Wind Revival

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The Focusrite ISA 430 feeds the flute into the Audient ASP 880 on channel 3, bypassing the mic pre via the handy DB25 inputs so as to access the outstanding Burr-Brown AD converters directly! Good thinking, Audient!

 

Once a year MSU Recording Services gets to participate in a special “horns only” recording session. Marching band is a pretty big deal here in the States; there are thousands of high schools fielding marching bands, and they all need new music and drill every year. Many band directors prefer to purchase fresh and appropriately-licensed arrangements from a reputable source. That’s where John Fannin of Fannin Musical Productions comes in. John’s business provides dozens of unique arrangements, marching drill, sound effect packages, and even commissioned pieces to high school bands. He makes shopping extra easy by mailing an annual CD of his latest offerings to every public high school band director in America. That’s about 15,000 copies!

 

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The Neumann KM-184s in ORTF capturing the woodwind section

 

John’s clients seem to prefer live wind instrument recordings to libraries, so once a year John rounds up some winds. One flute, two clarinets, two saxophones, a mellophone, three trumpets, two trombones, a euphonium, and a tuba make up the ensemble. John does it right, too. He starts with killer players. Most have either a master’s or a doctoral degree in their respective instruments. There may only be 13 of them, but when those 13 are all ultra-competitive professionals… watch out! They also stack takes, which gives the effect of 26 professional players (or probably more like 75 typical high school musicians as far as wind power is concerned). Alas, the percussion must remain MIDI as it would more than double the time and cost to make a live drum line recording in advance of the wind session.

A session with 13 wind players requires a big space. The stage of Lovett Auditorium doubled as a basketball court back in the 1920’s, and this huge soundstage-like venue allows for 11 players to be spaced at 6 feet apart in one big line. The last two players had spots just in front of the bookend players. The big room and tall ceiling helped reduce the intensity of early reflections, and this made for a much better recording environment than the typical band room.

 

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Five of the eight brass players in front of an AEA R88 ribbon mic capturing the room

 

Woodwinds took up one side of the stage and brass the other. A stereo ribbon mic (AEA’s R88) functioned as the brass ensemble microphone, while a pair of Neumann KM-184s in ORTF stereo captured the woodwinds. The AEA ribbon is a terrific room/ensemble mic and adds a sense of space and warmth that is tough to get with anything else. The crossed figure-8 pattern probably has a lot to do with that. The KM-184s are just great all around acoustic ensemble mics and worked well within 15 feet of the woodwinds; the cardioid patterns helping to isolate the weaker signal of the flute, clarinets and saxes. Baffles provided a little more isolation between instrument types, and everyone got a spot mic.

 

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The flute cave with the AKG C414 XLS on duty

 

The flute was probably the most isolated instrument – placed between theater curtains and baffling – with an AKG C414 XLS about 2 feet away in the hypercardioid pattern. The C414 is a classic instrument microphone, with the XLS version often considered more appropriate for instruments (the XLII version is a bit brighter which some consider a boon for vocals). We only had one, so this is where it sat – running through a Focusrite 430 Producer Pack channel strip (which we count as one of our 5 “boutique” signal paths). The Focusrite mic pre has some great characteristics: quiet, solid and just a little bit of color.

 

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One of sE Electronic’s cool Rupert Neve designed mics on the clarinet: the RN17 small diaphragm condenser.

 

Both clarinets were recorded with sE Electronic’s RN17 (as in Rupert Neve) small diaphragm condenser mics with the cardioid capsules. These mics are among the more forgiving small diaphragm condensers. I credit the giant Neve transformers with providing some subtle flattery. I have heard some people compare the sound of these to the pricier Schoeps SDCs, but I can’t comment myself having never used Schoeps. I do know that I’d worry more about using a KM-184 this close to a bright-ish, potentially harsh-ish source. But the sE’s sound a little less edgy. They ran into the stock Apogee Ensemble mic pres.

 

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These mics don’t look like anything special, but the Miktek PM9s are actually super cool supercardioid dynamic mics. You can easily hear the improvement over the standard stage dynamic mics!

