Do you record your bagpipe practices and/or performances? Recording is essential for the musician. Not doing so is kind of like a painter finishing a canvas and then burning it after the last brush stroke, never to see it again. Why would you do that?
Any serious piper will spend the dollars to buy the best drone reeds, the finest pipe bag, the best instruction (like Dojo U!) or the best pipe chanter they can afford. Your sound is worth it. Recording the results of your work should be given the same consideration.
There is no question that as you progress in your piping development, recordings of your playing become an increasingly valuable tool toward that progress. There have been many discussions about the benefit of recording your bagpipe practice as well as your performances here at Dojo U (see "Take Action" below). I would gamble to say that there is not a single professional or serious amateur musician who does not record themselves for evaluation purposes. Why should bagpipers be any different? We make music. Music is heard. Capturing those sounds is essential to the making of the musician.
So where do you start? Do you just flip on your iPhone and have at it? Not so much. Highland bagpipes, after all, are not like violins, guitars, or pianos. The average decibel coming off of a stand of pipes can wreak havoc with just about any microphone. Distortion, feedback, limited range capture, all of these are features of substandard recording and do not provide the benefit we are looking for.
Below is a list of suitable digital recorders that seems to be the favorites of musicians everywhere. Many pipers on the Dojo U Exchange Facebook group (including yours truly) are partial to the Zoom line of recorders. Zoom products have all of the features needed for “big and loud” acoustic recording. If anyone has actual bagpipe experience with the others, feel free to comment or send a message.
Many considerations of features come into play when choosing a recording device for your bagpiping. Those considerations will eliminate a broad range of recording products unfortunately. Generally, the price tag of the device is an indication of quality and features, as well as the control you have over those features. “You get what you pay for,” is an adage to keep in mind. The device should be able to record up to a 96kHz limit. Microphone quality is key. Multiple, directional mics help capture a full range of bagpipe sound. The microphone should have adjustable attenuation and gain, or a built in pre-amp. The device should have USB connectivity and SD card expansion if possible.
With this in mind, let’s have a look at some reasonably priced equipment for the Highland bagpiper.
iPhone With a Plug-In Mic
An iPhone is, today, a ubiquitous device that is nearly, if not always on hand. It would make sense that it can be used as a portable recording device, if only the built-in microphone and storage weren’t so lame. The iPhone though can rival the standalone recorders when equipped properly with a plug-in microphone such as the Zoom iQ series. The Zoom iQ5 is an affordable option with automatic limiting and gain control. The higher end Zoom iQ7 has more adjustable features and directional mics with greater width of coverage. The iQ7’s directional coverage make it ideal for capturing the full range of bagpipe/drone sound. The Zoom iQ7 also has a headphone jack for simultaneous monitoring of recording quality. Outfit your iPhone with Zoom’s Handy Recorder app or the inexpensive StudioMini app and you will be ready for all recording situations. The upside to this setup is that you can also take excellent-sounding piping video. All those files though, get large. Make sure you’re saving your files to external cloud storage such as iCloud or Dropbox. Another option favored by musicians is the Tascam iM2. The iM2 has all the functionality and control one needs for a plug-in iPhone mic and the price out in the wild can be fairly low. There is a reason for the low price though. Just be aware that Tascam has discontinued the product and has no replacement or update. If you grab one of these, just know that it is the last one you will ever get.
The Zoom H2n
The Zoom line of portable digital recorders get consistently great reviews from musicians, studio techs, videographers, and the like. The Zoom microphones boast great coverage, automatic attenuation and adjustable gain. You can get right up close to a set of bagpipes and still get a clean undistorted result. The Zoom H2 Handy Recorder has almost become a popular standard in the piper’s kit. A great all around recorder that provides high-quality recording and excellent digital files. This older model, though, has been discontinued and replaced by the the Zoom H2n. Zoom has piled on a load of great added features on the H2n such as surround-sound and mid-side mic range for greater coverage. A complaint about the Zoom H2 has always been its short battery life. The H2n takes care of that with 20 hours of recording on two AA batteries. The updated device also has the capability of using large SD storage. All the control the piper needs is packed into this inexpensive device such as control over file formats and some on-board editing capabilities. Final results are as close to professional-level quality as you’ll get. A great all-around device.
The Roland R-05
Like the Zoom, the Roland R-05 seems to be a preferred device among musicians. Portability, ease of use, long battery life and big storage are all features of this affordable recorder. Recording can be done in WAV or MP3 at multiple levels of quality. The unit does not feature a tripod insert nor does it have adjustable mic gain beyond “high” or “low” but it does have automatic compression limiting and automatic attenuation. It is very skinny and built for portability. Definitely not as bulky as the Zoom H2n, it can easily fit in one’s pipe case, pocket or sporran for recording on the go.
The Sony PCMM10
A more expensive option that is enjoyed by musicians and media professionals alike is the Sony PCMM10. Built to be a standalone recorder for professional use, it has 4GB of on-board storage (with microSD expansion) and is slim and compact. Recording quality gets rave reviews and seems to have greater depth and clarity than some of the other popular devices like the Zoom H2 and H4. The stereo microphones have adjustable settings but, while excellent, there are only two, and they are non-directional. They also have excellent sensitivity which makes it great for media professionals and post-production, but might limit the device’s use for closed-room, Highland bagpipe recording without some extra gear. If you’re inclined to tinker with your audio to create some special final recordings, this device just might fit the bill.