Bach's Christmas Oratorium

Discussion in 'Location Recording' started by larsfarm, Nov 29, 2005.

  1. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    I've been asked to record Bachs Christmas Oratorium in a couple of weeks and could use some advise from the experts in this forum...

    What makes me slightly hesitant is that the orchestra has a different character than is often seen (heard?) in many orchestra/choir works. It starts with tympani alone, then joined by flutes, woodwinds and trumpets and then somewhere in there a bit of strings. Usually orchestras are balanced the other way around... Strings and a little bit of the others behind, but here they all have prominent places... The music is also rythmically distinct and you really want to hear all instruments. Then there is the cembalo and (choir-)organ and of course the singers. 4 solo singers and choir (probably around 40). I'm not sure how many players, but my guess is around 15-20 in the orchestra. They'll occupy considerable floor width and depth in a fairly large reverberant space. The front of the orchestra will most likelly have the front row of the audience practically in their lap... (litterally within reach) so there wont be much space in front of the orchestra. I will have to reserve space for mic stands..

    I've got access to various mics. My own and those of the church. Among others...
    2 x AKG C480 (omni and cardioid)
    2 x AKG C480 (omni)
    2 x Pearl DC-96 (cardioid)
    2 x Oktava MC012 (omni | cardioid | hypercardiod)
    several AKG C451 EB (the older kind with exchangable capsules all cardioid)

    I don't usually take in too many tracks, but can theoretically, take 16 (well actually 24 (Mackie SDR 24/96) but then I can't listen to the last 8 during tracking..:-\) I don't think that many is realistic, but I don't think this is a two-mic thing either...

    Any advise or shared experiences appreciated.

    best regards
    Lars Farm
  2. JimboJ

    JimboJ Active Member


    Tis the season! I am recording the Christmas Oratorio next week in a very large church, but one with no reflections, so the sound just disappears into the ether. I'm not an expert and others will give their opinions on your microphones – I don’t have experience with them. I can only say what I plan to do with my setup and venture a guess about yours. In my case, the conductor has the chorus stand in front of the orchestra and the vocal soloists stand next to the conductor. There are only 12 singers in the chorus, which is presumably why the chorus stands in front of the orchestra – so that they won’t be drowned out. I plan to use a Royer SF-24 stereo ribbon microphone about 10 feet off the floor to mic the chorus and the soloists and hopefully capture some of the orchestra. I may also use a pair of omni's as outriggers. Then, I’ll put up a pair of cardioid microphones in ORTF in front of the conductor to capture the orchestra exclusively. Time-delay the cardioids to match the Royer main pair and keep the cardioids about -5 db to -10 db in the mix, add some reverb, and voila! I would not close-mic any of the orchestral instruments with the possible exception of the harpsichord and maybe the organ if they are exceptionally quiet instruments. Let the ensemble make its own blend and use the acoustics of the room. I suppose you could throw up mics for the winds and brass sections, but it seems like overkill for what is actually a smallish orchestra.

    As you can see, I prefer a minimal set-up. This will be the fourth time I’ve recorded the Christmas Oratorio in five years. It’s such a beautiful piece, beautifully orchestrated. I try not to get in the way of the music and the performers.

    Now, that's my situation. For your set-up, I would go with a main stereo pair of spaced omnis to capture everything, positioned just behind and above the conductor. Depending on where the soloists are standing, you might need mics for them, or just let your main pair do the job if the soloists are standing beside the conductor. I would also try omni outriggers on either side of the main pair, but you might not have room for the mic stands. For the choir, presuming they are in the traditional spot behind the orchestra, I would put up two cardioids, spaced to divide the chorus in thirds, positioned at the height of the top row of singers and pointed at an angle into the chorus.

    Have fun! It’s a pleasure to listen to this music.

    -- James
  3. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    Thanks! I agree that minimal would be preferable. For several reasons (not least post), but the times I've only used two I've always had parts that were suboptimal. So I'll try to keep it as simple as possible, but not simpler… Distance and reverberation is the problem. A choir behind an orchestra is at quite a distance and in a reverberant church they turn into mud. You loose more clarity in the recording than you do when sitting in the audience where you can follow the text, but hardly when recorded at large distances. In a piece like this or one of the passions, text is central. I'll need to manage the depth/distance somehow.

