Reflection: Sound Reinforcement and Recording Techniques

This semester, I took a hybrid course through VanderCook College of Music called Sound Reinforcement and Recording Techniques. The course was three weeks long: two weeks of online build-up to an 8 hour day onsite at VanderCook with a one week follow-up. Our final assignment was to submit a reflection. Here is that prompt:

Please submit a brief (1-2 page) summary and reflection paper detailing what you've learned from taking this course, and how you plan to utilize the information in your particular teaching situation. Some points to address may include:

  • What misconceptions about live sound reinforcement and recording practices were cleared up for you?

  • Do you feel more comfortable approaching the purchase, set-up, and/or maintenance of sound equipment?

  • If needed, could you teach your students how to use mixers, microphones, amplifiers etc.?

  • What areas of live sound reinforcement would you like to explore deeper given the opportunity?

  • How has the knowledge you gained in this course changed your perceptions or appreciation of audio engineering professionals?

Prior to taking this course, my experience with sound reinforcement and recording was all trial-by-fire. In my first teaching job, we produced an annual musical (Seussical and The Wizard of Oz with a year off in between). I was responsible for sound design for both productions, using 16 wireless microphones across our leads and chorus members. I knew nothing other than some basic knowledge about gain, faders, and feedback going into both productions. Similarly, I was responsible for reinforcing the sound of our jazz bands and our front ensemble, as well as recording performances of our concert and marching bands throughout the year. It was expected that because I was a music teacher, I should know how all of the sound reinforcement and recording gear worked. Because of this prior “experience,” I have similar responsibilities at my current job: reinforcing and recording instrumental performances and rehearsals at a variety of different locations. I decided to take this course to gain a better understanding of what all of the components were doing to reinforce sound in our productions.

The biggest misconception I had going into this course was how gain worked. My incorrect understanding was that gain controlled the sensitivity of the microphone: increasing or decreasing the amount of sound coming in to the mixer. I visualized what I know understand to be the microphones pickup pattern “expanding” to encompass a greater area from which the microphone was pulling in sound as the gain increased. I now know that gain is the “pre-amplifier,” boosting the signal coming from the microphone into the mixer. We need this boosted signal so the mixer has a strong sound to reinforce.

After taking the course, I feel I have a much better understanding of the entire process of reinforcing/recording sound. I can properly select specific microphones tailored to the needs of the production based on their pickup pattern and specifications. I can connect the various components (microphones, instruments, speakers) to the mixer board in a logical way. I am able to properly set the mixer for the various inputs through gain, compression, and equalization. I can route the mixed sounds to proper destinations. I am also able to tweak recordings using tools like GarageBand. As a team, we are now looking at supplementing our existing equipment to better deal with different needs in terms of reinforcement, recording, mixing, and producing. There are a lot more opportunities we can offer our students!

To help reinforce my understanding, I took my professional learning community (five 6-12th grade instrumental music teachers and our building’s teacher-librarian) through a hands-on summary of our learning process using the equipment we have available in our rehearsal and performance halls. We reviewed the different microphones available, discussing their type and pickup pattern. Because each of us plays different instruments, we were able to make selections based on specific reinforcement needs. Each teacher setup their microphone and ran its cable to the mixing board. After my demonstration, each teacher properly set the gain, compression, and equalization for their colleagues’ microphones. We routed different mixes of sound to each teachers’ monitor speaker, using groupings for the drum set microphones. We also mixed the entire sound through the house speakers, as well as to a computer to record via USB.

I think the biggest thing I need now is practice working with this equipment in real settings. I want to setup and run live sound for my colleagues’ jazz bands. I want to record live performances at our media center’s Open Mic Night. I want to mix and produce recordings of my concert and jazz bands. All of this requires practice actually using the different skills and techniques modeled for us.

It is this practical application that makes me really appreciate what audio engineering professionals know and are able to do. Put someone in the live situation of reinforcing a production in a huge hall with all of that technology around them. They have to be constantly reacting to the sound they are hearing, making sure it is properly mixed as it moves through their system. Or to do it in a recording studio, where time is money, and having the proper mix while recording is crucial.

In my teaching situation, I now know how to adequately use the technology we have available to us in our rehearsal and performance halls. This can be used to reinforce sound during jazz band rehearsals and performances and to record performances of all our ensembles throughout the year. It can also be used to reinforce the sound of our front ensemble during marching band rehearsals and performances. I can use tools like GarageBand to demonstrate frequency, amplitude, and other aspects of sound in my Music Fundamentals course. I can also use what I have learned to benefit my colleagues at my school in helping with any sound reinforcement or recording they may need in our building. I feel well prepared to handle the different situations I know I will encounter in my job involving sound reinforcement and recording.

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Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.