Strangest places to do an "acoustic" recordings.

Discussion in 'Location Recording' started by Thomas W. Bethel, Dec 25, 2004.

  1. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    Most of my recordings of acoustic ensembles or solo performers have been done in concert halls, recording studios and on various stages. I have done recordings outside in the snow, in the rain and in a wind storm. I have also recorded in tiled bathrooms and under the stage in a large concert hall to capture the right ambience. I have also recorded in churches in chapels and once inside a car. I would be interested in knowing what other "weird" or "semi weird" places people have recorded acoustic instruments. The most memorable recording of acoustic instruments in a non traditional space happened in a large rehearsal room of the local college. It was a live performance of a Baroque Ensemble and they were arranged (their decision) around in a circle. I put up two SM-80 Shure Microphones (Omnis) on two tall stands in the middle of the group and recorded the whole concert that way. It came out sounding GREAT (if I do say so myself) and the group was VERY PLEASED.

    Have a good holiday...!
  2. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Tom; this is another great idea for a thread, and it fits in perfectly with the concept of this forum!

    You got me thinking about a number of interesting & challenging recordings we've done over the years; including empty aparments for solo violin, footballs fields and marching bands...hehehe. And god knows, I LOVE a challenge, although I have learned over the years to build a few caveats into our production agreements with clients about things beyond our control; who pays for 'em, and what happens if there's a forced cancellation, etc.

    First thing that comes to mind is a number of Carillon recordings we've done - three "instruments", three different locations. All of them incredibly challenging both in terms of capturing the monsters themselves sonically and the other impurities: Sounds of the world around them.

    The first carillon we ever recorded was simply an audio bed for a video documentary for a completely restored carillon on Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia. ($650K for the restoration alone...wish they had left more $$ for the documentary!) Being quite naive at the time, we arrived to 15 degree temps in early January (at least the mics were in the sun!) and 30 MPH winds. (We used every kind of wind sock we could find - including FUR - which always seems to work the best!) We had to record some automated (midi) tracks in the middle of a weekday, so re-takes weren't a problem. We were only able to put up a stereo pair, and ultimately found the alley-way between the church and a 30-story highrise was the best spot. Fortunately, it was only a soundtrack for a video documentary, so we were able to bury the worst of it....sirens, buses, even the competing chimes of Phila's City Hall tower 6 blocks away.

    This has led to other commerical recordings of carillons in the area (a market unto itself, we've found!) including one at Valley Forge and one at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Sq., PA. The Carillon at Valley Forge (Washington Memorial Chapel) is problematic in that it's only about 100 feet from Rt. 29; the ONLY road going through the entire area linking King of Prussia, Valley Forge and Phoenixville PA. While one would think it would be QUIET, it's not the case, even at night. Plus, there are people living nearby, so even if we COULD close the road in the wee hrs of the morning (with a permit from the National Park service), we'd have to get about 15 families alternate rooms in a motel for the night, or expect them to put up with endless retakes of carillon performances. (And anyone who's ever heard this can attest to how painful THAT can be! heheheh)

    In the end, we chose early evening hours to record, and put three pairs of mics up around the perimenter; one was an incredibly wide pattern on each side of the base of the tower (The out-riggers, we called 'em) for detail on the smaller bells, and then a front and rear stereo (x-y) pattern for the main sound of the instrument. With 52 bells, this baby had a wide diffusion pattern, and an insanley HUGE dynamic range; not to mention incredible delay times, sonic build up, etc. The instrument itself is about 90 feet in the air (top of a tower) and about 15' on each side. We did three sessions out there in the early spring (best time to record: Minimal birds, bugs and critters) but we did get wind and rain. Aside from the wonderful experience and learning curve of doing this one, I also now have the hysterically funny (sort of!) sound of a pair of mics on a 20' stand wobbling and falling through the air, finally CRASHING to the ground and bouncing. (It's called: "Oops!.mp3" if anyone wants to hear it....) It was the wind that knocked it over (we added sandbags after that!) and fortunately the stand pole itself hit a bench, while the mics never actually touched the ground....whew!

    Last but not least, this all led to another referral - to Longwood Gardens' Carillon in Kennett Square, PA - and we're in the middle of mastering a second commercial CD for them as well. This one was built in 2000 by a foundry in the Netherlands specificially for the place, and it's at least in a better environment, in a tower on the grounds of a 1000 acre arboretum, with the highway MUCH farther off. (So one would THINK, anyway!) Using everything we've learned to date, we were able to record at night, after the place had closed, with three seperate mic pairs (Two distant omni & one cardioid, up close) and still found amazing challenges. In addition to wind (and some rain), we got night birds, ferral cats, fighting squirrels, planes (jets & props), trains (Amtrak isn't far away, we found...) and automobiles - most of them hotrods & trucks, but wow, the sound really DOES carry easily, esp at night. Using walkie talkies to cue the carilloneur (that's the person who PLAYS the bells, for real), we dodged the flight-path of commerical airlines, timed the takes, and recorded between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. most nights.

