Orchestra: The Final Frontier

Discussion in 'Orchestra' started by David French, Nov 4, 2007.

  1. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    Well, maybe not final, but regardless, it's time for me to learn.

    I've recently been appointed recording engineer of the orchestra at my university. All of my past orchestra recording experience has been quite limited; in other words, I would only have time to stick up some mics with very minimal soundcheck time and hit record... and this I have only done a few times. My new job is to attend every rehearsal and work on things to get them ready for the final rehearsal when they will do a full run-through. While I am familiar with all the traditional orchestra methods used by the different record labels (e.g. Decca Tree), I have chosen to start with a pair of omnis and build from there in the hopes of learning more than if I had jumped straight to the Tree. Maybe I'm wrong on this; I don't know.

    I have a few excerpts I'd like to share with the orchestra vets for critique. These were recorded with a single pair of CMC62, spaced 40cm, 11' high, a foot or so behind the conductor's head.

    Here's a few excerpts from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe Suite #2
    wind solos, violas
    full strings and brass
    sections, percussion

    And here's an excerpt from the string orchestra part to Scott McAllister's X - Concerto for Clarinet
    string orchestra

    Here's a link to an excerpt of the McAllister work from the composer's website, if you're curious
    X clip

    Here's what I've learned, or what I think I've learned so far:

    I'm pretty committed to omni mains. Only the omnis capture what I'd call a 'real' frequency response. I've tried MS with MKH-80s and R-122s before. Coincident techniques don't seem to be able to handle the breadth of the ensemble and sound somehow restricted to me.

    The direct to reverberant ratio seems about correct here for most of the instruments. I've tried farther back and it gives a good blend, probably better than the posted recordings, but it's just too washed out. This is only a 600 seat hall, and it gets pretty wet pretty fast.

    I probably need some form of outriggers. I've tried the old RCA/Mercury method of three omnis across the front and it was like a percussion vacuum, amplifying the already too loud percussion section. I don't know if they're playing too loud or it it's just a consequence of being backed right up against a solid wall, but even in the posted samples above, it's excessive to my ears.

    The strings are weak, no doubt because there are too few of them and they don't tune to each other very well. I had this bright idea to try R-122s as 'string overheads' with the nulls aiming toward the percussion, but it didn't really work... there was still too much bleed from the percussion (bounce off the ceiling?), and the drums sounded like cardboard... and, the tone wasn't even that good... it lacked that 'sweet cutting edge' that the violins need to have.
  2. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    First - It's about effing time!! 8)

    Second - I'd personally be hesitant to place omnis that high. This may be part of the cause of the exaggerated percussion. Bear with me and I think you'll understand.

    Imagine a triangle.

    Point 1 is the microphone.
    Point 2 is the front of the orchestra
    Point 3 is the back of the orchestra

    If you were to place the microphones (point 1) at the exact same place as the front of the orchestra, you've now got the largest delta that you can have as far as distance-to-point-2 and distance-to-point-3. In other words, the sound will be very deep as the sound from the violins will arrive immediately, but the sound from the trumpets will take perhaps as much as 25-30 ms to arrive (for a delta of roughly 25-30ms)

    However, if you move the mics (point 1) up in a vertical plane to say 10 feet, the violin sounds will arrive at the mics at roughly 8.8ms but the trumpets will still take around 25 to 30 ms (let's assume 25 since I don't think the hall is that deep. This will account for roughly 30 feet of depth on the stage). Now your delta is only 17 ms. This makes the trumpets (and bones and percussion) sound much closer.

    The higher you go, the smaller the delta (you'll never reach equality unless you move the mics over the orchestra.....you wouldn't do that!) which means the more compact the orchestra.

    Listen in the hall. Are the percussion that loud in the hall? If so...there's not much you can do (shy of telling the conductor the percussion are too loud! Unless you know him/her and have a VERY good relationship with him/her, this is not a battle you want!)

