Recording Techniques (Part 13)
Part 13: Location recording. David Mellor bundles his recording gear into the boot of a car and drives off into the unknown.
Recording in the studio is lots of fun. It can be as musically and technically challenging as you like — or as challenging as your customers like — but the one thing you are sure of is that, barring equipment malfunction or a power cut, you are in control. But one day, someone will ask you whether you can make a recording outside the cosy confines of your personal playroom. The real world of concert halls and auditoria can present difficulties that the studio-bound engineer never has to face. Often, you will come across a problem that you could not possibly have anticipated, and be expected to solve it almost instantly. This is real sound engineering, and I love it. There's nothing quite like walking into a rehearsal, planning how to set up the gear and the microphones, and then hearing the results which, hopefully, prove that your plans were well laid.
My personal speciality is making recordings of classical concerts, so I'll spend most of my time discussing this. But in case you are worrying that you will be deprived of the satisfaction of solving location recording problems yourself by reading about them here first, let me assure you that there is never any shortage of possible things to go wrong and spoil your recordings! The first law of location recording states that whatever you least expect will happen. Just remember that if you are being paid to bring back a good quality tape, you have got to come up with the goods — no-one gets paid for excuses.
The sort of people who want recordings of classical concerts fall into four categories: musicians and composers; musical societies; concert agents and promoters; special interest groups. They are not going to knock on your door to ask you to record them. Neither are they over-responsive to advertising of any kind. So how do you get the work? The only real answer is by word of mouth. If you do one job well, then the chances are that you will get recommended to someone else, and hopefully things will snowball. The first contact will be a phone call saying that the promoter (I shall use 'promoter' as a generic term to cover the four categories I mentioned) has a concert he or she wants recorded and asking if you'd be interested in doing it. Before agreeing, it's necessary to find out a few details first. It's not a good idea to bite off more than you can chew and I wouldn't hesitate to turn a job down if I thought I couldn't do it justice at the fee on offer. Not that I'm overly mercenary, but if I need to use an assistant then I require extra money. It's as simple as that.
The important details you need to know before accepting the job are as follows. Obviously the date and location of the recording are vital. As well as the time of the concert, you also need to know the time of the rehearsal. The nature of the music to be recorded and the intended end product will decide whether it's a go/no-go situation. It's up to you to judge your own capabilities, but if you are asked to record Mahler's Symphony Of A Thousand for CD release on a major label, and you haven't done any classical recording before, then it's probably better to get some practice on smaller jobs first! Remember that a word-of-mouth reputation can work negatively as well as positively.
Once you know what is being asked of you, then you can quote a fee. I work on a daily rate for my services. Most recording studios charge according to the amount and sophistication of the gear they have available, and the quality of their acoustics, etc. I regard the engineer — ie. myself — as being the most important part of the package, so I charge for myself and bring along whatever equipment I think is necessary incorporating any hire fees into my quote. Recordings fall into two categories: quality recordings, where the promoter wants the best you can offer and will pay for it; and 'quickie' recordings, where you are expected to do a reasonable job but the money on offer is limited. I feel it's important to make this distinction because if you are going to do a good job, then you need to spend more time and effort on it, setting up your equipment before a full rehearsal of the music to be performed. The 'quickie' recording is where you get a 10-minute soundcheck (or no soundcheck!) an hour before the performance starts. It's up to you to work out your rates for a full day, and for a quick soundcheck and recording.
Once you have agreed to do the recording for a certain fee, there are a few more details to sort out. So far you know the following facts:
• Time of rehearsal/soundcheck
• Time of concert
• Number of musicians and instruments
Before you put the phone down you need to find out whether or not the musicians are going to be arranged conventionally on a stage or whether there is anything unusual about their distribution around the hall. Sometimes there can be a subsidiary choir or band placed in a balcony, which will require extra miking. You can't find out everything from a brief conversation, but if you know the important facts then you are already halfway towards your microphone setup. Also important is the name of your contact at the concert hall. Concerts are often held in churches and your contact may be the verger or the vicar himself. In a theatre, your contact will be the electrician. Elsewhere, you will be dealing with the caretaker. Finally, during this by now lengthy phone call at the promoter's expense, you need to know the titles and duration of the works being performed, so that you know what music to expect and that it will fit on your tape.
