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Hi All,

We have a bit of a debate going on in our office about the best way to record a full size orchestra.. so I was wondering if anyone here has any experience in this. The project is to record and mix an orchestra for use in a Broadway type show.. the idea being that there will then be no need to tour a full orchestra with the show.

Can anyone suggest a good mic-ing techique.. should we be using a mic on every instrument and then sub-group to tape (say each section of the orchestra on one track), with seperate mics / tracks for soloists?

How about recording an overall ambience (say with a couple of good mics.. Neumans or something) and then also recording individual instruments in a studio to mix with the amibence track?

If anyone has done something similar to this I would appreciate any suggestions.


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LittleDogAudio Tue, 01/25/2005 - 07:43

You should always start with a high-quality stereo pair. The idea is to emulate the human experiance. Many things effect where you will place the stereo pair. (room size, # of musicians, outside noise ect...)

I "generally" place a pair of B&K omnis fairly high above the orchestra a nd a bit in front of the conductor's position. I will also set-up a pair of omni's in the house somewhere, to use as a reverb source (if needed). Spot mics are usually needed if there are soloists.

Ultimately, if the orchestra is a good one, the conductor will help create the dynamics so that the soloists are always heard in a balanced way. But, having some spot mics, just in case, is a good idea.

I'm sure there are other engineers here that have much more orchestral recording experiance than me. I've probably recorded 20 or 30 projects over the last 21 years. Not a ton of orchestral work in my area, sad to say.


anonymous Tue, 01/25/2005 - 07:59

Hey December,

A lot depends on how good your hall acoustics are. You can do pretty darn good with either a] an ORTF center pair with a pair of flanking omnis (mixed in a bit lower), or 3 equally-spaced omnis. Depending on the nature of the soloist, you may or may not need a depends on your taste and what you are trying to achieve. At any rate, if the soloist is back in the orchestra, a spot may be required.

Please, please, do NOT mic every instrument!


pmolsonmus Tue, 01/25/2005 - 11:56

I'm not an expert, but I would tend to disagree with the above notions only because of the desired end product.
I would grant you that you will get a better orchestra recording using the above methods, but I don't think that really is what you want in the end.
Your playback will (presumably) take place in a large hall accompanying a Broadway show. (500-600 seats minimum yes???) Recorded space played back in another large space usually equals mud in my experience.

While I wouldn't record every instrument seperately, I would get as close as possible to the instruments while still giving a sectional sound. (not an easy task) If you have to record seperate sections to a click/conductor so be it.
Your end product has to blend with voices and (sorry to say instrumentalists) the singers are really what the audience wants to hear clearly. If there is a way to keep your tracks seperate and playback a multitrack recording so acoustical adjustments can be made you're way ahead of the game.

I did a small pit recording (horns and rhythm) and traveled with a portable unit playing back 6 tracks of PT files and was very happy I had options when we got into some scary halls. This was a much smaller scale than what you're describing, but the concept remains the same.

If they (the singers) will be close mic'd and the orchestra is recorded in a hall and played back in a hall you get Karaoke. It will never sound like an accompaniment.

JoeH Tue, 01/25/2005 - 13:08

Yes, this doesn't sound like a typical "Classical" orchestral recording. I doubt you're talking about a symphony orchestra anyway. To do this properly, you'll be mixing a variety of disciplines, there is no exactly one "correct" way of doing it.

And before going any further, let me advise you to stay out of any union halls with this plan. I know some folks are doing just this exact thing with mixed success (canned and in some cases synthesized orchestras) but it's not going to win you any fans in the major halls. Expect to be picketed at best.

If you are planning on doing this, your investment will be front-end (making the recording) rather than ongoing (Paying real musicians for each performance). It's arguable which is more cost effective.

You'll need to buy/rent the rights to the score, (they WILL shut you down without 'em.), and a good music director/conductor and union-level (trained, competant) musicians who wont waste your time with multiple retakes or bickering over parts. They will also expect to be compensated for the call, PLUS extra fees for the recording session itself & ongoing useage. Expect to negotiate with the leader/contractor for the orchestra. Hire only the best, because anything less will make your ears bleed, and you will suffer over and over again in post production trying to polish a turd with bad players and weak parts. Fix it THERE, at the session, with good players while you can. 5 more minutes to fix it there beats a lifetime of suffering through bad recordings that will haunt you for the rest of the show's run.

