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GREGG JACKMAN: Mics For Live String Recording

Interview | Engineer By Hugh Robjohns
Published March 2001

GREGG JACKMAN: Mics For Live String Recording

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and that was certainly the case when Gregg Jackman decided to find a better way of recording string sections playing in loud rock concerts. Hugh Robjohns talks to this inventive recording engineer.

Gregg Jackman has been engineering hit records for a substantial part of his professional life, and has a track record that reads like a Who's Who of pop music, including hits by Prince, Seal, Tom Jones, Mike Oldfield, Enya, Cher and Placido Domingo. He has longstanding links with former head of WEA Rob Dickins, so it was not surprising that when Dickins decided to set up his own label, Instant Karma, he called upon Gregg's services. Having mixed the first album to be released on Instant Karma, he's currently working on the label's second big project, a new female trio called The Alice Band. This would be reason enough to interview Gregg, but I was especially interested in finding out more about another project of his: over the last few years, he's invented his own unique solution to the problem of miking up classical string instruments in amplified situations, which has led to the development of an increasingly successful hire service.

"I am the son of a musician, and have two brothers, both involved in the music business," says Gregg. "My youngest brother was in the King's Singers and my eldest brother is an arranger and writer now, although he was in a group (called Syn) and started working in studios long before me. I was the younger brother who tagged along to some of his sessions back then, and I remember going to one at Olympic Studios when I was 14 years old. I was watching the engineer, Jerry Boys — who is still working — and thinking, 'I quite like this... I could do this.'

"So, when I left school I did the usual thing and wrote to all the studios asking for a job... and got turned down by all of them. As with most things, though, it is often a case of 'who you know' and I was lucky in that a friend of my brother's, Roger Quested (who now designs and builds well‑known monitoring loudspeakers), was chief engineer at Morgan Studios. One day he just phoned me up and asked if I wanted a job — they had apparently sacked a few Tape Ops and needed somebody urgently. I've been stuck in studios ever since!

"I was employed by Morgan Studios for a while but as soon as I could go freelance I did. I've had associations with a few studios along the way, though, and after Morgan, I went to be Chief Engineer at RAK Studios when that opened. They seemed to be turning out hits left, right and centre and at that time it was a really hot prospect.

"They had a mobile recording truck as well and that was where my 'mobile experience' first began. I wasn't the mobile's engineer — that was Tim Summerhayes, now with the Fleetwood Mobile — but when Tim went on holiday or wasn't available for some reason, I came out of the studio and mixed in the truck. I hated it at first, but started to enjoy it after a while as I learned how mobiles worked — it's a very different game to the studio. I eventually moved on to work at Advision for a while and they also had a mobile. Again, I wasn't 'the mobile bloke' but I worked in the truck from time to time. I think the first Mandela Concert was the biggest live gig recording I did with them and it was probably the second biggest gig in the world after Live Aid! God was certainly smiling on me that day because it went incredibly well.

"After Advision I worked for SARM and got involved with all sorts of things with Trevor Horn and we did lots of projects for ZTT and WEA. I worked on the first two Seal albums at SARM, and some Mike Oldfield albums too, engineering in the studio at his house. I don't have a particular style of music I like to work with – it's all music to me and the skills I have apply equally well to everything. But I'm really a recording engineer rather than an engineer/producer. I much prefer doing what I know I can do well and I like to think of myself as a 'sound engineer with special responsibilities'. Quite often I'm asked to mix something after others have failed to make a it sound like a record! A lot of the time there is no producer sat next to me and I am often just given tapes to mix and I just get on with it."

The Microphone Business

The violin mic assembly alone.The violin mic assembly alone.

"The microphone business began while I was at SARM. Towards the end of 1997 I was asked to record a huge gig at Wembley Stadium called Songs And Visions. There was an impressive line‑up of performers booked, and an excellent band but, if truth be told, it wasn't one of the 'great' concerts!

"Anyway, there was to be a large string section on the stage which, traditionally, has always been a real problem. Putting a string section anywhere near a drum kit on a live stage, with Megawatts of PA blasting away, is a recipe for a disaster! The strings hardly make any sound while the drum kit is as noisy as an aircraft taking off! My mobile experience had already told me that this was a difficult thing to do and I had already tried all the usual techniques, like using tie‑clip mics fixed to the bridge of instruments, and contact mics, but it was always pretty hopeless. You either just end up recording the drum kit 35 times over, or you get a sound like a bee in a bottle!

