What’s In My Cello Case

***This article was originally written for the D'Addario Orchestral Behind The Bridge Blog.

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When I’m out and about with my cello, there are a few key items that I almost always carry with me either in my case or bag. This is the checklist that I follow to make sure that I’m prepared for whichever musical activity I’m participating in.

  1. Cello and Bow – These two items are the most important of my essentials and are the first things that I check for before I leave home. I’ve never forgotten my cello before, but I have left my bow behind when I forgot to double check my practice stand. As a professional, that’s the type of mistake that I can’t afford to make anymore, but it does make me laugh now to remember how horrified I was to open my case right before a school concert to realize my bow was missing. Luckily, I was able to find a violinist who had a bow to spare.
  2. Tuner / Metronome – I like to use the tuner and metronome that are combined into one device. It’s more convenient and gives me one less thing to worry about packing. I use the tuner for my solo gigs and for tuning up my cello students. The metronome is a great practice tool for myself as well as my students during their lessons.
  3. Rosin – I use rosin on my bow every time I practice or perform. I find that a properly rosined bow makes things so much easier on my bowing arm because I don’t have to bear down as hard to get the sound quality that I want.
  4. Rockstop – Cellists and upright bass players need to use a rockstop to anchor their instruments so that they’re not sliding all over the floor while playing. I’ve used both disk rockstops and those with adjustable straps. I prefer the latter type because disk rockstops tend to lose their grip over time while the strap rockstop lasts forever since all you need is a chair leg to secure it.
  5. Pencils – From my early years of playing in orchestra, it was ingrained in my head that it’s considered unprofessional to write on your music in pen. That’s why I carry plenty of pencils for myself and others.
  6. Cloth – I use a clean, soft cloth to wipe the rosin and fingerprints from my instrument and bow when I’m finished playing. Removing rosin buildup and oils transferred from my fingers helps to preserve the varnish.
  7. Spare strings – Hopefully, you will never find yourself in a situation where one of your stings pops or fails at an inopportune moment, but it has happened to me one too many times for me not to be prepared now. What I sometimes do is install a new set of strings and then keep the old strings as my backups.
  8. Mute – I always keep my plastic mute handy in the event that my music or performance venue calls for it. I was really surprised when I was asked to tone it down at a wedding where I was hired to play on solo cello. The wedding planner had me positioned on a 2nd floor landing overlooking the cocktail hour below, and apparently, I was drowning out the party.
  9. Technical Etudes & Exercises – Since I don’t have a lot of down time to practice these days, I always keep my Popper Etudes and Feuillard exercise book with me so that when I do get a break, I can work on some technical exercises to keep my fingers sharp.
  10. Post-it Notes – I keep sticky notes around just in case I have to mark a passage that I want to look at later or if I have a very last minute set change that I need to remind myself of.
  11. Paper Clamps – During the spring and summer months, I get quite a few requests to play for outdoor weddings. When playing outside, I add some weight to my sheet music by placing the individual pages in the plastic sheet protectors, but sometimes that’s not enough if there’s a lot of wind. That’s when I pull out my paper clamps to hold my music down.
  12. Gig Book – This is just my black 3-ring binder that I use to organize my music for my gigs. After my clients decide on a playlist, I put everything in playing order in my binder so that I can move easily from song to song.
  13. Motivational Stickers – I keep stickers in my bag for my youngest cello and piano students. This is their reward for successfully completing their assignments and practice charts. It makes them feel great and keeps them motivated to continue practicing.

Choosing & Placing Your Microphone

***I originally wrote this article for D’Addario’s Orchestral Behind The Bridge blog.  Please click here to view the original article.***

There are essentially three types of microphones: dynamic, condenser and ribbon. In my opinion, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong type to use depending on the sound you’re trying to achieve, but there are some best use scenarios for which each microphone type is better suited.

