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Session Notes: Recording A Choir

The Practical Craft Of Recording
Published April 2017
By Mike Senior

Session Notes: Recording A ChoirPhoto: Daniel Plappert

Recording a choir: it sometimes makes economic sense to use a commercial studio, and you’ll often learn a thing or two while you’re there as well.

I was recently approached by a leading amateur pop/jazz choir to record a unique children’s project: an audiobook story interspersed with songs and sound effects, all performed by unaccompanied voices. I detailed the voiceover recording for this CD back in December 2016’s column, but this month I’d like to focus on how I captured the choir’s musical contributions, because those presented plenty of challenges of their own.

The first constraint was simply time, because the scheduling window between the musical arrangements being completed and the CD needing to be pressed realistically allowed only one weekend of recording time for 11 songs (many with lead vocals and human percussion) and dozens of full-choir sound effects. In addition, I felt the choir needed an unusually dry, close capture for their recordings, for several reasons. Firstly, the song arrangements hopped between a wide range of styles (calypso, classical, pop, blues, country, swing... even yodelling!), so I needed a good deal of mixing flexibility to cater for that. There was also a preference amongst the musicians for the upfront presentation typical of contemporary one-voice-per-part a capella productions and, besides, I felt that a traditional choral presentation would have sounded undesirably distant from the upfront voiceovers, given that narrators and singers frequently interacted during the story.

All lead vocals on the session were recorded in the studio’s isolation booth to allow more flexible editing between takes.All lead vocals on the session were recorded in the studio’s isolation booth to allow more flexible editing between takes.Photo: Daniel PlappertWith all this in mind, I planned to record the choir as a full ensemble, but with any lead vocalist acoustically isolated, the idea being to save time by building up independently editable choir and lead-vocal takes in tandem. In addition, I decided to add the human percussion elements as overdubs, so that we could retain full control over percussion levels, something that can be tremendously difficult when they’re printed into your main choral tracks. That said, I was determined to record those percussion parts via the choir’s microphone rig so that they would naturally cohere with the sung choral sound. As when working with any other amateur group, I was also keen to avoid messing too much with the singers’ natural performance setup and wanted to minimise the use of...

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Published April 2017