Session Notes from a Problem Space

So you're stuck with a venue

Those of us who occasionally record classical music have fewer and fewer places we can use.  There's always traffic or air conditioning or something else that interferes with the delicate dynamic we're trying to capture.  We often find ourselves at universities.  I was recently asked to record a couple of piano pieces (composed by good friend Steve Roens) at a hall on campus at the University of Utah.  The pianist was Jason Hardink, pianist of the Utah Symphony and the director of another music group in Salt Lake City. Great pianist, great composer, but a problem hall.

Here's a picture taken while setting up.  It's a beautiful room to look at, but after dozens of concerts I've yet to find a good seat.  The problem should be almost immediately obvious.  The back wall is completely flat and reflections come right back at the listeners.  The sidewalls aren't much better. A little back-of-the envelope calculation shows that you'll get a severe backslap at around 40 ms or so.  It almost completely destroys any sense of locality and plays havoc with low frequency response.

Libby Gardner Hall at the University of Utah

Libby Gardner Hall at the University of Utah

My first inclination would be to mic it tight and eliminate as much of the room as possible.  In this case it wasn't an option.  These two pieces were intended for an album that had already been recorded in this space. So I had to capture the basic tone of the room without catching the worst of the backslap.  Here's what I did:

Rotate everything 45 Degrees

Basic 4-mic setup

Basic 4-mic setup

You can see that I'm using two pairs of mics.  The mics capturing the piano in the room are Neumann KM-140s (ORTF), and you can see that they're aimed diagonally across the space.  The energy coming off the back walls is not coming back to the mics (at least until it rattles around the hall a while). The pieces are complex with much careful articulation, so I've also got an M/S pair of AKG 414XLS as spots.

Do you want it to sound like a session or a concert?

After discussion with the composer, we decided we wanted an audience perspective rather than a pianist's perspective.  If we'd been doing a whole album of piano music, I'd probably have gone for a stronger left-right stereo image. This placement of spot mics gives a nice sense of space without pegging specific notes to specific locations.

Spot mic placement

Spot mic placement

It worked out nicely.  We got the sense of the room, with just a little more crispness because of the spots.  I added a little PhoenixVerb to the spots, and time-aligned them with the main mics.  You can hear a little bit of the result right here:


The last shot is Jason Hardink between takes. The piano is a 9' New York Steinway.  We had a nice choice between a Hamburg and a New York Steinway, but I think this sort of music always sounds better on the American instrument.

Jason Hardink

Jason Hardink

What's to learn from these notes?  It's simply to move the instruments and mics as needed.  I wouldn't have chosen the room, but it turns out that simple relocation of mics and instruments can make a really positive difference.