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modern orch with a choir

Discussion in 'Vocals' started by Exsultavit, Jan 11, 2006.

  1. Exsultavit

    Exsultavit Active Member


    I have been away for awhile, and am glad to see you are all still here and doing such good work! Anyway, I have a problem that has bitten me on the butt once again. Here it is:

    I have extensive experience with choirs and baroque orchestras and a lot of experience with modern orchestras. My problem comes when modern orchestras do choral/ orchestral works, especially from the baroque period. In short, I can't get the choir loud enough without making the horns and tymps TOO loud! This is because:

    -modern horns are much louder than baroque horns

    -modern orchestras almost always put these loud modern trumpets all the way to the rear of the orch-- right in front of the choir, so that choir spot mics pick up almost as much trumpets as orchestra. In baroque orchestras, the trumpets are not only softer, but usually not in the rear center so much as placed hard to one side or the other of the front of the orch- far from the choir mics.

    To further aggravate the problem, the modern orch balances quite differently when doing baroque pieces rather than more modern ones. The period strings sound different, as do the winds. But the horns in the baroque pieces are the worst-- just too loud in general! This may be the instruments, or just that the "real" baroque orchestras are specialists in, say, Bach-- and they just get the feel right.

    Anyway, (aside from instrumental balances) the killer for me is the choral pieces and the horns leaking into the choir spots. Does anyone have a solution for me? I am mostly talking about concert recordings, where I have no say in repositioning anyone on stage. The usable solutions I am hoping for would be ones I can try without disturbing the delicate ecology of the Symphony Orchestra Machine-- mic technique, pickup patterns (I have tried fig 8 on choir mics, trying to reject horns- with mixed results...), etc etc.

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

  2. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    This is a tough one. Have you tried more directional mics, eg. Schoeps MK41 pair or MS pr, back in the orch, in front of the horns, pointing at the choir. I know your frustration with fig8's on choirs, trying to reject the orchestral musicians. We have also had some success with a very high Neumann shotgun pair, pointing above the orchestra, at the choir.
  3. Exsultavit

    Exsultavit Active Member

    Thanks, David

    In the typical scenario I wind up in, the front row of the choir is hard against the horn player's chairs. There's no way for me to get the horn players "behind' the choir mics, as that would necessitate putting the mic stand IN the choir.

    The best I can do to take advantage of this physical setup is use fig8 and point the 'side' of the mic at the horn players-- but since there are usually several of them spread around, the null point of the fig-8 mic cannot cover them well. Add to that that the tighter pattern of a fig8 (or a shotgun, for that matter) tends to select only the singers directly in front of the mic, as opposed to the choir as a whole...

    One possible, but impractical, solution would be to use several choir mics in closer to the choir (over them?). This would allow me to move in real close, block out more horns (by distancing them), and maybe by using all the choir mics I could avoid the 'I've selected these 5 singers" syndrome that comes when I get too close.

    But I seldom have the time, floor space, matching mic count, or budget to stand up/hang, say, 6 mics over the choir. So back to the drawing board?

  4. GentleG

    GentleG Guest


    I'm just a newbie and thinking out loud, so take that into account, but ...

    Wouldn't it be helpfull to put a piece of accoustic foam just behind the mic
    It may help a few dB

  5. ghellquist

    ghellquist Member

    Well, I am rather a beginner when it comes to recording. Long-time amateur trombone player though.

    There is an old saying among conductors - never smile at the trombones, they might believe you are encouraging them.

    I agree on the problem with modern instruments. Many of them are much too strong compared to what the composer wrote for. Whenever I try playing older music and following the written dynamics it generally gets too strong. A written fff is probably meant to have that brass sizzle in it, but it sorts of takes the effect away if it turns over the row in front and ends up in a brass solo with weakly heard other instruments.

    Now, classical music can be played decently on modern instruments, but it takes quite a bit of work. It has to start with the conductor and his ideas about what kind of performance he wants to have. It has to be supported by the full ensemble and it might take some "unorthodox" measures, such as dampening some instruments, changing instruments or even leaving out passages from some parts.

    A side-bar example here: the modern symphony trombone is a large-bore instrument that was introduced in Europe by touring American orchestras after the second world-war. It can be very loud with a "round" sound. Most music written before that in Europe is aimed at small-bore trombones, more the jazz-style. Small-bore instruments has less volume and "rips" apart much earlier. When these instruments are used you get a different balance. It might be that similar things goes for the other instruments. Maybe the players could be convinced to go down one size of instrument?

    It is very much about artistic interpretating. Just maybe the conductor gets the balance he wants to have? And just maybe that is what we should record? Maybe the artistic freedom should be with the artists, not with the recording engineer (put a bit bluntly)?

