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soprano and piano

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soprano and piano

Postby Peevy » Wed Jan 08, 2020 5:16 pm

I have a recording session coming up next month (classical soprano and grand piano) and am gathering my thoughts on the best approach (and hopefully gathering yours too). It will be on location in a church which I will not have access to until the day of the recording because of distance. Online photos of the interior of the church show it to be fairly large and guessing from the surfaces I see, reverberant.

I’ve been assured that the church is noise free (fingers crossed on that!) and that the piano is well maintained. I think the church does host some recitals, but I can’t find any videos etc. online to have a listen.

I have, of course, read Mike Senior’s Sound on Sound article:

https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques ... o-ensemble

... and would be confident enough to do a quasi version of that with the singer facing the piano.

However, there is video involved (nothing fancy – two/three half decent quality video camcorders to catch some angles) … I’ll be operating those too on the understanding that I ain’t anywhere near pro on that, but the artist can have the footage to edit or I’ll edit it together (I like to hobby about with video now and again) It’s still to be discussed, but because of the video, it may be ‘performance’ footage in the standard format of vocalist in front of the piano (crook of the piano)

If that were the case (singer in front of piano as if an audience were there) I’d welcome any suggestions on best micing approach. (I’m not bothered about mics being in the way of the video as I can adjust the camera angles to suit)

Recording device is a Zoom F8 (8 inputs)

My thoughts so far are either mid-side or ORTF as main pair and a pair of wider omnis on the same stereo bar (about 45 to 50cm apart?). Both sets may or may not be used, but I was thinking more along the idea of a dry/wet balance safety net?

Thereafter, a stereo pair of spot mics in the crook of the piano (or at the tail end?) Should these be omni or cardiod? Omnis seem to be a popular piano choice, but I have both and would welcome suggestions on that too. My concern on that again is just how reverberant the venue is. If I find it to be very reverberant, would I be better with cardioids maybe in ORTF closer to the strings to leave mix options?

That leaves two input channels for vocal spot mic options. I thought I’d try a Sennheiser MKH 8040 (SDC) and a Neumann TLM 103 (or TLM 102?) there?

(I also have a Zoom H6. If I were to use the H6 (as a backup for a couple of extra mics) and Zoom F8 together would they stay in sync at all? I plan to test it out by letting both run for a while making random noises, claps etc, but if anyone knows offhand?)

Many thanks in advance for replies.
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby ef37a » Wed Jan 08, 2020 5:30 pm

More as a bump from an interested party but...

Since you cannot do a test visit I would try to get there at crack of dawn (bribe the jobsworth) and take a friend. Prefferably one that can play piano and sing a bit.

(if my son were home I would hire him out for beer and butties!)

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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Wed Jan 08, 2020 5:44 pm

Wow... lots of questions! ;)

Peevy wrote:I have a recording session coming up next month (classical soprano and grand piano) and am gathering my thoughts on the best approach...

I guess it will largely depend on whether you want the video to make it look like a concert-style performance setup with the singer alongside the piano facing front, or an obvious recording-style set up where you can have the vocalist facing the piano. It should still be possible to achieve nice closeups and pair shots for the latter, given some planning.

I’d welcome any suggestions on best micing approach.

I think you've already identified the obvious options.

Personally, I prefer to try can capture a nice stereo ensemble balance, and for that I'd probably go down the ORTF with omni outriggers approach, placing the vocalist closer or further in front/side of the piano to achieve the right balance. Remember you can also adjust how open the piano lid is to adjust balance, too. I'd err slightly on the side of having the vocalist a tad too close and dry, rather than going the other way, for reasons you'll understand in a moment.

Depending on the acoustics of the venue, though, you might find that if you place the array for a nice perspective on the voice, and a good volume balance between the piano and voice, the piano loses definition. In that case one or two spot mics on the piano would be needed. I also favour the use of omnis in that role, and I wouldn't go too close with them... Close enough for clarity, but far enough to capture a nice blend and balance. And if the acoustics demand, cardioids might be more appropriate to avoid picking up too much ambience or vocal spill.

