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Wide orchestra, narrow chorus

Hi, I have a gig coming up recording a chorus and chamber orchestra concert in a church. It's the Bach Magnificat.

The chorus will be in choir stalls on either side of the altar, thus facing each other across the altar. Some singers (probably tenors only) will be standing along the back of the altar.

The orchestra will be across the floor in front of the altar, much wider than the chorus. Soloists will most likely be in front of the orchestra, but might be in front of the altar (chorus center), depends on what the conductor decides in dress rehearsal.

To make it worse, the chorus is a bit feeble, and the orchestra tends to get a little over excited at times, so balance can be a problem with these folks.

The tracker organ is located house left above the chorus. Balance with that wasn't too bad, actually.

First time for this setup, I tried using an ORTF pair about 4-5' behind the conductor. The orch image was great, but the chorus was dead center and often too weak.

Next time I added 3 SM80s around the altar, about 15' up, one over right choir stall, one over left, one over the back singers. These were panned R / L / C in the mixer and and into inputs 3 and 4 of my Edirol R-44. I got in some clicker activity pre-concert to try to time align the tracks. That wasn't all that useful of course, since the C chorus mic was further away from the ORTF pair than the L and R chorus mics.

The result that time was better, at least I could mix up the choir a bit when the orchestra got loud. However, the choir image sounded artificial (which it was).

I'm wondering if a second ORTF or maybe XY (narrower image?) pair behind the orchestra, near the front of the altar, would be better. It would capture a VERY wide image (with the choir essentially wrapped around it), but I could blend L and R in the mixdown to narrow it. Will this be better? Would I get too much orchestra and/or cause phase problems with the orchestra? Would the different images just confuse things mixed together?

I'm tightly limited in setup time, so I can't set many more mics than this, and have very little time to adjust once set.

What do you pros recommend for this situation?

Many thanks!


RemyRAD Thu, 05/08/2014 - 10:56

Ya can kind of think of your recording, from a televised standpoint of miking. I've had to record in similar setup, situations. If the choir is split up, half and half, left and right? Then that's the way they should be mixed. The way everybody hears them in the church, isn't it? Are you trying to bend and/or relocate God or Jesus' positioning? And would God or Jesus, want it that way? Obviously you have to answer to a higher power. I don't. I'm the higher power when it comes to recording.

Wait a minute! How much are they paying you? $100? $500? $1000? $3000? Or nothing? You're volunteering? Then they get what they pay for. Potluck. Which will usually be a fairly significant compromise of a job. Ya can't expect to deliver brilliance, on a pauper's budget. Though you can usually deliver something. Will it be good or stellar? Likely not. Will it be listenable? Well... beauty is in the eye of the butt holder. So if they're already used to McDonald's? Chances are? They'll be perfectly happy. If not? Tell them they can contract someone else at 10 times your cost, next time. Then maybe, they'll like your recording? It's amazing how money can influence and dissuade people, from getting the very best. Likely not everyone you are working with is driving a Rolls-Royce? Maybe a Mini Cooper? But ya can't get eight people into a Mini Cooper. Your recording may end up the same way?

So if you have choir members on the extreme left and right sides, flanking the orchestra? Then, for television audio, that's the way they would appear, audibly. But if you'd rather get a nice stereo mix of the choir? You're going to have a bit more work to do. You might want a Left-Center-Right set of microphones, on each side, for the choir. Which would require 6, total having three on each side. Then, the left side choir can't appear as left, left of center and center. Reverse that on the audience right side choir. Then the MS on the orchestra will allow you to adjust the stereo width. But this is getting a little complicated and would actually require the use of a mixer or the ability to make a multi-track recording you can later remix, ITB, for later delivery. But if ya need to deliver at the end of the performance? You're going to have to do this all to 2 track. In which case, you'd still absolutely need a mixer. And one that has phase inversion, switches. Or a custom XLR-Y patch cord with the second microphone input, reverse phase wired.

I mean you can do this right? Or you can do it as any other beginner would? Poorly. Which does nothing for your reputation or to get you more work doing this kind of work. I'm not trying to be hard on ya. I'm just trying to let you know what professionals have to do, to make these types of recordings, professional. I mean you might have a real sporty Toyota? But you're not going to enter that consumer, Toyota, into the Daytona, Indianapolis or any other race. Because you will lose, guaranteed. Especially when you are not equipped to do the job properly.

