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Best Improvement for Live Ensemble Recording

Discussion in 'Recording' started by IAdventurer01, Dec 8, 2011.

  1. IAdventurer01

    IAdventurer01 Active Member

    I've been doing recordings of High School and College level musical ensembles for family and friends (and sometimes myself relying on set-and-forget) for a couple years now using only a lone Rode M3 microphone hooked into Marantz PMD660. I've managed to get surprisingly good results from this setup, but I'd love to step it up a healthy notch - and get the most bang for my buck.

    From everything I've read, I really should replace the PMD660 which apparently has some serious quality issues. Am I better off getting another portable field recorder such as the newer PMD661, or should I be looking into getting a little USB mic pre-amp and record directly onto my laptop? Keep in mind portability's a little bit of an issue, seeing as I need to tote this around and set it up in a tiny space. A laptop with tiny microphone adapter is about as big as I can get.

    The other possibility is upgrading my microphone - which might be an "and" solution depending on the cost of the whole upgrade. Since the events and venues I do most of my recordings at focus on 'performance-first' with the recording being a secondary measure, the microphone placement is nearly always shoved near the back or tucked out of sight somewhere. Whatever microphone(s) I'd look at would need to be fairly good at a distance. I imagine it would need to be a large diaphragm mic and/or one with a hyper-cardioid pattern. Then again, my only experience has been with the M3, so I really don't know!

    If anyone has any suggestions for either of these, any help would be appreciated!
  2. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Let's get a couple of things out of the way first.

    You should be considering a stereo setup (mic and recorder), even if you only plug one (mono) mic in at times. There is quite a big jump in recorded results when going from a single mic up to either a single stereo mic or a pair of identical mics set up for stereo sound field capture.

    The second thing is that you should stick to small diaphragm condenser (SDC) mics for this sort of general work and not be looking at large diaphragm mics (LDCs). Crudely, LDCs are essentially studio mics, and work best where you have a localised sound source and little external and off-axis noise. There are exceptions, and I have on occasion used LDCs on stage very sucessfully, but to use them you have to know what the limitations are that you are working within.

    The Rode M3 is a very fine mic for the money, and you could do a lot worse than get a second one. The quality control at Rode is such that there should be no matching problem between two mics of the same type bought at different times, although mics do "settle" after a year or so in use so there may be some initial mismatch. I have no qualms about singing Rode's praises in these forums, as I think other mic manufacturers at this level could do well to look hard at the Rode production methods.

    Now the question of what to consider upgrading to, and the big thing here is how much you are willing to spend.

    You could go to a newer recorder such as the Zoom H4N, which has both a stereo pair of built-in mics and also XLR sockets for external pro mics. If you were to get an H4N and another Rode M3, you would have a very workable low-cost outfit that could be used on its own for rehearsal studio setups, with the pair of M3s for live concerts and also as a 4-track recorder with a stereo pair plus two spot mics. The H4N will plug into a USB socket on a computer for transferring the captured audio files.

    The other approach is a dual channel pre-amp that will connect to your laptop for recording. Assuming you get either a new stereo mic (or pair of mics) or else a second Rode M3, you could then consider a two-channel digitizing pre-amp with some sort of computer interface. I've had exceptional results with an Audient Mico connected via an optical cable into a Macbook Pro, but this route would depend on your using a laptop that had an optical S/PDIF interface. If you are stuck with USB connections, look at something like the RME BabyFace.

    Let us know a little more about your cost constraints, and we can make further suggestions.
  3. IAdventurer01

    IAdventurer01 Active Member

    $1000 is the hard limit for me at this time, though lower (while maintaining quality) is a very desirable plus!

    If just sticking an additional M3 out there - positioned well, of course - is going to give me a drastic improvement, that route is very tempting. If that works out, I could choose to add the Zoom H4n later, which I imagine is a good step up from the PMD660 and somewhat comparable to the PMD661 at half the price, and still be sub $500.

