Wednesday 26 January 2022

Baritone & recording engineer Jan Capinski introduces his new course, Recording Basics for singers

The baritone Jan Capinski has a parallel career as a recording engineer, which put him in an ideal position to know about the needs of singers when it comes to producing recordings. His latest project is to give singers the knowledge they need to do recordings themselves. Here Jan introduces his Recording Basics course.

Demo recordings were an important part of opera singers’ lives even before the pandemic. Now, with travel being far less straightforward than in the past, and opera companies looking to save costs and minimise covid-related risk wherever possible, having a portfolio of recorded content is often the first step to being granted an audition. For some competitions, programmes, and even jobs, the only thing taken into consideration is an audio or video submission. 

This has several implications for singers. Maintaining an up-to-date set of professional demos is key. This is quite a costly endeavour, though, and likely to be a barrier to entry for some (though the hope is that these recordings might offset some other costs, like travel and accommodation). Sometimes they’ll be asked to submit recordings of very specific repertoire, which may fall outside their core set of audition and demo pieces. This is often the case for competitions, young artist programmes, and sometimes if a company is looking to cast an opera, they’ll ask for audition tapes of arias from that piece. The prospect of arranging a professional recording session every time this situation arises is financially unrealistic for many singers.

Luckily, recording equipment is cheaper than ever. Modern smartphones are quite capable video cameras, and companies such as Zoom produce affordable audio recorders capable of delivering respectable results, given a bit of skill. It’s the skill in using these devices where I see a huge gap in singers’ education. Microphone technique and audio editing weren’t taught when I was in music college. In some colleges you can do a music tech module, but this is often recording-studio-based and not easily translatable to the realities of recording audition tapes for classically trained singers in real world environments. 

Basically, no one is teaching singers how to record themselves with equipment they can afford, in places that are appropriate and accessible to them. 

This is what I have set out to do with my Recording Basics course. It’s a series of videos designed to give singers the knowledge needed to get the best out of a Zoom recorder. It goes beyond that, though, exploring the basics of audio production more comprehensively than a simple ‘how to’ video, the idea being to educate performers in what it is a recording engineer does, so that they can engage in the process and have an informed dialogue with whomever is producing their recordings. The goal is to improve both self-produced recordings and the professional ones.

To that end, the course is divided into three main parts, as well as several case study videos showing the editing/post-production process. The 'Theory and Equipment’ video describes the tools and terms used in recording. There’s an extended microphone comparison section, with recordings made with a selection of mics ranging from affordable to boutique. I also explain the most often used stereo recording techniques, complete with audio examples. It also covers the importance of proper monitoring, the settings that affect the final quality of a recording, and the elements of the signal chain.

We then go on to ’The Recording Session’, which is a video that discusses acoustics, microphone placement, performer placement, setting gain, running a soundcheck, and more. This chapter is also full of audio examples produced specifically for this course, illustrating the relevant points. 

The final core video is ‘Post-production’, which is software-based. It demonstrates how to use a Digital Audio Workstation and the tools therein, with the goal of shaping the raw recorded sound into one that more closely resembles a real performance. I introduce powerful tools such as EQ, reverb, and the comprehensive editing options available in a DAW.

All of this is designed to give singers more control over the results they can get, be that on their own with a Zoom recorder, or in partnership with a professional producer.

Full details of the Recording Basics course from Capinski Recordings website.

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