    I am very inclined to agree with you - if the hall sounds VERY good, omnis are (IMO) the best way to go. Spacing is critical, especially if they're to be the only pair. If they're not...you can afford a little sloppiness on the order of a few centimeters. If you're flying mics, this can be a MAJOR pain unless you have a ladder or a hydraulic lift. Even still, this can be a pain in the butt and this is why ORTF is almost always a "safer" bet. A well spaced ORTF has the luxury of several feet of front to back motion before it gets to sounding wrong. Otherwise, I'd call it varying degrees of right... :wink:

    Honestly, I have not listened to your links since I'm on a laptop right now and this would not be a good place to listen.

    My only advice (blind, err...deaf) would be to consider lowering the main pair a few feet and consider angling them downwards into the orchestra. Try to make it so as much of the orchestra is on-axis or within 15 degrees as possible.

    Also, I find the distance and the spacing to be a tad different than normal. Normally, with omnis in a good hall, I would go back at least 4 to 5 feet, maybe as much as 10 (given the depth of the hall). I understand the size restriction on the hall driving your choice, but in this case, I would strongly urge going with an ORTF pair with omni flanks. The 40 cm spacing seems as though it's also driven by your close placement. Generally, this is relatively narrow for a solo AB pair for orchestra.

    The nice thing about the ORTF with omni flanks is:
    1 - ORTF is a good deal safer than AB and is more tolerant of non-perfect halls.
    2 - Distance is a little less critical
    3 - The omni flanks can be brought in as much or as little as you'd like to add that width and breadth that you mention (and do it quite effectively).

    With a hall that size, I would assume that the natural reverb of a full orchestra is a little top heavy. The ORTF/Flank combo will do a little to tame this and will allow you to add a slightly more appropriate reverb in post.

    Of course, you'll definitely want more than a foot distance from the back of the conductor with ORTF. 7 to 10 feet would be a good starting point.

    I'll listen to the samples in a bit and provide additional feedback if required.

    Good luck!!!!!!!

  3. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Oh...congrats on the appointment!!
  4. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    That's interesting what you say about the height. I've read a lot of articles... interviews with some of the big names in orchestral recording, and the lowest height I encountered was 9', the highest being 12'. I wonder how low you're talking? I also wonder what else it's going to change. Oh well, only one way to find out. I'll be trying it tomorrow. I think I'll keep working with the omnis at the same time as the ORTF. I hate to give up on the omnis since they sound so damned good, but where they need to be will probably sound a bit too ambient. I'll see if I can somehow find a compromise.

    Thanks a bunch for the great info, Jeremy!
  5. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    With the distance behind the conductor you're working with...12 feet, 11 feet...too high.

    If there were a good 8 feet distance, 12 feet may be very appropriate.

    I find that the height issue is just as critical with AB as distance. Most people throw their stands to a pre-set height (pre-set in their brains) and then adjust forward and back. I think this is a grave mistake.

    Height is a MAJOR factor and must be considered with every ensemble in every situation.

    While it's critical in all positions, I find it particularly critical in AB and Blumlein the most.


  6. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    I decided to cling to the omnis and went with a pair of M-149, spaced 60 cm, and only 8' high (down from 11' in the previous examples). Boy was that a learning experience. First, a rule that I already knew but has now been driven home: Just because two mics have the same polar pattern does NOT mean they will present the same reverb levels at the same position. The Neumanns were hopelessly wet at the same distance (different height, mind you) that the CMC62 were IMO just right. I wonder if you can abstract this to say that a Braunmühl/Weber capsule will generally be wetter than a fixed omni? Hmmm...

    The second thing I learned was that height really is a MAJOR factor in orchestral recording. Holy God, did the balance change. Eight feet did tame the percussion, but the winds lost all focus and the strings may have been a bit too much. If you listen to the very first MP3 I posted, I think you'll find that the winds are excellent, but in the third MP3 the percussion is too much, not to mention what happens in the much more active sections of the Suite.