    So, just maybe, two mics on a decent distance, down to stereo and leave it at that. It will probably be a decent documentation of the actual sound at the concert.

    One possible way to handle things might be to record at a rehearsal and take the recording to the conductor for a friendly talk eye to eye (or ear to ear might be better). Maybe you could reach an agreement where you together work in getting a different balance. It would involve talking to the players, it might include removing one or a few of them (not your job, that should be done by the conductor), setting up dampening or screens between sections or a lot of other things. I often see drums on stage surrounded by plexiglass screens in order to get separation, maybe something to look at. A lot of things can be done to change the sound at the source.

    And if you can change the sound at the source, just maybe the issue is not any more to restore balance through recording techniques, but to preserve the balance there is.

    Sorry for the rambling. I am only not sure that the problems you hear can be solved by microphone techniques only.

  6. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    No I meant put some very directional mics in front of the horns, within the orch, but high and pointing back at the choir. The mic stands might be near the woods, or back row of violas, but high and aimed at the choir.

    Stating the obvious, you have two choices to attentuate the horns, increase distance to the mics and increase the directional rejection. The above technique exploits both of these principles.
  7. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    What I'm seeing here is a lot of good ideas, hopefully blended into something useful for Exultavit. My own .02-worth was to suggest going above the choir with the mics (tall stands or flown) but I see that's already been covered.

    Whevenever possible, advance planning and respectful discussion with the stage manager, music director, etc., is the key. I always try to take the music director/conductor's opinion as THE final say on everything, but I also try to keep him/her informed of the pitfalls of the setup as we're going into it. Granted, it often comes down to the available space/budget/size of the ensemble, but occasionally there can be a happy medium.

    As recently as last month, a cranky choreographer came at me about placement of a solo mic (too close to the performance area! hehehe). I had the music director settle it, by suggesting (privately): "do you want to live with NO soloists a year from now in the recording, or do you want to work on giving me a few more inches of space so that we can ALL do our jobs today? Remember, you're paying for this." (Guess who got the floor space!)

    Sometimes, my only choices are a lot of cardioids on the choir, spaced evenly across, positioned high if nec., sometimes it's omni's on the whole ensemble, sometimes spots, and usually a combination of all afterwards, in the mix.

    For example, there are times when the horns are certainly too loud, but this is (in some works, anyway)sometimes/oftentimes when the choir is NOT singing anyway. When mixing in a DAW in post, I will certainly turn off the mics that aren't in use, say, if the horns are tacit during the choir's segments. In this case, the mics with horn bleed can be gently gated off, and vice versa without it becoming obvious. With omni's or a decca tree covering the whole thing out in front, the up&down on/off of the mics isn't glaring or obvious, esp if done gently & discretely.

    Of course, once in a while you're going to get slammed no matter what you do. Sometimes I'm forced to use some multiband limiting on the tracks that are particularly offensive, (horns or tymps bleeding into choir mics, for example) even going as far as finding the center frequencies of the main sets of notes being played, and working with those. If done properly, you can sometimes trigger a multiband limiter to function fairly transparantely, and limit only the worst of the notes in question, leaving the overtones intact, while removing only of the worst of the peaks. In a multitrack mixdown, you can do this with the most severe/peaked tracks individually, and leave the main mics alone. This keeps your sense of punch and dynamic range, yet stops the bad stuff where it's happening - at the spot or choir mics.

    When there's no other choice, and you're being killed by the winds or brass (esp if it's live-to-2track or whatever), there should always come a time when you take a quiet, discrete moment and chat with the music director, even letting him/her hear the situation for themselves. (You of course do not want to alienate yourself from the brass & winds, they will remember you for a long long time if you make them look foolish. :evil: )

    Unless it's a visiting or guest choir with a large established orchestra, chances are the music director/conductor is often the choir director anyway (with the band as GUEST musicians), and in that case, it's simply in your best interest to make sure he/she (and the 50-100 members of choir who are no doubt paying your way in this) can hear the vocals when you turn in the CD afterwards. The brass players got paid and went home, but your client (the choir and the music director) might end up being po'd at YOU for not speaking up in the first place.

    Moving a brass section a foot here, or pushing the winds over a few inches there can sometimes make a world of difference, and save your butt long after the event is in the can and unfixable.
  8. Exsultavit

    Exsultavit Active Member

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. I especially enkoyed Ghellquist's reply regarding the history of the trombone and dynamics, large & small bore, etc.

    Getting the music director's attention and having a change in the seating effected is, for the client I am thinking of, a long shot indeed. Still I am totally aware that changing the sound at the source is by far the best way to succeed. Letting the conductor (who in this case is the choir director) in on the problem might help a bit, but once again my relationship is such that I mostly have to just deal with the seating and music as it is.