"So at the planning meetings for this event I asked all the usual questions, like could we pre‑record the strings and run the show to a click‑track, or could we put half the section away from the stage with a second conductor or a monitor? But the answer was always no. They wanted them on stage and to see all the bows moving... and to hear them as well! I thought, 'OK, it's about time somebody did something about this problem then.'

"The Manor Mobile was the facility I would be using for the concert and one of their engineers suggested I try an established clip‑on mic system. It attaches to the tailpiece, below the bridge, and a gooseneck supports an omnidirectional mic capsule above the f‑hole. It's a very neat design and it gave a pretty decent sound from the violin. However, when I did some experiments in my home studio, with my son making lots of noise nearby, I discovered there wasn't much separation and for my purposes, where there was going to be an immense amount of ambient noise, it simply wasn't going to work.

"Then I had heard about a microphone being used by an orchestra on a Barbara Streisand tour. It was called the SMS peg‑mic and it was fitted by drilling out the peg at the base of the violin and replacing it with a new one housing an integral microphone. It seemed a bit drastic to me and it has not been widely adopted because few musicians are prepared to have their violins modified in that way. It's not surprising when you consider a top violin can be worth a million pounds! However, I thought 'Streisand doesn't mess about, so the sound quality and separation must be OK with a mic inside the body of the violin. There has to be another way of getting a mic inside without having to modify the instrument permanently.' Then I thought about using the access holes provided by the original manufacturers — the f‑holes. All I had to do was find a mic small enough to fit and develop a means of supporting it through the hole."

The Eureka Moment

Violins have inbuilt access to the interior in the form of f‑holes: the challenge is finding a mic small enough to fit inside, and an assembly that is stable, not too obtrusive, and which won't damage the instrument!Violins have inbuilt access to the interior in the form of f‑holes: the challenge is finding a mic small enough to fit inside, and an assembly that is stable, not too obtrusive, and which won't damage the instrument!

"I started by approaching Danish Pro Audio, who put me onto Sound Network, their dealers in the UK. They showed me the DPA 4060 which is a tiny omnidirectional personal mic intended for use in the theatre, buried in the hair of stage performers. My initial experiments with the capsule used Blu‑tack to lodge it into the f‑hole of a violin — it looked quite absurd but actually sounded pretty good. It had a slight nasal quality but it was quite usable and gave surprisingly good separation from external noise.

"It was a real kind of 'Eureka' moment, but I needed someone to give me a second opinion, and to tell me what was wrong with it. My initial experiments had been with a student‑model violin which I couldn't really play, so I called Gavin Wright, who leads many of the best string sections — most recording dates in London are probably led by him — and explained what I was trying to do. It turned out that he was going to be leading the strings on Songs And Visions anyway, so he was happy to help out. I strapped all sorts of different things to his violin to try to compare the various possible solutions, but the mic suspended through the f‑hole was definitely the best. In fact, I had to take everything else off the violin before Gavin could believe what he was hearing was the mic in the f‑hole!

"Finding the DPA microphone to fit inside the violin through the f‑hole was only part of the solution — the other was how to hold it there. I found a mounting technique which makes use of the strong corners of the side cut‑out on the body, and have designed a specially shaped bracket which just hooks over the corner of the side 'cut‑out', with a thick neoprene layer to protect the violin's surface. The bracket is held snugly in place by a light elastic loop hooked over the end‑peg and the whole thing can be fitted in two seconds. It stays well away from the all‑important top surface, and cannot work loose during a performance.

"Even though the Songs And Visions event turned out not to be very successful — the production company, Tribute, actually went bust over it — the one thing that was rather brilliant about it was that you could hear the strings! Unfortunately, because Tribute went under I didn't get paid, and I'd had a lot of expenditure to buy in the DPA mics and develop a suitable fitting, so this project was all born out of total financial disaster really!"

The Mechanics

One end of the mic assembly attaches to the end‑peg of the violin.One end of the mic assembly attaches to the end‑peg of the violin.

"The mic assembly is in three parts. The bracket hooks onto the side of the violin, and an in‑line phono socket then clips into the bracket. A sturdy, but malleable support wire extends from this socket for about seven inches with the DPA capsule mounted in a flexible rubber suspension at the far end. Its output cable runs down the wire inside a sheath to the phono socket. The DPA capsule can be fitted with one of two grilles — standard or bright. I use the brighter one as that seems to give better results with the mic inside the violin. Sound pressure level is not a problem as the mic can cope with a phenomenal level and has an amazing frequency response — it is an outrageously good capsule, in fact!

