As many of you may know when I am not slaving away in my studio, I like to get out and about and record bands and musical ensembles in the "real world" with my company Location Recordings.
At the beginning of 2017, I was asked to record the Elite Quartet in the beautiful St Lawrence church in the small Essex village of Rowhedge about 75 miles northeast of London. The quartet had been playing together for about 4 weeks and wanted to make an audio and video recording of their playing for promotional use.
St Lawrence church is an octagonal building with a capacity of around 200 people dating back to 1838. Stone built and with its stunning vaulted timber roof, the acoustic for "classical" string instruments is just fantastic.
The Recording Equipment
This was a 3-day session capturing both audio and video and as the budget was tight I was flying solo, so I chose an audio system that was tried and tested and had given me great results both in the studio and live.
I used my 2012 MacBook Pro hooked up to a two Universal Audio Apollo units (One 8P and one 8). I only used 6 mics in total so would only need the mic pres from the 8P but if I chose to use any UAD-2 plug-ins it's always nice to have the extra 4 DSP chips from the extra Apollo 8 on hand.
The session was being recorded to my 500GB Lacie Firewire 800 Rugged drive that was connected to the Mac with a Firewire to Thunderbolt converter.
A traditional string quartet is made up of 2 Violins, Viola and Cello. Now in a perfect world, I would have used the same mics on all 4 instruments, but this is not a perfect world and I do not own 4 identical condenser microphones so some careful choices had to be made.
For Violin 1, I chose the Sontronics Aria fixed cardioid valve condenser mic. I have had fantastic results with the Aria on violins before so hey, go with what you know. For Violin 2, I chose the Vanguard Audio Labs V13 multi-pattern valve condenser. I had this mic for review at the time and during the review process, had made some good recordings of string instruments so decided to give it a try. The V13 was set to a cardioid pickup pattern.
For the Viola, I chose a Blue Microphones Green Bottle multi-pattern condenser set to cardioid, which I had borrowed from a close friend. I tried a couple of different mics for the Viola but the Green bottle had a nice bright top end which sounded great when Karen, the Viola player dug in for some of the lower notes. On Cello I used a borrowed Neumann U87. It has to be said I'm not a big fan of the U87 but in this case set to cardioid, it sounded fantastic on the cello.
Setup and Mic Placement
One of the things we hear from top recording engineers the world over time and again is that you have to get out into the room to hear what the instruments sound like before you start making choices about their sound. Now one of the nice things about this type of recording is that I had no choice other than to be in the room with the ensemble so I knew how they sounded.
I started off with all the mics set to a Cardioid polar pattern but I was reminded of my time at Mix With The Masters with my now friend the great Al Schmitt saying "All mics in Omni". I tried it and the results were stunning. In Cardioid the stereo image was good but there were some issues with phasing between the mics which I had tried to work through by making sure all the mics were the same distance apart. However, switching all the mics apart from the Aria on Violin 1 to Omni made the sound much more cohesive and the 4 instruments started to sound like many more than just 4 players but, we had lost some of that controlled stereo image.
To regain some of the lost stereo image I chose to add a Mid-Side pair of mics to the session. I have had great success with the Mid-Side or M/S technique on live recordings in the past so I chose a pair of Sontronics Saturns multi-pattern condenser mics. I set these up on heavy-duty LatchLake 1100 stand with a LatchLake X-Boom to allow me to get to the mics into the perfect position up nice and high in the room. One Saturn, chosen to be the side is set to Figure-8 pattern and lined up at right angles to the performers. The other, mid mic is set to cardioid and placed 90 degrees to the side mic so the capsules are perfectly aligned and perfectly in phase. I then recorded the side mic onto 2 channels of Pro Tools and for playback, applied a Trim plug-in to flip the phase and pushed these mics hard left and right. Then as you bring in the centre or mid mic an amazing stereo image is presented.
I have worked with 2 members of this quartet many times so I know how they work and how they like to sound. To this end, taking the role of producer was not a struggle. We worked for 3 days and recorded 14 pieces. The Elite Quartet are not really into playing, what might be called the standard classical string quartet repertoire. They favour more modern film scores and contemporary music so there was a great deal of music I knew very well which made it easier to guide them with performance direction and spot the occasional wrong note.
You can see and hear how the recordings turned out by watching the video of one of the Elite Quartets favourite arrangement, Adel's Skyfall from the James Bond film of the same name. I don't think this sounds like just 4 players. Somehow it sounds more like a small string section. The sound is bigger, wider and fuller than I have heard on other string quartet recordings. Now you could put this down to tricks used in the mix but, to be honest, there is little more than some top end push on a master buss EQ along with a little compression and mastering limiting to bring the overall level up a little. This is not a heavily processed recording and the tracks almost mixed themselves. When all is said and done both the clients (the Elite Quartet) and myself were very happy with how it all turned out. We are already talking about their first full album project and are planning to record in the same location.
Oh and if any of you are thinking you recognise the chap playing Violin 1, that's my Dad.