The Changing Landscape of Orchestral Recording, November 2000

May 17, 2004 12:00 PM

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Once upon a time, orchestras were recorded using two or three microphones. No mixing was ever done after the fact, so the entire production hinged on the performance, the choice and placement of the microphones, and the quality of the recording medium.

These days, orchestral recording takes almost as many forms as pop recording, with spot mics, multichannel arrays, post-production and editing among the techniques employed to deliver the final product to the home. In most cases, the object is the same: to convey as realistic a sonic image of the orchestra as possible. However, the means by which producers, engineers and label owners arrive at their final goal vary widely.

At one end of the spectrum, producers such as Michael Hobson of Classic Records and Tam Henderson of Reference Recordings rely on simple mic setups to capture live orchestras playing classical repertoire. Their use of spot mics is limited, as is their after-the-fact alteration of their recordings. For all practical purposes, they are what the industry labels "purists."

"As far as I'm concerned, classical music in a concert hall is what it is," says Classic's Hobson, who recently produced the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra's performance of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade for release next year on DVD-Audio. "It's inherently an acoustic event, unamplified, except for some 20th-century composers who use amplification as part of their work. I'm not a fan of classical records that have 40 or 50 mics and everything microscopically recorded and massively mixed."

At the other extreme, producers Kurt Munkacsi and Michael Riesman—who are best known as the recording team behind contemporary composer Philip Glass—break all the rules of classical music. They use click tracks and headphones and capture the orchestra section by section rather than as an ensemble. Furthermore, they approach the mixing process the way a pop producer would—as an art unto itself, almost separate from the recording of the music. And the Munkacsis and Riesmans of the world don't even pretend to render realistic sonic tableaux of the performances they produce. They are admittedly in the business of creating their own aural landscapes.

"The true classical recordist is making a sonic photograph, and they're not even using a multitrack machine. They're using a stereo pair of microphones and catching the true performance," says Munkacsi. "There's something to be said for that. But that's a different kind of artistic expression from what we do. In a traditional environment, the piece of music has to be conceived for live performance. You can't say, `This flute is going to solo over an entire orchestra,' but Philip has the freedom to say, `Okay, I want everyone to hear the solo flute, even though the orchestra's playing full-out.' We can make music that can't be performed live."

In between the purists like Hobson and Henderson, and the mavericks like Munkacsi and Riesman, are realists who render live-sounding documents of orchestral performances but employ tactics often reserved to the pop producers. For instance, Steve Smith of Seattle's Music Works Studios (formerly Xtreme Studios) uses extensive microphone setups and post-production processing in his work, which consists almost exclusively of orchestral recordings for soundtracks. His credits include the sci-fi epic Battlefield Earth (featuring John Travolta), the IMAX extravaganza Everest and the recent thriller The Art of War, starring Wesley Snipes and Donald Sutherland.

"All my stuff is soundtrack-oriented," says Smith. "It's different from a classical orchestra in that the composers always want some sort of after-the-fact control over the balance. That's why we have spot mics."

Smith's setup varies from project to project, but typically he uses a Decca Tree—three omni mics arranged in a triangular pattern, with the center mic forward of the left and right ones—supplemented by various additional mics. For the main mics, Smith tends to use a set of Schoeps CMC-6s that he acquired from Wes Dooley at Audio Engineering Associates. To convey more width, Smith employs pairs of B&K 4003 omnis in the front and back of the hall. Closer to the source, Smith might use Neumann KM184s on the first and second violins, Neumann TLM193s on the violas, Soundelux U95s on the basses, Royer ribbon mics on the woodwinds and low brass, a single Neumann TLM170 on the trumpet, and a pair of Audio-Technica 4050s on the French horns. On a recent production, Smith miked the percussion with a TLM170 over the timpani, a pair of AKG 460s on the mallet percussion, and another TLM170 on a low bass drum that was used for a special effect. Ultimately, Smith uses the spot mic signals only sparingly in the mix. "You try to get everything off the main mics, but if the composer says, `I want some more first violins,' you've gotta be able to do it," he says.

FORMATS
From the standpoint of recording formats, the choices are much broader than they were even a few years ago, when producers faced a simple decision between analog and digital, without much nuance in each category. Today, the prevalence of high-resolution digital formats presents recordists with an embarrassment of riches—and a sometimes overwhelming range of options.

Smith prefers cutting to 2-inch analog tape at 15 ips with Dolby SR noise reduction. He has recently experimented with a Euphonix R1 hard disk recorder, but otherwise has shunned digital formats. On the other hand, Munkacsi and Riesman are among the few classical producers/engineers who have wholeheartedly embraced the Digidesign Pro Tools platform—the leading digital audio workstation of the pop world. Others use tape-based digital systems like the Sony 3348 or the Tascam DA-88.

