Monthly Archives: July 2013

Understanding Microphones

There are so many different microphones on the market. If you’re setting up a home studio or want something to gig with then you’re going to need some knowledge before you make what could be a costly mistake.

As a vocalist, the two types of microphone that I use regularly are
– a dynamic microphone (Shure SM58)
– a condenser microphone (Samson C01)

All microphones are designed to take sound and convert it into an electrical signal. Devices that change energy from one form to another are called transducers. The different types of microphone convert the sound energy different ways. We don’t need to know the physics behind each type but we do need to know their strengths and weaknesses to be able to make the right decision.

Terminology

Frequency Response
The human ear can hear sounds with frequencies between 20Hz (20 oscillations per second) and 20,000Hz. High frequency sounds are experienced as high notes and low frequencies are low notes. Each microphone has a chart showing its sensitivity at each frequency across the audible range, this is the frequency response. If you want your microphone to reproduce the audio input as closely as possible then you will want a flat frequency response microphone. If you want to use your microphone primarily for vocals then a tailored frequency response would be beneficial. Those designed for vocals will be more sensitive across the frequencies of the voice.

Polar Pattern
Microphones are more sensitive in certain directions. The polar pattern of a microphone shows you these preferred directions.

Phantom Power
Some microphones require additional external power in order to function. We call this phantom power (48V) and it needs to be provided by your mixer or audio interface. Those that do will have a switch where you can turn this power on or off as needed.

My Microphones

Shure SM58 (cardioid dynamic microphone)
This has a cardioid or directional polar pattern. This means that it is most sensitive to sounds directly in front of the microphone, and least sensitive at the back. For this reason it is useful on stage for vocalists as it won’t pick up the monitors or crowd noise in front of the singer and is less likely to cause feedback with the monitors. It also has a frequency response tailored to vocalists. It’s sensitivity is greater across the frequencies created by the voice. I mostly use this microphone on stage for vocals. It’s also pretty durable. You can drop it and it doesn’t seem to mind! Dynamic microphones don’t require phantom power.

Samson C01 (large diaphragm condenser microphone)
This has a hyper-cardioid polar pattern. This is similar to the cardioid pattern for the dynamic microphone. The difference is it doesn’t totally block the sound at the back. It picks it up, although not as strongly as at the front. It’s frequency response is designed to pick up multiple instruments and more accurately reproduces what it hears. It can still be used for vocals, but not on stage as it will pick up the monitors and other room noises and can create a feedback loop. If you do use them on stage to amplify drums then you will need to be careful not to feed the signal through the monitors. I use this microphone in the studio to record vocals and piano. Condenser microphones require phantom power.

Samson C01U (USB condenser microphone)
I have one more microphone that I use regularly which is a condenser microphone that doesn’t require separate phantom power. That is a USB condenser microphone. The model I use is the Samson C01U. It works in the same way as my C01 except instead of plugging into an audio interface or mixer, it plugs straight into your USB port. Levels have to be set on your computer but otherwise it works the same. The advantages of this are there is less noise in your signal because there are less connections and shorter wires. However watch out! Make sure you plug it into a high voltage USB port. I had no idea that the different ports on my laptop provided different powers and was upset my microphone seemed to be so quiet. After experimenting with the different ports I found that one of them works much better and gives me a stronger signal.

Summary

Cardioid Dynamic Microphones
Good for – vocals, stage work, durability, less feedback, no external power needed
Bad for – atmosphere, distant sounds, accuracy

Condenser Microphones
Good for – multiple instruments, studio work, accuracy
Bad for – needing external power, stage work, feedback, fragility

Buying a digital piano or keyboard for beginners

When your child (or yourself for that matter) decides to have piano lessons the first question is going to be which instrument to buy. I can understand the reluctance to spend the money if you aren’t really sure if they will like lessons or not.  However on the other hand if they don’t have something to practise on, they won’t really get the most out of their lessons and won’t be able to judge effectively!

The different types of instrument

Pianos and keyboards are two different instruments.  They require the development of different skills and there are separate examinations for each one.  However initially all my students start learning piano because so many of the skills are the same.  If a child decides to move to electronic keyboard lessons then they would need to have an electronic keyboard to practise on.  However, a piano student can still manage with an electronic keyboard to start with.

Acoustic Pianos

  • the sound is created when hammers strike strings in the body of the instrument
  • they need regular tuning (the recommendation is twice a year costing £50+ per time)
  • they are large and heavy
  • you can buy new or second hand
  • prices vary, especially for second hand instruments
  • can’t use headphones or adjust the volume

Digital Pianos

  • they will need to be near a power supply (some smaller ones can take batteries)
  • some are portable but the more expensive models try to look like acoustics
  • sound is synthesized by a computer inside the instrument
  • the quality of the sound varies depending on the model
  • the “feel” of the keys varies depending on the model
  • you can practise using headphones or adjust the volume
  • they often have different “sounds” and other options like recording

Electronic Keyboards

  • the cheapest and smallest option
  • they are portable so easier to play with friends
  • keys can feel light and cheap compared to pianos
  • sound is synthesized and can have hundreds of different “sounds” and sound effects
  • they come with inbuilt rhythms and accompaniments to play with
  • you can practise using headphones or adjust the volume
  • essential if the student wishes to study electronic keyboard
  • serious piano students will need to upgrade after a year or so

