We follow a location recording project from start to finish, showing you how to plan for and conduct the session, as well as how to avoid common pitfalls.
I was recently asked to do a recording for a student jazz band from Cheltenham College, and it serves as a good example of how to conduct a complete location recording project. The band, called Jig, play a variety of mainly popular/MOR music, and the aim was to produce a CD album which could be sold to students and their parents for fund-raising purposes. The line-up included drums, electric bass, electric guitar, piano/keyboard, three saxes, two trumpets and up to four vocalists, all led by a music teacher called Gill Mew.
I do not operate a conventional recording studio at home, because I always record on location, although I obviously post-produce the recorded material in what is probably best described as an editing/mastering suite in part of my home. Consequently, I consider it my role while recording to capture the best possible performances of the musicians, with the highest possible technical quality. However, I often also have to don a producer's hat, choosing a suitable venue to record in and then deciding on the most pragmatic way to achieve a sound character and style appropriate to the project — in such cases, it's crucially important to discuss with the client what their expectations are.
In some circumstances a multitrack approach is required, with the ability subsequently to replace/add parts, apply pitch-correction, adjust timing discrepancies, and so on. However, in this particular project, the concept was to capture the excitement of a live performance (albeit without an audience). Another important consideration was the fact that the musicians were capable students, not professionals. It would be unrealistic and unconstructive to expect perfect performances, and although it is technically possible to create near-perfection using a multitrack technique and a lot of post-production time and resources, this would have been unrepresentative of the true ability of the musicians involved which, while not perfect, was still very impressive given their age and experience.
Knowing that your every note is being captured can be quite a stressful experience to those not familiar with recording. The band often perform live in concerts to their fellow students and on school tours, and we wanted them to feel comfortable during the recording, so the approach we decided to adopt was to record the band straight to stereo and more or less 'as live' in a large auditorium at the school. The goal was to produce an album which recreated the impression of sitting in front of the band during a great performance, and for the students to enjoy the experience of making a recording they could be proud of.
I like to have some idea of what I'm getting into before rigging the equipment, so although I was already broadly familiar with Jig's style and the quality of Cheltenham College's musicians, I arranged to sit in on a rehearsal to familiarise myself with their repertoire and performance. Unfortunately school holidays contrived to make the only practical date for this audition the Friday night before the recording, which was scheduled for the Sunday. That didn't leave much time for detailed planning, but, as this was a relatively small project, the time scale worked well enough.
With everyone squeezed into a modest rehearsal room (I wish I had taken some ear plugs with me!), the band rehearsed each number and I was able to take notes on what the different tracks were, how they started and ended, when the solos were and who took them, what the line up changes were, and so on. For example, there were various combinations of alto, tenor and baritone saxes on different songs, and lead vocals were provided by three different singers. These notes then formed the basis of my detailed technical planning, as well as acting as an aide memoir during the recording.
After the rehearsal I spent a few minutes discussing with the conductor the order in which we would record the tracks. When there are brass players involved you have to give serious consideration to the order in which tracks are recorded, as their lips can tire easily — especially with amateur musicians. In general, I have found it best to record the hardest and most challenging tracks for the brass just before lunch. That way the musicians are warmed up well from the morning's recordings, but their lips have not become too fatigued yet.
I spent part of Saturday planning the detail of the rig and programming the sound desk — essential work to minimise rigging time on the Sunday, which would be short enough anyway! Most of my recording involves choral and small classical works, and I normally use a Mackie 1402VLZpro analogue desk, which is more than adequate if used carefully, and very portable. However, this job was going to need more resources than that desk could provide.
When I recorded Jig three years ago I used a Yamaha 03D digital mixer, but I sold that a while ago in anticipation of acquiring a DM1000 or 01V96 (I have yet to decide which). Unfortunately, Yamaha had not released either of those desks to market in time for this recording, but the company was able to help me out by generously loaning me an 02R96. I reviewed this desk a few months ago, and I was delighted to be able to use it on a project like this. However, I was concerned about its physical size, since I had to transport all the equipment down to Cheltenham in the back of my estate car, so it was going to be a tight squeeze!