Sometimes, the format decision is dictated by the multichannel needs of the project. For instance, a producer wishing to record six channels of 24-bit, 96kHz signals without using compression is likely to opt for a high-resolution hard disk recorder like the Genex, rather than tape-based systems like the 3348 or DA-88, because the latter are not designed to operate at high sampling rates. Many orchestral recordists also choose to work in the multichannel domain even if their final releases—at least for now—are only in stereo.

Tom Lazarus, a partner in the New York mastering studio Classic Sound and a freelance recording/mixing engineer, has been working predominantly in surround sound formats over the past three years, but he admits that most of his multichannel work has yet to see the light of day as commercial album releases. So far, Lazarus' efforts can be appreciated only in HDTV or in other special projects.

Lazarus and other multichannel pioneers like Hobson and Henderson plan to release titles in the DVD-Audio format—when it arrives—because it would be the only commercially available sound carrier that would deliver up to six channels of 24-bit, 96kHz audio.

For now, though, classical producers who cater to discriminating music fans feel that their hands are tied when it comes to multichannel. "I hadn't done much 5.1, mainly because the 5.1 options that have been out there have all involved some means of compression, whether it's DTS or AC3," says Hobson. "The market I appeal to is the audiophile market, and lossy compression is just not something we can talk about, no matter whether it sounds good or not."

SURROUNDED
The lack of a release medium has not stopped classical producers from recording, mixing, editing and archiving their masters in various surround sound media, however. "These days we're recording everything in 5.1-channel surround for DVD-Audio when and if it gets off the ground," says Henderson.

Hobson adds, "We did all of the Moscow State Symphony recording with the idea of having a DVD-Audio disc made from a project that was ideal for the format. It's an acoustic record that was meant to convey the realism of being in an orchestral hall during a live performance. We're trying to convey to the home theater listener the full 24/96 experience."

As one might expect, the aesthetic approaches to multichannel recording vary as widely as the repertoire itself. Lazarus says, "Most of my classical work is done in surround, and there isn't much involved in it. The rear speakers are just the ambience of the hall, and I don't use the subwoofer unless I'm doing a film score. However, I really believe in the center channel for surround stuff, to give the listener a much wider sweet spot."

For the Moscow State Symphony recordings, Hobson chose a six-microphone array for the multichannel signals. "We had a main pair of left and right microphones on the stage," he explains, "in rear of the conductor, plus spot microphones to the left and right." In addition, Hobson used a rear stereo pair to capture reverb and ambience and used the subwoofer channel for a band-limited mix of all five main signals.

He says, "We routed the main left and right microphones from the stage to the DVD-Audio left and right channels and added the output from the far-right spot microphone favoring the celli and bass to the right channel only. The left-side spot microphone, which was aimed at the concert master and first violin, was routed and level-balanced to both the left and right buses for the DVD-Audio mix. We blended the various onstage sources to produce a center-channel output."

Besides the multichannel master, Hobson and his team—session engineer Eric Bickel and location engineers Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickreniz—recorded a 24/96 stereo version for compatibility with DVD-Video players.

From the stage, the signals flowed from six mic preamps to 24-bit A-to-D converters, which fed a PC-based hard disk recording system based around three 2-channel cards controlled by Samplitude software from SEK'D. The tracks were later transferred at full resolution to a Euphonix R1 hard disk recorder and mixed at Emerald Sound Studios in Nashville on a Euphonix System 5 console, which operates at 24/96.

As illustrated by the Moscow Symphony project, even when the goal is to create a multichannel master, producers almost invariably make a stereo mix as well. Sometimes, the need for two different master formats entails double-miking at the sources; other times, the stereo signal can be extrapolated from a mic array designed for surround sound capture.

Lazarus says, "I try to record in surround and stereo simultaneously. Your mics are usually farther back with stereo than with surround, so that requires double-miking." On the other hand, Reference Recordings creates its stereo and multichannel masters from the same mic sources, according to Henderson.

If classical recording specialists agree on one aspect of the multichannel experience, it's the fact that almost all orchestral music makes discrete use of rear speakers, at least when compared to contemporary 5.1 pop recordings.

Lazarus notes, "If we're monitoring in surround in our listening room or in a control room backstage at some venue, the first thing people usually say when they come in is, `Turn the rears on.' What they don't realize is that those speakers are actually on, but because they're not creating any special effects people think they're not on. However, if you turn the rears off, you really notice it. It's more of a relative difference than a special effect."

Hobson adds, "When something is so far out of context as to be distracting as opposed to enhancing, that's where I draw the line. I've heard a lot of things that were more for theatrical value, like a movie, as opposed to an enhanced musical experience."