    Same problem with tympani that usually are placed almost outside the orchestra in this church. Often to the far left and back. In the main pair they never sound as clear as I'd like. More of a rumble in the background. Perhaps not optimal for the opening of this piece.

    - If one were to spotmic tympani, what would be a reasonable startingpoint for placement (height, distance, direction (in front/from the back)? cardioid/omni?

    The harpsichord is here usually placed in front of the conductor. Player facing the audience and conductor. Instument almost dividing the orchestra semicircle in the middle back.This instrument usually has no problem making itself heard in the main pair. Rather the opposite due to proximity to the main pair from its central place.

    - Outriggers? Could you elaborate a bit about what that is? What they contribute? Reasonable starting points for placement (in space (how far out from the orchestra? where on a left/rigth axis? height?)). I imagine they'd be placed similar to your suggested choir mics?

    My thoughts about where to start were similar to your suggestion. Main pair (or perhaps three decca tree(-ish)) near the conductor + spaced pair on the choir + spot(s) on the solo singers... and then what (if any)?

  4. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    when in doubt, spot mic whatever you can. You'll be glad you did in post.

    These days, I'm fortunate enough to have most of my Orch/choir recordings fall into similar performance settings: Choir in the back, on risers, with a Wenger-style shell behind them, orchestra downstage in front, soloists to the left and right of the conductor. (It's how I'm doing Messiah on at least two occassions over the next 2 wks.)

    In this area, (greater Philadelphia/Delaware Valley) there's plenty of large enough spaces to pull this off; it's often a combination of large ensembles with a good following finding the right space (usually a church), so they don't compromise on things like that if they don't have to. They'll often move to another church if they can't set up properly. Since they're renting in most cases, they get what they want, or take their $$ elsewhere.

    In a recent big choral/orchestral recording, I spot-miced a tympanist who went bonkers at the sight of my microphone. (heheheh). He was stranded off in a corner, under an alcove, barely able to see the conductor, so he wasn't happy to begin with, and then he decided to subject me to his vast storehouse of knowledge about recording and percussion. I smiled as always, and thanked him for confusing me with a 20 year old (nicely, as always), and went about my business. (FYI: I use 1 mic on tymps in 99% of the cases, and work out a common distance between 2 or 3 drums and the position of the mic itself. In most cases with the tymp so far away, I can pull it back somewhat, without fear of other things bleeding into it. If i have enough room I'll try an omni, if it's a tighter space I'll go with a cardioid and roll off a lot of low end in post)

    To be fair, most think they're being amplified by the mics, and once I explain its only for detail in a multitrack mix, they relax. A little. In this case, I was glad I did, in post. The tymps were utter MUSH in the main mics, and boomy and rolling around the reverberant church. Using my spot mic (and a little time align), I was able to bring in the sound of the mallets a little better, and improve the tymp's place in the arrangements, boosting clarity without adding more mush. (No word on how the tymp player liked the mix.)

    Same with harpsichord and anything else that has a specific solo or musical moment. If it's not too offensive to put a mic in there somewhere, and if you have the tracks, go ahead and do it, even if you don't use much of it in the mix later.

    For choirs as I've described above, I often cover them with four cardioids; an ortf in the middle, and two further out on each side. It's tricky of course, to not get TOO close to any one singer in the chorus (Hate when that happens and a tenor or soprano pops out of the mix!), but if there's enough depth (and if you're not getting in the way of the back line of horns or winds), sometimes you CAN pull the center pair further away from the middle of the choir to get a good blend.

    For the orchestra, I put a pair (or occasionally a modified decca tree) of omni's out in front, whenever possible a few feet higher than the head of the conductor, hearing the orchestra as he hears it. When it's time to mix (and it's often the conductor and music director is the same person), you should be able to give him/her a choice of all orchestra or all-chorus, or any kind of blend of the two. You can always work in your solosits & other instruments (Harp, basses, tuned percussion, etc.) as needed in post as well.

    For really extravagant mixes (and if the space is good enoug), I'll put wide L&R omni's further out in the church to capture more of the sound of the hall itself. This is also good to have for 5.1 mixes, should it come down to that in the future.