    Simply amazing how noisey our world really is, even way out in the suburbs of Kennett Square, PA.

    I dunno if this is good or bad, but as more carillon owners get copies of these CDs, we get more calls....hahaha....I just have to remember to pack my ponchos & longjohns, my wind screens, prop lights, and longggggggggggg extension cords to power the rig - running out of my makeshift studio in my van! (Can't even run the heater in the car, of course...too much noise!)
  3. FifthCircle

    FifthCircle Well-Known Member

    I don't know if it counts, but I did production sound and music consulting for a series of national television commercials (Chili's Restaurants- the ads with the performers in front of a red backdrop in strange locations).

    Each ad was in its own location- usually somewhere in the middle of the city, most of which were street corners, but we also did one by the water on the beach, on a bluff over the ocean by the Korean Bell (a Los Angeles landmark in San Pedro), the middle of a traffic circle, and on the Queen Mary suffleboard courts. Most were a single musician or a pair (voice and guitar, for example), but we also had a salsa group (which got the most air-play), a family of musicians (untrained), harmonica solo, electric guitar solo, ukuele solo...

    To make it more fun, being for television- no mics could be seen. So.... To record, we used a selection of lav mics that we mounted on performers and instruments. We also used a Sanken M-S mic where we recorded undecoded Mid Side so the post house could work with the stereo width, and when possible a mono boom mic.

    Over all, they came out quite well, but I learned to appreciate how quiet concert venues are. What the location world considers acceptable isn't exactly where I normally work.

  4. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    I think i've seen/heard those commercials, Ben. (And yes, it DOES count! ) Very impressive indeed.

    Every time I do something off the beaten track (esp audio for video) i get an ever-growing appreciation for what those sound-wranglers and designers go through on a daily basis with "on-camera" stuff. For about 2 yrs, we had the CBS show "HACK" shooting on location here in Philadelphia. (For the first year anyway, it was a cool little show about a cop who'd gotten knocked off the force and became a cabbie. It was a mild success til the "Suits" tinkered with the original cast and made the second year PC....then it just fell apart with terrible scripts and lame plots.) Since I work in Center City quite often, it wasn't unusual at all to run into or cross paths with the production crew. (it often made the news as well).

    Some of the pilot was shot next to a parking garage that I use quite often, and they spent many days on this one alone (pilots usually get a lot more TLC than the regular episodes once they're up and running.) I would often check out the location sound guy, who had a TON of stuff, most of it wireless & battery driven. He had a very cool "cart" with large oversized tires and every imaginable "Gadget" hanging off it; from various colors of gaffer tape, to boom poles to 35' antennae (for the wireless body mics, I presume) in addition to the actual mixer & recorder.

    I could only imagine the pace and pressure he'd be under, day in and day out, esp in the cold weather, too. They'd spend all day on takes and retakes, and even if the sound was going to be foley'd or ADR'd in post, they still needed production sound, and this guy was getting it done. Amazing dedication to his craft.
  5. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member


    Your talking about recording carillons made me smile.

    A while back we got a call from a local sound contractor. He wanted us to record a carillon in a local church. His problem was that the carillon could not be heard well in the church itself so he had rigged up a microphone in the carillon tower and fed it into the church's public address system. The problem was the pigeons did what they do best all over his microphone and he was getting a lot of wind noise even with a wind screen (not to mention what the elements were doing to the microphone) . Since the carillon was only used for selected pieces and not for concerts he reasoned that if he recorded the selections and then put them on a CD the church could play the CD when they needed the songs.

    Ok so we went out to do a site survey. The church was old and made from timbers and had wood sheathing. The bell tower/carillon sat to one side of the church and was inaccessible from the inside and the only way to reach it was from the outside via a ladder. (I know who in their right mind would construct a bell/carillon tower without access but I guess what happened was the stairway that did service the bell tower on the inside had partially collapsed and the church did not have the money to rebuild it). The sound contractor wanted us to "climb up there put a microphone in the carillon and record it" The church did not have any money to do the recording so the sound contractor was going to eat the cost but of course he wanted it done "bare bones" and as quickly as possible.

