Tips for location classical recording

Although my day job has long been centered around building audio hardware and software, I've had many decades of experience recording classical concerts. If you're thinking about a full symphony recording with a major orchestra, that's not me.  I know a number of those elite engineers and I'm in awe of their talent.  Their mic lockers aren't too bad either.  I'm the guy scurrying around at a local concert, doing one last little mic tweak between the solo piano piece and the string quartet.

Although I recorded some of my rock bands way back in the day, I really began to record in music school--more out of necessity than career aspiration.  A TEAC 2300 reel-to-reel machine and a pair of cheap Sony EC-1 mics comprised my first kit.  Over the years the reel-to-reel gave way to a DAT and then to a succession of laptops.  The mics got better as well, although I can always think of one more that I'd like to have.

These days, I regularly record a couple of chamber music series and do the odd pickup job here and there.  I do it for the enjoyment and as a service to music I love.  I no longer ask for payment, so that's a big part of this topic that I won't be covering.  I am going to break it down into a number of areas that are worth considering.  I hope they'll be of use.

Planning

It's always a good idea to arrange a visit to the location beforehand.  Things to look for:

  • Where's the power? This determines where you're going to set up.  "Down front" may be the ideal spot for a FOH mixer, but you need to be out of the line of sight. You don't want to be the center of attention--that's for the musicians.  You also want to be far enough away that you hear what your mics are getting on your headphones.  Once it a while you'll be lucky enough to find a utility room where you can hide.
  • Do the outlets work? I've been surprised by dead outlets more than once.  Plug in a light or something and make sure it works.
  • Is there a table that you can use? You might need to plan on bringing something.
  • How do you get your stuff in and out and  how close can you park?
  • What's the instrumentation?  It might be a solo piano or a group with fixed instrumentation.  Or it might be a concert that goes from solo piano to string trio to clarinet and piano. This may have a big effect on how you plan to record and what mics you bring along.
  • What's the space like?  Notice that this isn't even the first item on the list. Take a guess on critical distance, overhangs, slap-backs, etc. This will determine whether you can use a traditional conservative mic placement or whether you'll have to get in tight. Concert venues are often chosen on the basis of affordability, availability and location. A great-sounding room just may not be in the budget. Deal with it and make your best recording plan.  Do not--DO NOT--make this an issue for the musicians. Let them focus on rehearsing and preparing for the best concert they can give.  I've been in horrible-sounding rooms that musicians love for whatever reason. There are ways around this problem and it's your job to figure it out.

