We find out whether a unique choir and a unique church will prove a match made in heaven.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen didn’t write, that an SOS team in possession of a 16-piece male voice choir must be in want of a church to record them in. And although our custodianship of the Spooky Men’s Chorale was, alas, only temporary, we weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to point a few microphones at them.
Founded and led by New Zealand-born maestro Stephen Taberner, the Spooky Men are a unique musical phenomenon. As well as the Georgian folk music that inspired their creation, they’re equally happy singing Tennyson or the Beach Boys, and their eclectic repertoire and uproarious performance style have made them a hugely popular live attraction. We last encountered them in the pages of SOS back in March 2016, when Mike Crofts explained how he got a good live sound in Oxford’s acoustically challenging Sheldonian Theatre.
On this year’s tour, the choir had two successive shows local to SOS Towers with some time off inbetween. And since they like nothing better than a busman’s holiday, they were only too keen to come and sing for us. From my point of view as engineer, meanwhile, I was hoping for an opportunity to try out a mic technique I’d been cooking up, as well as a venue that had the potential to prove very interesting.
Nowhere To Hide
The small Cambridgeshire village of Swaffham Prior is unusual in having two churches next door to one another. With today’s congregation not needing such a wealth of facilities, one of these is now in the hands of the Churches Conservation Trust, and anyone who visits would surely agree that it’s well worth conserving. Dedicated to the heroically obscure St Cyriac and St Julitta, it was rebuilt in Jane Austen’s day to an unusual square, open layout and faced throughout in plain stone and plaster, giving it a reverberation that is out of all proportion to its relatively modest size. Happily, it’s also available to hire at a very modest fee!
From the audio engineer’s point of view, I discovered that the church has one major deficiency. The interior is completely open, and although there are a couple of walled-off spaces that have been repurposed as a kitchen and a store cupboard, these have no ceiling. In most location recording venues, it’s possible to find some sort of space that can be pressed into service as a control room isolated from the main recording area, but not here.
When the recording area itself has such a distinctive and strong acoustic, this is far from ideal. Critical judgements of mic placement and so forth are hard to get right on headphones alone, while if your monitor speakers are set up within the recording space, there’s a risk of spill onto the mics, and it becomes very hard to discern how much of the reverberation you’re hearing is on the recording and how much is being added on playback. It being Summer, I even toyed with the idea of setting up my speakers outdoors. However, this would have meant keeping the exterior doors open, and thus letting in the noise of traffic and light aircraft, so in the end I opted for a table within the entrance hall. I also dragged a large screen out of the store cupboard, but this made very little difference apart from obscuring my view.
Placing the choir at the other end of the church at least meant there was minimal risk of spill from my speakers onto the church if I forgot to mute them during recording. It also meant I got full use of the 30-metre snake and 50-metre mic cables I’d brought along — location recording so often seems to require much longer cable runs than studio work. Perhaps surprisingly, it also necessitated setting up a talkback speaker to relay my voice to the band. In such a reverberant acoustic, the distance was enough to make direct speech almost unintelligible. However, with no need for click tracks or backing parts, none of them required any headphone foldback during recording.
The Robjohns Array
Like SOS’s Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns, I’m a big fan of the SoundField microphone; and in discussion with Hugh, it transpired that we have independently developed the same way of using it, for completely different reasons. The basic principle of the Robjohns Array is to set up a spaced pair of omnidirectional small-diaphragm mics with the SoundField mic in the middle (and, in my version at least, somewhat further forward). I don’t suppose anyone reading this will be surprised to learn that the reasoning behind this arrangement is a bit more purist on Hugh’s part than on mine. As I understand it, Hugh’s idea is to use the SoundField for main pickup above 600Hz or so, with the spaced omnis supplying the bass and low mid-range. Provided the SoundField is decoded so as to match the stereo recording angle of the omnis, this arrangement should yield a recording that combines the main benefits of both: the sharp, precise stereo imaging of the SoundField and the deep, wide bottom end of the omnis.