    Although that sounds pretty good price-wise, am I going to be wishing that instead of picking up the M3 I had gotten one or a matched set of SDCs in a couple years? Also, am I correct in assuming that these portable recorders are comparable to something like the Babyface (stuck with USB & Widows, I'm afraid) or a USB mixer? I much prefer buying big once than needing to buy twice.
  4. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Using an Audient Mico, RME BabyFace or something similar to record to your laptop would almost certainly give you a higher-quality result than sticking with the PMD660 (it's only 16-bit), and would probably beat the Zoom H4N (24-bit), certainly in noise specification. There are several dual-channel interfaces in this category, but choosing a suitable one at a level substantially below the price of two I mentioned would not be easy.

    You also might choose to invest in a pair of new SDCs now rather than a second M3 to make a pair that you might feel you had to upgrade in the medium future. We can give you microphone suggestions if you want to go this route.

    I'm sorry to hear you are stuck with Widows, but you may be lucky and find a rich one.
  5. IAdventurer01

    IAdventurer01 Active Member

    As much fun as it would be to start pumping out 24/96 recordings, my gut's telling me splurging on microphones and worrying about the pres/input device next is probably going to get me the biggest gains at this point.

    Seeing as I've had great luck with the M3 and RODE seems to price their mics very reasonably, should I be looking at something like a matched set of NT5s (I think I'd prefer the added versatility of two separate mics over one set in a permanent XY configuration), or is there some other set of relatively inexpensive SDCs that are better suited for this task?

    And personally, I really enjoy living with the widows. The only drawback is that they all insist on using Windows PCs, which is the point I was driving at.
  6. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    Maybe. My feeling is that a good dual-channel pre-amp would make the most difference in the immediate term, and if that means there is only enough left in the kitty for another Rode M3, then that would be a better solution than a pair of good SDCs that would then have to run into your Marantz PMD660 because you had exceeded your cash limit.

    Incidentally, because of the additional omni capsules and the HPF and pad switches, the Rode NT55s are considerably more flexible than the NT5s. A matched pair (NT55MP) comes in a nice case. Omnis give you the opportunity to make A-B configuration recordings as an alternative to co-incident X-Y or ORTF setups. Although you can get the same omni capsules and fit them to the NT5s, having the pad and filter switches is worth the small extra.
  7. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    My approach & my thinking is quite a bit different from everyone else's suggestions. 24-bit, 96 kHz is all relative if the front end (microphones/preamps) aren't a first rate to begin with. I actually don't give a damn about converters nor 24-bit/96 kHz. Utilizing great sounding microphones with great sounding preamps will produce a better sounding recording at 16 bit 44.1 kHz than lesser expensive microphones & preamps and state-of-the-art 24-bit, 96 kHz converters.

    Of course 24-bit/96 kHz sounds better than 16-bit/44.1 kHz. But what are people going to be listening to? Your master recordings coming off of your computer/interface? Of course not. They're good to be listening to 16 bit/44.1 kHz CDs and even worse sounding 16 bit/44.1 kHz highly compressed data reduced MP3's. Maybe MP 4's? No matter, those are still data compressed formats. In that respect, I'd rather have a 16 bit/44.1 kHz CD than any of that other nonsense. These are merely incremental improvements that are being marketed in order to keep companies viably competitive to one another & to also get you to purchase new stuff because it's " new & improved ", which ain't no reason to buy anything. You don't give up your violin for an electric guitar just because it's newer and better than an old violin. What is the practicality here? Has somebody handed you a $50,000 contract? No? Then, 16 bit 44.1 kHz with converters that are capable of 24-bit, 96 kHz. We didn't always utilize 30 IPS analog tape even though it was superior to 15 IPS analog tape. Why? Because it wasn't necessarily necessary nor practical at times. So compromise is not a dirty word nor is the word intelligence. But a good sounding front end is a smart purchase in and above any converter. Conversely, if you have that superior front end, then when you upgrade to a high quality converter, you'll be in heaven before the rest of the congregation gets there.