Set-up

  • Dress properly.  Concert-goers dress more casually than they once did, but that doesn't mean you should show up in jeans and a tee. Be comfortable, but don't be a slob.  And--for goodness sake--make sure your trousers don't ride down when you're bending over making adjustments.  There's nothing to kill the mood of a concert like an clear view of the engineer's backside. Wear a belt.
  • Arrive early. Chances are pretty good that the players will be doing a last-minute rehearsal.  This will give you a chance to see how they're going to be placed.
  • Sight lines. This is a sensitive area. The musicians are aware that recording equipment isn't invisible. At the same time, the concert is primarily a live event and works best if the musicians and attendees can see each other without a forest of mic stands between them. I recently recorded a duo in an art gallery.  The first rows of seats were right on top of the musicians and there was simply no way I could demand that my mic stand should go in the best place. The only possible location was off to the side and demanded careful placement and selection of polar patterns. It's what it is, so you deal with it.
  • Rough placement. Get your mic stands in approximate location and make your last-minute mic choices.  Don't interrupt the rehearsal, but take advantage of down time to ask the musicians any placement questions you might have.  Let them sit where they're comfortable.  Don't suggest seating positions unless you're asked.
  • Cable runs. Determine where your mic cables can go. Be aware that the musicians may move chairs a bit from the rehearsal position, so don't place a cable where it will be pinched by a chair.  Also be aware that tripping over a cable doesn't make the musician or you look very good.  A decent snake can be a huge help.  You may be placing cables right in the middle of a rehearsal.  Act as invisible as you can--if you've ever been in a conservatory rehearsal area, you'll know that musicians can ignore a lot of ruckus.  If you get a concerned look, promise that the cables will be taped down.
  • Mic placement. If you do a lot of formal recording sessions, this one's going to kill you. Traditional conservative placement is pretty easy--a matched pair on a pole.  You have to pay attention to the basics--stay inside the critical distance (which may be surprisingly short in a small room)--be aware of overhangs and so on.  This placement is pretty forgiving and it's hard not to get an acceptable recording. The real issue is with spot mics.  You may know that the "best" mic position for a classical guitar is a 56" height, 21" away and aimed at the 17th fret.  That ain't gonna happen.  The guitarist (or cellist or flutist) is going to sit down, then scoot the seat to a different position and face the audience at a slightly different angle. Your plan is right out the window.  Spots can still be very important, but choose a more-generalized placement--something that will work even if the musicians move around a little.  You absolutely can not come up and move mics once they've taken the stage.
  • Your seating area.  If you've already been in the space, you've got a good idea where you're going be be.  Try not to be in the audience's sight lines.  Try not to be in an area where they may wish to sit.
  • Get levels.  You may or may not be quick enough to get levels during the rehearsal. If not, give yourself a few extra dB of headroom. You don't want to adjust your levels while you're in the middle of recording (unless it's too hot).  Most of the time, the first piece will be short and you can dial in better levels before the next piece begins.
  • Tape down those cables. You'll have some time after the last rehearsal, so be sure to tape the mic cables down.  There is no better tool than duct tape--for almost any purpose--so keep a giant roll in your kit.
  • Weigh down those stands. I carry counterweights to keep stands from tipping. You'll find that sometimes at the end of a concert, the attendees will wander into the playing area to converse with players.  The last thing you want is an ugly encounter with some very nice person who just bumped your stand over. The best accident is one that doesn't happen.

The Event

  • Grab a program.  You'll need it for notes (level tweak before movement 2, etc) and when you're naming files for final delivery.
  • Enjoy the concert.  Most of it's out of your hands now. So other than making sure your gear is working and levels are good, there's nothing else you can do.
  • Enjoy the conversations at intermission.  Sometimes folks will wander over to ask what you're doing or maybe ask about your equipment. You're an ambassador for all of us, so be nice. And there will always be the guy that comes over and says LPs are better or 44.1K is better or analog tape is better or something. If a simple, friendly reply doesn't satisfy him, then it's probably a good time for you the visit the restroom or play like you're adjusting a mic. Don't engage.
  • Start teardown as soon as the applause is over.  It's really easy to fall into conversation at that point, but you're going to the the last person out.  Don't force someone to wait around while you pack up your gear.

Post

You'll have a number of decisions to make when you're back home with the files. Ideally you've had a conversation with the director of the group you've just recorded, but you should have a good idea of how much time you can spend putting the final recording together. If it's a 2-mic conservative recording, your job may be simply head-tail editing and out the door. But it's often more than that.  Things that come up include:

  • Applause?  These days, I record professionals exclusively and they're seldom interested in applause in a recording.  This can sometimes be a challenge, since an enthusiastic audience may begin applause before the final note has died away. Careful editing can get rid of much of it.  But I find that cleanup tools can work wonders (More on that later). Amateurs feel differently.  If it's Suzy's graduation recital, then that final applause can be gratifying. It might mark the end of a career.
  • Mixing? I've found that I use spot mics much more often than I used to.  In part this is because some recital venues just sound terrible: boxy, slappy or whatever.  The less of that, the better.  But often I've found that a professional performance might be worth a little extra detail--a mic or two on a piano (usually the instrument at the back of the stage) can bring out the precision of the player. But with spots, I tend to find a level (usually low) that works and I just leave it there. Actively mixing can make the concert sound more 'produced' than it should and it can also cause the image to wander a little.  Having said that, I've been a guest at some orchestral sessions where the engineer is seriously riding the faders. But it's usually for small details--a celesta solo for example.
  • Time alignment. This can be complex and I think it's a contentious topic.  A spot mic may be just a couple of feet away from a performer, while the main pair could be 15 feet back (in a large room).  Because we're so sensitive to time arrivals, just a tiny bit of level on a spot may be all you need to bring the instrument forward without actually making it louder. On the other hand, you may simply want some clarity, so delaying that spot so that it matches up with a main pair might be the best choice.  It's important to know that a spot mic picks up everything on the stage.  It's just going to give you a few dB of advantage for the target instrument.  So doing time alignment can give you unpredictable results.  I think it's good to be willing to experiment, but bad to be dogmatic.  Ears are more important than theory.
  • Artificial Reverberation. It's kind of hard to leave this out of the conversation.  Even the most perfect room will need some help sometimes (believe me, it's on a lot more of those world-famous concert halls than you might think).  And if you've been dealing with close mics in a problem space, you may need quite a lot.  Keep in might that the microphones will be getting quite a lot of early reflection energy.  For that reason, a longer predelay is a good idea.  For chamber music I'll use 30-50ms. The idea is to bridge from the early energy in the microphones to the reverberator.  There are lots of places to play in a reverb, depending on the characteristics of the room you recorded and the room you want.  But you can't take it too far. A 40-seat recital hall simply won't sound like Jordan Hall--there are too many audible tip-offs.  But a bad 40-seat hall can sound like a very nice 100-seat hall with some care. Do bear in mind that added reverb should take place at the very end--after all editing and cleanup.
  • Cleanup tools. If you record a lot, it may be worth looking into cleanup tools.  A tool that I like quite a lot is RX from Izotope.  It's easy to use quickly but has a steeper learner curve for the magical stuff.  I've found it helpful in getting rid of air-conditioning/heating sounds (just make sure you grab some room tone just before the performance begins).  You can also get rid of early applause, coughs and even page turns. I wouldn't necessarily want to use tools like this in a regular session, but for live concerts you sometimes have to do cleanup you wouldn't otherwise do.

Developing the Relationship

If you record a group and they ask you back, you've already gotten off to a good start. If you given them nice recordings, on time and on budget, you've begun to establish a trusting relationship.  As that develops, you'll find they're much more inclined to let you try an extra mic or place a stand in a more visible place. As they hear more professional recordings, you'll have more freedom to experiment.

You never know what's going to happen with these recordings.  I live in an area where radio stations still play some classical music. I've heard recordings that sound incredibly familiar, and realized they were recordings I'd done.  They'll turn up on promotional websites of different groups and they've occasionally been the recording that got a good student into a good school.  I think there is something of lasting value in being part of this.

Getting Started

If you're new at this and wonder how to learn about it, there are two different kinds of learning.  There are many great technical documents where you can learn about microphone technology and mic techniques (John Eargle's book is still regularly updated, for example).  You'll find that there are plenty of instructional websites and videos that can give you the building blocks you need.

Practical experience isn't hard to get, either.  You can always record friends.  If you're in music school or near one, you can record student groups or rehearsals.  Never ask for payment at this stage of your career. When I wanted to learn more about choral recording, I asked a choral director friend if I could record rehearsals at the church where he worked (the trick is to stay out of the way and never to release things without permission).  I had a chance to learn what was good and what was really, really bad.. That same friend also directed a very fine women's chorus and I ended up being their recordist for several years.

And of course you learn from other people.  Two former colleagues at Lexicon, David Griesinger and Frank Cunningham, were supportive of my earlier efforts and patiently answered my questions--even the dumb ones.  If you're at a classical concert and see someone recording, you might be able to pick up a tip or two in exchange for help carry stuff to the car. As with almost any type of recording, we're all teachers and we're all apprentices.