"I thought mounting the mic in the f‑hole might mean that it would suffer from vibration, but no one has ever found it a problem, although sometimes a violin can sound a little raspy and I think that's sometimes mistaken for a problem with vibration against the mic. But I have found that even if the microphone is deliberately placed against the side of the f‑hole, mechanical vibration doesn't seem to be a problem at all.

"The support wire can be adjusted easily to place the capsule inside the f‑hole on the side of the top string, whilst keeping it well away from the bowing area. Finding the right kind of metal to use in the support wire was critical, as it gets adjusted a lot. But to date, I have not had a single failure. I actually had more difficulty with the mic's output cable at first, which was prone to breaking, although I have now solved that problem too.

"Although it might seem neater to have a short wire arm, the vast majority of my mics have been made with the long wire support, simply because it provides greater flexibility of mounting arrangements. Violins are handmade and all have different dimensions. Playing techniques vary too, and sometimes it is necessary to mount the bracket on the other side of the body to keep it out of the way of the bow, for example. In that case, the long arm allows it be mounted upside‑down on the opposite side of the instrument. Strangely, though, the sound is not as good from the f‑hole on that side.

"Before deciding to use a phono socket I went through all manner of exotic and expensive output connectors. In the end, though, I found the in‑line phono socket was by far the best solution for this application. The output from the microphone capsule is unbalanced anyway, and the phono connector is suitably small and slim (so it looks right against a violin), easy for musicians to connect (even in the dark), and seems to be very reliable. The connecting phono plug is a special in‑house design, though, which is shorter than most. The cable terminates in an XLR plug which houses the mic's original phantom power adaptor."

Sound Partners

"I should say that I have a partner in the project. Keith Bessey joined forces with me when he was Cliff Richard's tour engineer and I suggested he borrow some of my mics to test against the alternatives. He found that they provided the best solution, and together we developed the product to its current form. I look after the nuts and bolts of it all and as a very good PA engineer himself, he's in a good position to help evolve the mics.

"Over the last few years, these mics have gone from strength to strength, becoming increasingly popular in applications where string sections have to compete with high ambient levels. In fact, most professional string players who work in those kinds of environments have probably already used the system and are quite familiar with it now.

"I started out with about 30 mics, but between Keith and I, we've been adding to the collection over the last few years and now have about 125 or so. I went a bit crazy just before the millennium after a call from Brit Row who wanted to hire 50 mics for the Millennium celebrations at the Dome. Then I had another call, this time from Tim Summerhayes, wanting another 40 for a concert at Greenwich Park on the same night! At that point I decided that this mic thing was obviously a good idea and it was time to put my hand in my pocket and spend a lot of money. The next day I phoned Keith to say I'd bought some more capsules — £15,000 worth! It sounds a lot, but the mics have already just about paid for themselves and I'm beginning to think it is time to buy some more to keep up with the demand. The whole hire market has been entirely through word of mouth — I've never tried to advertise it. It's what big American companies call a 'dog with a note' product. It works so well you don't send a salesman, just a dog with a note! I'm not interested in setting up a business to make and sell these mics; it was originally just for my own use and it was a financial disaster at first. It was only when the Manor Mobiles asked to hire them that I thought any more of it.

"They are not cheap to make. It's a reasonably expensive capsule and it has taken a long time to develop a reliable mechanical construction. With a 40‑piece string section cabled up, these mics represent a lot of money and I don't think there would be much interest from people to buy them. How many string sections are there in the world who play next to a drum kit on a regular basis? Some big PA companies have enquired about buying them, but their very nature is that a few mics always come back wrecked and have to be rebuilt. With 30 or 40 people sitting together in too small a space on a dark stage, leads are inevitably tripped over and broken, so hiring them is generally more practical for everyone. However, now that I have recovered most of the original outlay, I can hire them out for the same sort of cost as any other kind of mic people might use for this purpose."

Across The Orchestra

"I've only really talked about the violin mics, but the same things can be used on violas, 'cellos and basses. The mounting problems are different and although I have perfectly workable solutions, I'm still searching for better mounting techniques, particularly for the cello. On double basses, the bridge is a huge horseshoe affair, and bass players seem less fussy about having mics fixed to their instruments anyway. I'm currently using a rubber strap which fixes to one leg of the bridge, holding the mic connector with the mic pushed through one of the f‑holes.

