There is nothing that stirs my musical emotions more than listening to a large group of performers in the same room at the same time. It is quite something to feel the amount of air moved by a symphony orchestra or an 18 piece big band. But not all of us have access to the space, gear and players required to record an ensemble of this size. However, can you “fake” it? In this article I’m going to show you one way and let you listen to the results so far.
Doing It The Old Fashioned Way
I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say that the way to record an orchestra or even the string section “properly” is to put all the players in a room together, with great mics and recording equipment and just hit the record button. I have been involved in many orchestral movie soundtrack recordings as both a player (percussion) and engineer and there is nothing like it when the down beat happens. It’s just magical and it is also the most time efficient way to record as if you get it right that’s it, no overdubs.
One project I was involved with was recorded at the Teldex Studio in Berlin Germany. The main hall at Teldex is acoustically fantastic and most of the “sound” of the orchestra could be captured from the room mics. But it still takes a large number of people to make the sound to be recorded in the first place. Check out the videos below.
I have often talked with recording professionals who have said the way to get a small number of players to sound like a large number of players is to double, triple of even quadruple track them. And for each pass pass you get them to move their seat around the microphone or microphones. We have even talked about this on the Podcast, but I have never actually tried it, until now that is.
What Are We Trying To Achieve?
Above you can see what might be called a conventional layout for an orchestral string section. Basically it’s 1st Violins hard left, 2nd Violins mid left, Violas mid right and Cellos hard right with Double Bass behind the cellos.
In the recent recordings I have been making with the Elite Quartet, which I have been documenting on Production Expert, the idea has been to use the natural acoustic of a church to enhance the quartet’s sound to make a professional sounding recording. However, I have been working on a personal “cover” project, which I am sure most of you will recognise and I wanted to try this “Multi-Tracking” technique to make it sound like I am playing alongside a symphonic string section, not just a string quartet.
Peter Ivey (yes he’s my father) has been involved in many different recording projects in his long and illustrious musical carrier which started out when he joined Her Majesty’s Royal Marines band as first study Violin, second study Tenor Horn.
“When I record as part of full orchestra it’s a very different process to a small chamber group or quartet session. Playing as part of a large string section means there is safety in numbers. All the players in the top orchestras are more than capable but the more players there are, the more the slight errors get swallowed up by the larger ensemble. Orchestral playing is also much more, turn up, play what the conductor tells you, then go home and collect the fee.
A multi-track session is a much harder day at the office. First of all you are playing the piece a number of times which is physically more demanding, especially when it’s a taxing or challenging piece to play. There is also the added complexity of having to play in time with parts you have already recorded. I’m not a fan of the click-track but in this case it might have made James’ job easier if we had recorded to a click.
The other challenge is to make each of the multi-track sound a little different. In an orchestra you have maybe 20 different players, playing 20 different violins which all sound very different. We are only recreating the different positions and in turn distances away from the microphones, so to make it sound even more authentic we have to play each take or pass slightly differently. One take I might try to play happy, the next day the next slightly more forcefully. Each different musical emotional twist will help make the final combination or mix of all the takes sound like a symphonic string section.
Lastly there is also the fee to consider. There are times when if, as a player you play more than one instrument you get what is called a doubling fee. Does playing the same part twice or three times mean you are playing more than one instrument, or doing more than one musicians job?
The ideas and logic behind this recording technique are very simple. If I record 4 takes of the same person playing into the same mic, in the same position, in the same room the 4 take will sound slightly different due to slight variation in playing but it will not be a big sound. If, on each of those takes we move the person around the mic, even just a little bit. The result of the sum of all those recording will sound bigger. We must NOT, move the microphone. If we move the mic and not the player we are going to change the sound of the room in the mic. In effect we will mess with the phase of the resulting mix and it will sound bad (at best). By moving the player we keep the phase coherence of the room and get a bigger sounding more interesting recording… In theory.
For this part of the project I wanted a very modern string sound so I chose to use a selection of Vanguard Audio Labs microphones.
Violin I and II were recorded using the Vanguard V1 with the Lolli capsule. I think this mic gets a big sound out of a small mic. Cello was recorded using the new V4 Cardioid Condenser. I had not tried the V4 yet, it being the newbie of the range but it really captured the richness of the Cello. On Viola I used the only non Vanguard mic in the session, that being a JZ BlackHole BH2 Cardioid Condenser. The V4 just was not quite working so well on Viola so I swapped it for the BH2 which really helped the viola to cut through without being louder. The stereo room mic was the Vanguard V44S Stereo Condenser.
First Pass: As the quartet were already setup in a tight formation around the mics (the close mic position) we did the first pass of the track in the position you can see below. I did not plan to give the performers headphones for monitoring instead I planned to conduct each “pass” of the multi-tracking. This turned out to be far more tricky than I anticipated. It worked ok, but if I planned it better, a headphone each for a click track might have resulted in less editing to tidy it all up back at the studio. Never every say “fix it in the mix”.
Second Pass: The score that I had provided the quartet with had Violin 1 playing the vocal line and lead lines. I wanted the option to remove this from the final production so we recorded the second pass of the track in the same positions but without the lead lines.
Third & Forth Pass: You can see below the positions for the third and forth passes. With each pass conducting the new live take over the top of the previous was getting more and more tricky thanks to the errors in timing accumulated due to my “dodgy” conducting.
Below are the four takes of the track. Each take adds a total of 6 audio channels, 4 more instruments and a pair of room mics. So after the 4th pass you are listening to 24 channels of string, or if you would prefer, four First, and four Second Violins, four Viola and four Cello along with 8 stereo room mics.
Yes, technically a full symphony orchestra should have 20 or so Violins, 6 Violas and 8 Cellos but hey, I think these examples illustrate very well what can be achieved with some time and effort. By the time we get to the 4th pass of the track to my ears it is starting to sound pretty epic. Just the massive sound I want for this track.
I do wish I had planned to give each player a headphone for click as tidying this session was at best “tricky and time consuming”. It works very well and it’s in pretty good shape but, well let’s say I’m very handy with editing Elastic Audio at the moment without messing up the feel or phase of the recordings.
Other Ways To Make It Big
Of course there are plenty of ways to make your recordings sound bigger. If you don’t have the time to multi-track players your can always enhance the real instruments with the addition of samples and there are plenty of options open to you. Check out The 30 Best Sample Libraries For Orchestral Scoring article if you need a little more inspiration.
For those of you Led Zep’ fans who want to hear the rest of the track. It’s coming, but it’s turning into a monster of a project. Next stop, a full brass band.