 

Saxophones were treated to the Miktek PM9 supercardioid dynamic mic. This mic is primarily a vocal microphone in the vein of the Shure SM58, but with a bit more top end over 10 kHz. They also seem to have a slightly less congested sound than the SM58. Of course, they are twice the price. I’d put their sound halfway between the SM58 and the SM87 – Shure’s condenser handheld (but with a smoother top end). The saxes also ran through the Apogee pres.

 

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The Miktek PM9 made me wish I had some of their LDCs to sample!

 

The mellophone also received the PM9 effect, just off-axis a bit and through an Audient ASP 880 preamp. The Audient pre, by the way, is a nice analog preamp utilizing discrete circuits as opposed to the more common integrated circuit design found in less expensive gear. There will always be those who swear by discrete circuits, and the ASP 880 will definitely satisfy those folks! More on the ASP 880 in the next block…

 

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Cascade Fathead II mics on the right; a Shure SM7b on the left, and trumpets straight across.

 

The Audient mic pre has variable impedance settings on all 8 channels, and with passive ribbon mics that can make a big sonic difference. We used the lowest impedance setting to get the warmest, smeariest sound for trumpet! The two fellows on the right are using the passive Cascade Fathead II ribbon mics. And yes, they are fat-sounding. You may notice the player on the far right is on-axis and blowing right into the mic (it actually is farther away than it appears in the photo). This would usually be a bad position for a condenser mic, but the Fathead really rolls the edge off. It sounded great both on and off axis. And being ribbon mics, the figure-8 pattern helped to reject the sounds to the left and right. Nice bonus. The player to the far left is using a Shure SM7b. Compared to the ribbon mics, it was pretty thin sounding. But with three trumpet parts, you don’t necessarily need all of them to have big bottoms.

 

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The M-Audio Sputnik tube LDCs are pretty to look at and pretty to listen to on a lot of different sources.

 

I was torn about where to use the Fatheads. I thought I might like to try them on the trombones, but I eventually decided my best bet was to put them on the brightest source. So the bones got miked with even pricier pieces: the M-Audio Sputnik large diaphragm tube condensers. The M-Audio tube mics never really caught on that big among the audio masses, but fans of the mic are very devoted. I’ve compared the Sputnik with other mics (like the AKG C414) and found they more than hold their own. In fact, in blind vocal tests, singers prefer the Sputnik just about every time vs the C414 XLS! These were a couple of feet back and up / off-axis a bit running through a Millennia Media HV-3D (our other “boutique” 4-channel signal path). The Millennia is popular with classical and jazz producers for its natural, uncolored sound. Some percussionists like to use it for its quick transient capture on drum kit. The combination of Sputnik and Millennia definitely provided nice clarity and power for the low end.

 

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Low brass played well is always impressive!

 

A Miktek PM9 was set up off-axis and a few feet back from the euphonium. This also ran through the Millennia HV-3D. The euphonium is like a little tuba – extra warmth to help round out the trombones!

 

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If a tuba is the right kind of bass for Jon Batiste and Stay Human on The Late Show, then it’s the right kind of bass for almost anything!

 

And last but not least, the tuba enjoyed a Sputnik tube LDC four feet above and only slightly off-axis going through the Millennia HV-3D. The extra distance on the tuba mic really helped the sound develop to feel big and fat! I wish I had a tube preamp to try out with the tuba, but there are plenty of plugins I can try out during mix down if I want to get more tube-y than the Sputnik itself.

This was my first session with the Behringer P16-M personal monitor system. Everyone got to dial in their own headphone mix (just the click track and MIDI mix). As one who has always used a single mix via the old-school headphone distributors, I have to say it’s wonderful to leave the headphone adjustments up to the individual players rather than try to be the sole intermediary for 13 people! When the players can adjust their own phones, they seem to end up a lot happier. Too often players compromise on their headphone mix when they’re stuck with only one mix option (or when they feel dependent on an engineer who has a million other things to deal with). You get better performances from happy musicians who can hear things just they way they want, and we all agreed the personal monitor system was an improvement that was well worth the price.

 

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Break time – thanks John! But only for 5 minutes (…slave driver!)

