Operatic and bel canto singing present the audio engineer with an unusual challenge. Unlike a pop singer, the classical vocalist is regularly appreciated in concert without the aid of sound reinforcement. In the uncommon circumstance that a microphone IS placed on an operatic singer during a live performance, great care must be taken to retain the acoustic sensibility of the performance when reinforcing the sound.
The experienced classical listener knows that the space in which a singer performs is itself part of the instrument. The expectation is that the artistry of “ringing the room” will not be hindered by the sound system.
Capturing this aesthetic for a recording can be tricky. The inexperienced recording engineer must resist the urge to use a pop vocal approach with an operatic singer, as a large diaphragm condenser microphone at the standard pop vocal distance will sound much too close (even when pulled a foot or three farther away). In addition to choosing an opera-sized venue, here are some ways to retain the sense of space the savvy classical consumer expects to hear:
1. Use a stereo microphone as the primary vocal mic.
Rather than using a standard mono microphone, we chose a stereo microphone in a crossed figure-8 pattern: the AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone. Aside from the increased spatial cues that stereo provides compared to mono, the old ribbon technology is really tough to beat when the goal is a warm, smooth vocal tone. This primary vocal microphone was between 6 and 7 feet away from the singer. Because it is a stereo mic (with each ribbon element facing 45 degrees off-axis to either side of the vocalist), it sounds even farther away. A mono mic aimed directly at the vocalist would sound closer at the same distance.
2. Incorporate an ambient pair.
We added a near-coincident stereo pair (30 centimeters apart at 90 degrees) 25 feet in front and facing away from the singer out into the hall. These mics were small diaphragm Neumann KM-184s, and they were receiving no direct sound whatsoever. These are the clinical, crystal clear mics of the group which makes them well suited for ambience retrieval. It might have been useful to space them wider, but we decided that with the 90 degree XY ribbon approach, it might be fun to keep things a little more in phase.
3. Add definition to the piano.
Additionally two small diaphragm condenser microphones were positioned over the piano in a 90 degree XY configuration. The position will be evident in the video. The sE Electronics RN17s were the choice here in an attempt to smooth out the potentially edgy piano. With the Rupert Neve designed transformer (that huge thing toward the back of the mic) these mics have a kinder, gentler sound than most other small diaphragms. The sE’s were brought in to add definition to the substantial amount of indistinct (yet spacey – in a good way) piano bleed that was present in the vocal microphone.
4. Finish it off with a little extra ambience.
Lastly we added a touch of artificial ambience from the convolution reverb plugin QL Spaces. It wasn’t S.Cal. Hall, as the image above suggests, but rather something a bit more Germanic! This is a fairly common practice, with only the purest of the purists abstaining from such post production flattery. The decay of the real room was essential to the sound (without it the artificial ambience didn’t sound nearly as nice), but the tail end of the natural decay was not adequately defined. QL Spaces allowed us to dial in the reverb tail we wanted.