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.
SO THE FIRST THING
YOU NEED TO DO IS TO CHOOSE A GOOD SOUNDING VENUE.
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
Pros: Usually nearby/cheap to hire/ Have tea making
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
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
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
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
THE BETTER THE RECORDING
SESSION THE BETTER SOUNDING THE CD
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
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