If making quality recordings was that easy on a $300 budget, of equipment? Everyone would be doing it. But they are not. For obvious reasons. To make professional recordings, you have to have the proper professional recording equipment. All of it. And that will cost ya plenty. As much as a house. I'm not kidding. Because that's how much money it takes, to even try out for the Indianapolis or Daytona 500. Follow? This is why beginner recordings always sound like beginner recordings. So... do you even know how to properly set up your gain staging? You know that when the red lights that say " Peak ", come on, it doesn't mean that the audio is at its best. As in at its peak. No. It means you have already screwed up your recording. And you are in the red knot the black. You make bankrupt sounding recordings that way.

However, I would still, go and put up a MS pair for the orchestra. This allows you to vary the stereo width of the orchestra, which could get a bit wide, with those left and right flanking microphones on the choir. This would allow you to narrow the orchestral stereo image to be more centered. Making the choir then, into stereo pairs of 3 microphones each. And spaced, left, left center and center, of the 3. Then you would do the opposite with the choir members on the right side. With the right, right of center and center. Which would of course then still skew the image of the orchestra with the pickup of these sides flanking left and right choir members. In which the 2, left & right, near the rear of the orchestra, goes to center. Which would also help narrow the orchestral wide stereo image, less wide.

So ya have to decide, whether you're trying to do a straightforward, stereo recording or whether you are doing a recording for a visual, televised event? Which is where you'd want to hear things where ya see them. Obviously, via the type of set up, of the people performing, your hands are tied. This isn't a throw it up microphone technique and get it recorded quick thing. All because you ain't got no time. That's BS! That's beginner crap thinking that way. So what do you do? You make arrangements to come in, 2-3 hours, ahead of time, for a proper setup. You'll just have to get your ass out of bed, a little earlier. It won't kill ya. It'll make ya better. You'll be revered then as a real professional and not a hack beginner. Looking for drive-through gratification. We don't do that. We make recordings, professionally. I've done that. Others here have done that. You can do it too.

Making recordings is not like the drive-through at McDonald's. You'll just have to fix a proper meal. And that means doing it right. That takes preproduction. That takes time. You have to make time. You have to get in first, before anyone else. Then you expect to be the last one out, after everyone else. That's how it's done. That's what ya do. It's what all professionals do.

What you do, how it sounds, will reflect upon your capabilities. If you don't have the amount and types of microphones available and an appropriate amount of inputs? Good-quality equipment? Then it's like a potluck dinner. Maybe in Colorado, that would be good? For everywhere else? There's MasterCard.

Trying to do brain surgery with automotive tools, generally doesn't have a good outcome. I think it was Scotty from Star Trek that said you've got to have the right tools, for the job. What? You weren't listening to Scotty? Scotty influenced all of us engineers to do it right.

Beam me up!
Mx. Remy Ann David

LE Lapine Thu, 05/08/2014 - 14:05

First, thanks for taking the time to write all that! I'm really grateful that someone with your experience cares enough to reply.

When I wrote before, I didn't think I needed to get too much into the details of my own background and experience. I don't want to seem defensive, but since it's come up, maybe I should explain where I'm coming from. (Probably should have before, sorry.)

This is not my full time job. Other than a period of a few months when I was the main field recording guy for a classical radio station, I've mostly been a backup recording engineer. This means that although I've been doing this for over 35 years, mostly it's been something between a few and a couple dozen gigs each year.

I record only classical. It's what I know, sort of, although I've done a little small combo jazz. I wouldn't dare try to record a big rock show like the ones you pros do. That's WAY out of my league.

This is mostly for local radio broadcast. You won't find my name on the back of any commercial CDs, although one of the recordings I did in the 1990s for NPR's Performance Today did get used on an NPR premium CD (woo-hoo).

So when it comes to experience, I claim nothing on the pros who do this every day.

Gear? I can't justify the cost of a house for something I use that infrequently.

Nor can I justify that much cost for what it pays - if I'm lucky, a couple hundred bucks a gig. Classical recording just is not that much in demand. Also, in my area there are some outstanding pros whose fees match the superb quality of their recordings. I don't pretend to compete with them. On the other end there's an operation that will send a shaggy college kid to record your concert. The recording's free as long as you guarantee that your musicians will buy at least x number of CDs from the company. I can't compete with that either.

So, I used to record classical concerts and recitals because the folks I worked for wanted to air the recordings. Now I'm semi-retired, and I do it because I like it. I'm honest with clients about my limitations. I don't take gigs I can't handle. I don't much care what it pays, so maybe I'm no better than the sell-you-the-CDs folks.

As for my gear, you can see that in my profile. You'll probably chuckle.