I started my technical planning by working out a rigging list, deciding how I was going to mic up the various sources, and then allocating mics, mic stands, multicore cable circuits and desk channels. In this case I was only dealing with around twenty external sources, but taking the time to plan and allocate everything carefully — and plot it all on paper — always pays dividends in the long run. It avoids running into last-minute problems like not having enough stands or cables of a particular type, and helps to focus the mind on using the available resources to best effect. Also, by duplicating the rigging lists, several people can work on different aspects of the rig in the certain knowledge that everything is being done to a common plan.
My rigging list is a simple table with seven columns. The first four apply to the recording floor, and the last three to the control room. The first column lists each source on separate rows (kick drum, bass guitar, and so on), the next allocates the appropriate mic stand, and the third the microphone or DI box. The fourth column lists the multicore channel allocation for each source. When recording on location with tight deadlines it is always a good idea to build in a degree of redundancy if you can. In this case, I was able to leave one channel on the multicore spare so that, if something failed, or if I needed to add an extra mic for something, I could accommodate it simply and quickly.
The remaining columns in the list apply to the control-room end of the signal path, allocating each multicore channel to a desk input and, because I was using a digital desk with an input router, which physical inputs are allocated to which desk channels. The last column is for comments relating to each source. In this case I also included the desk's four internal stereo effects as well as my own Lexicon PCM90 as sources on the list, because I needed to allocate inputs and desk channels for these as well. The 02R96 has 24 physical channel faders, with the familiar layering system to access the additional channels. As I was intending to record this session as a live stereo mix, rather than using multitrack, I required immediate access to all channels, rather than having to continually swap fader pages to access the effects returns, for example.
With just eighteen sources from the studio floor and some intelligent handling of stereo sources, I was able to configure the desk to accommodate all 18 input channels and the five effects returns on a single fader layer, although it took some careful planning and an hour or so of programming the 02R96. I used the desk's vertical pairing facility to provide single-fader stereo channels for the stereo drum overheads, stereo piano mics, and all the stereo effects returns. The downside of this approach is that it makes the input signal routing more complex, which is why the rigging list is so important. For example, the stereo piano mics were allocated to multicore channels six and seven, desk inputs seven and eight, and desk faders/channels seven and thirty one! Clearly, there is a great deal of scope for confusion unless everything is carefully documented. To further reduce confusion on the day, I also attached scribble tape above the faders and below the analogue input gain controls, and marked them up with the corresponding channels. Marking the input gain controls was essential, since they did not always correspond to the fader channels with the same numbers.
I mentioned re-allocating the 02R96's four internal stereo effects processor outputs just now. This is because I wanted to be able to adjust the effects return levels immediately, sometimes riding them along with the source channels, so I reallocated these four returns to faders 20 to 24. I also allocated the Aux sends so that the first four fed the four internal effects processors and aux eight fed the Lexicon. (I only chose aux eight because my Lexicon input cable wasn't very long and the aux eight output was closest to the edge of the desk!) I then configured the internal effects processors to provide a set of generic effects based on the Hall reverb, Plate reverb, Ambience, and Delay algorithms respectively — these could be applied quickly and easily to the various sources as appropriate for each track. All these settings were stored in one of the desk's snapshot memories and, with the desk scribble strips already marked up, all I had to do when rigging was plug everything in as documented on the list and turn it all on, keeping my fingers crossed at the same time!
The final stage of the rigging list was to draw out a block diagram of the equipment and how it would all hang together, documenting all the specific cables required to hook everything together, the mains leads and distribution boards, digital cables, clock leads, and so on. This helps to make sure that everything gets loaded into the car, both on the way there and on the way back. All the paper work might sound over the top, but I keep copies of everything on my computer, so in reality it takes very little time to recall a file from a similar previous project and modify it accordingly, and it provides a lot of confidence that everything has been taken care of.
The recording session was slated to start promptly at 11 o'clock on the Sunday, but it was obvious that it would be a challenge to load, travel, unload, rig and test everything by that time without getting up at the crack of dawn... and I'm not good with mornings at the best of times! So, to ease the load a little, my 'delightful assistant' on this occasion Paul Hedges (a senior trainer at the BBC's training and development facility in Evesham) and I went down to pre-rig the cables and set up the recording floor on the Saturday afternoon. The recording venue was a large rectangular auditorium with a raked seating area and a high stage. It was reverberant, but not excessively or unpleasantly so, and the acoustics could be controlled to a degree by closing curtains around the sides and rear of the hall, as well as on the high and deep stage.