    Is there such a thing as a double edged Bible?
    Mx. Remy Ann David
  8. IAdventurer01

    IAdventurer01 Active Member

    Well, the 24/96 issue I know I briefly mentioned, but I realize that's just an added bonus. I think the issue here is now boiling down to whether investing in a device such as the RME, which is going to have far superior preamps to what I'm currently using in the PMD660, is going to have more effect than investing in a pair of decent SDCs. I might mention with the current suggestions, both the pair of mics or the input/preamp run roughly the same price, so it really is a bang-for-buck issue at the moment. Eventually, I'll probably do both if I continue to record these events for a while.
  9. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    Sorry, I know you're wrong. A good pair of SDC's will make a much bigger difference than changing converters. So you'll get the best bang for the buck by simply getting a good pair of SDC's. Amateur enthusiasts just never understand it ain't the equipment that's limiting you. It's more your choice of microphones first and foremost. Those are the colors in which you get to choose to paint with. The converters are merely the palette on which the colors are going to be placed and so the PMD 660 is still perfectly adequate. The preamps are just the bristles on the brush and whether you want thin or fat. Your tonality are your above choices. Not the converters. I would equate converters to tires on your car. So, same car, same engine, same color, different tires. And in the end, that's virtually all the same. Change the car, change the engine, use the same tires. There's your difference.

    I'd still be recording on 2 inch analog tape if the local bands could afford the tape. They can't. So I use the same microphones, same console/preamps, PCM storage instead of analog storage. So my recordings still sound great even if I have to hear it through Pulse Code Modulation which I really don't like. I'm not interested in minor incremental improvements. I mean you might think you would look stupid if you had brown shoe laces on your black shoes. Thankfully, the outcome is that they won't fall off your feet. It so much better when you can dazzle people with better sounding stuff than just telling them the converters are better.

    I like loafers like myself.
    Mx. Remy Ann David
  10. IAdventurer01

    IAdventurer01 Active Member

    So my gut was right, after all! Thanks!

    I know that the specific sound from certain microphones is generally a matter of preference, but does anyone have any preferences for room recording without spending an exorbitant amount of cash? I know the RODE NT5/NT55 matched pairs were mentioned, but I'm certainly open to other suggestions to possibly demo.
  11. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    You won't get substantially better than the NT55 pair without spending way over your budget. I would say throw in the H4n also as it has significantly less self noise than the PMD660. While a Babyface and a laptop are very very good method, you might as well stick with a similar if better option for the time being. The Zoom can also act as a computer interface if you want to begin learning that aspect and Reaper is priced right for the learning.
  12. IAdventurer01

    IAdventurer01 Active Member

    Ok, well I just finished another barrage of recordings with my current equipment, keeping your advice in mind.

    Entering the mastering process again, I forgot just how surprisingly noisy the PMD660 is - it really has to go. Also, in playing around with other equipment available, I think I see what is to be gained by working with a pair of microphones rather than just one. I'll likely wait until after the Christmas season to see how my funds hold out, but at minimum I'm picking up another M3 and the Zoom.

    Thanks for all the help, everyone!
  13. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    If I may add to this slightly dated thread...

    There are a few bits of info that I think are important to capture and address here.

    1 - your location. You mention that you throw this stuff up at the back of the hall and it's because that's more or less what the ensembles want. Trust me - if the ensemble hears the difference between two good mics on a stand or flown from the right spot in the auditorium, they'll very quickly get over the issue with the mic stand. I'm surprised that when I play in the Kennedy Center or attend as a concert-goer, I see no less than 14 mics hanging from very unsightly riggings. Do I care, either as a performer or an audience member? Nah.

    2 - The PMD660 isn't that noisy at all. I've had one and used it to make some very high end recordings. The noise is coming from you having to set up in the back of the hall and crank the gain on the wimpy preamps built into that recorder. Both the hall and the pres can be noisy but working on the bad parts of both of them makes the recording noisy as heck!

