December 2020
Better Sound for Playing Along Virtually
by David Podeschi
It looks like the New Year will bring several more months of virtual chapter meetings and workshops. I just completed the Fall Texas Toot on Zoom, and while it is nothing like being together, it was excellent—and so nice to see all my friends.  

For a successful experience at a virtual chapter or workshop session there are several things you have to get right. First off, download the Zoom app, rather than running it from the Zoom website. Adjust the Zoom audio settings for music. Finally, improve your sound quality. That translates to finding good speakers or headphones. Zoom sessions aren’t valuable if you can’t hear the music.

Let’s get this out of the way: the built-in speakers in your computer aren’t going to cut it. Our quietest notes on our quiet instrument will drown out built-in computer speakers. You need a way to play the sound LOUDER without it becoming distorted or brittle. Fortunately, there are some modestly priced solutions.

I recommend external powered computer speakers. Speakers can either plug in to your computer or use bluetooth.
The simplest and most cost effective I’ve found are the Bose Companion 2 series III, $89 from Amazon or Best Buy. Everything you need, including wires, is in the box. They plug into AC for power and into the headphone jack or external speaker jack on your computer. They have a strong bass, powerful midrange, and a built-in amplifier with volume control. Translation: they will play loud enough for playing along on an online session. I wouldn’t call them audiophile, but they get the job done. You do need to make sure your computer has either a headphone or external speaker jack sized for a mini-plug.  

Other under $100 wired speaker options Presonus Eris E3.5 and Mackie CR3-X at Sweetwater. You'll need to buy the needed wires separately; Sweetwater will help with that selection. There are other speakers to choose from, but I can personally recommend the ones I've listed.

USB and Bluetooth speakers
If your computer has only USB plug-ins, there are USB speakers but they tend to be small and powered via the computer’s USB. Bluetooth speakers are another option and the Anker Soundcore Motion will play loud enough and will work with iPads and phones. If you go this route, make sure they will play loud enough and with enough range from bass to treble for play-along. Finally, it may be possible to use smart speakers you already have, such as the larger Alexa if you can link them to your zoom and playback source.  

The other option, and I sometimes do this for play-along sessions, is to use headphones. I mean old fashioned “on-ear” headphones, that rest on or around the ears, not in-ear earbud types. In-ear headphones can damage your hearing when set at the necessary volume. I recommend open-back headphones for play-along. They allow the sound from your recorder to reach your ears. Sealed on-ear headphones won’t work because they will block the sound of your own playing. 

Here are my recommendations for open-back on-ear headphones (although I repeat that speakers are the better option):
Grado Prestige series, any model. These are my first choice, far and away, because they use a soft foam surround that sits on-ear, is comfortable, and lets your playing sound through. I have Grado open back headphones and use them for play-along.

  • The Grado Prestige 60e is $79 at Amazon or Crutchfield.
  • The Grado Prestige 80e is $99 at Amazon or Crutchfield. 
  • Other open back headphones use a more traditional on-ear cushion that seals around the ear but then incorporate an open-back grill. This isn’t as effective at letting outside sound through.  
  • AKG K245 open back headphones $89.00 at Sweetwater. These have a more traditional on-ear surround like sealed kind, but with an open grill design.
  • Yamaha HPH 150P 99.99 Sweetwater
These models are supposed to include 3.5mm jacks and a 1/4” adapter. They will fit the usual 3.5mm computer plug-in or the 1/4” plug-in on an external audio interface. With the right Apple plug adapter, you can plug them into an iPad or iPhone.  
ARS Play-Along Library
ARS has a new play-along library for members that lets you join a virtual consort online. The music is available minus one part, allowing you to play along on any size recorder you choose. You will find: 
  • Lots of renaissance music
  • Difficulty levels from Very Easy through Challenging
  • Some pieces are live recordings by professional artists, and some are carefully synthesized with high-quality sounds and historic temperaments
  • It’s not just early music. Glen Shannon contributed play-along files for his Warmup Fugue, and Anthony St. Pierre has contributed dozens of live play-along recordings of his compositions
Slowing down recordings
One of the great things about playing along with a recording is that with the right software you can slow it down while learning the piece, without affecting pitch. Multitrack recording software like the free Audacity will slow down a recording. But recording software is more complex, and if all you want is slow-down there is the Amazing Slow Downer for $49.95, an app that you install and use. Another excellent and free option is Audio Speed Changer. ( This one is an easy to use website where you point to or upload the file, select by how much to slow it down, and it converts the file which you can then play from the website or download.

I hope you found this information useful! Please email me with any questions. I will help if I am able.
ARS Board President David Podeschi is an amateur recorder and guitar player who lives in Prosper, TX.
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