Every spring I am inundated with requests to help friends judge recorded rounds of competitions, and can I like to help out when I can. And at the end of my judging stint, I always vow to jot down some helpful suggestions for the poor contestants I hear, whose flawed recordings are secretly jeopardizing their chances for advancement. Now is the time when those recordings get made, and I am really hoping I hear nothing but crystal clear, completely decipherable performances next May! So, to all the future contestants out there...
Equipment. I know, I know, we spend so much money. But it's never been easier to find well-made equipment at an affordable price, or to comparison shop online for the deepest discounts. Do yourselves the favor of investing in something good now, and you'll be able to use it for a long time to come. I have loved my Zoom H4n stereo recorder for years, which records in both .mp3 and higher quality .wav formats, and it has been equally easy to use through computer changes and system upgrades. If you want to get fancy and use an external microphone, you can record up to four channels, but the built-in one has always worked for me. Likewise, Zoom's Q3HD will take both audio and video, together or separately, and you can control the quality level of both. I promise you, your phone/tablet/laptop is not doing you justice (unless you have a kick-ass external stereo mic and robust software).
Distance. Even good equipment sounds terrible when used poorly. Stand too close and there's a bunch of "junk" in the sound--juicy, airy extraneous noise from the air column splitting over the edge of the tone hole. Stand too far and you sound like you're playing from another room. Both are unflattering and make it hard to judge accurately what you sound like and what, specifically, you are playing. With a hand-held like the Zoom (above), start out standing about 5 feet from the machine, and place it slightly to your right if possible. More of the "junk" in the sound comes out the left side of the embouchure hole. But all of this is hypothetical until you do a proper...
Sound Check. If you're impatient like me, or nervous like I was as a novice recorder in my student days, you just want to hurry up and get it over with. But you are unlikely to have your recording levels and spacing right on the first try. The level of the mic, your distance, the acoustics in the room, all make a difference in your recorded sound. So, play your extremes--something high and loud (most likely to overload the mic), something quiet and low (least likely to be picked up), and be sure you're also testing your dynamic range with a clear crescendo and decrescendo to make sure the mic isn't mitigating out volume for you (this often happens when it's set to "auto"). When you find the spot and settings where everything you are trying to do is accurately communicated in the recording, write down all the details so you can recreate that setting. If you decide to come back and re-record things later, you won't have to reinvent the wheel.
Acoustics. Most competitions are strict about not editing tracks, and it's always good practice to avoid any questions about accuracy and truthfulness from the judges' panel. So, pick a room that sounds good--not too washy, but definitely not too dead, either. I want to hear clarity of articulation and technical passages with all of the partials present in your sound. Your bathtub may be too live, but your carpeted bedroom full of posters is most likely too dead (as are most practice rooms and teaching studios at U.S. colleges and conservatories). Get creative--try using a rehearsal room or small auditorium at your school after hours if you can get in, or even a neighborhood church that isn't too live. If you teach lessons at a public school, there may be a nice space the band director will let you use. Oddly, my kitchen is the best room in the house, acoustically speaking. And again, sound check, sound check, sound check.
Dead time. A little time before and after each track is good, but if I am waiting more than 60 seconds for your first note, I'm going to get impatient and start jumping around in the track. The Zoom H4n comes with a remote control that helps you control this, or you can get a friend to push "record" and "stop" for you if it's taking too long to get from the machine to your stand.
Page turns and other extraneous noises. It may sound petty, but shockingly loud page turns are distracting (I giggled through an entire recording last spring because someone's pianist was taking out his frustrations on the score every time he turned). Clicking heels draw my attention towards your inability to stand still when you play. Creaking floors, loud furnaces, etc., all distract from your playing. It's just human nature. A little noise is fine (and proof you recorded live!), but anything that really pops out at you is a problem.
Listen before submitting. Seriously, this should be a no-brainer. But when I hear tiny, far away flute, violent page turns, and a two minute lead (yes, really) before the start of a piece, I wonder if everyone is doing this. I get it--deadlines are surprisingly early, and it's tempting to wait until the last minute in the hopes that your dreaded trouble spot will be smoothed over. But don't rush yourself. You're spending hours and hours (and if you have to hire a pianist, dollars and dollars) to prepare this music to the best of your ability. You are competing to win, whether it's for a cash prize or a tenure-track job. So, it makes no sense to then take short cuts in the final step, which is the recording.Take the time to submit your best work, and make sure the listener can focus solely on your lovely playing, not how many times the air conditioning unit cycled during the Burton. Be a perfectionist. It's worth it.
Good luck to everyone this audition/competition/job application season, and have fun!