Mics: I fell in love with SM81s the first time I used them, back around 1990. They're a little edgy in the high end, but otherwise honest and unspectacular and affordable. Now I have 4 of them, though I usually only use an XY or ORTF pair. I spent years scouting for used SM80s to use as spots, and so far have found 4 at prices I was willing to pay. I also have an AT-825 XY stereo mic for quick and dirty gigs, very good sound for the money if a tad bright, and an identical spare. A few miscellaneous dynamics that I hardly ever use. That's it.

Recorders: I used a Revox A-77 in the 1980s, going right into the mic inputs. Later I used a Sony PCM-F1 into a Goldstar VHS VCR. Now I have an Edirol R-44, just over a third the price of the F1/Goldstar, excellent value, and I can edit and mix on my computer. Marantz PMD-661 for backup.

Mixer: Don't use them much, but for those situations, I have 2 baby Spirit Folio Notepads from around 1999. Musicians think they're cute.

This gig? No, I'm not getting paid; it's a personal favor. Yes, I want the recording to sound as good as my ability and experience and equipment can make it. No, I do not get 2-3 hours to set up because that would involve setting mics during a church service. The church is rented for 3 hours. If I'm lucky, I'll get an hour to set up. If the church service runs over like it did last year, maybe 45 minutes.

I may not have anything close to your experience, but I'm an opinionated cuss. I like the solid stereo image I get from coincident and near-coincident pairs. I've tried spaced omnis; for me they sound flat and bland. In the 1970s, Robert von Bahr made some damn fine recordings for BIS records with an A-77 and two Sennheiser MKH 105 omnis, but he's a genius and I'm not.

As for MS, if you can get a solid stereo image from MS, my hat's off to you. I can't, nor can my young friend with the Music Technology or some such degree who never uses anything else. There must be a way to make it work, with all the folks who love it. To my ears it sounds big and luxuriant and spacious, but where in the hall (or in hell) is that cello coming from, that flute? I can't point to them. Maybe with spots?

Decca Tree? Another friend of mine, many many years of experience, is a big fan. I'm undecided. It seems like a lot of work to set up.

So, for me it's XY or ORTF or something sort of like them. I've seldom felt need for outriggers, but then I do way more chamber music and chamber orchestra than full orchestra. I HAVE used chorus mics before, usually 3 across.

OK, all that out of the way, let's see if I can describe this situation better.

First, no formal video. The director will probably make her own personal archival video recording.

Second, chorus behind orchestra, NOT on either side. Sorry if I created confusion. The orchestra is spread across the front of the sanctuary, chorus will be up around the altar. Choir stalls are on either side of the altar. The chorus is bigger than a church choir though, so they overflow the stalls. Some of the men (tenors, IIRC) have to stand behind the altar. So, the chorus is in a narrow U shape behind the orchestra. See below.

I've been told for years that you never use multiple coincident pairs because phase relationships get weird - though I'm still tempted to try it here. However, this is what I used last year (not to scale).

s b
o M a
p s
r s
a -
n M M a
o l
s t

*** O *** R *** C *** H *** E *** S *** T *** R *** A
*** ORCH ORCH ***

With the 3 omnis on them, the chorus opened up and could compete with an orchestral forte, but they still sounded flat compared to the much clearer image of the orchestra.

It sounds like you're suggesting something like this:

c M M M c
h M M h
o o
r M M r
u u
s M M s

That makes for quite a forest of mics! I might be able to set that up if I could borrow (1) enough extra mics and stands; (2) a much bigger mixer; and (3) a couple of helpful college students to set it all up in 45 minutes. The question is, would 9 mics panned across the soundstage give me any better of a chorus image than the 3 I used last time?

And - a big question - exactly what DOES happen if you mix two coincident pairs, say an ORTF on the orch and and XY further back over the chorus? Why is this such a no-no?

Thanks again for taking the time to think about my situation.