I work on the principle of taking the minimum amount of gear I need to do a good job. With concert recording, there comes a point where you don't achieve any better results from having more equipment, unless you go the whole way with multiple microphones and a couple of assistants, which of course will push the fee sky high. I started recording concerts years ago in my student days, when I took out a whole truck load of borrowed gear with a couple of mates. This would include a mixing console that took two people to carry, two hefty analogue tape recorders, Dolby A noise reduction units, power amp, loudspeakers, and miles of cable on drums. Why take two tape recorders? Well, unless all of the pieces to be performed are under 30 minutes in duration, you have to be able to swap to another recorder instantly, and edit the tape together later. I still have nightmares about a close shave I had attempting to change reels of tape between the movements of a symphony, when I had foolishly only taken one tape machine thinking that the duration of the piece would be the same as on a record I owned. But the main problem with analogue tape is that it's expensive. You need four or five reels for the average concert, which comes to around £60 to £75. Fortunately, DAT has changed all of this. Most concerts last less than two hours, which will fit comfortably on to a 120-minute DAT tape costing less than a tenner, and almost infinitely re-usable if the master isn't required after copying.
The mixing console I use is the same as I have for multitrack work at home. It isn't anything special, but it has enough facilities, is reasonably quiet, and is very portable. For microphones I use a pair of AKG C414s, which have been favourites of mine for a long time. I also have a couple of AKG 451s with the CK1 cardioid capsule, which are nice and clear but don't quite have the same 'realism' as the large diaphragm, multi-pattern C414. My mic kit is completed with a Shure SM58 and a Beyer MCE5 tie-clip mic. This isn't a lot of mics exactly, but it suits the type of work I do and the combination works effectively.
Sprouting from the mics are cables, which leads me to another question: "How much cable do you need for the average location recording job?". For my kind of recording, in the venues I'm likely to work in, I find my 200 metre stock of cable, in 10m and 20m lengths, more than adequate. Sometimes a couple of 10m cables may be enough, but I would hate to be caught short miles from base. The type of cable I use is made by a company called Canary — sorry, Canare. I use a quad cable which has four individual conductors twisted tightly together to give good interference rejection — rejection, that is, of what little interference gets through the braided screen. It's a small point, but for this type of work cables are best coloured black, to be as inconspicuous as possible to the audience.
My microphones are mounted on four boom mic stands, of the type to be found in the catalogues of various mic manufacturers. I also have three short stands for inconspicuous use at the front of the stage. Sometimes I can get away without mic stands altogether if there is a suitable balcony at the venue — I sling a rope across and suspend a stereo pair of mics. The rope, by the way, is strong nylon from a ships' chandlers. Mountaineering shops sell ropes that are good for falling off crags, because of their elasticity, but it's not a good idea for the mics to droop under their own weight!
For monitoring I either take a pair of Sennheiser headphones, or go the whole hog and take my Quad amplifier and B&W speakers. It is better to monitor on speakers, although for simple mic setups it is possible to balance effectively on headphones. If I'm doing a full day and know that I will have access to a separate 'control room', I definitely prefer to have my B&Ws with me.
When you arrive at the venue, the first thing to do before unpacking any equipment is to find your contact. This is not always easy, and when you do find the right person and announce who you are, you'll probably be greeted with the response, "I didn't know there was going to be any recording today." It's the promoter's responsibility to ensure that there is permission to make a recording and that all staff have been forewarned, but it doesn't always happen. The answer is to pretend to be a menial employee of the promoter, who will sort it all out when he or she arrives. Don't let anyone delay you setting up, whatever you do. Another important point is that some venues charge a recording fee. The promoter should pay this direct to the management and not leave this administrative task to you.
Despite what I have said, things usually go reasonably smoothly and there is usually someone to help you find a location for your equipment and a mains point. If you can, get hold of a key so that you can lock your gear up when you are not there to look after it. I know to my cost that thieves are about and on the lookout for unguarded valuables, even in churches.
The ideal place to set up your 'control room' is in a room close to the main hall, but physically separated. If things are really going well for you, there will be a gap under the door to pass your cables through when the door is shut. Often it is only practical to set up in a quiet corner of the main hall, so you will have to monitor on headphones there. This isn't a desirable situation, but it can still work. The spot to look for is preferably somewhere where there won't be any members of the public during the performance, or at least where they won't be wandering about too much. One more point — if you are going to be in the main hall, then you might as well pick a spot where you can see what's going on. You don't waste as much tape waiting for the start.
Once you have identified your control position and brought in the gear, it's time for a reconnaissance mission. This is where a little thought can pay dividends. If the concert is on a stage and there is a balcony rail, then a pair of mics can be slung. If there is no balcony, then you will have to use mics on stands. This is where you have to get your priorities right. Remember that people have paid to come to the concert and that you are only 'eaves-dropping'. The one place you cannot put your mic stand is right in front of the conductor, which is obviously just about the best place for you, but unacceptable to just about everyone else.