    The third thing that I need to learn but am having difficulty with are the parameters that are controlled by width of the central AB pair. In going from the Schoeps at 38 cm to the Neumanns at 60 cm, I noticed a breakdown of the imaging. The winds were everywhere and it was completely unacceptable. Of course this is an elementary parameter. What I'm not sure of is what other aspects change due to spacing. Any insight here?

    Next time I will try the ORTF along with the omnis (didn't have the facility this time), but I really do think I can make the omnis work.

    In listening to the first three examples, do you think I would be better off if I has used MK2H or MK2S caps? Not that I have them, but I do have a 4006 pair. I love the warmth and softness of the MK2, but I wonder if I could get closer to the status quo with more high end.

    Concerning spots, there are some things I'd like to hear more of. First, I never really hear that bright edge from any of the brass. They are crammed in the back right corner, right up against two walls, on risers. Might I want to put something in front of them, fairly low, to get some brilliance? Please see the third MP3 at the top of the page for a reference. The viola section is really pitiful... they aren't great players (are they ever?), and there aren't enough of them. Would you try to do anything about it? 'm not sure I want an artificially amplified bad viola section, but the lines don't always come out. This same thing goes for celli. There are just too few. The director thinks a bass spot is needed, though this is based on a recording with no outriggers. I'll probably do it just to make him feel good. Any favorite method of doing this? I also wouldn't mind getting some articulation on timpani. Agree? Harp is weak too, but it's not that big of a player. Spot it anyway?

    The last thing I'm wondering about now is the use of my flanking mics. This time, I went with an 8' height, and I spaced them only 240 cm on either side of the center stand. This put them just behind the first chair violin on the left and viola on the right. Do you think I should go wider, to center them on the string sections that they're picking up? Also, I have this idea to get as much string sound as I can while minimizing everything else. Is this wise? To do this, should I stay low with these mics? Of course it affects the tone of the instruments, but for better or worse I'm not sure. If anybody has time, I'd love it if someone would take a quick listen to these examples featuring just the outriggers at the positions described above and tell me what you'd like to hear out of them that you're not hearing already.

    Thanks a million as always.
  7. Zilla

    Zilla Active Member

    Even an inch can have a profound effect in front to back balance. It pays to hustle on and off stage during rehearsal (as many times as necessary) to nudge the mics to just the right hight.

    Investigate interaural time delay and quarter wavelength comb filtering as a function of capsule distance. Width of ensemble also enters in to capsule spacing: the entire orchestra needs to be covered which often conflicts with imaging goals.
  8. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    A couple things...

    Yes, a Braunmühl/Weber capsule does have it's quirkiness, especially in relation to wet/dry ratios compared to a single capsule. Think about its construction and how it obtains its omni pattern. It's merely 2 cardioid mics placed back to back with the phases at a constant. Whereas the rear lobe of a true omni is slighly (to noticably) attenuated (in the HF), the rear lobe of a dual diaphragm is not.

    Second, as Zilla points out, even an inch of height can make a difference. Changing 3 feet will completely alter the orchestra. Try smaller intervals. The few orchestras that I do in VERY nice halls generally do not require much more than 8 feet (above stage level), but in those cases, the brass are slightly elevated and the acoustics are darned near perfect. Maybe a little more height would be prudent...perhaps 10 or 9 feet or in between.

    Also, the MK2 caps you used...are they the straight MK2s? I had assumed that you were referring to the MK2s or the MK2h which is why I made recommendations to moving a little further out. In that case, yes the MK2s would be (IMO) a better choice allowing for a considerable bit more distance but still retaining the characteristic depth and reach of the Schoeps.

    In regards to the spacing...the Schoeps have a great deal more latitude when it comes to spacing. The Neumanns summed omni pattern is not ideal off axis and tends to collapse if spread even a little too far apart. The Schoeps are not plagued by this. You can generally get up to 90 cm with the Schoeps (again depending upon the size of the orchestra, distance to the orchestra and size of the hall) without major "hole in the middle" syndrome.