    FWIW, the Messiah I'm recording all this week is 12 mics/tracks: two omni's on the front for the chamber orchestra, two solo/spot mics for the soloists, 1 mic on the tymp, 1 mic on the continuo, and four mics on the chours - 120 voices, spread far and wide in the back, on risers, in front of a shell.
  5. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    One point I'd like to add to Joe's is in regards to the Harpsichord. Many people nowadays are straying farther and farther away from using real harpsichords and instead use keyboards through amps pushing a crappy harpsichord sound (UGGGGGGHHHH).

    They do this for many reasons.
    1. Playing the harpsichord is not the same as playing the piano. Any piano player who is worth their salt knows this and either learns to play harpsichord as well or will respectfully decline to play it. A casio keyboard will allow a pianist, however, to play the harpsichord as though they were playing the piano. (One horrible example of this was a concert I recently recorded where the group's pianist was playing a keyboard (casio-ish) harpsichord. Since I supplied the hardware (the keyboard/amp/cables/computer/etc), I made the suggestion to her that she might want me to hook up the damper pedal. Her snotty retort to me was "Why?! If I need to play it softer, I will just play it softer!" (With a very snotty attitude.) I tried to explain to her that, the software sampler that I provided her was as realistic as possible and therefore didn't have different velocity layers (meaning, no such thing as "playing softer" since you can't do this on a real harpsichord...) Anyway, it was pointless, she just didn't get it. So...she played the entire volume throughout the entire concert. Volume = MF, even during violin solos and vocal solos.

    2. Because they're not common except this time of year and to some ensembles devoted to earlier music, there aren't tons of them around.

    So - here's my advice after that long wind.

    If you're stuck in the situation where you must use a keyboard as a harpsichord - take the MIDI feed from it into the computer. With any luck, you can supplement the very CRAPPY sound of a keyboard amp with that of a more realistic sounding sampled harpsichord and you'll make a lot of people VERY happy.

    Be careful though - the blend has to be good or it will sound like 2 harpsichords, and that's just about the only thing worse than 2 oboes! :evil:

  6. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    Thanks for your comments!

    The harpsichord is real. See pictures below. [ harpsichord.wav removed for space reasons ]

    A couple of pictures from the church to get a feel for the room (and perhaps present myself a little) Link removed

    This is from St Johns Passion a couple of years ago where I was in the choir. We did this in two churches. Look at the last 10 pictures. If you look carefully and know what to look for, there I am... (fifth from left in the back row, in the middle, next to the short guy (last of the basses - we were five (hello!:))).

    This time I'm not in the choir. I'm recording. It's a different and larger choir. There must be more instruments too. Some of the musicians will probably be the same. The harpsichord will certainly be that one. Probably placed similarly. The choir organ too (if used).

    best regards
  7. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    Real harpsichords are often not used in our part of the world because we cannot get a tuner with equal temperament skills or just can't get a tuner.

    You know the old joke about the old lute player who's 60 year career was spent as 30 years tuning the lute and 30 years playing an out of tune lute. This applies to a harpsichord equally as well.

    I never thought of recording the midi output, then you could use a decent Roland GS64 or some other decent synth to get a "better" sound. We seem to always have trouble with scratchy humming amps for these damn things rather than worrying about the synth. This is found in our schoolies gigs, where there is usually more pressing problems to deal with.
  8. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    The player tunes his instrument. Occasionally also during the concert...

  9. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    Had mixed success with that as well. You are lucky in Europe and Scandinavia, where a career studying music or harpsichord is repected and consequently there are many qualified and well educated practitioners. Here, all that's respected is football and cricket. :(
  10. ptr

    ptr Active Member

    I record 3-4 Harpsicordists localy on a regular basis, and they all tune their own instruments. Most people who play historical keyborad instruments tune do, a craft seldomly seen among those who play modern pianos. (Even if I have worked with atleast two very good pianists that also are piano tuners [in that order])..