An adjoining room at the back of the hall served as a control room, being far enough away from the performance area to enable good monitoring isolation. This room was long and narrow, with bare plastered walls, a high ceiling and a hard floor, so was also rather more reverberant than would have been ideal. We decided the best solution was to work across the short axis of the room, keeping the monitor speakers fairly close, and to hang duvets on the walls to reduce reflections as much as possible.
The cable run from control room to studio floor was around 45 metres in total, including running the cables carefully around the walls to avoid having to cross passageways (and thus reduce the risk of anyone tripping over a cable). We installed three cables: a 16-way multicore, a dedicated cable for the Soundfield mic, and a three-circuit multicore cable used for my bespoke communications system (providing talkback, cue lights, and a closed-circuit telephone, although the latter was not needed on this occasion).
Having rigged these cables we then set up the mic stands in the approximate positions for each performer, and rigged the cables between the multicores and stands. We set up a pair of heavy-duty mic stands around the drum position, one to support the Soundfield mic I intended to use for the stereo overheads, and the other to enable a duvet to be suspended between the two stands to provide some isolation around the mic in case spill became a problem, although I didn't actually make use of this provision in the end. We also set up a large wooden baffle (a piece of scenery borrowed from the stage) to provide some additional screening for the upright piano — or more accurately, for the microphones placed behind it — since I was concerned that these mics could pick up a lot of spill.
The positioning of the musicians was designed to maintain good sight lines between them and the conductor, while also maximising separation for the microphones. The drums were positioned close to the stage and in such a way that the (effective) overhead mics presented their least sensitive axes towards the brass section and guitar amps. The vocalists were positioned on the stage behind and above the brass and drums, with the curtains closed behind them to help prevent reflections getting into the front of the vocal mics. The small bass, guitar and keyboard amps were set to as low a volume as was practicable, again to minimise the spill reaching other mics.
This whole pre-rig took about an hour, including some time trying to locate suitable baffle materials — but this effectively saved us an hour of frantic work on Sunday morning, so was well worth while.
Come the Sunday, we arrived at the hall at 9:30, my car creaking with the strain of transporting all the control-room equipment. We quickly unloaded everything and Paul started rigging the microphones, talkback speaker and cue lights on the recording floor, while I started setting up the control-room equipment.
Having placed the loan 02R96 desk on a table in the centre of the room, I set up the recording equipment on the left-hand side, and the outboard rack and odds and ends on the right. The larger of the two recorder racks contained a Genex GX8500 hard disk recorder, an Apogee PSX100 converter, an HHB CDR850 CD burner and a Panasonic SV3800 DAT machine. I generally use the DAT as a backup recorder, and the CD burner to provide the client with a disc of the raw recording to listen to after the session. This not only gives a great feel-good factor, but it also means the client can make preliminary editing decisions in their own time, and reduces the need to sit through endless playbacks at the end of the session when all you really want to do is tear the gear down and get home! When I'm working with the Mackie analogue desk, the Apogee acts as my main A-D for the digital recorders, but in this case I was using it more as a digital input signal router and monitoring D-A.
The basic system wiring can be seen in Figure 1, with the Genex receiving a 24-bit / 44.1kHz digital output from the desk. A second digital output was connected to the Apogee which redithered the signal to 16 bits and distributed it to the CD-R and DAT. The digital outputs from the Genex, CD-R and DAT were all routed back to the Apogee where they could be selected to feed the D-A converter, the analogue outputs of which were hooked up to my custom-built monitoring unit. An auxiliary output from the Apogee passed whatever was selected to the D-A input across to my DK Audio MSD600M metering system. This meter was vital, as the desk was not supplied with the optional meterbridge. For those not familiar with this meter, it provides a phase meter, bar-graph level metering (with various scales and ballistics), and a 'goniometer' which provides a lot of real-time information about the spatial nature of the stereo soundstage. The unit also incorporates third-octave and FFT spectrum analysers and a test tone generator — really useful and informative tools that I couldn't work without!
