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Session Notes: Vocals-Piano-Strings

The Practical Craft Of Recording
By Paul White

Rebecca plays cello overdubs, which were captured in Paul's studio using a Lewitt LCT-140 Air mic.Rebecca plays cello overdubs, which were captured in Paul's studio using a Lewitt LCT-140 Air mic.

Our engineer tracks and comps some piano and vocal performances, before overdubbing both real and sampled string parts.

In this article, I want to discuss a recent recording session with Alice Marple-Horvat and her mother Helen, who co-wrote the two songs we tracked that day, 'Cinnamon Wine' and 'Judas'. The brief seemed simple — I'd record Alice singing and backed by Helen on the acoustic piano, and at a later date we'd add a 'string section' by overdubbing some violin and cello parts. Helen had scored out all the lines in Sibelius, and both songs had similar formats and required similar treatments.

The voice and piano recording was to be done at their family home, so I decided to assemble a simple portable recording system based on my 12-inch MacBook Pro running Logic Pro X and a PreSonus AudioBox audio interface. That would give me up to eight inputs, which would be more than enough. With no 'control room' to speak of, monitoring would be entirely on headphones, and I'd also need to split out headphone feeds for the performers, so I took along my four-output Aphex HeadPod headphone amplifier. As she often records into her own system running an old version of Logic Express, Helen has her own mics and they'd be available to me, but I decided also to take along some of my own so we'd have some options on the day.

Piano

Helen's piano is a well-maintained Bechstein Boudoir Grand Model A dating from 1896, and it takes up most of the space in a downstairs room that adjoins the family kitchen. Several duvets were already hung from a picture rail around the room to help damp any boxy 'small room' acoustics, and Helen had also placed some damping material in the piano itself, around the edges of the piano frame. The lid was propped open. She normally records to an old version of Logic Express using a couple of mics on a stereo bar, but I wanted to try something a little different — I did try a stereo bar at first but couldn't get the mics aimed where I wanted them. Instead, I opted to rig my two Aston Starlight mics as a spaced pair, each on its own stand and suspended in Rycote InVision shockmounts for good measure.

The piano was captured using a spaced pair of capacitor mics, but due to the constraints of the recording space they were much closer than is typical.The piano was captured using a spaced pair of capacitor mics, but due to the constraints of the recording space they were much closer than is typical.

Classical piano is often recorded with a spaced pair aimed around halfway up the underside of the piano lid, but in this case we didn't have the space to get the mics far enough back to allow this traditional approach. In fact, the mics ended up being quite close to the edge of the piano case. As an experiment, I thought I'd put the mics' in–built alignment lasers to good use by holding a mirror flat under the piano lid, then positioning the mics so that one laser spot fell half way along the bass string section near the hammers and the other half way along the treble strings. I'd never tried this before but on playback the piano sounded very much as I heard it in the room, with a good balance across the strings — and Helen was more than pleased with the result.

Of course, grand pianos are big mechanical monsters, and although this one was well maintained to avoid pedal squeaks and scrapes, the physical action of the dampers nonetheless produced an audible thunk each time the pedal was used. This was particularly evident during the quieter sections because the damper noise doesn't follow playing dynamics. I thought we might just have to live with this as a part of the natural sound produced by the beast, but another spot of experimentation at the mixing stage enabled me to reduce the offending sound significantly, without compromising the basic piano sound. In order to kindle some sense of anticipation, I'll tell you about that when I talk about mixing...

Vocals

Helen decided to play using headphones but, after some experimentation, Alice decided she was more comfortable singing without them. She set up just inside the kitchen area so as to have a clear line of sight to Helen playing the piano, but the kitchen sounded like — well, a kitchen! So we had to improvise some acoustic treatment. A duvet was draped over the fridge-freezer (which was turned off during the recording), a towel hung over a shelving unit, and an Aston Halo screen was set up behind the mic,...

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Published September 2019