Music in Nature

How I record piano music in nature – 2017 vs 2020

May 29, 2018

The 2017 Set-up is a bit bulky!

EDITED FOR 2020!

Back in 2017 I first attempted to record my piano music in nature. It was a very arduous process and required a lot of equipment! In 2020 technology has improved and so has my familiarity with what options are out there. So, I thought I would amend this old article with my current set-up and compare 2017 vs 2020

For my YouTube channel I create piano improvisations at many beautiful locations throughout the magnificent American West.

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Like almost everything 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.

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/digital piano 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 88 key digital pianos with touch sensitive, weighted keys – here is the newer model of what I used from 2006-2019

In 2019 a new lightweight full-size keyboard became available – Casio Privia PX-S1000!!! I cannot recommend this keyboard enough! It runs on batteries as an option, so that eliminates a huge obstacle to playing outside in remote areas where electricity would not be available. I no longer have to haul along a power source in order to set up and play

How I got the original piano – The Yamaha 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. A group of parents and teachers apparently heard me playing after teaching the classes and banded together to get me my first real digital piano.

Duracell power pack 600– external power source for household electricity

How I got this: We had in our possession a MIDI controller keyboard bought a garage sale here in Boulder for $1. There were pennies rattling around inside and 10 years worth of dust. Cleaned it up. It worked–but with no sound unless plugged into an amp. Not something I personally wanted to play. Also in the closet that week – a big yellow work radio purchased one week before at a garage sale up the road in Longmont. Price $15.

Two days later, I type in “Duracell power pack” into Craigslist, 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, Colorado for $120. Pawn shops deal though, 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 to be out.

The battery is there, but it has a crack in it not mentioned in the ad. “$80 then?” Once he agrees, I casually offer the prospect of a trade. “What do ya got?” he says. We bring in the MIDI controller. 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 = $26 to play the piano in the wild for the first time! 😀

That was 2017’s success story as early road-lifers that were on an EXTREME budget.

For 2020, as I said the new piano takes batteries and this whole thing seems kind of silly in retrospect. Since I am editing an old article to make this blog relevant for 2020 and beyond, I didn’t want to retract the whole story of how a set-up like this forms. Whether you are a musician, photographer, artist, athlete, whatever your passion may be, I think it is usually this kind of journey as your knowledge, your budget, and actual technology evolve over time.

Anyway, back to power sources. These can still be valuable and necessary as you begin budget road trips and longer stints on the road in a car, small van, whatever your rig may be. If the vehicle doesn’t have power, a stand alone small power source can really be helpful!

For those of you who aren’t as rigid with your budget though, the GOAL ZERO Yeti series 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.

Microphone – 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 out in nature. 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.

It definitely does not sound like a studio recording was placed over a video of a scene of an instrument playing in the outdoors. This is the way professional music videos are made of course. This rawness 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 deals on wishlist items. With the traveler’s mentality I of course had the filters set to include every “nearby” area the CL site could conceive. So, upon seeing the Blue Yeti mic for $50 and a Yeti Roadie 20 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!

2020 EDIT for Microphone – In 2020, the ease of set-up has taken precedence, as well as capturing a recording that will require little work done in post. Though the sound quality may be slightly less, I now use a Rode Mic that simply plugs into a phone or camera headphone jack and captures the audio and main video angle in one clip. There are several options that are quite inexpensive on Amazon. Click here to view these!

Audacity – Free Download to edit audio files – a great download (here) that allows you to record your audio and edit it.

Camera – a phone can work too!

2017 camera – Nikon D3400

2020 camera – Samsung S9+ and S10+ smartphones. After much research, we came to the conclusions that our phones were already better for capturing content than any camera we could buy for under $1000. So that is all we use as of late 2020.

GOAL CAMERA! – If you have the budget and are looking to do a mix of photo and video and overall content creation I cannot recommend enough the Sony A7III

How I got 2017 cameras:

Nikon D3400 – I wish there some epic story, but really just headed to Target. Got them to price match overstock.com, so saved $200. That is pretty epic actually come to think of it.

GoPro Hero 5 (2017) –  attended the grand opening of the Burbank REI – received 2 gift cards totaling $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 – Go to Goodwill. Tripods are almost always there for like $3-6. Just make sure the person who donated it didn’t keep the top piece with the attachment to screw into the camera bottom. 90% of the ones at thrift stores are missing this part.

How I got this: Garage sale in Longmont – $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 car financing and over 7 years it only added $3 to the payment.

2017 workflow

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. Do this 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. The 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!

2020 Workflow

After reading the 2017 version I am amazed at how things have simplified! The sound quality was amazing though with the old set-up; that is the only sacrifice with current minimalist set-up.

And of course the 2020 set up was far more expensive. If you read through the above section you saw it really only cost pennies to set up the 2017 arrangement.

NEW ITEMS FOR 2020

CASIO PX-S1000 – The new piano itself is a wonder! Battery option + smaller size. Listen to the sound quality here:

Rode Mic – discussed earlier as the microphone. Plugs directly in to camera and phone. No messy set-up here. Only downside, these are coveted by vloggers and hardly ever hit the secondhand market. A worthwhile purchase on Amazon.

Steps to record:

Set up the keyboard (with batteries) – so easy!

Mount camera or phone to tripod about 2-3 feet away from the piano with Rode Mic plugged in headphone jack.

Focus on subject – press record

2020 tech and dropping a few hundred $$$ and it’s that easy!

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, these are the solutions fellow budget travelers came up with. Whatever your budget may be, there are ways to make your dream happen!

If you have suggestions about how you would take music outside or any recording tips, love to hear from you!

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