"As you would expect, a little EQ is usually necessary with this technique. On violins, the raw sound is a little nasal and needs some 6‑8dB of ducking around 2kHz. Some high‑pass filtering is also a good idea to avoid feedback and rumble problems if the gain is pushed up on the PA system, although you have to be a little more careful with 'cellos and basses. Strangely, I often find I need to take off a tiny bit of top end as well.

"The separation that can be achieved with these mics is simply stunning, though. It's almost like an overdub! If you solo the entire string section there is a vague hint of a drummer in the next room! That's what this whole thing is for — you could complain about the absolute quality of sound, just because of where the microphone is, but the separation it achieves in a very hostile environment allows a string section to be used where it was simply not possible before. The sound is never going to be as good as a conventional distant‑mic technique in a nice‑sounding room, but at least it doesn't come over like a bee in a bottle, which some pickup mics do!

"A big string section miked up this way can be a lot to balance up, which is a bit mind‑boggling to some people. Fortunately, this is water off a duck's back to Keith and me, and we are often asked to provide a submix to the PA engineer, usually on five groups: first and second violins, violas, 'cellos and basses."

Future Plans

"There are some developments already in the pipeline. Richard Bland, a boffin friend who was involved in the design of the Soundtracs DPCII console, has been working on a personal monitoring system. One of the problems for the performer is that it can be very hard to hear themselves playing with the high ambient noise level — I have heard some top‑notch musicians sound like a school band, simply because they couldn't hear themselves play. A solution we have been working on is a personal in‑ear monitoring system to help the musicians hear themselves, without creating problems for the monitor engineer. A small box attaches to the leg of the musician's chair and the mic plugs straight into it. There is a transformer‑buffered output of the mic signal to the PA and so on, and a small amplifier drives an earpiece for the musician, with a 'more of me' volume knob! There is also an external input to the headphone amp for situations where the monitor engineer wants to feed a click‑track or cue signal, controlled by a 'more of them' knob! The big advantage of this thing is that the musicians will be able to hear themselves without it being a problem for anyone else.

"Another area of development is radio mics. Most applications are for big string sections and the wired mics are fine for that, but occasionally people want to be able to mic up a violin player on the move — Nigel Kennedy, for example. DPA capsules have been used with radio mics before but in this application, putting a high‑level mic in such a loud place overloads most radio transmitters. DPA make a 15dB less sensitive version of the mic — the DPA 4061 — which helps a lot, but the signal is often still too big, especially with violent, double‑stopped playing. So, we are working to find a way of padding the signal down more without losing any quality.

"The other side of things is to come up with alternative applications and I am working on a fitting for acoustic guitars and mandolins at the moment. I have already come up with a very simple, but elegant attachment for the sound hole but there are still improvements to make — it is early days yet."

Gregg Jackman can be contacted on +44 (0)1494 461098.

Recording Enya

One of the most challenging tests of Gregg Jackman's skill with microphones came when he was working with Irish new age songstress Enya: "I also did Enya's second album Shepherd Moons at SARM. A lot of it had been recorded in Ireland and it came to us to be finished — I mixed some completed tracks, and recorded and mixed others from scratch. I learned a lot about mic techniques on that project, because Enya sings incredibly quietly and she tracks herself to death, which means mic noise is a real problem. We tried every mic you could think of, and ended up with a small‑diaphragm Sennheiser MKH‑series mic feeding a Focusrite preamp. It felt really odd to use this little pencil‑mic for a vocal, but its self‑noise was next to nothing and it made everything else sound broken in that respect! Yet, even though the album sold in enormous numbers, no one has ever phoned me up on the back of it. I guess that's because it was such a unique thing."

As Seen On TV

Some of the most notable artists, organisations and events who have used Gregg Jackman's violin mics include:

  • Michael Ball.
  • Bond.
  • The Corrs.
  • ELO.
  • Entec Sound & Light.
  • Fleetwood Mobiles for various artists.
  • Nigel Kennedy.
  • Manor Mobiles for various artists.
  • Metallica (Berlin & San Francisco Symphony Orchestras).
  • Michael Nyman.
  • Millennium Night at The Dome.
  • Millennium Night at Greenwich Park.
  • NetAid.
  • Cliff Richard.
  • Rocksound in Germany.
  • TFI Friday.
  • Tina Turner.