I specialise in recording classical music, although I have been known to tackle acoustic folk. Mostly I operate as a lone freelance engineer, recording instrumental/chamber and choral music. My system provides for up to 16 tracks which is plenty for such purposes, however occasionally I join forces with a colleague for larger scale projects involving orchestra.
Almost invariably I record in venues with appropriate acoustics (rather than studios) – this is much preferred by most musicians as well as myself. I cannot over-emphasise the value of selecting a really suitable venue – a poor choice can all too easily lead to difficulties and disappointment. I’m always happy to offer guidance on this point.
In some instances balance considerations may call for an unconventional layout but I always aim to make this as musician-friendly as possible. Typically I use a coincident stereo microphone system at the heart of the rig, with such additional spot mics as may be desirable to allow good control of balance during the mixdown stage following editing.
Some churches have beautiful acoustics for recording instrumental as well as choral music and many of my recordings have taken place in them. One downside is that typically sessions take place in the evenings after the building is closed, and the mics have to be hidden away during the day. However I’ve often been able to use the daytime to review the previous evening’s takes and do some initial editing.
The other potential downside of using ‘live’ venues is noise, particularly if there are busy roads nearby. This can make demands on the patience of musicians, producer and engineer. One series of recordings was made in the chapel of Eton College, underneath the Heathrow flightpath. There was one blessed occasion when flights were suspended due to heavy snow!
It’s important to allow sufficient time to record all the music to a satisfactory standard. There’s a long-standing industry rule-of-thumb that you can record 20 mins of music in a 3-hour session, and although this seems to hold good a fair amount of the time, there can be startling exceptions. Many years ago I recorded 50 mins of music in around 90 mins – nowadays I would never risk capturing a piece in less than two takes!
If there are significant variations in personnel – not unusual with cathedral choir projects where girls and boys choirs make separate contributions – this can eat up precious session time unless the changeovers coincide with mid-session breaks, or better still complete sessions.
Programmes of contemporary music can often make heavy demands on all concerned – producer and engineer as well as musicians – and it’s wise to think of a more modest 10 mins of music per 3-hour session to ensure a really satisfactory result.
One last refinement – if spot mics are being used I’ll check out the time-delay between each of them and the main stereo pair, using an old-fashioned clapper-board to create a sharp transient sound at the point where the soloist is standing. This is easily visible on the track waveform displays on the computer and enables me to slide the solo tracks along to align with the stereo pair track, thus eliminating the boxy echo effect which occurs when the same sound is captured by mics at widely differing distances. This is particularly important for vocal soloists – not surprisingly the ear is highly sensitive to acoustic anomalies around the human voice.