Second Thoughts About Radio Recording

Discussion in 'Location Recording' started by JimboJ, Nov 23, 2005.

  1. JimboJ

    JimboJ Active Member

    Recording is a busman’s holiday for me since my day job is working in the administration of an orchestra. To avoid conflicts of interest, I keep the two worlds separate. I don’t record my orchestra and I don’t tell the groups I record how to run their businesses. But it was all I could do to restrain myself last weekend. I thought the readers of this board might appreciate the story.

    For an out-of-town concert, I agreed to let the local public radio station record the orchestra I work for. This is not a throwaway favor because we have to pay every musician AFM scale wages and benefits for the recording. However, we needed the recording to fulfill the requirements of a grant and figured it would be a good investment in community relations and would be nice to have for the archives.

    To check on the radio station’s quality control, I contacted a colleague from another orchestra that the radio station had recorded. He said the station did a great job on the recordings. A solid endorsement. Then, a few days before the concert, I sent the station’s music director a diagram of the orchestra layout. He assured me that the station’s engineer would know what to do.

    Trouble started when the engineer showed up one hour before the soundcheck. By contrast, the P.A. operator showed up seven hours before the soundcheck to hang his mics for the chorus, a rhythm section, the soloist, and an announce mic. No surprise, the P.A. sound was great.

    Second sign of trouble: The radio station engineer hung two U87s on a stereo bar about four feet apart and 30 feet from the stage. Okay, I figure, he’s trying to get some sounds of the room and the audience that he can mix into the recording. Next, he’ll put up his main pair, right? Wrong! The U87s situated a mile from the orchestra ARE his main pair!

    Puzzled looks on the engineer’s face when he puts on his headphones. With 20 minutes left in the orchestra’s soundcheck, the engineer gets out a ladder and down come the U87s. Now what? Up goes a pair of Shure cardioids where they should be, a few feet behind the conductor. Except that the engineer only has one of those little boom stands extended to the max and the mics get no higher than 6.5 feet. The cardioids are pre-positioned on the stereo bar. As he starts plugging in cables, I realize that he’s not going to change the position. That’s right, it’s X-Y, not ORTF as I think most engineers would have opted for with an orchestra spread out 25 feet in either direction in front of the mics. Guess the station leaves the mics permanently in X-Y for radio interviews.

    Okay, maybe this can be salvaged with some outriggers. Our engineer gets the idea. Puts up the U87s. Except that instead of putting them in FRONT of the orchestra, he puts them on the SIDES, effectively mic’ing the backs of the violins on one side and the backs of the cellos and basses on the other. Wow, this is getting interesting! Maybe we can at least do something creative when mixing the tracks in post-production. Oops, he’s going live to a DAT!

    I haven’t heard the tape yet but I doubt I’ll be pleasantly surprised. No moral to the story except maybe I should think twice about not recording my own orchestra. I don’t have great equipment but at least I would have had a decent main pair, a couple of omni outriggers put in FRONT of the orchestra, some tall mic stands, and everything going multi-track into a DAW. I would also have taken some signals from the PA to pick up the chorus, rhythm section, etc.

    I hate it when so-called experts tell me what I should do when I’m recording, and I hesitated to give this engineer an audio lesson. Maybe I’ll know better next time. I don’t blame the engineer entirely, though. The station also had him pick up a camera during the concert to get some video footage for TV, leaving the audio mix to fend for itself. Arghh!

    -- James
  2. DavidSpearritt

    DavidSpearritt Well-Known Member

    I think you have struck upon a common problem. A lot of people who call themsleves "audio" engineers or recording engineers are only technicians, they can connect stuff together, plug leads in, put mics on stands, switch on a DAW, press the go button etc.

    They know nothing about music, about musical style, they don't listen to music much after hours, they can't tell you who the great pianists or singers are, what the great works of music are, who the great composers are and why, they don't know how a violin works (they think the sound comes out the f holes), they cannot read a score. Etc etc.

    They are obsessed with gear and not the music. This is why I get very bored with most conversations about preamps and downstream of that.

    A great recording engineer is a musician first and a technician last. This is what you have to ascertain when selecting an engineer or checking some credentials. It is a reliable measure for a getting a great recording.
  3. hueseph

    hueseph Well-Known Member

    This may be a stupid idea but couldn't he at least gotten a decent multitrack from the FOH mixer? Couldn't he have patched into the FOH board and used the U87's as stictly room mics? I've never mic'd anything that big before. I've assisted but for the most part have no idea how to deal with that kind of thing.
  4. JimboJ

    JimboJ Active Member

    David, The best engineer I know is also a fine musician; he keeps up his chops playing in an orchestra when not engineering, producing and releasing some 30+ CD's a year. (It's a hellish schedule considering the hours he spends producing, editing and mastering each disk. However, it's a living and the Grammy awards, the great reviews and the satisfied musicians he records don't hurt.) He's got an incredible pair of ears and uses them for what he considers his most important skill after musicianship: the art of choosing and positioning microphones. Frankly, if you've got the wrong microphone in the wrong place (or some combination of the two), no amount of musicality is gong to help and the finest preamps in the world are going to be amplifying dreck.

    Hueseph, you bring up an interesting point about the FOH mixer. For this concert, the promoter was originally going to hire someone who wanted to mic every instrument in the orchestra and feed it all through the PA. That would have meant something like 80 microphones. We INSISTED that the promoter find someone else. An orchestra is meant to interact with the acoustics of the room. Putting a PA between orchestra and audience is almost always a recipe for aural disaster. (Outdoor concerts and concerts in basketball stadiums are another story.) The engineer who was eventually hired discretely mic'ed the choir (amateurs who needed a little boost), vocal soloists, and the piano and bass in a rhythm section. I would definitely have taken those tracks and incorporated them into my final mix if I had been recording. However, the STARTING place for mic'ing the orchestra for recording is the two microphones (or 3 in a Decca Tree) that sit somewhere above and around where the conductor is doing his/her thing -- center stage in front of the orchestra. The radio station engineer didn't seem to know even this basic fact.

    -- James
  5. hueseph

    hueseph Well-Known Member

    That's great info. I'm learning a lot here and I appreciate you taking the time to explain that.
  6. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    That's indeed a painful story, James!

    Naturally, I'm professionally curious as to where and who did the recording...esp if you're out of New York area....sounds like someone should be "singled out" for such exceptional, um...'expertise'.

    Will it be on the air any time soon, and will you let us know how it came out?

Share This Page