    In regards to spots. My general rule of thumb is that I don't like to use them and if I do, I barely use them. Spot on harp, bass, timp, brass...it's starting to sound a little too complicated. You'll never be able to time align those all correctly and the orchestra will begin to compress in depth (trumpets sitting right next to violins).

    The bad news is.....you have to work with the orchestra you're given. No amount of spot microphones will turn the orchestra into the LA Phil. Sometimes conductors understand this and sometimes they don't. The ones that don't get this will probably not like your work. You'll lose them as clients, but 2 years from now when everybody else's work sounds like crap, they'll be back to you. (Or they'll buy their own gear and assume that they can do it better with little to no experience and a $1500 credit limit at Guitar Center...that's another topic all together.)

    The conductors that understand this will hear the difference between a well-mic'ed orchestra and an over miced orchestra. These are the guys you want to impress since they're the ones that keep their jobs in front of the orchestras.

    If the aforementioned sections truly are weak on the recording and this can't be fixed with main or aux array placement, then yes, I might reach for a judicious spot mic. A time aligned pair over brass and/or woodwinds (never 2 pair - either 1 pair covering 1 or both sections), maybe one on timp (rarely) and maybe on the harp. I would not try spot micing the string section to try to coax more from them. You'll only worsen the problems already there.

    As for the flanks...yes, 6 feet off center is a tad close. For "lesser than good" orchestras, it may be scary to put the flanks over 3rd or 4th row violins or celli, but it's often necessary to capture the width of the hall.

    Besides, the flanks should not be that close to the orchestra as to be able to pick up individual players. Depending upon the hall, my flanks sit 8 feet or more back from the lip of the stage. Often, if it's a good hall, I'll go even further back to as much as the 1/3 distance in the hall.

    One more note....I wouldn't state anything negative about your clients on this board. I did that one time in the past and that client happened to read this board occassionally.

    I lost business. (a lot of it. 6 to 8 concerts yearly with disc sales included....perhaps $5K of annual budget.)

    Just be cautious. Our job is to record. We can laugh at some of our clients, but it's best to do so in the privacy of one's home or studio.


  9. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Congrats on the new appointment, Davd!

    Excellent posts, Jeremy, esp what you just said about conductors and clients not understanding the difference between multiple mics, etc.

    I spot almost the same way, in a similar order of importance: soloists, harp, bass, tymp, brass, etc. (Some people wonder why I'd spot mic something as loud as a tymp, but the tymp player knows that I'm looking for the detail of the mallet hitting the head, NOT nec. the boominess underneath it...that stuff just bleeds everywhere else anyway, and falls under "Bass management".)

    I had a recent big orchestral setting where the entire brass section was spread out in one long line from left to right, along the back row of the orchestra. The winds were all in a similar line directly in front of them. About 25-6 players in all. (How the HELL does one spot mic sections this way, eh?) Of course, there was no point (unless I wanted to break out 12 or 13 mics and do them all in pairs....shudder...) Of course, my front mic's (stereo pair & omni flanks) handled the orchestral blend much better anyway, and when we mix, we'll be working with the balance the conductor established.

    If you DO have some room and there seems to be a need for spot mic'ing the brass individually or as a section, try some ribbons if you have any available. I had an orchestral recording session back in April with a 90 piece orchestra, and was able to spot the lower brass section with my AEA R84. What a GREAT sound!

    For spots, I'm always looking to get just the tiniest bit of detail when mixing, vs. going for overall level. Sometimes I have to chuckle at what I went through in putting up a mic, running a cable, dedicating a track for over 2 hrs of recording, etc., only to find I've used the tiniest bit of detail to make something sparkle or shine a bit more than the rest. (Harp solos come to mind, ditto for tymp mics, etc.)

