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mobile sound recording, mobile audio recording, location sound recording

The Reelsound mobile has specialised in location recording for over 20 years and in that time has recorded hundreds of choirs both great and small. This article is put together from a series of notes made for a talk entitled “How to Make the Best of your Recording Session” which he gave at the 2008 NAC conference in Bristol.

First of all you must use someone who has some real experience of location recording as it really is a specialist skill. I know that anyone these days can go out and buy some mics and a laptop and make a recording but actually the technical side is only a small part of making a great sounding CD and when you are considering making a recording there are 3 key areas to look at:

Obviously the first is the choir itself and in many ways that’s really out of my control. I can’t make you sing in tune and in time or remember the words to a song and while the latest technology lets me do some pretty clever things, at the end of the day I am a recording engineer not a magician. For me it’s like photography as it’s about capturing perfectly what is going on on the day. Inevitably there will be mistakes made but there are things we can do to make sure that you get the best out of your session and I’ll come back to these later in the article..

The second area is to do with the choice of recording engineer and equipment and it goes without saying that companies like Reelsound have invested £1000s in the best microphones and recording gear out there so that when you make a beautiful sound I capture that perfectly with the minimum of fuss. Things have changed considerably over the past twenty years and when I started out we had big tape machines and mixing desks with wires and cables all over but all that technology now fits in a laptop. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that you still need really good, expensive microphones to make a great recording but the sound engineer also must understand and love music to get the best out of the choir and again we’ll come back to that later.

But there is a third part to getting a great sounding recording and if you don’t get this part right it doesn’t matter what you do on the day, you‘ll never get a good result. The choice of location is for me the most important element in the whole thing. With all location recording the final sound is how YOU interact with the VENUE and if you choose a good venue to record in then you can have a great sounding CD. Get it wrong and it doesn’t matter how well you sing it or what microphones you use, it will sound poor.

Lots of people today still have the idea that recordings are made in dead rooms and I think it goes back to seeing pictures of singers and bands in studios but you know from your own experience how great some venues sound to sing in. You get something back and it all blends together to make a lovely sound. The sound that we all love is of the choir as one voice and if you hear individual voices sticking out the whole effect is instantly ruined. So of course you should never try and record a choir in a studio apart from places like the BBC’s Abbey Rd in London which is huge and built for the job. It’s also around £1000 a day to hire.


If you are the English Baroque choir and I turn up with my super resolution recording gear and £4000 microphones but you have chosen to make the recording in a small scout hut it will sound small and “boxy” and poor.

Boxy is a term that sound engineers use to describe a range of frequencies. What happens in a recording is that the microphones don’t just pick up the sound directly from the choir they pick up just as much of the sound reflected off the walls, floor and ceiling as well and in small venues these reflections multiply certain frequencies and exaggerate them. In the worst cases these frequencies are around what sound engineers know as 500 hz or what normal people call the middle. If you think about your HI FI most decent ones have bass, middle and treble controls and a poor room effectively turns up all the middle frequencies which mask the clarity of the sound making it nasal and honky.

Actually choosing a good location isn’t really that hard and after 20 years of recording in some fantastic and some dreadful locations here are a few rules of thumb to help you.

1 If it sounds good to sing in then chances are it’s a good choice of recording venue! It’s so obvious really but you would be surprised at how many people still think it’s a good idea to make their recording in a small dead room.
2 Size wise you need to be able to fit the choir in comfortably at least 4 and preferably 5 times.
3 Try and avoid single long rectangular or square spaces as the parallel walls increase the nasty mid frequencies.
4 It MUST have a high pitched ceiling to help blend the sound
5 Avoid venues with a central dome. They do some strange things to the reflections
6 Obviously if you need one, it should have a good, well tuned piano
7 Ideally it should have a natural ambience or reverb time of about 3 to 4 seconds which you can gauge roughly by clapping your hands and counting until the sound dies away
8 Be aware that some places are too big and have huge reverb times so Minsters and Cathedrals are great for classical unaccompanied pieces but definitely not for Songs from the Shows

So if you want a decent venue without paying the earth then these are my favourites in order

1 Large Methodist and modern Catholic churches with side aisles and high ceilings
Pros: Usually nearby/cheap to hire/ Have tea making facilities/ toilets
Cons: Often on busy roads so traffic noise.