 

We spent 8 hours the day before just setting up the space, line-checking and making sure things were working. Everything went pretty smoothly with the exception of the headphone outputs on the Ensemble. I had intended to have John and myself monitor off of those, but I failed to realize that by setting up the multi-mix phones for the musicians, I had rendered the Ensemble headphone outputs somewhat handicapped: one was click only and the other was MIDI only. Whoops. I had hoped the Behringer Personal Mixer system would eliminate my need for a headphone distribution amp, but since the director sorta needed to hear everything too, I patched a distribution amp into one of the P16-Ms for a grand total of 20 headphone outputs!

Even though we were recording marching band arrangements, I didn’t necessarily want to achieve an authentic “marching band sound.” Marching bands perform outside on a football field, after all. I approached things with a little bit of classical sensibility, hoping to get better-than-marching-band tonal quality. Sort of like a big chamber wind band, except that everyone got their own mic, too.

I rarely use spot mics for the classical recording I do. Not that spot mics would never help, but the extra work to payoff ratio isn’t usually enough to persuade me. Not to mention that most of my classical recording is done live anyway. That’s why a session like this one is a lot of fun, because it is so different. It’s always good to get creative while matching mics, mic pres and sources, and this session provided one of the widest varieties of sources ever!

Sessions like this are also great for MSU’s music business students. Fresh off a summer internship at a recording studio, our new intern for Fall 2016, Brandon Gleason, was primed to help out. In fact, he ran about half the session while I took the fine photos you’ve been enjoying. Feeling the pressure of a dozen people waiting for your every mouse-click is a good test for aspiring engineers!

Next up: editing out the bad stuff, mixing, and sending things off to the high schools! Long live marching band!

 

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Our modest rig: the old version of Apogee’s Ensemble, an Audient ASP 880, Millennia HV-3D, Focusrite ISA 430, and part of the Behringer headphone distribution system.

5 Keys To Better Recordings

“It doesn’t have to be the absolute best, I just want a good, clean-sounding recording.”

I feel you, brother (or sister). I know you don’t want to get bogged down in recording nerdery. And you don’t want to spend any more time or money than is absolutely necessary either. But you probably shouldn’t lead off with that line. In fact, that statement pretty much guarantees you’ll be getting the bare minimum from your engineer. Knowledge is power, so here are five keys that you should know that will help you achieve your recording goals!

1. Communication

Talk with your engineer in advance. The engineer can give you a good idea about how much time certain approaches will require, what the payoff will be, and whether it’s worth it given your intended audience. Developing a plan ahead of time reduces stress and gets everyone on the same page.

2. Player Position/Mic Position

Let’s assume you have a trusted pair of ears (like the engineer or your private teacher) helping you. Take advantage of the lack of an audience. Move around the stage and see if there is a place where everyone agrees you sound the best. Rooms often have “sweet spots” that may not always be right where you’d stand for a concert. Likewise, try repositioning mics on a stand and see if you can find a sweet spot for them as well. Conduct A/B comparisons between different placements and look for the best possible sound.

3. Microphones

If you are fortunate enough to have the time AND the equipment, audition different microphones. No two microphones hear exactly the same thing, and while position is usually a bigger deal than mic choice, the choice of microphone shouldn’t be completely ignored. The engineer can be very useful in narrowing down the mics to audition if you give him or her an idea of how you’d like the microphone to sound (e.g. fatter, warmer, brighter, darker, bigger, scooped etc).

4. Editing

In some cases (such as contests or auditions) editing may not be permissible. But if it is, enter the session with a plan for how editing will be done. Will you just record several takes and then pick the best one? Will you piece the takes together to create a “super take”? Or will you fix problem spots one by one inside your keeper take? How will the bleed from other instruments (your accompanist) affect your editing plans? Iron all this out BEFORE the session even starts!

5. Post Production

After you get your performance down the way you want it, consider a little post production dress-up. Setting volume levels, ambience and general tonal character can often put a nice bow on the top of your project. For extra critical projects it is not unusual for multiple mixes to be burned to CD, listened to over a variety of playback systems, and remixed based on those observations.