I personally wouldn't use a close mic on the vocalist at all. The main pair should be positioned for the ideal voice sound and so there's nothing to be gained from additional mics -- plus it would compromise the video shots. Instead, I'd use the extra recorder channels for 'space mics' -- a pair of remote omnis to gather just the ambient reverb sound, which could be used in post if necessary to add a little more space if necessary in the mix, since the main pair will tend towards being a little too dry.

(I also have a Zoom H6. If I were to use the H6 (as a backup for a couple of extra mics) and Zoom F8 together would they stay in sync at all?

Probably not for any extended period, no, although they will probably be close enough in speed/sample rate for short takes of a couple of minutes. The point is that one machine's 44.1kHz sample rate might actually be 44101Hz and the other 44099Hz... such is the nature of crystal clocks! There relative speeds may also drift with changing temperatures in the church, and with the varying battery or mains voltage.

Use a handclap at the start and end of each take to help with alignment, and listen critically for any hint of phasing or colouration if you do end up mixing channels together from both recorders afterwards.
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby forumuser840717 » Wed Jan 08, 2020 6:25 pm

Peevy wrote:I’ve been assured that the church is noise free (fingers crossed on that!) and that the piano is well maintained. I think the church does host some recitals, but I can’t find any videos etc. online to have a listen.

Putting aside the how to stuff because there are as many ways to do this as there are to skin the proverbial cat and you'll probably get quite a lot of suggestions on that, the church almost certainly won't be noise free. In my experience of recording in churches, the congregation and clergy are frequently completely unaware of how noisy their buildings are.

I've been booked to record in 'noise free' churches which have turned out to be on traffic roundabouts, next to railways, adjacent to the A40 in to London, or the Hammersmith flyover, under take-off paths from Heathrow, or where there's a school with a yard full of screaming kids or a factory which lets off regular blasts of high pressure steam a few yards away! And even in relatively benign-looking locations such as out in the fields or tucked away in some remote rural corner, you need to be aware of the liklihood of being surrounded with sheep or cows - both of which can make a surprising racket at certain times of year/day - or of the rook colony in the churchyard which makes a really irritating din every time they get disturbed, or farmers running tractors ploughing/harvesting/whatever in the fields around the church, idiots off-roading the green lane behind the church, or people chopping trees, or cutting grass in their gardens just out of sight behind the trees (or in the churchyard itself - church volunteers are rarely aware that noise they make in the churchyard when strimming/leaf blowing/mowing/dismantling scaffolding/rigging marquees/generally yelling and laughing, is audible inside the church and is a problem for anyone recording. And little bonus randoms like scheduled roadworks/excavations for gas/water/electricity/telecomms anywhere within about 150yds (or more) of the church.

And if the church is rural (or sometimes even if it's not) keep en eye on the weather forecast as roof gutters on some churches are incredibly noisy and some make ridiculously loud sounds in windy weather, be it surrounding trees creaking, rattling against windows or rushing noises with wind through branches or howling (literally) through belfries/other architecture, or rain blown against lightweight roofs or windows or gurgling and splashing through drains.

Even if it's relatively free from external noise, be aware of heating systems which click or roar or bang or make other assorted noises, big stained glass windows in direct sunlight can click and crackle loudly as they warm/cool, the ticking and/or striking of a church tower clock can be really audible in the context of a session so might need need turning off/stopping. I once did some organ sessions in a cathedral in Canada where the traffic noise meant no day-time recording but the crackling of the massive stained glass windows expanding and contracting meant that the only viable recording time was between about 01:00/02:00 and 05:00!

Churches with attached church halls can be a nightmare unless the person taking the session booking has the presence of mind to make sure that the hall is clear at the same time. I once had a choir session in a church, regularly used for recording, at which the hall rental person had changed and they took a booking for a women's boxercise class coinciding with our session! Trying to record Allegri's Miserere whilst 30 women in unison shouted, grunted, and occasionally leapt into the air, landing with a loud bang, to a thumping rock soundtrack and instructor yelling into a head mic, all through a 150W keyboard combo in a room behind some big wooden doors about 20ft from the altar wasn't the best session I've done.