  11. JimboJ

    JimboJ Active Member

    Wow! I never thought I should consider myself lucky for never having had to record a synthesized harpsichord. Any professional ensemble that has the gumption to work up Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Handel's Messiah, or even Vivaldi's Four Seasons should go the extra mile and get a real harpsichord. Maybe I'm being naive. Here in NYC many orchestras and choirs rent harpsichords and have them tuned for the harpsichordists to play. (This is blasephemy to many harpsichordists, who tote around their own instruments and tune them themselves.) I've seen a synth harpsichord twice here: for a harpsichord cue in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and in a ballet pit where there was no room for a real harpsichord. Both times the instrument sounded predictably fake but then neither time was the music the absolute focus of the performance.

    -- James
  12. ptr

    ptr Active Member

    The problem with renting harpsicords (atleast in my small town) is that those that are availible suck, and most groups that performs baroque music around here use period tuning and show me a piano tuner that in two hours notice can do Kirnberger 4 or even mean tone temperaments.

    Even when regular churches do thinks like Bach or Händel they try to use more "apropiate" tunings. But then, they often Play BC, not on a harpsichord but on a small organ or portative.

    Come to think of it, the only place I've seen a harpsichord that could take 444, is at the local office of or national broadcaster. They used to have one of those german Steinway D sized Harpsicords in their main studio, hell of a beast those are... Never heard or seen one played tho..

    Returning to Lars original question, there are two sounds that You want from a harpsichord;

    1. the regular that comes out of the box (like a grand piano), an AB Cardiod pair, 6 feet from the bend, 2' apart, hight to taste will cover that.

    2. Doing this You sometimes loose that little plucked taste that are so part of the harpsichord persona, an XY (or even a singel card) 2' above the plektra, just hinted in the mix will lift some of the more important accents that a good harpsichord player will add.

  13. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    Thank you, but the harpsichord is a sidetrack brought in by assumptions of synths instead of real instruments. No synths here! The harpsichord is not something I consider a problem (unless you find the provided sample unpleasant of course (recorded pretty much exactly as you suggested (2 x akg c480 omni 35 cm apart ca 1,5-2m out from the bend about 1,5-1,75m from the floor)):).

    I'm more interested in a little bit elaboration around JoeH's very informative remarks. For instance:

    - I'd like to hear more about spotmicking the tympani. JoeH said:
    This still leaves quite a bit of room for questions. In front of tympani? from behind? from above? Does that mean the suggested distance is about one drum diameter (or do I read too much into the statement)?

    - What about woodwinds? Where is a good (starting) place (in space x,y,z relative the instruments) for spots on them?

    best regards
  14. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    New info. I talked to the continuo player. He wants to use the harpsichord because then he'd be sitting eye to eye with the conductor and he would have the choir in his back. Loud and clear. Good contact both ways, but...

    The conductor wants organ. This organ would end up behind the choir and no arrangement of mirrors will give good visual contact with the conductor. The player also wants/needs to hear the choir. He must play reasonably loud to be heard through the choir and they will sing away from him and the organ. When he goes loud he cant hear the choir. Neither visual nor audible contact. Neither with conductor nor music... A problem... The little organ is on wheels and can be moved, but is too heavy to take down the steps out front. Borrowing a smaller transportable organ from a neigbour church failed. What to do?

    Current plans puts me right where I was sure I wouldn't be. A keyboard with "organ sounds" as continuo (SL-161 keyboard + SC-8850 + some amp + some speaker (when they have two nice organs and one nice cembalo (and (at least) two nice organists in the room))) ... Ah well... life can be like that:-( Fortunatelly it's not the main body of the sound, but still...
  15. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Hey Lars -

    I didn't mean to assume that it would be a synth. Instead, I just wanted to comment that, if it were a synth or if anyone else reading the post were to get stuck using one, the MIDI out would be a possible solution.

    You are indeed very fortunate to have access to real harpsichords. I don't know of a place within a 50 mile radius of here where I could get access to one. (I know where there are some - colleges, Kennedy Center, etc. but I wouldn't have ready access to any of those in most cases.)

    As for the most recent problem - synth organ... I have heard some synthesized organs that sound amazingly real. (Enough to fool almost everyone except those truly familiar with organ). The Garritan library has a very real sounding set of organs and can even change stops on the fly. It's quite interesting and might be worth a look if you have to go synth.