In recording, as with most other things, higher quality doesn’t often come quick and easy. But the difference that a little focused effort makes is usually pretty impressive!

Audio Myths: The Sound-Good Sauce

Maybe it’s because superstition has always played some small part in the world of music and musicians. Some people say Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to become a legendary blues guitarist. Jack Black was questing after the supernatural Pick of Destiny in hopes of dominating the world of rock and roll. And of course it’s never good luck to hire a bandmate’s girlfriend (or boyfriend) to be the band’s road manager (that’s not superstition, just common sense).

So superstition may be one reason why some people tend to believe there is genuine magical mojo inherent in a rare tube microphone or two-inch analog tape or the live room of Basing Street Studios in London. Another reason is marketing. Probably every recording musician of lesser means has at some point thought, “Too bad I don’t have this mic or preamp or channel strip for EVERY channel” …as if the quality of the equipment is the thing that takes music to the next level.

If enough time is spent digging through the audiophile forums on recording magazine websites, one will eventually stumble upon this notion: a talented engineer can make a great recording on a cassette tape multi-track with one $90 microphone. This, of course, flies in the face of the superstition/gear lust mentality we’ve already identified. But it is true. No amount of expensive gear will enable a person with uninitiated ears to create a better musical blend than a maestro with a cheap microphone.

The sound-good sauce is, therefore, largely a myth. In the same way that a runner will do far more to improve his time by shedding 30 pounds of excess weight rather than purchasing more expensive running shoes, an audio engineer will do far more to improve his mixes by listening. A lot.

The best advice a new engineer can receive is this: listen to the frequencies. Listen to the highs, mids and lows. Break out a parametric equalizer and sweep across the whole spectrum with broad and narrow boosts and cuts. Learn what 3 decibels of reduction at 200 Hz sounds like on a guitar, vocal and entire mix. Boost 2.1 kHz on the same sources. Roll off the lows at 80 Hz. Crank up the highs at 14 kHz. Discover how one sound may be masking another and find ways to fit them together without simply turning one up or down. Listen over a wide variety of speakers and headphones. Compare professional mixes with other professional mixes. Compare them to your own mixes.

Given this sort of experience, ears tend to get better over time. This progression also gives one time to learn what one particular microphone sounds like. Then another. And so on. Eventually it isn’t the secret sauce/hot piece of gear that takes things to the next level, it’s the aural experience that prompts a seasoned engineer to choose a particular treatment for a particular source in a particular setting. No superstition involved – unless it’s a Stevie Wonder reference track.

5 Drum Tips for More Tonal Options

 

It is perfectly acceptable to use a minimalistic approach when recording drums (like this). But when you want more options and/or a more modern sound, close mics are the way to go. Lots of them. On everything. Here are some quick tips for tonal flexibility.

1. Snare

Miking the top and bottom of the snare (check for phase issues and perhaps invert the polarity of the bottom mic) gives you body and punch from the top mic AND snare sizzle from underneath. Playing with the blend between these two mics (and EQ) gives the snare a lot of possibilities.

2. Bass

Try using a dynamic mic close to the beater for the attack and a large diaphragm condenser a foot back to capture the deep low end. Blend and EQ to taste.

3. Room

Using a stereo pair of room mics can provide even more flavor. It is common to compress the devil out of these mics and blend the slammed signal together with the rest of the kit.

4. Resonances

Some peak resonances are good and some are bad. Try to find these on the bass and snare with a narrow EQ boost. Sweep the spectrum from low to hi. If you hear a frequency ringing out with a bell-like tone, try cutting that frequency with a very narrow band of EQ and see if you like the sound. This can usually be done one or two places, but if you get too crazy with this technique, you’ll start killing your tone rather than improving it.

5. Buss Compression

Try running the whole kit to the same buss in your DAW, and put an appropriate compressor on that buss to treat everything. I like the Slate Virtual Buss Compressors for this sort of thing.

The main thing is to experiment. Just do it, as the sneaker people say. And compare your sounds with a good target reference sound from your favorite drummer.

Recording the Operatic Baritone

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.