Also make sure that things like 'the ladies who do the flowers' and the church cleaners, choir practices, bell ringers, play group and, if it's a touristy church, visitors, aren't expecting to do their thing when you're booked in to record (our church sessions are usually 2-3 days at a time, with two or three 3hr sessions per day, but a single day or single session should be less problematic). Take some "Quiet Please - Recording In Progress" and "No Entry - Reording In Progress" type signs and some Blue-Tac for doors. (Though in some locations these can be taken by annoying passing yoof as invitations to make a racket!)

An adjacent hall that's not attached can be a problem when people dribble in and out in their cars, chattering loudly and reving engines so make sure that any adjacent buildings aren't suddenly going to turn into noise sources. I've also had sessions booked in churches which looked ideal right up to the point of the sessions when we turned up and found a load of heavy machinery and people arriving to knock down the former night club to one side of the church. And another where a church in a pedestrianised square in London was blighted for some sessions by loads of construction work taking place in high rise buildings all around the square. And once in the same place where someone had forgotten to ask for the nearby fountains to be turned off during the sessions. A simple phone call fixes it but, if they're running, the noise makes recording impossible for anything even vaguely quiet.

It can also be worth checking that the church hasn't been warned about things like power outages for planned maintenance (yes - it's happend to me after driving 250 miles to a venue we used regularly, and they didn't think to say a thing to us!) And do make sure someone confirms with the church contact all arrangements, the week before and then again a confirmation call the day before as things like funerals do crop up and, understandably, they have priority over recording sessions and can be arranged without anyone remembering they have a recording booked in.

Oh, and being told that the piano is well maintained doesn't mean that it'll be even remotely in tune, nor that it'll be of a quality that's appropriate for a recording (same goes for church organs), nor that it'll be positioned anywhere useful. And it may or may not be movable. I can count on one hand the church pianos which have been up to the job over about 30 years of hearing 'oh you won't need to tune the piano, we get it done regularly'. Which seems in some cases to mean annually. Or it was in tune when they bought it!

Having said all that, if you do find a quiet, well maintained church, with a half decent acoustic, with or without a vaguely useable piano, and which doesn't cost the same as Abbey Road 1, do PM me the details! :thumbup:
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Aural Reject » Wed Jan 08, 2020 6:33 pm

Ha....call that a list?!

You missed the buzzing lights ;)
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby forumuser840717 » Wed Jan 08, 2020 6:37 pm

Aural Reject wrote:Ha....call that a list?!

You missed the buzzing lights ;)

Good point! And the striplights which loudly 'ping' every so often - always at the worst possible moment. Even more annoying when they also emit an electrical/RF click at the same time.

And vestry water heaters which sound like Old Faithful!

Toilets which seem to be a useful and welcome bonus right up to the point that you find that everyone goes to the loo as the break is ending and the cistern empties then makes a loud squealing/hissing/banging noise for the next 15-20mins when you want to be recording!

And churches where they forget to turn off the PA system after the service and it buzzes/hums constantly whilst the open mics pick up and amplify what you're trying to record!

Not to mention the one that uses the money from your multiple previous sessions, not to fit double/secondary glazing or an updated quiet heating system, as had been suggested but instead welcomes you to the next sessions in a series of discs with the words "the PCC decided that a nice carpet would be lovely so thank you very much for funding it" as you stare at a thick covering of carpet down the nave and both aisles that's completely killed the acoustic!