    3 - As for the mic vs. pre vs. converter, etc. - Moving a $10,000 microphone 5 inches can make it sound worse than a $29 mic. Moving a $29 mic 5 inches can make it sound better than a $10,000 mic. The mics ARE important parts of your signal chain (some, including myself, would argue that they're the most important part), but it is more a matter of what you do with them. Putting a pair of Schoeps Collettes at the back of a hall, out of sight, will render them worse than any Samson or NADY mic out there.

    4 - Rode mics are very good mics for the money. The NT5 and NT55 are tough to beat. Consider a pair of those and then upgrade other things as you go along. A pair of NT5s in ORTF properly placed over the ensemble feeding your 660 will make a VERY good recording. Add a touch of reverb and you'll get the wider sound that makes it sound "professional." (Of course - careful monitoring is something we haven't even discussed yet and is the topic of a WHOLE different conversation. If you don't have a good monitoring setup, no matter how good the source material is, you won't get the results you desire.)

    5 - Portability. Dude - totally hear you on this one. I've been doing on-location recording for symphonies, etc. since 1994. My back and my arms are getting tired. My vehicles are getting tired of the wear and tear and diminished value thanks to mic stands and racks beating my cars to hell! However, there are ways to cope. Get a good, strong, stable hand truck. I use the kind that fold up neatly but expand into big, flat dollies that can hold 500lbs. My gear when all tallied weighs in at around 420 lbs for my "average" session. (Racks including preamps, interfaces, summing mixer; computer; Snake cable; mic cables; mic stands; microphones; mic clips, etc.).

    6 - Save enough money to get a good stand. My personal favorite (which completely tips the scales in reference to number 5 above) is the Latch Lake MicKing 2200. It's their small stand, but it still goes up to an impressive 14' and is ROCK solid stable. Yes, the base weighs a ton, but that's a good thing. (Don't believe me - just wait til a kid accidentally kicks over your stand from 14' and knocks your beautiful, brand new $5K pair of mics you've been saving up for to their doom! Then their parents come and yell at you claiming that you have to pay the kid's medical bills because little Timmy is too stupid to know that you shouldn't be running backwards indoors!)

    7 - These guys are totally right on their suggestions. But, bear in mind, there's a whole forum dedicated to the kind of recording you're talking about here on Recording.org. It's the mobile recording forum and these are the guys that do it all day, every day. Don't get me wrong - Bos, Jack and Remy are the kings and queens over in that forum, but there are a lot of meaningful contributions that you'll miss if you don't put your mobile recording questions there too!

    Best of luck to you and Merry Christmas!
  14. IAdventurer01

    IAdventurer01 Active Member

    Only slightly dated - I'm still checking it, and I really appreciate your input!

    I'm certainly not upset with the PMD660, but if I'm forced to stay in less-than-ideal locations changing up to something with better pres would go a long way in cleaning up the end result. Though, I'll certainly try to run the better location options by the conductors - hopefully with some examples of how much better it sounds that I've recorded myself.

    As for the stand, you certainly raise a valid point. My cheap Radio Shack brand mic stand gets the job done, but something better that not only is more stable but has a bit more control over positioning is something I hadn't really considered until now. The MicKing is a bit pricey for me at this point, since the stand is more expensive than the NT55 (single only), but I may look for viable alternatives.

    I'll be sure to check out the mobile forum for more specific questions regarding the actual recording of the venues in the future, like how I'd actually go about doing that overhead rigging nonsense!
  15. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    Try an On Stage Stands SB9600 for a less expensive but decent option. Your stand NEEDS to be within 10-14 feet behind the conductor. Point out that EVERY major and minor orchestra in the world performs/records this way. Flying mics in some halls becomes more of a permanent hang due to difficulty of the process. Some halls its easy. A single stand with a Sabra Som ST4 is perfectly acceptable otherwise.

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