    Of course, if the front mics are all properly positioned, and the orchestra is doing their job in a good hall, the spots don't even go up. I don't mind that at all!
  10. Plush

    Plush Guest


    One of the main things that comes to mind in working with student ensembles is ----is the orchestra sound balanced? In other words, are the sections balanced against each other?
    Sometimes some sections ie. percussion or trombones will over play.
    The result is that one who is beginning to work intensively with orchestra will wonder why the pick-up is not balanced, It may be the group itself.

    I would suggest moving your flanking mics out more. 7 feet is too narrow unless the stage is really narrow.

    Don't use any spots at first, just listen to the four across the front. After a while of dialing in their position, they will tell you what else you need to spot, if anything.

    When doing your experimenting, change only one thing at a time.

    Best Wishes,

    Phlush Phonic
  11. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Aww....don't be so down on yourself.
  12. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    Thanks so much for the responses, everybody.

    I have two rehearsals left before the show. Next time I'm planning to use a 4006 pair in the center (sticking with 38 cm spacing since it spread the winds very nicely and I don't know what I'd gain by changing it) and a pair of MK2 on the flanks (don't have S or H, but do have KM183 if anybody thinks that would be better for some reason). I'll throw up some spots, too, just to see. In everything I've done there's never been any brilliance from the brass like I hear on commercial recordings of this piece. It seems the only way to get it is with a nice bright condenser pair back there aiming somewhat into the bells from maybe 6' away (I have room for this onstage as they are alone in the back left corner on risers.) Also, from listening to everything I've done so far, I think it would be nice if the timpani had some point (they always have zero in the omnis) and the harp had some volume and zing. Based on my experience so far, I don't think there's any other way to get these things. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    The main question I still have after reading the responses is pertaining to flank positioning. What I'm trying to ascertain is what, exactly, I am going for. It would help a lot if someone could listen to the snippets I posted up here and tell me what they'd like to hear in them that they are not getting. Does it sound like they're too close, too narrow, too low?

    I'm seeing the flanking mics basically as violin I and II pickup on the left and viola and bass pickup on the right. I'm not sure what else I'd want from them. To me, everything else sounds great with just the center omnis (height-induced balance issues not withstanding). To that end, I am left feeling that I should keep them lower than the central pair, just to avoid getting more of anything else. Is this dumb?
  13. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    The outriggers do a few things...

    1 - They pick up the ambience of the whole orchestra in the hall.

    2 - They emphasize the width of the ensemble (which is often a tad too collapsed through just straight AB)

    3 - They tend to add a lot of warmth to the recording

    That being said, the sounds you got from your spots on the clips you posted are a tad too near in for me.

    If my flanks are within 12' of the main array, I'm surprised. Often they are as much as 12 to 15 or more feet off of center and as much as 6 to 12 feet behind the main array (though just as often, depending upon the hall and what I'm trying to achieve with them, along the same plane as the main array.)

    Also, they are rarely if ever lower than the main array. Often, they are at least 2 to 3 feet or more higher than the main array.

    As for the spot mics, place them and use them as you see fit. I'm not familiar with any dramatically bright performances of Daphnis...but I've only heard maybe 5 live performances and never recorded it.

    The real question is, what do the brass sound like in the hall? Are they bright? If not, don't try to coax it out of your recording. You'll end up not being happy at all and the whole spectral balance will be wonky because of it.

    I wouldn't say your approach to flanks is "dumb." However, off target. Go for the whole show...wide, warm and full and add as much or as little to the main pair as you desire to get the fullness and width. If you end up not using them - congratulations, you found the EXACT spot that your omnis present the entire picture. I think I've gotten that once in 10 years. It's not impossible, especially with 8 or more hours of tweaking available to you. With 30 minutes.....good luck. :)
  14. Simmosonic

    Simmosonic Active Member

    Small changes certainly can make a difference...

