Back in September 2017, having just finish a CD recording project for the National Children’s Choir of Great Britain with mobile recording company, Location Recordings, I was asked if I would like to quote to record both audio and video for the National Children's Choir Of Great Britain (NCCGB) 20th Anniversary concert at the Birmingham Town Hall. This article is the story of that project which saw my team and I record over 200 performers and singers to a capacity audience on Friday 10th August 2018.
Quoting For The Job
In the 15 or so years I have been running Location Recordings I have found the single most important part of any job is to manage the client’s expectations. Now that either sounds very “corporate” or very obvious but trust me, there is nothing more embarrassing and frustrating than not being able to deliver what the client thinks they should be getting. So, if I have a top tip, it is make sure you both know exactly what the intended outcome of any project is. It sounds obvious but it is so important, and can be a real deal breaker to actually getting paid!
Fortunately, I have a very good working relationship with the Choir’s Manager, so right from the word go, I knew exactly what she wanted. In this case the audio and video were for a DVD of the concert and a small amount of footage for social media. I asked all the important questions like how many singers would there be at one time and when I was told there would be over 200 for the final piece I nearly fell off my chair. So I had to come up with a flexible system that would capture both small groups and the massed choirs of the NCCGB.
How To Record 200 Singers?
I am a great believer in the phrase, “It’s not important to know everything, it is far more important to know how to find out”. So I asked many of my friends in the industry who had a great deal of experience recording large vocal groups how they would go about recording a choir over 200 strong. The array of microphones had to be able to capture small groups at the front of the stage. Medium sized choirs of over 50 singers right up to the full massed choir who would also be above the stage in what are called the “Choir Stalls” around the massive Pipe Organ. The other constraint to consider is that this is also a video project. So covering the stage in microphone is not going to look pretty on camera. So I after much scribbling and note making I came up with a list of mics I wanted to use from my collection and a rough plan of how these mics would be arranged on the stage.
Under Promise & Over Deliver
This is a phrase we hear time and again but in this case I did want to go the extra mile. As you can imagine I was not going to take on this project alone. As well and the audio side I had cameras to worry about and decided early on to book a dedicated camera man to come and run some of the cameras. In the end we were shooting on 9 cameras 3 of which were moving positions, not just locked off, but the extra mile in this case was camera 9 which was a 360 camera. We had already agreed to provide some edits for the choir’s social media channels but the idea of some 360 footage really appealed to them. To go along with this we wanted to provide some 360 audio. My Production Expert colleague Julian Rodgers agreed to come and run the sound for the event leaving me to direct and manage any problems. I have also learned if it can go wrong, it will go wrong and having people who do not get in a flap and just deal with problems is key to the success of a project.
Julian also (at the time) had one of the amazing Sennheiser Ambeo microphones and we decided to use this to capture the audio for the 360 footage.
We chose to position the Sennheiser Ambeo just behind and above the conductors head on the same stand as the main pair of close stereo mics which in these case were a pair of Vanguard Audio Labs V1S with the cardioid capsule. As you can imagine this was going to be quite a heavy array of mics so I used my Latch Lake micKing 2200 stand which has a minimal footprint, but very heavy cast iron base. In short, it stays where it is put and would take an earthquake to make it fall over and although earthquakes have been reported in the West Midlands, it’s far from the norm.
When recording in a beautiful space such as the Birmingham Town Hall with a lovely natural acoustic you really should try to capture as much of the “room” sound as possible. I decided to put my Vanguard Audio Labs V44S Stereo Condenser mic as far back in the hall as possible. I hoped that between the V44S and the Vanguard V1S pair at the front, this would make up the bulk of the recording. The other mics would them be added to fill up the sound and allow me to mix slightly between sections (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass)
We also needed dedicated mics for the piano. One of the challenges with live recordings is there are always compromises that have to be overcome. In this case the piano lid had to remain low in order for the piano accompanist to be able to see the conductor. This is far from ideal for recording a “natural” piano sound but it is what it is. I needed to use some very small mics to get in under the lid which was placed on the first stick. I chose the Audio Technica AT4081 active ribbon mic as they sound great on Piano and even though it has a figure 8 pick-up pattern the tone of the mic inside the piano would be great and using a ribbon mic will stop it sounding “honky”.
We also had 6 other mics on stage for the choir. Spaced equally in front of the first choir riser were 4 Audio-Technica large diaphragm condensers set to a cardioid pickup pattern. Sadly I did not have 4 identical mics so we used 2x AT4047SV mics as the outer pair and 2x AT4050 mics as the inner pair.
Although the AT4047SV has a transformer on its output and the AT4050 does not I decided this was not a major issue. We spaced the mics so the cardioid patter would evenly pickup the singers on the first level riser.
One of the worries about concert recordings where there are large changes of performers like this one is that the mics will either get moved or knocked over.
None of the stands took a tumble but early on in the first half an over excited young singers clunked one of the stands with an AT4050 on. Fortunately, they caught the stand but in the final mix you can hear the “smile” in their voices as they realise what they have done.
The final 2 choir mics would only get used in the final massed choir piece. I turned a very tall lighting stand into a mic stand, placed this on the back of the choir riser and put a pair of Audio Technica AT4080 ribbon mics on it to pick up the performers in the upper choir stalls. This spaced pair was added so, if needed I could boost the level of the youngest singers.
The final mic we put in was the solo mic for the violin. Again this would only be used in the final piece but I wanted something very flexible so I could really chance my mind of tone in the mix. I chose to use my Slate Digital ML-1 mic placed about 1m above and in front of the violinist. As it turned out this was a fantastic choice as not only is the ML-1 a very capable mic in it’s own right but I was able to choose a mic model in the mix and change the tonality of the violin if I wanted to. It can be very tricky to capture a natural violin sound but the ML-1 worked really well. I think I used the Slate FG-49 model in the final mix which really brought out the rich mid-range of the violins lower register.
Recording Gear (Stage Rack)
The recording rig was separated into two, 3U racks. The stage rack contained a Focusrite RedNet MP8R, an 8 channel mic preamp that converts to Dante. An Audient ASP-880, 8 channel mic pre that outputs to ADAT optical or 25pin D-Sub analogue output and a Ferrofish A32 Dante. In a previous article I have already covered in detail the amazing unit that is the Ferrofish A32 Dante but let just say that the ASP880 was connected via ADAT to the A32 and the A32 was connected via Dante to the MP8R. The MP8R was then connected via a very long Cat-5 cables on a drum to the front of house position. The A32 Dante was also being used as a very high quality splitter to feed some of the mic signals including Piano and the VOG (Voice Of God) mic into the house PA, and you can read more about that in the link above. The Sennheiser Ambeo mic was connected to the first 4 channels of the MP8R as the gain for these 4 channels needed to be exactly the same, and the best way to be sure of this is to use a digitally controlled gain preamp, which the MP8R is and it can be controlled using the RedNet control software across the Dante network. The Audient ASP880 was used for Piano and the 4 wide choir mics. I love the lack of colour the ASP range has. It makes recordings that just sound open and natural. Just what you want for a choral recording.
In the list of kit above you did not hear the word ethernet or switch. Normally in a Dante network you need a switch at either end of the system if you are using more than one device. Well at the FOH (Front Of House) end yes, we did have a 24 port Dante approved Cisco switch (more on that shortly) but, it is possible via some clever tweaks in the Dante Controller software to use the 2 network ports on the Focusrite MP8R. Now I have used the MP8R on a number of occasions and it has even popped up in reviews of the Red 4Pre but this was a very handy trick that we learned on the day from the support team at Focusrite. At this point the Focusrite technical support team are worthy of a mention. We had a couple of driver and service issues with my Mac, which they had never seen before that there were able to troubleshoot and fix. To be honest, they saved the day. Thanks guys, you know who you are.
The Front Of House rack contained the main network switch, the main interface for the rig which was the amazing Focusrite Red 4Pre and an Audient ASP800 8 channel interface which if needed could be connected to the ADAT ports of the Red 4Pre if we needed any more mics at the FOH position or at the back end of the room. It turned out, we didn’t so this one didn’t get used. The super long Cat-5 cable, along with the MacBook Pro and the Red 4Pre were all plugged into the Switch and after some level of faffing about started to talk to each other. Thanks to Julian again for being a cool head under pressure and just getting the issues sorted.
As the choirs were rehearsing, we set the levels that were being recorded by Studio One. We chose Studio One for one very good reason. Like an idiot, I left my Pro Tools iLok back in the studio plugged into my USB hub! Yes, iLok cloud would now get me out of this moment of stupidity but as we were really only using the DAW as a tape machine it didn’t really matter which DAW it was. We made a conscious choice to not hit the DAW to hard. In these days of super low noise floor and 24 bit recording there is no need to peak any higher than -18 on the meters. This would give us headroom for the audience applause and clapping from choir in one of the pieces to be performed.
The concert started at 7:30 and the recording systems for both audio and video word exactly as we hoped they would. All the hard work (and stressing by me) had been done during the setup and afternoon rehearsal. All the “issues” had been ironed out, because we gave ourselves enough time to do that and the recording side of the project went perfectly.
In total we recorded just under 100 minutes of music which over the next 3 days I had to mix and edit. The audio mix fell together very easily. Most of the sound of this recording is indeed made up of the stereo pair of condensers behind the conductor and the stereo room mic. The other mics are then blended in when needed to lift different sections of the choirs. The 9 camera video edit took a little longer but as you can see and hear from the very small excerpt from the final massed choirs piece “Everyday Wonders: The Girl From Aleppo” it all turned out very well indeed. And I’m not one to brag but I have also had some very complimentary emails from the client as well.
Thanks once again my team of Julian and Curtis. Cracking job. Any job is easy when you have a good team around you.