The outboard rack positioned to the right of the desk contained a four-channel GML mic preamp which I used for the vocal mics, the Soundfield mic processor, and the Lexicon PCM90 which I used mainly for the vocal reverbs. The MSD600M meter was positioned on top of the rack, and the monitoring unit was positioned to the right-hand side. This monitoring/talkback unit was custom made for me by Audix Broadcast a few years ago and is based on the standard monitoring controls found on most BBC-specified consoles. You might think that makes me an anorak wearer — and I often am — but the design includes a lot of important facilities that most console monitoring sections leave out. A row of four expensive but very ergonomic lever-key switches provide input selection (desk output plus two external machines), cut-left/cut-right (helpful when trying to isolate odd noises or faults), mono-to-left/mono-to-centre (for accurate mono-compatibility checking and to set the balance control), and polarity reverse/dim controls. With all the switches in their centre positions you have normal stereo monitoring of the desk output. There is also a balance control and a volume control, both with centre detents at the default settings — the latter defining a reference monitoring level to help maintain consistent mixes.
The unit also contains red and green cue light switches, and a built-in talkback system arranged so that operating the talkback switch also dims the loudspeakers to prevent howlrounds and to make the talkback easier to understand. There is also room in the box to incorporate remote transport controls for the Genex recorder, which will be my next project!
With the control room up and running, I played a CD-R of various test signals and familiar music to make sure the monitoring and metering were all working correctly. I then routed this source through the desk to check the output was getting back to all the recorders correctly, and to test the reverb send to the Lexicon. At least with digital signals you don't have to worry about left-right reversals and incorrect gain structures anymore! Finally, I faded up each channel on the desk and roughly adjusted the input gains for each mic, making sure all the sources were present and clean.
It would be standard practice at this stage to 'scratch' each mic in turn, making sure each source is what it is supposed to be and that all the cables are working properly. However, because all the equipment (bar the console and bass drum mic) was my own, and we had rigged everything according to my beloved list, I was confident that this wasn't necessary — if there was a problem we'd find out soon enough when we started to build up the first balance.
I had recorded Jig once before, and had used a Soundfield mic to provide a stereo pickup for the entire brass section, which worked well. However, this approach relies on the section having a good ensemble balance, and I was concerned that this might not be the case on this occasion — especially since the saxophonists changed instruments for different tracks. Instead, I decided to use separate mics for each brass instrument. In turn, this decision influenced the allocation of the Soundfield mic for the drum overheads, principally because this mic uses its own cable, which released two multicore channels for other purposes. The other advantage of using the Soundfield in this role is that the stereo width and the effective angle of its 'virtual mics' can be adjusted in the control room, making it relatively easy to optimise the settings to minimise the amount of spill it captures.
My choice of kick drum mic was dictated partly by the arrival of an Audio Technica AT2500 for review. I had seen this mic at various trade shows and was intrigued with its combination of separate moving coil and electret capsules in one body. The output from each capsule is presented on separate XLRs enabling the engineer to balance the weight of the dynamic element with the snap of the electret. It seemed to be a very flexible approach and I was keen to see how it worked in practice. The other thing in its favour is that both capsules exhibit a fairly flat frequency response. A lot of bespoke kick drum mics have enormous frequency response peaks to create an 'instant' rock-oriented kick drum sound. This approach can save a lot of work if that is the sound you want, but is rather restrictive if you need something more natural. The only fundamental problem with the AT2500, of course, is that it requires two multicore and desk channels instead of just one...
I allocated a Neumann KM185 for the snare drum, which is a small-diaphragm hypercardioid condenser mic. I find this works quite well in the role, and the deep response nulls at 120 degrees can be used to good effect in rejecting the hi-hats by simply angling the mic appropriately.
I used a Canford Audio active DI for the bass guitar (powered via 48V phantom). I usually find it necessary to apply quite a lot of compression to the bass, which can pull up a lot of spill if you mike the bass amp — DI'ing gives a far cleaner signal. I left my options open on how to deal with the electric guitar, allocating an EMO passive DI box to interface with the amp output, as well as a CAD M179 condenser mic on a banquet stand in front of the cabinet. I planned to use one or the other (but not both because I was short on multicore channels) deciding after a chat with the guitarist on Sunday morning — it turned out that there were effects coming from his amp which were best picked up using a mike. The keyboard player used either the upright piano or a Roland XP30 on different tracks, so I allocated another pair of DI boxes for the keyboard, and a pair of Sennheiser MKH40 cardioid capacitor mics for the piano. I planned to swap the cables between mics and DI boxes for the different numbers. The Roland keyboard was being used to simulate a jazz organ sound, but the simulation lacked realism, which was a shame because the keyboard parts featured heavily in the two tracks it was used on — one a classic JTQ track. Fortunately, Paul Hedges came to the rescue by bringing along his son's Oberheim OB3 organ module, which we hooked up to the MIDI output from the Roland keyboard. After a couple of minutes tuition on how to use the drawbars and Leslie speed switch, the keyboard player was well away, and the recording certainly benefited from this far more realistic Hammond sound.