Oh, and the secluded hilltop church that has fantastic acoustics, loads of space, a nice separate room for a control room, toilets, an actually surprisingly good and genuinely well maintained full sized grand piano, plenty of parking, drive-up access to the church, no noisy clocks, bells, wind prone architecture etc. etc., a gate at the bottom of the hill which can be closed to prevent unwelcome visitors and is in every way ideal for recording. Except that being a landmark visible for miles around it's used as a sighting point for all aircraft on final approach to a fairly busy airfield a few miles away so in even half decent weather, whenever there are people flying about, it's plagued by constant aircraft noise!
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Wed Jan 08, 2020 7:00 pm

The trials of a location recording engineer... :lol:

The best 'Oh yes, it's a very quiet chapel' story I have was one located right next to the A&E entrance to the local hospital.... and people contriving to require blues and twos deliveries to the unit during almost every take! That session involved a lot of retakes and editing...

I can also sympathise with the carpeted floor scenario too...
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Aural Reject » Wed Jan 08, 2020 7:07 pm

Mine was a builder welding metal balconies onto a new block of flats outside the stained glass window....
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby forumuser840717 » Wed Jan 08, 2020 7:41 pm

I think my worst siren recordings were:

Many years ago, recording a choral concert at a London church near a junction of four roads. About 100yds down one was a fire station, roughly the same distance down another was an ambulance station and hospital and almost immediately opposite the church was a large police station! Items from the east end of the church were ok-ish when they were loud but useless when the music was quiet and the idea of putting the choir on the west end balcony for interesting effects during much of the second half was pretty much a non starter as I don't think we had a single piece without sirens.

In 2010, recording a Christmas concert at St James', Piccadilly, on the same day as student protest marches. We had constant noise from multiple police cars stuck in traffic on Jermyn Street, next to one side of the church, and Piccadilly on the other side of the church, with sirens blaring non stop as they tried to get through the static traffic. Then, just to make sure we were stuffed, we spent the last 30-40 mins of the concert with two helicopters hovering overhead. Out of over 80 mins of music and readings we had fewer than 6 minutes of programme which, after extensive de-noising, was broadcastable, albeit with sirens still audible.
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Peevy » Wed Jan 08, 2020 8:07 pm

ef37a wrote:Since you cannot do a test visit I would try to get there at crack of dawn (bribe the jobsworth) and take a friend. Prefferably one that can play piano and sing a bit. (if my son were home I would hire him out for beer and butties!)

I will be taking my son who doesn't play piano or sing, but will still be insisting on beer and butties!

Thanks everyone for bringing my secret fears about this into vivid, technicolour real life! Here’s hoping …! If all else fails I can pretend that opera sopranos usually sing 3cm from an SM7B (will pack one just in case!)

Hugh Robjohns wrote:I guess it will largely depend on whether you want the video to make it look like a concert-style performance setup with the singer alongside the piano facing front, or an obvious recording-style set up where you can have the vocalist facing the piano. It should still be possible to achieve nice closeups and pair shots for the latter, given some planning.

I agree about the video. I think I could muster a more interesting video with the singer facing the piano as in Mike’s article mentioned above. I suppose it depends on the vibe the soprano is looking for. Whether a classic performance or cool looking recording session. We shall see!

On the piano micing

(unless for noise purposes I need to persuade them that sampled pianos work much better than real ones and it would be better to decant to my humble studio for noise purposes.) :shock:

… more of a general something I was wondering about. If we go for the recital position of singer in front of crook of piano, what is the better position for the piano pair? If I were to mic from the tail end of the piano looking along its length, how does that influence the stereo image of the overall ensemble as the mics are picking up the piano from a completely different position/perspective? Is that something to consider or does it just not matter? (I’ve been looking at a few YouTube videos and have seen this setup here and there with singer/solo instrumentalist piano combos) To put the piano stereo pair looking into the piano in the crook seems to make more sense in my head as the piano and ensemble image is similar?

Thanks everyone (even though I won't sleep tonight) :roll:
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby tomas » Wed Jan 08, 2020 8:22 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:Use a handclap at the start and end of each take to help with alignment, and listen critically for any hint of phasing or colouration if you do end up mixing channels together from both recorders afterwards.

