On this channel I perform my piano improvisations at many beautiful locations throughout the magnificent American West. If you’re not already, follow our journey on YouTube! Like almost everything we do here at Improvised Journeys, making these videos is done on a tight budget. It took a lot of trial and error and research and hunting for deals to find a way to play music outside in the wild that would not only be cost effective, but would actually return a decent recording.
So here it is: a way to play and record music on electricity-powered instruments anywhere, no matter how wild and remote for the most reasonable budget we could swing…and the story of how we slowly got each item!
As you’ll find out, we like to spend as little as possible on gear, and relish the hunt of manifesting it in its own time, often with a great story. I know you gearheads might be twinging, but read on…
The instrument – for a keyboard player like myself, it really is difficult to go acoustic on a budget, unless you want to haul a grand piano out onto a cliff in the middle of Utah – like these guys. A decent keyboard can be purchased online on Craigslist if you are really looking for a deal, or just head to Amazon. For best recording quality and authentic sound, I look for full size digital pianos with touch sensitive, weighted keys – here is the newer model of what I currently use. – How I got this: this piano was actually given to me during my first job teaching piano to disabled children back in 2006. After a day of teaching, I was improvising (in my very beginning days!) on the Casio I had at the time. It was a tinny machine, and the keys thudded as they released and got stuck on quick passages, but it served me well. A group of parents and teachers that worked closely with the small gymnastics school that my mom had started this little business of her teaching art and me teaching piano with apparently heard me playing after teaching the classes and banded together to get me my first real digital piano.
Duracell power pack600 – after years (literally) of searching for the best way to power the piano remotely, this is what presented itself. It needs to charge on household electricity, but once powered up can last for hours and hours. Look at the specs and grab one (here) — How I got this: We had in our possession a keyboard bought a garage sale here in Boulder for $1. There were pennies rattling around inside and 10 years worth of dust. When cleaned up though, it worked–but with no sound unless plugged into an amp. A hard sell on Craigslist and not something I personally wanted to play. Also in our possession – a big ol’ yellow work radio purchased 1 week before at a garage sale up the road in Longmont, CO. Price $15. Two days later, I type in this Duracell pack into CL, something I’d done on and off for a year or so. It is a rare item and not generally something people get rid of apparently. But this time there was a hit. A pawn shop in Lakewood, CO for $120. Pawn shops deal though, we thought, so we drove 45 miles down to the rough part of town at 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, our favorite time of the entire week as self-employed people who live to set their own schedule. The battery is there, but it has a crack in it not mentioned in the ad. We talk him down to $80. Once he agrees, casually offer the prospect of a trade. “What do ya got?” he says. We bring in the piano. He plugs it in, looks it up, it isn’t worth much, maybe $40 to him. Then we bring in the work radio. “Will you take both of these, trade across the board for the battery?” “Yep…I can do that.” YESSSSSS! Done deal—$1 keyboard + $15 work radio + $10 gas = playing the piano in the wild for the first time! 😀
For those of you who aren’t as rigid as we are with your budget though, the GOAL ZERO is a solar recharging power system that can have broad reaching applications in all areas of road life— from charging laptops and phones, to running full on household electronics. They are a favorite with RVers and those who have more space for these large devices in their rigs. A dream we hope to manifest soon when we finally get a rig bigger than the Subaru! A smaller one more commensurate with what the Duracell provides can be found here.
Blue Yeti Mic – how to capture the sound. You need something more than a phone or a laptop. You need something that will be placed close to the sound if you are going to record acoustically and not through MIDI, the direct transfer of the sound from the keyboard to the computer program that is recording it. The Blue Yeti is a mic used primarily for podcasts and other vocal recordings, but for the price ($125-150) it is an excellent option for beginning to record music. Stick it on a stable mic stand and you are good to go! With this option you can get a more raw feel, capture things like birdsong in the recording (or the occasional truck passing if you are not careful), and though it can sound rough and amateur, it definitely does not sound like a studio recording was placed over a video of essentially “lip-synced” instrument playing in the outdoors, the way professional music videos are made of course. This was a primary goal for the Improvised Journeys sound. How I got this: Enter a rainy Dollar Tree parking lot in New Orleans 4 hours before the onset of a Tropical Storm. We had been in Houston visiting Lenara’s family and of course were checking Craigslist for the items we’ve been wanting. With this traveler’s mentality I of course had the filters set to include every “nearby” area the CL site could conceive. So, upon seeing this for $50 and a Yeti Roadie cooler in Baton Rouge for $100, we set out on I-10 on an impromptu trip to Florida, with some deals on two different kinds of “Yetis” in Louisiana along the way!
Audacity – free is free – a great download (here) that allows you to record your audio. How I got this: headed to Audacity’s website and downloaded it…
Camera – a phone can work if it is all you’ve got. These are our cameras (Nikon D3400 and GoPro Hero 6 Black – both very affordable in terms of cameras) Nikon D3400 – How I got this: wish there some epic story, but really just headed to Target. Got them to price match overstock.com, so saved $200! GoPro – How I got this: attended the grand opening of the Burbank REI – received 2 gift cards totalling $200, so a substantial sum towards that GoPro price tag.
Extension cord – we use this to keep the laptop out of the shot but still plugged into the mic. How I got this: Goodwill (Lafayette, CO) – 99 cents + tax
Tripod – head to Goodwill. They are almost always there for like $3-6. Just make sure the person who donated it didn’t keep the top piece that will have the attachment to screw into the camera. 90% of the ones we’ve seen there this is the case. How I got this: Garage sale in Longmont, CO – $3
Thule Rooftop Carrier – “the pod” that sits atop our car for transport of equipment. How I got this: got it lumped in with the financing and over 7 years it only added $3 to the payment.
Laptop – our current one barely runs Adobe – Get (this one) our dream for editing video on somewhat of a budget.
So here is our actual workflow when setting up to record
Get out the keyboard, laptop, and the rest of the recording gear. Keep your keyboard and its components in a keyboard case or repurpose an old snowboard bag like we did! (how I got this: garage sale in Boulder for $6)
Hook the keyboard to its power source, adjust to a good volume, and then do a test recording on Audacity. Each time you set up you will have adjust the recording volume on Audacity and the external acoustic volume on your instrument, as well as the gain on the microphone, until you find the right balance where it records loud enough to be passable as an acoustic recording but not so loud as to cause undo distortion when you hit crescendos. Be sure to play very softly and then very loudly in the test recording so you can see the range of what your recording is sounding like. Our first time out, I hit on a great melody, only to listen to the 8 minute recording and find out the whole center section was screeching because the gain was turned up too high.
Set up the camera on the tripod and adjust the focus so it will not go in and out if you move slightly throughout the recording.
Set Audacity to record – and begin with a count down or clap, something you can hear on the recording and also see in the visual, very necessary to line everything up in post. If you have someone to assist you, start the visual and the audio recording simultaneously.
Play your piece
Shoot B-roll – it can spice up the video
Edit – combine the audio file with the visual – this can be done in the simplest of free video editing programs like MovieMaker or iMovie. No need to be a Premiere Pro whiz to be a musician!
It is the mission of Improvised Journeys to spread the beauty of the travel life and the creative life, so whether you want to take a video in your backyard or take your music on the road too, or you are just curious how we do it, this is the somewhat convoluted, somewhat noob, somewhat brilliant solution these budget travelers came up with! If you have suggestions about how you would power your music outside or any recording tips, we’d love to hear from you!
To Travel is to Live,
Nathaniel and Lenara