For the brass section I used Microtech Gefell M930 mics for the two trumpets (these mics have bags of headroom and a nice, large-diaphragm sound quality), a pair of AKG C414s for two of the saxophones, and a Neumann TLM103 for the third sax player, who also played baritone on one track.
The vocals were miked up with two Audio Technica AT4040s and another Neumann TLM103, all three being cardioid mics supported in shockmounts and fitted with pop shields — the shockmounts were important because of the wooden stage floor. When all four vocalists sang at the same time, the two backing singers shared one mic, and the two main lead vocalists used the others. I have found that the TLM103 often suits male vocalists slightly better than females, and the AT4040 is often the reverse, so they complement each other well.
Whereas the instrumentalists all made plenty of noise and could hear each other without problems, the vocalists didn't and couldn't! Foldback over floor monitors would have exacerbated the spill problems, so we really needed to provide a cue mix on headphones. This particular problem was solved with the loan of a Sennheiser wireless monitoring system courtesy of the BBC. The transmitter was located in the control room and fed from Aux 6 on the desk, providing a straightforward post-fade mix of the vocal mics plus the Lexicon reverb. Each vocalist clipped a receiver to their belt and wore a pair of Sony closed-backed headphones — usually keeping one side behind an ear to be able to hear the rest of the band - and could adjust their own listening volume. We had six receivers, so the conductor and guitarist wore systems too.
The band took their positions and started to warm up, playing through a number which was moderately challenging and involved the entire band, while Paul and I started to work on getting a basic balance. This is always the hardest part, as you are working in unfamiliar monitoring conditions, and have a lot of raw sources to deal with, sorting out gains, equalisation, dynamics and effects, with the clock ticking relentlessly.
After a couple of run-throughs we were about 80 percent of the way there with the mix, but there was still some fine-tuning to do. We were compressing the bass guitar quite heavily, along with more modest compression on the vocals and piano, the latter also requiring some EQ to help compensate for the slightly boxy effect of that baffle board enclosing the mics. At this stage you can either carry on trying to perfect the mix and risk boring the musicians, or start recording to get the session under way, knowing that the first take won't be the best from an engineering point of view. Experience has taught me that the latter approach is the best one, and so we went for a first take at 11:30.
This first take certainly wasn't the best any of us could achieve, but might provide useful material for editing and at least helped the band to overcome the nervousness of being recorded. The second take was a lot better, particularly from the mixing perspective, but was perhaps not the best that the band could achieve. However, rather than slog through it again we decided to move on and return to it later.
The next track came together very well — it's amazing how that red light really focuses everyone's attention! — and we had everything we needed in two takes. By now we were heading towards lunchtime so we decided to have a stab at the most challenging track for the brass. The first take was pretty good, but there were a couple of sections where things could have been tighter, so we did a few retakes to improve those sections. Finally, we went for another complete take which worked very well indeed. At this stage we called everyone into the control room to hear the playbacks and, enthused with the progress so far, we broke for lunch. However, we had spent two hours recording just three tracks, the first of which we knew we had to do again... so we had our work cut out to record another seven tracks (plus the retake) in the afternoon!
Rejuvenated by a meal and an hour's break, we reconvened and launched straight into the remaining tracks, getting most of them in just two takes, although some took three or four attempts. We even had time to go back and have second stabs at a couple of earlier tracks and were rewarded with even better performances. We turned the red light off for the last time just before 17:00, and an excited band convened in the control room to listen to some playbacks. While running through the various takes I was also derigging the unused control room equipment while Paul broke down the recording floor. We had everything derigged and ready to load into the car an hour later, and within two hours we were enjoying a cold beer!
However, there was still work to be done before the project was complete, so next month I'll be discussing how we went about editing, compiling, and mastering the CD, as well as producing the artwork and sending the whole lot off to the pressing plant.