paulears Thu, 05/08/2014 - 15:44

If the physical layout is messed up, as you've described, then the usual techniques and the differences between them - which are always quite subtle - will be confused or even wrecked. Time alignment to make these work, especially Decca Trees, which I've myself never found worked that well in larger live sounding locations, is a big snag. Any stereo technique designed to reproduce width and depth realistically gets messed up in my view by your first spot mic - which could be critical for that one two bar line played on a quiet instrument. If you make the call that to get the quality of recording you need in terms of clarity and separation, you need to do something, then that's when I stop worrying about the more clever main mic setups and think multi-mic. In your example, you have the orchestra, spread a little wider than maybe ideal. If this is the case, I tend to not use any form of stereo pair, because the width means that your 1st violins, if they're placed conventionally might well get lost, along with the instruments on the other side. Distance makes the central instruments too loud. I tend to split my main pair and start to separate them. Omnis might be my solution, but if the layout is really wide and not deep, I might move to pseudo stereo and run 4 cardioids. Placement wise, I'd perhaps go high and use a downwards angle to reduce the pickup of the choir. if the placement of the choir gives a good stereo image to your ears when you are there, I'd probably use a stereo pair, but if separation is too extreme and they're just not close enough, then I'd even consider a stereo pair per section, and then build up the image to sound 'sensible' rather than reproduce the weird layout. I'd be ready to experiment with time shifts to align all these disparate sources. Single stereo pair techniques I'd abandon for any project that involves separation of contributors. I started this kind of artificial stereo approach when I recorded a choir and orchestra in a permanent circus building over twenty years ago. Orchestra in the ring, with the choir in the tiered seating either side, a total of perhaps 120 degrees of the full circle, with audience in the seating in the remaining 240 degrees if you can visualise this. In the building this simply didn't gel at all, and I ended up with an array of shotguns around the ring edge for the choir, with a flown pair for the orchestra. Very odd, but it worked. I did have to get the quieter singers near the ring, and the loud ones moved higher and away, but it mixed pretty well back into conventional stereo, as if they were conventionally placed.

For quite a few years I was the Principal Examiner for Music Technology in the UK, and one task was what we called a 'natural acoustic' - a direct to stereo recording of something with a natural musical balance. Candidates were using every esoteric mic setup they could find out about - but so few sounded real. Many were recorded in poor rooms, and instead of artificial reverb which might have been nice, many used rear mics that could be mixed in with the intention of improving the sound. They rarely improved anything at all - just muddying the sound further. Best results in poor spaces were from X/Y pairs. Spaced pairs always had a hole in the middle, and the combination approaches like the Decca Trees and M/S rarely produced decent results. When listening, I always had a stereo scope on the output, and loads of the odd sounds were clearly polarity and time problems forcing the stereo outwards to the edges, or collapsing it inwards, almost to mono.

For this job, a real rehearsal with everyone is critical - but if you can't do it - then multitrack everything and deal with it later.

anonymous Fri, 05/09/2014 - 03:14

"Wait a minute! How much are they paying you? $100? $500? $1000? $3000? Or nothing? You're volunteering? Then they get what they pay for. Potluck..."

I disagree. Anytime I accept a project, whether I'm being paid very well, being paid average, or, not being paid at all.... if I agree to take the job, I will always give it my best - and provide the best gear that I have to each client, regardless of the paycheck.

Why? Because my name is on each project, and my name is my reputation... a reputation that I've worked very long and hard to achieve, and, to keep.

If I think that the job won't work out - in that no matter what I do, for whatever reason or due to circumstances beyond my control - that the final product won't be good? Then it's simple. I turn down the project. ;)

To LE...

You can only work with what you've been given. If there are certain things that are out of your hands, such as the room, the setup, etc., then do the best job that you can with what you have, and if you feel that adding something that would really help, (like maybe a dummy head or decca tree) then you should consider renting any particular gear that you feel you need for the job. Engineers do this all the time. I can't count the number of occasions where I've rented mics, pre's, etc. from other studios(or from DreamHire) if I feel that the project warrants it and that the amount of the contract can make it happen.

Now, you need to be sure that you won't lose money on the deal... but if there is something specific that you feel would make a huge difference, and the budget is there, then you should consider renting what you need:




paulears Fri, 05/09/2014 - 05:18

I too (especially now I'm older) never confuse quality of work with money. I'm at the stage where I work for myself, I take on new clients and projects if they interest me. Money, looking back on my work history, has never had anything to do with quality. Reputation, as Donny says, is the key to a decent career. I now quite like doing budget projects when they interest me. Technology has never been so cheap, so I may well over-spec some projects. A good example was a Big Band project. Not a big budget, and intended for merchandising at concerts, rather than general CD release. The only requirement was for it to be recorded direct to stereo, but having the kit available, at no charge to the client, I also individually miked everything and recorded them. Many big bands use reps to cover for missing musicians, and there were a few rough edges - but after recording three separate shows I was able to replace the few howlers the trumpet player made and a couple of clarinet honks - impossible with the stereo recording. It took me a fair while, and this wasn't factored into the cost - but that's up to me, and the client wasn't even aware how I did it. It works for me, and I'm happy.



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