One reason classical producers take a conservative approach toward the multichannel medium is that, in most cases, their mandate is to reproduce the ambience of a hall. In a perfect world, a hall sounds good enough to capture with a few well-placed mics. However, in most real-life scenarios, the venue must be "helped along" with additional mics and artificial reverb.

EFFECTS AND CLICKS
"Halls are a bitch," says Henderson. "Finding a good one that has proper acoustics and doesn't have traffic noise is really difficult. Sometimes I envy people who just walk into a studio and set up their mics in a soundproof room. But we can't work our magic that way, especially not with large orchestras. Even large studios and scoring stages that are big enough to accommodate 100 musicians just don't have concert hall acoustics."

Because of the difficulty in finding good-sounding venues—especially in the U.S.—producers and engineers tend to hone in on the few that they like. For instance, Henderson says the Myerson Symphony Hall in Dallas is "marvelous in its basic characteristics" and has "tremendous flexibility" for adjusting reverb times. Smith, for his part, has discovered that St. Thomas Chapel at Bastyr University in suburban Seattle is a great-sounding venue for his purposes.

In most cases, however, the characteristics of the hall leave much to be desired, and there isn't much that producers and engineers can do about it other than try to enhance their recordings after the fact. That means adding equalization or artificial reverb—practices as controversial as they are widespread in classical circles.

Smith readily admits to using a Lexicon 480L reverb unit to touch up the ambience on his mixes, and Munkacsi and Riesman apply EQ, reverb, compression, and various other processes as liberally as a pop engineer might. In fact, Munkacsi and Riesman are so far afield of standard classical music recording that they have alienated many members of the old guard.

Munkacsi recalls an anecdote that illustrates the tenuous relationship between the Philip Glass team and the classical mainstream:

"We were playing in a music college somewhere, and I happened to be standing in the back of the hall while the ensemble was performing onstage. There were two music professors in the back who had been introduced to me earlier, but they didn't see me walking around. So I was standing behind them, and I heard part of their conversation. They were saying, `And you know, what bothers me the most, is the audience actually seems to be enjoying it!'"

Similarly, Riesman remembers a Glass opera release that contained information in the liner notes about the method of recording. "We referred to things like click tracks and artificial reverb, so people came down on the recording just because of the way we had done it," he says. "So, for the next opera recording, we did it exactly the same way, but we didn't say anything about it in the liner notes, and everybody liked it."

Munkacsi and Riesman's use of click tracks is a technique that clearly sets them apart from their mainstream counterparts. "We use a click, but the click track is dynamic," says Riesman. "It's not just one tempo from beginning to end, even if Philip wrote one tempo. The click track is based on a performance."

For a studio recording of Glass' Symphony No. 5, cut at Looking Glass Studios in Manhattan and due for release this fall on Nonesuch Records, Riesman mapped out the tempos of the various movements based on a recording of the premiere performance of the piece. "I made a list of all the tempos and went over them with both Philip Glass and Dennis Russell Davies, the conductor, and discussed each instance where the tempo changed - either that it wasn't marked or that the tempo differed from the tempo that was indicated in the score," says Riesman. "Then we made musical decisions on a case-by-case basis. So each of these issues got resolved, but when we got to the recording session I still had the flexibility to change something, because I didn't print the click to tape; it ran live, so I was able to make changes."

Munkacsi adds that, in pieces where he and Riesman do not have recordings to work from, they hire a conductor and a pianist to record the piece from beginning to end; the tempi are then derived from that performance.

Like many producers and engineers working in an orchestral milieu, Munkacsi and Riesman were afraid that symphony players would bristle at the notion of playing to a click, or even wearing headphones. Surprisingly, they found that most musicians actually appreciated the rhythmic reference.

Munkacsi says, "When we first started doing this, classical musicians weren't used to doing overdubs, let alone playing with clicks and wearing headphones. So when we went to record an opera in Germany, using a real German opera orchestra with real German classical musicians who didn't do jingles and stuff on the side, we were really worried that they were going to flip out and walk out of the room. So the session started, we gave them the headphones, put the click in, and it turned out the German musicians loved the click. They couldn't get enough click! They kept wanting us to turn it louder and louder!"

The Glass team's experiences with click tracks underscore the changing landscape of the orchestral recording industry. For all its adherence to tradition and its strict aesthetic guidelines, the classical world is increasingly open to new ways of recording, editing and mixing. Even those who fall in the purists' camp admit that the appearance of realism is more important than realism itself. As Henderson says, "Our objective is to get a realistic, 3-D picture of the orchestra in ideal form—maybe more ideal than the real thing."






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