Minimum requirements for effective learning

  • Size: Right from the first lesson we will be playing up and down the keyboard. We don’t need 88 keys like a full size piano but we will want enough to be able to sense the difference between very high and very low pitches (sounds).  You can get keyboards with as few as 49 keys but I would recommend 61 or more
  • Polyphony: Your child will be playing several keys together to create chords, this is called polyphony.  Your instrument will need to have some level of polyphony.  At least 8 tone polyphony
  • Key size: You may think that your child’s hands are very small so a keyboard with mini keys might be fine. However this will cause problems as lessons will be on full size keys. It’s better to learn and practice on full size keys
  • Touch sensitive: One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning the piano is playing loud sounds and soft sounds. Your child’s instrument should have touch sensitivity.  This means that if the key is struck with more force then the sound produced is louder

Examples of entry level electronic keyboards and digital pianos
Some will need you to purchase music rests, stands and power supplies in addition so watch out

Casio CTK-3200 (RRP £149.99) – Electronic keyboard
Yamaha PSR-E323 (RRP £159.99) – Electronic keyboard
61 keys with 48-tone polyphony and touch sensitive – cheapest options that meet all my requirements above

Yamaha NP-31 (RRP £269.00) – Piano-style keyboard
76 keys with 32-tone polyphony and touch sensitive.  Not an electronic keyboard so has no rhythms etc and is styled like a digital piano. However the keys feel quite cheap. Although they are graded to give the impression that the lower keys are heavier than the higher keys.

Casio CDP-120 (RRP £349) – Digital piano
Yamaha P-35 (RRP £369) – Digital piano
Full size 88 keys with 48-tone polyphony and graded hammer action so the lower keys are heavier than the higher keys. A much more piano-like feel than anything mentioned in the keyboard section above. These pianos shouldn’t need upgrading as your child improves although of course that depends how serious you want to get!

Want to spend more?
Digital pianos at £500+ are usually much better instruments than those mentioned above.  You can get also get digital pianos with integrated stands which look more like acoustic pianos from about £600.  You can end up spending thousands if you’re inclined to but it really isn’t necessary, especially for a beginner. My own digital piano was £1600 (Roland HP-107e) and I can’t fault it.

Want an acoustic?
I’m no expert on these because each individual piano is unique.  I would expect to have to pay £2000 for a new entry-level acoustic piano but there are some much better deals in the second hand market. Getting the opinion of an independent technician can help you find a piano that sounds better, is nicer to play and lasts longer than a cheap new one.

Height of keys and stool
Don’t forget the height of the piano and stool is important too.  It will hinder progress if you are using a keyboard on a bed, floor or dining table.  Ideally it will be on a keyboard stand (if it’s not free standing) and you will have a stool at the correct height.  Some stools are adjustable but if not, then cushions or telephone directories can help with smaller students.

Pedals
Sustain pedals are great fun and if your instrument has one then we will play with it.  If not, it’s not a problem.  They can be bought fairly cheaply later and plugged into the back of electronic and digital instruments.  It will be over a year before you will need it for real though.

Final advice
Make sure you try before you buy.  And try yourself.  The salesman will want to wow you with his amazing piano skills but at the end of the day it’s you and your family who will be playing it.  Remember to look at second hand models.  Many on ebay have hardly been played! Let’s hope that the one you end up buying gets played and played for many years.

Good luck on your new piano adventure!

Even Better Note Reading Practice

Back in March I blogged here about a great site by Ricci Adams for note reading practice.

You can create note reading games and send them to your students.  They can play them on their pc at home (actually they have iphone apps too but I haven’t looked into these – since I don’t actually have an iphone!!).  You can tailor them to the student by selecting the note range they are practising and there’s no mindless copying of exercises – each one needs the student to engage their brain!!

Well Ricci has recently updated her site and you can now customise your exercises in far more detail.

http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/customize

Customisation options

  • choose treble clef, bass clef or other clefs but instead of the “both” option the students can see the grand staff which is a lot easier and more realistic for pianists
  • choose the range of notes to test
  • choose to limit to line notes or space notes.  This is great for students just encountering the higher and lower notes as spaces and training FACE or All Cows Eat Grass.  Not all my students use these acronyms but those who do can find it difficult to identify the “in-between” notes and now you can separate the two
  • opt to have the FACE and ACEG notes labelled to help beginner students
  • choose the key signature for more advanced students
  • choose letter names, scale degrees or solfa
  • choose whether the next question is immediate or needs selecting.  Great in the lesson if you want to discuss the answer
  • opt to hear the note sound, which is great for sight singing practise

All these choices enable much more flexibility and I’m thrilled with them.  I already use these games with my students but now I can better target the areas that need developing.

The students can play the games at home and then report back with their score.  I tried it with my son, age 6, and he kept on playing, and playing, and playing!  Well that can’t be bad can it!?

The website provides so much more than just note reading.  For beginners it can test them on their keyboard geography.  For more advanced students it can test key signatures, intervals, chords.  There are also aural tests for recognising chords, scales and intervals.  I think I’m going to be using this site over and over!

For the second time this year – thank you Ricci Adams.

%d bloggers like this: