There are some instruments that are often touted as “difficult to record”. These include, Steel Pan, Vibraphone, Harp, Bagpipes (Highland Pipes) and Harpsichord. Having recently recorded a Harpsichord we have come up with our 5 top tips for recording what some might call challenging musical instruments.
It should come as no surprise that the first thing we as recording engineers should do is listen to the instrument being played in the environment in which it is going to be recorded. Yes I know it sounds silly, but I have lost count of the number of times I have witnessed engineers on big sessions not even setting foot in the live room when the band or soloist are warming up to listen to the instrument before they start placing microphones or have their assistant place microphones. This is a golden time to gain vital first-hand information on how the instrument sounds close up, from different listening angles and out in the room. Shut your eyes and move you head around until you get what you consider to be the perfect sound of that instrument. Then all you need to do is recreate that through the control room speakers or headphones.
There is a fair chance that you are not the first person to record the strange instrument in front of you. No matter what it is, someone will have captured its sound before. The first person I start talking to and asking questions about the instrument is its player. They will normally be more than happy to let you know where the last engineer put their mics and will probably be able to tell you about the mechanics of the instrument, where the sound comes from and where any extraneous noises might emanate from.
If you, like me, believe that being forewarned is being forearmed before the session you might want to start asking your friends and peers in the industry if they have ever recorded one of these strange instruments and how did they do it? In the case of recording the harpsichord I asked a couple of very well known engineers how they go about recording one, no need to reinvent the wheel and all that. If they found a good solution and they are willing to share (most are) then it’s all good and I can save myself some time in the session.
Another good question to ask yourself at this time is: What instruments have I recorded that are “like” this one? In the case of Harpsichord, well it’s a bit like a piano. It has strings, a body and a lid that lifts up. I have recorded a grand piano many times so a good starting point could be to treat it like a piano to start with then tweak my microphone positions when we listen to first playback.
Yes I know we are all guilty of listening with our eyes but take some time to look around the instrument. See how it is played and how the player interacts with the instrument. No use putting mics in a place where the performer will be impeded from actually playing the instrument or is made to feel uncomfortable, we are there to capture them at their best after all, no need to make it any more difficult for them.
We never have enough time in the studio or out on a location recording job but the chances that you get it right first time is quite slim. So once you get all of your mics and recording equipment set up, record a minute or two of performance then go and listen to some playback. If it sounds amazing straight out of the gate then fantastic, but this at least gives you an opportunity to make some adjustments to your set-up no matter how big or small.
Again, if you have the time, after you make a change to your mic placement or selection, have the player record a minute or so to give you and an opportunity to check what you are recording and make sure you are improving the situation rather than damaging it. Assuming that what you are hearing through the monitors has more than a passing resemblance to what you hear in the recording room, then you are good to go.
The idea for this article came up after a recording session I did with Alexandra Kremakova, who is a London based professional harpsichordist. She has an instrument set up in her living room and I went along to record her playing.
After setting the date for the session, and being a great believer in: “Do as I do, not just as I say”, I started contacting friends in the industry for any top tips on how to record the Harpsichord. The over-arching feedback I received was “treat it like you would a piano” but also massive thanks to Steve Genewick for his recommendation to put a mic or a stereo pair of mics over the Harpsichords plectrums. This would give me the later option to push in some extra percussive sounds if the track needed it as the plectrums can have quite a nice attack to them.
Most of the mic choices for this project were by Audio Technica. I chose a pair of AT4047/SV large diaphragm condensers to pick up most of the instrument’s sound. These mics are really nice and clean but they do have a small transformer in them to give them an almost FET mic tone. For me these are really nice when you want to add just a little bit of character but not so much that it’s overpowering. A little salt and pepper rather than a massive bulb of garlic.
I placed the AT4047/SV mics on stands about about 3 feet away from the soundboard of the instrument outside the case (as you can see from the images below). These mics were set to Omni to embrace the sound of the room and of the instrument.
For the inside mics over the plectrums I chose a pair of AT4081 ribbon mics. These are my favourite mics for acoustic guitar so I decided close up in a Blumlein stereo pair would be very interesting. It was quite difficult to get this arrangement to “fit” as the music stand had to be allowed to sit over the tuning pegs. But with a little finessing we made it so the mics would fit and the music stand could be used.
The room where the Harpsichord is set up is in a beautiful London Townhouse with lovely high ceilings. I decided to use a Sontronics Apollo II stereo ribbon mic about 12 feet in the air as my room mic. I could then blend this is with the spaced Omnis on the body of the Harpsichord to keep the attack and presence to the recording but also allow the instrument to breath in it’s acoustic space. For this recording and environment the Apollo II felt like the natural choice. I love ribbon mics and the warmth then bring to a recording and the Apollo II with its active ribbons has all the warmth and loveliness of a classic ribbon but it can handle quite high sound pressure levels and does not suffer that typical ribbon trait of rolling off all the top end. What you get out of the Apollo II is just a really nice natural warm sound. You can EQ it if you want to but in this case there was no need.
The Recording Gear
In my opinion a classical recording requires a recording system of the highest quality and It should have a flat, un-coloured frequency response, I chose the RME Fireface UFX+ to be the main audio interface which I would link up to my 2017 MacBook Pro via Thunderbolt. The UFX+ has 4 built in microphone preamps and I was using 6 mics so I drafted in another amazing sounding unit, the Audient ASP880 eight channel mic pre which I hooked up to the UFX+ via ADAT optical. I also connected the Word Clock IN of the ASP880 to the Word Clock OUT of the UFX+ and set the ASP880 to lock to external Word Clock. I know I can use the clock signal inside the ADAT optical stream but I would rather use WordClock.
The RME UFX+ has a great many features including amazing supporting control software in the form of TotalMix FX and a very useable iPad app for controlling sends and other interface parameters but for this project, I chose the UFX+ for its sound, or maybe lack of a sound. What goes into the UFX+ is what comes out again.
The best thing about working with pros is that they just get on with it. In a 4 hour session we recorded 4 pieces. Some of the works recorded were both quite lengthy and quite a challenge for Alexandra but we recorded no more than 3 or 4 takes on any piece with no need for later edits and post production tweaks. It was a pleasure to listen to her playing and to record and video it.
The piece you can hear (and see) below is “Presto’ (3rd movement from Harpsichord Sonata in c minor) by Giovanni Battista Pescetti. In the first example you can hear the main body mics panned about 10 to 2. The second example is the stereo Blumlein recording over the plectrums. the third file is the stereo room mics only and the final file is a full mix of the entire track with a little gently limiting just to bring the level up for YouTube.
Also check out the video.
In conclusion this was a real treat for me. I can now add Harpsichord to my instrumental recording CV and I hope you will agree it turned out very well. It does, I think sound like a Harpsichord is supposed to sound.
Thanks again to Alexandra for her amazing performance and stunning sounding Harpsichord.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and if you have any other ideas about recording interesting or unfamiliar instruments do please let us know in the comments section below.