    Joe H- I am thankful for your ideas regarding possible solutions to try in post. I have tried most of them and, while they provide some joy, it is not as good as I would like.

    BTW, in the piece I'm currently mixing, the horns played terribly as well as loud, with many "fanfare"- type notes containing the dreaded 'horn-fart' effect. Had the playing been better, I would be more ready to accept the 'conductor makes the mix with his direction of the players' approach. That is to say: if the horns were good, I'd be happier to hear them loud.

    David- thanks for your re-explaining the micing approach you described. I myself own no shotgun mics, but I have tried this with cardiod and fig8 and it is my current working method to place the choir mics high and place the dead spot on the choir mics to the horns as much as possible. I'm sure that with shotguns, I would gain greater rejection than cards or fig8s. As far as height, I can only go so high before I am distancing myself from the choir, so I am limited there.

    I invite more thoughts and ideas! While I am a little disappointed that there appears to be no instant fix technique for my problem, I am at least comforted that I'm doing my best and, within reason, giving the customer a reasonable product. Short of changing the stage positions, the dynamics, or the player's actual instruments (!) to smaller bore versions (thank you for that thought Ghellquist- I'll note it for recording sessions where I have more influence), it seems that I am doing my best!


  9. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    A couple things -

    By no means should newer (valved) horns be louder than natural horns. That would be rather scary! Valved horns are a major compromise on many fronts. Natural horns have far less obstruction in the tubing and many have shorter tubing and far larger bore and are more conical in nature than the valved counterparts, all adding up to a louder sound.

    However, bad horn playing can't be overcome by mic placement. I'm truly sorry that they sucked. If they'll pay my airfare, I'd love to come play for them - whoever they are. I love playing with chorus.

    Anyway, Gunnar's on to something there. If the conductor is pleasd with the balance at the podium, then chances are, a well-placed main array plus flanks and maybe a couple light spots would suffice.

    If in fact you must go with choir spots (and I definitely would), I would go with a blumlein pair flown directly over the horns at a reasonable height. You'll find that it will do a good job picking up much of the chorus (though you might need to place spots on the outer edge, but horns shouldn't be much of an issue, unless this is Mahler 2, and then, loud horns are very appropriate.

    Bear in mind, the null on a fig 8 is not just the sides, but below and above too.

    In any case, good luck and enjoy!

  10. MasonMedia

    MasonMedia Guest

    I too have struggled with balance between choir and instrumentalists. The last concert, a friend suggested figure-8s and by golly, in this situation it worked great.

    This particular group (120 members) performs at the front of a large church. There is seating for 1200; a very high ceiling with no way to hang microphones. The choir fills a set of stairs and a set of risers placed on the altar level at the top of the stairs. I used 4 AEA S15 (15') stands with 4 Atlas 36" booms. The stands were set just in front of the choir about 10' off the floor with the boom thrust higher up and over the group. This placed the mics over the heads of the first 2 rows of singers. I also angled them down into the group about 25-deg from horizontal. The null of the figure-8s were aimed at the band that was seated in front of the group.[/img]
  11. ghellquist

    ghellquist Member

    Thinking a bit more of this and thinking that the problems was mainly with the French horns I get one more idea of things to test. (Cucco could probably fill in quite a bit more here).

    French horns are a bit different from other instruments as the sound goes backward. I have experienced this in a setting where the trombones were placed behind the horns and we were playing into each others flared end. This was actually physically painful, and it took about 1 minute for us all to decide to never sit that way again. Sorry, a bit off.

    But, in this case, maybe you have amateur french horn players. And they might be placed right in front of the choir. This is to most amateur players an unusual situation, and it might be difficult to hear the balance. Most of the poor horn guys sound will be going backward into the legs of the choir and is probably absorbed there. This means that they will not hear themselves the way they are used to. In addition they have a loud choir singing in their ears, not what they are used to either. This might get an amateur to play louder. It will get even worse if you have the horns on the right as seen from the audience. Then the horns point towards the center mics.

    It might be worth trying to place the horns to the left. In this way they point slightly outwards. Next place a reflecting surface behind the horns, allowing them to hear themselves clearly. This might be an upturned table or something similar. It should suffice with some hard surface, maybe 3 foot high, reflecting sound back to the player.

    Anyway, a few ideas.

  12. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    WHAT???!!! :!: :!: :!:
    I've been told the orchestra faces the wrong direction - you mean - we play backwards... :roll:

    Yeah, I bet! When bone players or trumpet players sit behind us, we make it our goal in like to seriously piss them off. Usually, this means adapting a Mahler-esque type of beautiful sound to the Haydn symphony we are currently playing.. :shock: Of course, when we horn players start to play louder, our ratio of incorrect:correct notes increases exponentially with each decibel.