2 Town Halls/ Assembly Halls/ Church Halls
Pros: Some have really good acoustics
Cons: Some have really bad acoustics and are too big and echoey/ Often on busy roads so traffic noise/ Can be expensive to hire.

3 Old Medieval Churches
Pros: Usually nearby/cheap to hire/ Often in quiet locations
Cons: Freezing and dark in winter/ Clock chimes every 15 minutes.

4 Large School halls
Pros: Usually nearby/cheap to hire/
Cons: can sound hard and echoey/ Avoid anything with a flat tiled ceiling/ Don’t usually have a decent piano

So for me now it’s the first thing I ask about when we first talk about making a recording. I don’t mind how good or bad you are because I think that making a recording is great for any choir but I always ask for some snaps of the proposed venue. Go along, take some shots with a digital camera and email them to me.

So you have found a good venue now lets look at your preparation

1. First of all be happy and confident. Making a CD is a good thing to do. It focuses and improves the choir and is a great memento of all the time and effort you put in. It’s also a great way to raise funds for any choir large or small and never think that you’re not good enough because with some care and preparation any one can have a lovely sounding CD.
2. Choose your venue and have a practice in it. (Am I boring you yet?)
3. Always use a professional who specializes in mobile recording and who can follow a score and hear the parts.
4. Unless the choir is specifically something like a Baroque choir then choose a good variety of material that you are comfortable with.
5. Don’t think that because a CD can hold 80 minutes of music you have to fill it. Choose12 to 14 pieces lasting around 45/55 minutes. It’s all about Quality Not Quantity and its no use recording 20 pieces if you plan to only use 14 because that’s a total waste of every one’s time.
6. Target your practices so that you don’t overdo it and get sick of the songs.
7. If you can, spread the recording over two days /weekend. It is hard work and you will need proper breaks and facilities.
8. Please try to learn the words as page turns are a nightmare for recording engineers and it means you end up singing down into the music and not up to the mics.
9. Decide on a title and start thinking about artwork. It often takes more time than the recording but good artwork is vital for the presentation of the finished CD.I use two pro graphic designers who will work up your artwork to the proper standard but if you have someone in the choir who is good then involve them.
10. Don’t tell certain members when the recording date is!

For me my job isn’t to just get the sound right it’s about getting the best performance out of everyone there. That means getting the confidence of the choir members and the MD.
Initially it can be daunting having microphones in front of you and I think it’s really important to put everyone at ease and create a relaxed happy session. I think that the recording process should be totally transparent and you should forget about it after an hour or so and just enjoy the singing. My main job is to encourage everyone and really back up the MD because it’s really important to me that you have a great sounding CD at the end of it all with no silly, obvious mistakes.
The new technology is fantastic compared to a few years ago and the greatest benefit is in the editing. Normally we will run through a piece and the MD and I will listen back on headphones and mark on the score any bits which need redoing such as wrong words, bad entries and exits etc. The great thing is that if the entry to chorus 1 is shaky then I can use the entry from chorus 2 or even the whole chorus. The editing is so precise that if someone sings a wrong word then we only need to redo that one line. We don’t have to keep going through the song over and over again. And of course there is always someone with no volume control and as the visiting expert I can often say things that the MD can’t (very tactfully of course!)

At the end of the day my aim is to have a perfect (a relative term) bar for every bar on the score and then I know I can edit it together back in the studio. So while I can’t make you sing in tune I can make sure that you don’t have any sloppy mistakes on the CD because that one wrong word will come round every time you play it and ruin it for you.
Finally I want to able to send your CD out as an example of what I do and together we get a result.


John Rowley 2008




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