And by orchestra, how many people? Symphony orchs are 75-100 players; pit bands are something else ranging from a handful to an operatic or broadway "pit" orchestra - about 35-50 players. You may want to have a few rehearsals ahead of time to be ready to cut the show within the scheduled recording time. Your costs for the personnel alone are going to be considerable.

Murphy's law reigns supreme in these kinds of situation, so expect the worst and build it into your schedule. Everything takes longer than you think, nothing is as easy as it looks, and anything that can go wrong, will.

Hire the most competant MULTITRACK recordist you can find in you area, preferably with experience in this sort of thing. (Check their cred, too.) Leave LOTS in your budget for this aspect, as well as mixing and editing in post.

Record everything a variety of ways, so that your options are ALL available when you mix. You may do just fine with a few omni/ambient mics, but as some have already pointed out, you're also going to want to do close mic'ing (by section or by individual instrument as well) to get all the punch and impact for playback. Some of your string and wind players may even have their own mics for this sort of thing, and keep an open mind about using them. AMT makes some great stuff (they're in NJ - You may just want to rent a bunch and be done with it, but check ahead about who's skittish about putting mics on their instruments. (many players have "solo/concert" instruments, vs. work-a-day gig instruments and are less finnicky about such things.)

If you DO get to the point of playing back a CD (or DVD or computer files or whatever) in your venues, you'll probably need lots of options - like cue clicks for singers or stage managers (mix-minus, etc., SFX for things that need to be tightly triggered/cued, and perhaps even some variations on the mix itself (Close mic'd mix for boomy halls, more open, ambient mix for dry, damped halls and god knows what else. You may need a completely different mix for the onstage talent vs. what's coming out in the hall, Plus a competant live sound guy to mix the live vocals with the canned orchestra.)

Depending on the complexity of your show, I'm guessing a laptop with assignable multiple outs would be better than a simple CD player. So, consider a few variations on the mix itself for as many ways as you may be presenting the show. You haven't mentioned what kind of musical show this is, but I'm guessing you'll want plenty of options, should you go this route.

To do it right is NOT for the faint of heart, so good luck to you if you do.

FifthCircle Tue, 01/25/2005 - 23:23

Traditional classical type recording techniques will not work for this style of music. Rather, I would look to what the film scoring industry does to mic this kind of group.

I would approach it this way- Array across the front of the ensemble. Likely a decca tree and outriggers/flanks. A large portion of your recorded sound will come from here. Also if you are working for sound reinforcement, I'd seriously consider mixing discrete L-C-R instead of stereo.

Anyways, I would then probably end up with 1 microphone per desk of string or perhaps 1 mic per two desks of strings. 1 microphone per woodwind section, but if you are using doublers, you may find that you need one mic per player. Probably 2 mics per brass section will be fine (if you are using a standard 4+3+3+1 setup). Then mic throughout the percussion, overheads, kick, snare for the kit, 2 on the piano, DI the keyboards...

When you are done, you'll likely find that you are recording 48 or more tracks. This is what is needed to get the up close and personal sound on what is basically a commercial orchestra. It can sound great, but requires a LOT of care in setup and mixing to maintain phase, etc...

You'll likely also need to run the session on a click track which means that each player will need headphones (single ears on a lot of the players) and somebody to make sure that the monitors are mixed well. You can certainly do this from the control room, but be prepared for cranky musicians that don't like what they hear... There is a reason why on the scoring stages, you have a mixer, a video guy, a monitor guy, a click/streamer guy, and multiple stage techs...


anonymous Tue, 01/25/2005 - 23:40


Wow, thanks for all the answers! I looks like Ben has taken all the other post and come up with a definative answer. You are right about the film-score concept, the would be closer to what we need then a traditional clasical recording.

I guess the best solution is infact to mic the instrument in small groups, allowing much more control at when it comes to doing a mix-down.

While searching the web I came across comments on issolating sections of the orchestra with plexiglass (similar to what is used to issolate the drums at some rock concerts). I'm not sure about this as I think it would affect the sound of the instruments as a whole (due to not being reverabrated by adjacent instruments), but maybe this kind of seperation is needed for a good recording?


FifthCircle Wed, 01/26/2005 - 09:03

You'll almost certainly want to isolate some of your percussion in the orchestra. I would also have any electric guitar/bass players keep their amps at a low level to minimize bleed there...

You may find that the drum kit is the only perc that needs major isolation, but that will largely depend on the room. Most of the time, when scores are recorded, the percussion is set up behind the orchestra behind gobos for isolation. However, the rhythm section will be inside the orchestra (often in the center) and there will be some plexi around the kit.