The video and slides included in the presentation by Tom Caulfield from Channel Classics at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach last weekend got me thinking about standard location recording techniques. Yesterday, I downloaded the test files from the Channel Classics website expecting a certain sound…and I wasn’t surprised. I listened to the Largo ma non tanto from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043 at 192 kHz/24-bits as well as 96 kHz/24-bits. These recordings were made using DSD (I suspect DSD 128 but I’m not sure…I may write to Jared Sacks to find out) and sound really terrific…if fairly traditional in their “distant and reverberant” sound.
I’m a huge fan of Bach’s music, especially when played on original instruments. The booklet that came with the downloads included photos of the sessions. One of the pictures in particular shows the placement of multiple stereo pairs of microphones (see Figure below). You can also see the placement of the members of the ensemble. They are gathered in a 360-degree circle around the central array of microphones. This is very similar to the miking technique employed by Morten Lynberg at 2L Records. The placement of musicians in a circle allows for a 5.1 surround mix and a more traditional stereo blend of the microphones.
Figure 1 – A recording session using an array of elevated stereo mikes.
During over 40 years of recording classical music, I’ve done hundreds of projects with a stereo pair of microphones (or a stereo microphone) located 10-15 feet up in the air and 10-20 feet back from the ensemble. This type of mike technique is commonly used to capture live concerts. I know Jack Vad, a good friend and the engineer in residence for the San Francisco Symphony, has an array of microphones hanging from the ceiling at Davies Hall. Even when I’ve recorded a classical ensemble as a recording session (without an audience) in a place like the tech room at Lucas Ranch in Northern California, I would place an array of mikes on sticks in front of the group.
There are variants to this technique. I teach audio engineering and in my introductory course we talk about all of the methods including a Blumlein Pair, a Spaced Pair, XY, ORTF, MS and a Decca Tree. Each method has its supporters. Many engineers use a hybrid approach and use combinations of the techniques.
But the sound is generally the same. The tracks that I downloaded from Channel Classics (as well as virtually every other classic record company) have what I describe as a “sonic documentary” sound. The music is all there. It’s well balanced and full but just too far away for my tastes. There’s always a lot of ambiance or reverberation obscuring the clarity of the melodic lines and interwoven harmonic textures. The standard stereo microphone techniques don’t satisfy my desire to be close to or even in side the music. I want to be at the conductor’s podium or closer.
When I contemplated starting my own label, I wanted to do something with the recordings that would be different from the industry standard. I knew that I wasn’t looking for a “sonic documentary” sound. My approach had to elevate the entire musical experience and not merely model a live concert experience. What to do? I’ll give you the evolution of the AIX Records sound tomorrow.