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Dynamic microphones are more ruggedly designed which is why they tend to be heavier in weight. Electricity is generated within the microphone when sound waves cause the thin metallic diaphragm and attached wire coil to move inside of the permanent magnet that surrounds the wire coil in its magnetic field (see Figure 1). Electricity from the power company is generated in a similar way (minus the sound waves). Since the dynamic mic has its own electricity source, I don’t have to turn on my audio interface’s phantom power switch which would allow voltage to be sent through a microphone cable to operate the microphone. Because the inner components of the dynamic mic are heavier in comparison to others, this microphone type has limited high frequency response which would be a disadvantage for higher pitched instruments. The cello’s fundamental and harmonic sound wave frequencies fall within the audio spectrum range of the dynamic microphone, so I wouldn’t have a problem using one if I’m playing on cello. The most common uses of dynamic mics are for guitars, snare drums, sound reinforcement, and voiceovers.

Condenser microphones are my personal preference for everything I do from recordings to small performances where I set up my own PA system. This type of microphone has the widest frequency range which makes it a good option for recording acoustic instruments, string sections, cymbals, and vocals. Condensers use two electrically charged plates instead of moving a wire coil through a magnet. This means that they can respond faster to sound waves than a dynamic mic, have better high frequency response, and can capture the quick attack of certain instruments such as drums. I do have to make sure that my phantom power switch on my audio interface is always turned on when recording or miking with a condenser mic or no input audio signal will register.

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Figure 2.

Ribbon microphones are the most fragile and have a relatively weaker output signal even though they can sound great when used properly. Instead of using a heavy wire coil like the dynamic mic, ribbon microphones use an extremely thin sliver of metal foil as a diaphragm. As a result of this design, you will get a fabulous high frequency response because the thin foil will move very quickly in response to acoustic sound. This thin foil design is also the reason why the output signal for any audio input level will be weaker than with the other types of microphones. In my opinion, this type of microphone shouldn’t be used in a manner where a sudden blast of air from an instrument or vocal could damage the thin and fragile foil ribbon. A ribbon mic may be a good option for an instrument that sounds brash when recorded using other microphones such as a piano or violin.

After deciding which microphone you want to buy or use, it’s always a good idea to learn how to properly place it for your recording or live show. Below are the ‘Five Secrets of Mic Placement’ from the renowned audio engineer Bobby Owsinski. I came across this list some time ago and refer back to it often:

  1. Stand in front of the instrument being played and listen. Listen for tonal balance and how the room responds to it.
  2. Use your hands and ears to simulate various microphone pickup patterns. See diagram below – the pickup pattern should be stamped somewhere on your microphone. When you find the spot that sounds the best, that’s where you want to place the mic as a starting point.
    • For omni placement, cover one ear and listen with the other.
    • For cardioid placement, cover one ear and cup your hand behind the other to listen.
    • For “stereo” placement or a stereo pair, cup your hands behind both ears and listen. One common way to record in stereo is to place 2 cardioid microphones at a 90 degree angle pointing in the direction of your instrument. You can also use this listening technique for a built-in stereo pair of microphones on a device such as the Zoom H4n.imageFigure 3.
  3. You can’t place a mic by sight.
  4. Try changing mic position instead of changing EQ.
  5. Give a mic some distance. Distance creates depth. When recording, I will sometimes double mic my cello with one right at the bridge for clarity of sound and the other a feet away to capture the depth of the room. In my previous article, I mentioned that I had to set up an aggregate device to be able to record myself using my 2 different types of microphones. My mini condenser mic that has to be connected to the audio interface is the one that I position right by the bridge of my cello because it doesn’t pick up sound very well at far distances. My USB Apogee MiC is the one that I place approximately 1-2 feet directly in front of me so that I can capture the sound waves after they’ve had a chance to blossom a little bit.

Please note that neither myself nor D’Addario is a definitive authority on this topic. This is meant to be an informational article for those who are novices in this area.

ASO Instrument Petting Zoo

I spent my Valentine’s Day with two of the things that I love – music & children!  The Atlanta Symphony had a family fun day which included an instrument petting zoo for the kids to sample the various brass, woodwind and string instruments in the orchestra.  The lady who actually plays the flute switched instruments with me so I got to demonstrate the flute and trombone instead of the cello.  This made for a very interesting day since I don’t play either the flute or trombone unless I’m using my MIDI keyboard to play these instruments through software on my computer.  A fun time was definitely had by all, and I’m looking forward to participating in the next instrument petting zoo!  Please enjoy the event photos below provided courtesy of Beth Sullivan from the Atlanta Symphony Associates.