    On that topic, never discount the effects of focusing the capsules appropriately. I have often found myself in a kind of acoustic stalemate, where I've got the best sound I can in terms of stereo spread, direct-to-reverberant balance and so on, but I'm not getting the sound that I know the mics are capable of providing. In those situations, the solution is often found in the 'focusing' of the capsules, because they are slightly off-axis. Angling them up or down a bit can make a big difference in focusing. The angle might have been correct at the beginning, but the moment you move the mics backwards, forwards, up or down, it will be different...

    It is often hard to judge the angle of the mics if they are above head height. Looking directly into the capsule from on stage can help, but only if you're able to get yourself into such a position. Looking upwards from anywhere on the stage floor to judge angles is very deceiving.

    In concert halls, I try to get myself up to the same height as the microphones by venturing into the side-of-stage seating, and then I hold up something with a straight edge to my eye (my credit card, usually), running it in parallel with the axis of the microphone's body (or perpendicular for a side-address microphone, in which case I align the side of the credit card with the mic's body, putting the top of the card on-axis with the capsule). This allows me to follow the top edge down to the performers so I can see where the axis of the microphone is *really* pointing. I am often amused to find the mics are actually pointing above the performer's heads, or at their feet, or anywhere else but at the source of sound! Yet, from the stage itself, the angle appears to be correct. In these cases, correcting the angle usually makes all the difference...

    - Phlimmo Phonic
  15. Simmosonic

    Simmosonic Active Member

    May not be a good idea if you have one of those stylish Virgin credit cards with the rounded corner...
  16. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    I recently realized that I never posted back to this thread with the end results. So... here they are!

    Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2, excerpt

    Main Pair: CMC62
    • 38cm spacing
      5' out from front row of strings
      9.5' high
      splayed slightly
    Outriggers: KM-183
    • 10.5' back from front row of strings
      13' to either side of main pair
      9.5' high
      mixed at -3dB relative to main
    Winds: KM-184
    • spaced 3' apart
      9.5' high
      soft panned
      time aligned to main pair
      mixed equally with main pair
    Bass spot, Harp spot... both time aligned to main pair

    So, what do you think? Please be picky.

    Any suggestions for improvement, be it in mic choice, placement, or mixing, would be appreciated.
  17. TheFraz

    TheFraz Active Member

    This may be as close to sin as possible. But I know one of my teachers prefers to leave the percussion out of it. Instead he reconstructs it in midi.
    I would be damned if any one of you could pick out what was recorded in the hall and what was added in with his recordings.
    I am not a huge fan of the idea, but it works very well for him. He has yet to have a conductor complain about the results. Mind you he does allot of his work in Europe, where, well people are a hell of a lot less forgiving about production techniques in classical recordings.
    But a large reason why he is able to get away with a seamless integration is due to his incredible mixing skills. His ability to manipulate the ear is phenomenal.

    So that would always be an option. But only if it was not a recording of a public performance.
  18. TheFraz

    TheFraz Active Member

    Just listen to the recording.
    Good work man.
    The hall sounds a little brighter then what I am used to, but the cellos and violas playing sound really great. Every thing in the high end just seems to be full of air, so to speak.

    Congrats on the job. I hope you continue to fine tune your skills. Your clearly well on the right path.
  19. BobRogers

    BobRogers Well-Known Member

    David- First and foremost, a beautiful sounding recording. Clean, clear, and airy. However - and perhaps this is because I am at my computer listening through headphones - it didn't seem to me as "naturalistic" an image as I like in classical recordings. I felt as if I was placed in the middle of the orchestra rather than in front of it. It had more of a film score feel rather than a concert recording feel. Again, I'm sure the headphones are a big part of this, but my guess is that the high levels of the spot mics is part of it as well (though you certainly got great balance). I'm sure better ears and minds will speak soon, but I thought I'd give my first impression before I was talked out of it by people who knew better.
  20. David French

    David French Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the input guys.

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