Good advice, especially if the hands are visible in the video cameras. To adjust the colours of the cameras, it is very useful if all of them have a shot of the same white surface (a piece of paper, blouse or whatever).
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Peevy » Wed Jan 08, 2020 9:15 pm

tomas wrote:To adjust the colours of the cameras, it is very useful if all of them have a shot of the same white surface (a piece of paper, blouse or whatever).

Thanks for reminding me of that Tomas! I need to revisit camcorder manuals to remind myself how to adjust the colouring (white balance) on the cameras. I’ve come a cropper with that before. I can colour match in my video software, but just as with audio, it’s best to fix it at source! :)
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby blinddrew » Wed Jan 08, 2020 9:29 pm

Just make the whole thing in black and white - call it art! ;)
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Peevy » Wed Jan 08, 2020 9:49 pm

blinddrew wrote:Just make the whole thing in black and white - call it art!

I could do black and white context cutscenes to lorries, motorbikes, radiators, school playgrounds, lawnmowers, sheep, congregations, toilets, heating systems, tourists, trains.

Should fit perfect! :bouncy:
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Aural Reject » Wed Jan 08, 2020 9:52 pm

....don’t forget to wrap up warm for when the keyholder hasn’t been told you’re coming early...

Good luck.
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Martin Walker » Wed Jan 08, 2020 10:56 pm

Wow, what a fascinating thread full of practical advice and anecdotes - a wealth of personal experience! :thumbup: :clap:

Good luck with your gig Peevy!


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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Arpangel » Thu Jan 09, 2020 10:00 am

Best of luck with this, I’ve been involved in many soprano and piano recordings, and my heart goes out to you.
The soprano voice is one of those things that very few singers can pull off, there are millions of average "OK" guitarists, but very few excellent ones that can do it properly. Sproanos are even rarer in that department, I’d go as far to say that any amateur that hasn’t been formally trained and hasn’t studied it as a profession is going to be ear damagingly bad.
Forget mic placement etc etc, you’re most important skill on the day will be delivering levels of diplomacy and tact you never thought you possessed.
Unless of course you know the singer well and can vouch for her quality, in which case ignore all the above.

:)
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Peevy » Thu Jan 09, 2020 7:11 pm

Thanks again all!

Arpangel wrote:Best of luck with this, I’ve been involved in many soprano and piano recordings, and my heart goes out to you.The soprano voice is one of those things that very few singers can pull off, there are millions of average "OK" guitarists, but very few excellent ones that can do it properly. Sproanos are even rarer in that department, I’d go as far to say that any amateur that hasn’t been formally trained and hasn’t studied it as a profession is going to be ear damagingly bad.Forget mic placement etc etc, you’re most important skill on the day will be delivering levels of diplomacy and tact you never thought you possessed.Unless of course you know the singer well and can vouch for her quality, in which case ignore all the above.

Hi Arpangel

The soprano is professionally trained, and I’ve heard a couple of songs online. On those, the voice is very good but the recordings aren’t great. She’s in the lyric soprano department, so not of the Wagnerian mould. I’m hoping that will keep ear damage to a minimum. :)
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Thu Jan 09, 2020 7:15 pm

Professionally trained can mean surprisingly loud (when appropriate to the material)! Be ready with the mic pad switches on any close mics!
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Re: soprano and piano

Postby Peevy » Thu Jan 09, 2020 8:49 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:Professionally trained can mean surprisingly loud (when appropriate to the material)! Be ready with the mic pad switches on any close mics!

Hi Hugh

Yes, another secret fear revealed! The SDCs that I’m planning to use don’t have pad switches. I have a couple of inline attenuators (-10db I think?) I’ll get a couple more, or is there a better alternative?

The two multi pattern LDCs for the omini main pair do have pads so that’s covered.

I’ve been thinking again about a closer mic for the vocal. I think I will set one up, just as a security blanket, even if a tiny amount of it is used or not at all. If I do, would a good starting position be a SDC about waist height pointing up?

Thanks again. :)
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