    I suggested we do it from the ground as it would sound more realistic but he was adamant that he wanted it recorded from the carillon tower itself so when played back it would sound more like it did when it was being picked up by his microphone. I took one look at the rickety ladder, the long climb and the wealth of pigeons that lived in the tower and politely said "sorry" I did give him a couple of names of other people that do on location recordings but so far he has not gotten anyone to actually do the recording ( Mmm I wonder why???? (should I give him your name<grin>)

    So your post made me smile a bit.....
  6. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Hey Tom; I am flattered that I brought a smile to someone's face, esp this time of year. I appreciate you reading my caffeine-fueled ramblings, too.

    As for mic'ing the Carillon, you are correct! Recording it from the GROUND (or at least from a distance, where people actually HEAR it) is the best way to go. Mic'ing up close will only get individual bells and drive you crazy with levels.

    When I first got involved in all this, I discussed my approach with the carillonuer, talking about how many mic's to put just outside of and around the "Booth" (usually the room just below the bells where the performer sits, hitting the batons that strike the bells). He looked at me and shook his head (very polite about it, now that I recall), and said: NO, you cannot record the bells up close; the physical properties of it will make for a very strange recording. You'll get all kinds of clapper noise and the overtones won't line up either. The bells are meant to be heard from a distance. I bristled at first, thinking it wasn't going to work; but then I thought about where and how people do listen to these things.

    Now in hindsight, this was a relief because it really WAS 15 degrees that day, and you can imagine what kind of conditions THAT would have entailed, plus these things are always at the TOP of a tower, way up in the windy air. (Anyone ever see "Vertigo" by Alfred Hitchcock? It's JUST like that, really, in most cases, at least the first one was.) You should see the raw video from the documentary we did! Hahaha....the camera's audio tracks were just about useless from the wind blowing around.

    We're all fools if we don't learn something new every day, and this was a case in point. Once I began to think about it, it made sense: the smallest bells are a mere couple of inches wide, about 20 lbs or so, and the largest bells are several feet across, weighing as much as 2 TONS. Combine fifty or sixty of these things in a rig to hold them all, it becomes quite an acoustic mess, er...blend! Not unlike weighted noise (Pink), the bells have a unique characteristic in terms of how the sound comes out, propagates, and decays (Lots more bigger bells than smaller bells, too...these are chromatic instruments, so the low end builds up considerably). Distance mic'ing is the only real way to do it properly.

    Knowing these things are cast-forged and then tuned with a lathe, I am all the more astounded at how some people make a living building, installing & maintaining these things. There are still a few foundry's left in Europe that do this sort of thing, and most of the techniques and tricks are semi-secret; now done with computer assistance, but still something of a trade secret.

    Some people say listening to carillon music is like playing the piano with the damper pedal stuck "ON", but it's an aquired taste, for sure. And people who are into that sort of thing can tell you about them for days and days.

    Out there in the Heartland (OH, etc?), I'm told there are a lot more, esp on college and church campuses, away from the big cities, etc. Too bad this guy doesn't have even a small budget for it, or I WOULD come out and help you with it, just for the fun of it! Hehehe.... pick up the tab for dinner and put me in a Motel 6 ;-)

    Email me privately if you want, Tom, I can send you a few pics and a copy of some of what we've done, for reference, etc. if you want to play it for them and prove your point. (Gad, when the HELL did I become an "expert" on THIS stuff!?!?!? :?
  7. pmolsonmus

    pmolsonmus Well-Known Member

    Happy New Year all,

    The choir I direct just finished a recording session in December for a local TV Christmas special. I've done a bunch of weird things on both sides of the mic, but this whole concept was a bit off.
    Our segment was outdoors, at night, in single digit Wisconsin winter weather where the choir was standing on an outdoor deck at the Zoo! In addition to the freeway noise constantly in the background, the bus we showed up in dieseling to our side, the friggin' sea lions decided to join in at the end as they were about 150 feet behind us and finally woke up.

    For the life of me I can't figure out why they chose the zoo, or at night or outdoors for the choir. Unless it ended up on the cutting room floor, they never showed an animal or even the decorations. It was nice close ups of my students and they sang as well as could be expected given the conditions but....WHY???

    According to most, we came out better than other groups however. The 200 voice Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and the full Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra were the local channel's special treat at the end of the hour-long Christmas program. They were told to dress in festive, holiday attire to their dress rehearsal for an upcoming Messiah performance. They go through the rehearsal, the Pops series conductor, Doc Sevrinson comes out in flashy attire, they're handed new music and wind up singing the TV station's 30 yr old jingle arranged for full choir and orchestra.
    Nothin says Christmas like a dated pop-song jingle done by a classical ensemble.

    I'm glad its January.

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