If there is only one row of performers, mics can be positioned on low stands. A deeper choir or ensemble will need a higher microphone position to capture the sound from those in the rearmost ranks. It isn't always possible to place mics in front of the stage, due to fire regulations. This is something you will only find out about five minutes before the audience is let in, which will completely ruin your plans. Also, you must remember that mics on stage may get in the way of the performers if the stage layout is changed between pieces. I can promise you that unless you can sling your mics, you are going to have plenty of challenges finding the right position for them, to obtain the sound you want, while fitting in with everyone else's problems. Let me give you some examples:
I was once asked to record a performance by a Greek choir in a Jewish synagogue. Not being of that faith, I wasn't prepared for the layout of the performance. There was a raised area where you would normally find the aisle of a church, and this was a lot longer than it was broad. I would have liked to have slung two pairs of mics to cover it properly, but I only had one rope! Undaunted, I chose my mic position carefully and hoped that the choir would be well balanced internally. All would have been well if the Cantor (the solo singer) had not faced the choir during the performance, which I only discovered at the last moment. I hadn't asked because I had never come across anything like this before. If I hadn't had my multi-pattern mics with me, I wouldn't have had time to set up another mic for the Cantor. Fortunately, I was able to switch the mics to a figure-of-eight response, which picks up at the rear, and re-angle them slightly. The fact that I came away with a reasonably good recording was down to luck as much as anything else, but I have certainly learned from the experience!
My other experience was more recent, and took place in the Purcell Room in London's South Bank arts complex. The promoter had left a message on my answering machine saying that he would like to record a concert the next day. I could only get through to his secretary, who couldn't tell me in much detail what the concert was about. When I turned up, I found an Argentinian guitarist and folk group, none of whom spoke English to any useful degree, and my Spanish is non-existent. In fact, the only person who could speak both languages was the promoter, who didn't turn up till the very last minute before the concert. I set microphones in places I thought would be useful, considering that I did know that they were going to play in various combinations, and also a couple at the front of the stage for general pick up.
Then a member of the folk group came up to me and said "No microphone", and waved his hands around rather a lot. It turned out that he was a dancer and he needed a clear space to strut his stuff. I put on a determined expression and eventually, after much discussion with the rest of the group, it emerged (as far as I could tell) that he did in fact have enough room to dance, as long as my cables were out of his way (they were). The recording was a success.
Once the microphones are set, the last thing to do is to tape all the cables to the floor with Gaffer tape. This is important because if a member of the public suffers an injury because of your negligence, then you'll find yourself in court. The cables have to be totally taped down, not just at intervals. You could use up to half a reel of two-inch Gaffer at some venues, so keep a good stock, and remember to include the cost in your fee.
The rehearsal is your opportunity to move the mics around for the best result and to check levels. Always ask to hear the loudest part of the music, and allow yourself at least 6dB headroom above that to cope with concert enthusiasm. I like to record part of the rehearsal to check that everything is functioning correctly. Don't play this test recording to anyone if you can help it, because they will always find fault, even if the recording is as good as it could possibly be; you don't want to be put in the position of having to change something you think is right. After the rehearsal there will probably be some time to wait before the concert starts. You can put this to good use by going for a bite to eat, once you have secured your equipment. Unfortunately, even if your insurance cover is adequate, it would be immensely inconvenient to lose something, so I always stand guard over my gear if it's not locked up, even if it can be a touch boring.
When the concert starts, you have to be absolutely sure to catch the first beat of the music. With DAT it's not a problem to start the tape early and waste a couple of minutes, to be on the safe side. With old fashioned analogue tape, where you were always pushed for recording duration, it was always a risky business wondering when to start if you couldn't see the performers. On my DAT recorder, I switch off the auto indexing so that I can insert ID markers manually. I mark the start of each piece and also the end, after the applause. I'll explain why later. During the concert, things should run smoothly. If you have set your balance and levels correctly, there shouldn't be any need to twiddle any knobs with a simple mic configuration. For each piece, it's a good idea to make a note of the highest level reached. This will be useful later, when it comes to copying.
At the end of the concert, don't forget that there is almost bound to be an encore or two. In fact, even if you have been told by the promoter, the conductor, and anyone else that there isn't going to be an encore — keep that tape running! Even if the blame for missing an encore isn't rightly yours, you'll still get it.
This usually entails making 10 or so cassette copies. To make this easy, I search for the ID markers on the DAT tape which identify the end of each piece, erase them, and insert Skip IDs. Then I re-record the Start ID markers so that each piece has a nice clean start. This gives me a tape that will play from the beginning of the concert to the end, without unnecessary gaps. It's then a simple matter to run off a few cassettes at home while doing the ironing. The most important part of the proceedings, however, is yet to come — getting paid.
Until you get to know your customers, I would recommend that you see the cash before parting with the master tape or cassettes. Most people are honest, of course, but it's best not to take any risks.
The last essential part of the post-production process is listening carefully to your recording and thinking about how you can do it better next time. The quest for the perfect recording is never ending and it's unlikely that anyone with high standards will be satisfied. Location classical recording is one of the most enjoyable types of work I do. There's always a new challenge and a new problem to sort out, and if you come away with a good recording it makes it all worthwhile.
Feature by David Mellor
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