My own motivation came from another location choir session, where I was asked to supply recordings that could be mixed in surround for a film soundtrack, and the film’s sound mixer wanted more options than the SoundField alone could provide. It was not practical to set up a surround monitoring system on location, and I didn’t want to use a surround-specific array such as a Fukada Tree without being able to properly hear the results. It occurred to me that something resembling a miniature Decca Tree with the SoundField as a centre mic, along with a pair of distant ambient mics, could be positioned while monitoring only in stereo, but would provide plenty of surround mixing options too. It would also mean that I could err on the generous side in the spacing of the omni mics: the SoundField could fill in any hole in the middle of the stereo image, or be used to provide the centre mic channel in a surround mix, if desired.
Assuming you get the spacing roughly right, this sort of array also gives the option to set up a straight shootout between coincident and spaced arrays, and I thought the Spooky Men sessions would provide an interesting point of comparison from this aspect. Given the strength of the acoustic, I wasn’t expecting to need distant mics as well, but as I had spare channels at hand, I put up a pair of the excellent Samar VL37 ribbons just in case.
The last thing you want on a session like this is to have 16 singers hanging around for hours while the engineer sets up. At the same time, however, I didn’t want to force the Spooky Men into standing in a formation they wouldn’t have chosen themselves, so I set all my main mics up on a single stand that could easily be moved once they’d settled into place.
In the event, the Spooky Men arranged themselves naturally into a wide ‘square bracket’ shape, with Stephen conducting in a conventional central position. Placing the main arrays more or less above his head meant that they needed to ‘see’ a recording angle of perhaps 150 degrees; as best I could tell from my rather inadequate monitoring position, a spacing of 50cm between the MBHO omni mics I was using gave a full stereo image without leaving a noticeable hole.
In terms of wet/dry balance, the strength of the acoustic meant that any placement would be well into the diffuse field, but what was noticeable on the group’s warm-ups was a particularly rich bloom at the low end. After we’d recorded the first song, a version of the traditional ‘Pallet On The Floor’, I moved the Spooky Men and the mics a few yards towards the centre of the church to try to moderate this a little, but without a reliable monitor setup, it was hard to tell what difference this made. Moving them right to the other end of the church, in front of my monitoring position, might have controlled this better, but in the end I decided against disrupting the session any further.
Going With The Flow
When it comes to getting good results from a recording session, the engineer sometimes needs to take quite an assertive role in order to get things done, but at other times, you need to follow rather than lead. The Spooky Men presented an unusual group dynamic from this point of view. On the one hand, they are a vastly experienced outfit who know exactly what they’re doing. On the other, the temptation to butt in and jolly them along was sometimes very strong! Individual Spooky Men were constantly disappearing to visit the toilet or post excited updates on Facebook, and large amounts of time were spent milling about in conversation. Yet, somehow, whenever they were ready to do a take, everything would suddenly snap into sharp focus and they’d deliver a spine-tinglingly intense performance with little or no warning.
More than once I found myself scrambling to hit the Record button in time, and I was completely caught out when they launched into a thunderous Georgian piece called ‘Svanetian Round Dance’. Suddenly the masses of headroom I’d left for the earlier tunes were obliterated, and I watched nervously as my peak meters hovered in the yellow before finally clipping during the yell that ended the piece. And, of course, that was the only take.
As the session went on, I realised that Stephen and the rest of the Spooky Men were actually getting things done in a much more efficient way than would be apparent to the casual observer. They listened closely to speaker playback of each take, identifying tuning and timing discrepancies that I would never have spotted myself, and adapted their subsequent performances in response, often recording short individual sections to patch up an otherwise good take. The result was that although there were lengthy gaps between takes, very little actual singing time was wasted. At the end of the afternoon, we went away knowing that we had five songs recorded, with edits done and takes chosen — and the Chorale hadn’t worn out their voices prior to that evening’s gig.