    He He - place the sopranos directly behind the horns - it will solve all of your problems. Ask David, he's this forum's acoustic expert, but as I understand it, the average 425lb soprano has Thunder Thighs, which by definition have a Sound Transmission Loss of 62.4. I hear that Auralex attempted to use the blubber from sopranos to accomplish their deadening tactics, but settled on their open-celled foam since GreenPeace got involved.

    You mean, as Gods amongst men??

    Are you kidding - anything will get an amatuer horn player to play louder. They take the conductor waving his arms in rhythm as a signal that they aren't playing loud enough. And then, the conductor has the occassional stupidity to put Wagner in front of the amatuer hornist and encourage them further!

    Worst idea I've ever heard... :lol:
    Don't you know, the business end of the French horn is much like Medussa's eyes. Direct contact can turn one to stone or even destroy them in an instant. The effect of direct horning on trumpets or trombones is only a mere annoyance because they are either too drunk or stoned to know any better, but on the hornist, who is pure of spirit and heart - one's own sound is the proverbial cyanide capsule. One must never let a hornist hear themselves for fear that they will simply implode with shame.

    There's a reason we face the wrong way. Hell, even the tubas kinda face the right direction.

    The best bet would be to distract your horn players with shiny objects (new mouthpieces will ALWAYS do the trick!!!) and then hit them over the head. Replace them with large bore trombones which have the Crown Royal bag over the bell and voila - you now have an accurate and occassionally tame horn section.

    Just be ready to deal with the wrath of the awakening horn player. They may be sluggish and obtuse, but if they get their hands on their instrument, they will play Til Eulenspiegel excerpts until your head explodes.

    Good luck...

    (PS - try the fig8s if you can.)
  13. ghellquist

    ghellquist Member

    Oops. Never intended to pick on any instruments, least of all the horns. They tend to much more important than the trombones. Sorry Cucco.

    What I wanted to say is that, just maybe, you could change things a little to the better at the source. And it helps knowing the instruments as such and helping the players as much as possible. Maybe Cucco tries to say that my suggestions were all wrong?

  14. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    No Gunnar - I was simply poking fun at myself, the lowly, humble horn player that I am. Your suggestions were spot on. My sarcastic tone was not intended to be bitter, rather humorous. I feel, if I can't pick on myself every once in a while than I shouldn't be able to pick on others....like trombone players or clarinet players - two of the easiest targets in the orchestra.... :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :shock:

    Enjoy and let the horn jokes fly :!:

    J (y)
  15. ghellquist

    ghellquist Member

    Thank you Cucco. Relieved.

  16. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    No problem Gunnar!

    Don't worry, I'm rarely sarcastic when I'm cutting into someone. Usually, I like to be a complete dick when I do that. I save my sarcasm for humorous occassions only.

    J. (y)
  17. maintiger

    maintiger Well-Known Member

    a very entertaining thread- Jeremy, you are hilarious :D :D
  18. pmolsonmus

    pmolsonmus Well-Known Member

    The real problem with horn players is that they never went through volume puberty the way ALL the other brass did...

    .....in MARCHING BAND!

    It's a developmental thing

  19. Exsultavit

    Exsultavit Active Member

    Thanks again for all the replies!

    Cucco & Gunnar- Thanks for all the French Horn humor. Keep in mind, though, that I was actually talking about trumpets,(think "Bach Cantatas"). I often forget that when I say 'Horns" to a modern brass player, he/she immediately thinks 'french horn'.

    does this help?

  20. ghellquist

    ghellquist Member

    Well, if they are loud they are loud. I guess what I tried to say in previous posts goes here as well. If you can get the balance better at the source it will be the best start.

    Trumpets has changed quite a bit from the Bach days. Todays instruments generally are much, much louder than older instruments. The valve was introduced for the trumpet about 1830 (invented a few years earlier). Some music was written for instruments with holes in them allowing pitch changes. Generally they were inferior to the instruments we have today as far as volume goes, but I guess you already know this. And the modern trend is for even larger bore and very large mouthpieces meaning a lot of volume, think pop music. Just perhaps the players could be persuaded to go down to smaller instruments and smaller mouthpieces as well. (I think a better choice might be small-bore beginner instruments, say Yamaha, instead of the symphony trumpets from say Bach).

    Next thing could be to alter the players reference as to balance. If you place reflective screens behind and around them, they will hear less of the choir and less of the orchestra and more of themselves. This will possibly lead to them going a bit easier. The worst-case scenario might be to build a fully enclosed box of plexiglass around them. Make sure that they hear themselves very well and are not having the loud sopranos singing straight into their ears.

    Good professional musicians knows how to handle this situation by themselves, but less experienced players surely has problems with the balance.

    You can use also screens to good effect in order to screen them off a bit from some of the microphones as well.


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