    In general, I regard using synth's as a crime against nature, but when it has to be done, you may as well use good tools.

  16. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    Next related question - How to control reverberation?

    (I hope I don't annoy you too much with my questions, at least it's easy to skip to next thread)

    This is a very reverberant church. Stone floor, bricks, hard ceiling. Lot's of hard surfaces and pillars and what not to reflect sound. No soft areas to absorb sound. It's not small. Perhaps 40m long, ca 15m wide, quite high.

    I return to what JoeH said:
    I'm learning and am wretsling with what this implies. I could use some help. As far as I can see...

    1) Choir: Choir up close to the back of the orchestra - so stands would be directly in front of choir. Cardioids up close on the choir would give a dry choir with partial coverage. Adding more would cover more of the choir. Sort of like putting a spotlight on the choir. Very clearly illuminated for the area covered. Black otherwise. Does this sit well with the near solo choir parts of this piece, the chorals (English name?).

    2) Main pair at conductor: Omnis, supposed to be put closer to the source than cardioids. Will that help reducing reverberation from the orchestra? or will it make a livelly place wetter and worse?

    I did something similar a while ago in a different church. Omnis on the orchestra and ORTF on the choir (just the pair). The orchestra sounded great (well the woodwinds were weaker than the strings and audibly much more distant - otoh they turned up in the choir mics...), but the choir in the orchestra-mics were bathing in reverb, far too much. The ORTF pair on the choir was quite dry and I had a hard time getting the two pairs to blend into something coherent. This church is even more livelly.

    What is your experience with reverberant places like this?
  17. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    With all due respect, I think you're agonizing a bit more than necessary about some aspects of this process.

    One cannot really "Control reverberation", and the process of recording choirs and orchestras in places like this are far less scientific than any of us would like to admit. In other words, sometimes you just have to "wing it" and go with your gut - based on previous experiences there at the venue, or from generic experience elsewhere. There is rarely ever any perfect solution. What I and others on here are offering are suggestions. (Very often, we're all very glad to hear about new and untested approaches, microphones, techniques, etc. There's always something new worth trying, indeed.)

    Assuming you'll be multitracking this and mixing it later, you have to hedge your bets and work on the best overall mic placement available and capture things in groups or sections. Your choir WILL sound too close and dry if you mic it that way; on the other hand, you'll start to get bleed from other sections of the ensembel if you move the mics too far away from the voices. Sometimes it just comes down to compromises, even adding a bit of reverb after the fact, or putting up additional mics in the hall for capturing the natural sound itself.

    Blending the dry choral mics with the more reverberant orchestral mics can sometimes be a toss-up or compromise. It is often the sound of the hall itself, where you've placed your mics, and how your ensemble will sound therein. You may never be entirely happy with your results.

    For example, I have used the same mic'ing techniques on the same choral group, singing basically the same kind of material, with the same accompanying orchestra in four different halls over the last few years, with incredibly diverse results. It's truly amazing to hear the differences.

    The client has their favorite, which is close to my own choice, but due to costs (unions, hall rentals, etc.) they can't always rent their "Favorite" space. And their second choice is almost always booked and available only on off-days (Mondays, Thursdays, etc.) so the compromises begin with the choice of the hall itself - usually the third or fourth choice of favorites. That means "I" have to often make the best of a not-so-great situation and try to make things work based on my experiences there and elsewhere.

    It's rarely ever "ideal" conditions, but it beats selling sheet music in a mall somewhere. ;-)

    As for synthesized continuo and the like, the actual "bad" thing about Synthesizers is usually the people who attempt to play them. In the right hands, with the right settings, (Wendy Carlos?) they can be a thing of beauty and do the job quite well, even in a pinch. I'm lucky to be in an area where we do have plenty of real harpsichords and portative organs (two of each that literally "make the rounds" here among a pool of frequent users who trade favors for their useage. I actually know many of their quirks and idiosyncracies.)

    But I do get my share as well of those Korg and Roland and Yamaha kybds with some pretty cheesy settings. I rarely mic the amp cabinets themselves, preferring to take it DI and adding my own room tone or hall effect after-the-fact to make it sit in the mix better, more believeably. If I've done my job properly, the synthesized organ or harpsichord has a fighting chance of sounding semi-real, but I know it's not fooling too many folks.