Meanwhile, Back At The Studio
There’s always a sense of trepidation about what you’ll hear when you first play back a location recording in the more revealing confines of the control room. In this case, my main concern was that low-end bloom, but thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be too much of an issue even on ‘Pallet’, and moving the Spooky Men towards the centre of the church had indeed toned it down. However, it was noticeable that more low end had been captured on the spaced omnis than on the SoundField; on the quieter songs, the omnis benefited from a shelving cut of about 1dB from 350Hz downwards. The SoundField was rather leaner, and true to Hugh’s experience, sounded rather less spacious at the low end, so on his advice, I boosted the Sides component of the decoded SoundField signal below 400Hz or so, which made a clear improvement. The tonal balance of the choir also changed radically when they performed the rousing ’Svanetian Round Dance’, to the point where I actually needed a fairly large bass boost to help it fit with the other tracks.
One of the best features of the SoundField is that, as long as you record the four-channel B-format signal, you can adjust the direction, polar patterns and mutual angles after the fact so as to recreate any coincident mic array pointing anywhere. All of these parameters can be set very precisely, allowing the virtual mics to be directed much more accurately than would ever be possible with physical microphones. So although I initially preferred the sound of the spaced omnis, by carefully tweaking the decoder settings I was eventually able to achieve what seemed a more solid and coherent stereo picture from the SoundField, with a more up-front and lively sound.
The most mysterious SoundField decoding parameter is called Zoom, which is said to allow you to “zoom in on sound sources”. Its effects are not always very predictable, but broadly speaking, it seems to make whatever’s in the centre of the stereo field more or less present in the mix, almost as if that person or instrument was to move closer or further away. I found that a moderate positive Zoom setting worked well in most of the tracks, bringing the body of the choir forward slightly and adding some immediacy and substance to the proceedings. However, there was also a version of Tom Waits’ ‘Picture In A Frame’, which featured Dave Warren as a soloist standing in front of the choir. In this case, the Zoom control acted almost like a fader on Dave’s voice, as if there had been a close mic on him — and since I had in fact had a close mic on him, turning the Zoom control down into the negative range meant that the two weren’t fighting.
Having processed both the SoundField and the omni pairs to sound as good as I thought I could make them, I closely level-matched the two and bounced out separate mixes for the Spooky Men to audition. Everyone who heard them expressed a clear preference for the SoundField over the omnis. I did briefly try combining the two, but since there wasn’t really a noticeable hole in the middle of the omnis, this didn’t seem to achieve anything other than muddying the waters. Probably the benefits of a centre mic in a spaced array are only really tangible if you make the spacing much wider, as is the case with the classic Decca Tree.
Encouragingly, Stephen and his fellow Spooky Men liked the performances and recordings well enough to want to release them, which left me needing to carry out a quick and dirty mastering job. The Chorale are emphatically not operating in the world of classical music where dynamic range is king, and having auditioned a couple of tracks from their recent album Warm, it was clear that some heavy lifting would be needed to get my recordings up to the same sort of level. This wasn’t a problem for quieter tunes such as ‘Pallet On The Floor’, where all that was required was a tiny amount of limiting to catch occasional peaks, and some gentle top-end shelving boost to add gloss. However, it left me very little room to work with on ’Svanetian Round Dance’; it still sounded mighty impressive even after quite a bit of compression and limiting, but the thrill of the huge dynamic contrast between that and the other songs was a bit lost. One day my children will ask “Daddy, what did you do in the loudness wars?”, and I won’t be able to look them in the eye.
Several of the mastered tracks from this month’s session have been released by the Spooky Men’s Chorale: go to www.spookymen.com for details. On the SOS site, meanwhile, you can download a Zip file and hear excerpts showing the difference between the spaced omnis and the SoundField:
Download | 46 MB.