recording while you just play. This frees you from the angst of getting the best recording (or “tracking”) of your sound.

After recording, the project generally proceeds in stages toward completion: laying down other tracks that will become part of a song, mixing the tracks together (using mixing software such as Audacity), audio mastering of all mix tracks to polish the overall sound of the CD, pre-mastering of the CD image to add the meta-data that can be added to your project, graphic design and printing of the package, and duplication (using CD burner technology typical of computer CD writers) or replication (which is a larger-volume production process using a glass master).

For some people, the prospect of tackling all the tasks alone is too daunting. Many people have asked us to record during our weeklong workshops, and some of those people have even been able to record completed tracks for their CD project. This year, at Flute Haven, we’ve decided to take it a step further.

We’ve set up a separate Recording Program at Flute Haven 2012 designed for a small group of participants with the goal of creating their own production-quality CD. This involves learning-while-doing on all the aspects of the recording process: recording flute and other tracks to make complete songs, mixing those tracks, mastering. In addition, the resulting CD will be available commercially for sale and be submitted to major awards such as the Grammy awards.

So, whether you hire a producer, or undertake the process yourself, or join a program such as the Flute Haven Recording Program and record a complete CD, the important thing is that you get “This Is My Music” produced and out into the world.

Your audience awaits!

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