    But again, it beats the alternative: doing without, or not performing a certain work here or there due to no portative organ or real harpsichord being available.

    Hope some of that helps; I know I'm rambing and have to get back to all the usual stuff that's piling up this time of year: Messiahs and Holiday concert fare. Good luck with it!
  18. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Hey Lars -

    A couple items here in no particular order.

    1. Close mic'ing choirs with directional mics means trouble in a lot (or as I've found most) situations. You'll get individuals sticking out badly. You've really got to know exactly how your mics work off-axis and use that to your advantage if you're to go this route. If possible, wide cardioids (Schoeps CMC6 MK21s) are the way to go if the choir is right behind the orchestra. You can also use a M/S configuration - just be careful that you use the right mid-mic. Again, one with too much directivity and you'll pick up the dude in the middle. One with no directivity and your M/S is now all messed up.

    2. Close mic'ing and orchestra with spaced omnis is just fine, but in a reverberant place such as to what you're referring, you'll have to have the omnis so close to the orchestra that you MUST employ spot mics in the winds or they'll be lost.

    Decca Tree is what I use when there's just too much reverb. You can get the omnis right over the string sections - just out of bow's reach, and then spot the winds all you want.

    Like Joe says - you've kinda gotta wing it a little while you're on site. The bad thing is, after you're done, you'll think of 3 more ways you could have done it that would have been better. (That's cool though - that's how we learn. I kick myself for stuff like this a lot. Then I use that experience in another place later.)

    Good luck!!!
  19. larsfarm

    larsfarm Active Member

    Thanks to all!

    Report and questions after todays rehearsal. Please skip if you feel that further discussion of this subject is a waste of time...

    They had removed a couple of the front rows to make room. There was plenty of space. Perhaps too much...

    I was tempted by the Decca tree, but skipped it because of visual reasons. This is after all a concert first and foremost. I used a spaced pair of omnis, ca 40 cm apart, ca 2,5m up. Tried three distances. Directly in front of conductor (in line with the front players of the orchestra), above, and 1m behind conductor. The strings sound ok but different in all. The woodwinds washier the further out I get.

    The choir... Well in the chorales (slower harmonious, non contracpunctual) these are surprisingly ok alone. At least the closest. In the faster and more complex choirs all text is lost. No good. I also had a ORTF(-ish) pair up in front of the choir. Set up between a pair of woodwind players and high. 1-2m above the last row, perhaps 3,5m up (I have a couple of reasonably high stands (I'm interested in organ) and used them). These are different. Drier, but not dead. Still trying to blend them with the other pair is harder than I expected. They do sound different and no matter how I blend, the ORTF-pair sticks out as different... Delaying might make a difference, or not. I think it does, but it's not obvious and I've not made any blind tests...:) any suggestions on how to blend these pairs into a cohesive single pair?

    The woodwinds: I put a card in front of them, pointing at then (and therefore also pointing at the choir behind...) and it picks them up nicely as long as the choir is silent. They aren't for long. This is a very vocal heavy work. When the choir sings they steal the mic totally. Where and how is woodwind spots usually placed? Any suggestions on how-to spot woodwind in the presence of choir?

    The tympani: I first put a card in front of them 1,5m out, head high. Later behind/above player looking down on the drums from perhaps 0,5m above players head. Well ... I do get them OK, but it's not the sound I'm looking for. I want the mallets hitting. Not particularly the low freq rumble tympani generates. I already get that in the mains. I get more tone than beat. Any suggestions on micing tympani?

    Cornets: I had a card 2m in front of them too, but and that is a dry sound. Might be usable or maybe not. They're not too bad in the main pair so I don't know.

    Solo singers: tomorrow.

    By the way, the director and continuo player changed their minds. It's the harpsichord. He tuned it yesterday evening so I moved in then during his tuning. It lost it's tuning a little during the rehearsals. He'll tune again to night and tomorrow afternoon. It was too weak in my mics. They turned it backwards... Lid opens towards choir.

    [edit: Excerpts removed to save space/L]

    best regards

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