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Recording Classical Demos
Classical music requires a different approach than you might be used to...
By Joel Fairstein

Recording studios often ignore the classical musician as a source of business. I say “musician” singular, since the need for classical demos generally comes from soloists rather than ensembles. As with musicians in any style of music, classical players depend on demo recordings to get gigs.

But there’s much more action at stake in the classical world: getting into a conservatory, securing a teaching position or even a fellowship in some exotic locale. This is good news for you, the studio owner, as young, career-motivated players seek to record and submit demos on a regular basis to advance their careers.

Piano and space requirements

There are some important prerequisites for making quality classical demos. Most classical soloists, following submission guidelines for symphonies and universities, will use piano accompaniment. Bearing in mind that almost all classical stage performances involve a concert grand instrument, the expectations of the piano at the recording studio are high. A grand piano in good regulation and tuning will carry the day.

A big turn-off, however, to classical (and jazz) musicians is an overly bright piano, often found in studios where a bright instrument is desirable for rock, pop or country recording. The upper registers of these instruments often don’t sing or sustain well; equalization just darkens the plinkiness.

If you have an older instrument that is bright and plinky, there are a two remedies. As pianos age with use, the hammers develop crusts and grooves. With the action removed, these can be leveled off with an emery board while taking care not to square off the natural curve of the felt. If the hammers are very hard, it’s best to call a technician who can soften the felt with a voicing tool, basically a stick with a row of sharp tines that is inserted repeatedly into the felt until it yields.

And oh, while he’s there, get a quality tuning! It’s also a good idea for later to have a tuning hammer and a pair of rubber mutes handy so that you can perform tuning touchups prior to each session. Although your piano may seem in tune, when the beats of each unison pair or triple string set are completely eliminated, the tone quality of the instrument will improve dramatically.

The second thing needed for classical demo production is a generous, unconfined space around the piano. Space is perhaps the most important aspect of recording classical music, and the more space, the better. The goal is to convince the listener the performance is in a naturally reverberant space, such as an auditorium, without going overboard with added reverb. This means positioning your microphones several feet back (see Figure 1) from the musicians, but not so far that a smaller-than-auditorium-sized room begins to “quack.”

Proximity between the musicians is another important thing. The soloist should stand or sit just in front of the piano’s curve to keep the image depth consistent between the two instruments. Also be aware that classical music is never counted off; instead, one of the musicians signals an upbeat with a swing of their instrument or by inhaling sharply. These cues border on telepathic, so one should never put distance (or walls) between soloist and accompanist.

Microphones and preamps

Microphone selection is easy for classical demos: use your flattest, quietest cardioid mic pair. Some excellent choices might be matched pairs of Earthworks TC40, Neumann KM 184, RØDE NT3, or the economical Oktava MK012. These are all flat, small-diaphragm mics which are perfectly suited for distance miking.

That said, when recording particularly strident violins or saxophones, use a pair of large-diaphragm microphones for smoother high-frequency transients. This benefit may be lost, however, by the presence boost in many large-diaphragm models. In a smaller room, especially, you will need a distance boost rather than a presence boost.

Once the microphones are selected, they can be set up in one of several generally accepted patterens.

• The coincident pair or XY (Figure 2) minimizes phase problems between the two mics at the expense of a narrower image. This setup will require the least amount of equalization.

• Spaced-pair placement (Figure 3) enhances the sound field width at the expense of some phasing problems in close quarters.

• The ORTF configuration (Figure 4) is an acceptable tradeoff between image width and phase accuracy.

For convenience, the mics can be mounted on a tandem bar atop a single stand. That way, you can easily reposition the mics while monitoring the players over headphones during their warmup.

There are, of course, other known mic techniques such as ORTF placement and Mid-Side recording; these tend towards omnidirectionality, which may accentuate a small room’s acoustic weaknesses. However, if you choose to record remotely at an auditorium (for example if you don’t have the right piano or space), then these latter techniques should give excellent results.

When recording in an auditorium, you have luxurious space, the friend of classical music. Pull the mics back to a point where you feel there is good balance between artist and ambience. Also, it helps to elevate the mics as far as your stands allow to delay the arrival of floor reflections, thereby lessening phase problems.

In very large halls, bear in mind the attenuation of high frequencies in air over large distances. In situations where the mics are considerably back in the hall, a small-diaphragm microphone with presence boost (such as the Sennheiser K6/ME64 or AKG C1000 S) will take care of the problem without the need for equalized corrections.

Of nearly the same importance as your microphone selection is your choice of microphone preamp. A detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s just say for our purposes that mic preamps come in two basic flavors: ones that color the sound and ones that don’t. For classical music, the most neutral sound is the most desirable, so you might lean more towards a non-vintage solid state unit.

As most current mic preamps are exceedingly quiet compared to microphones, a good rule of thumb is picking one with extended frequency response beyond 20 kHz. Preamps whose response curves taper off below that figure tend to blur transients, thereby reducing clarity and image resolution.

The Classical demo session

Let’s start with some human elements of recording classical demos. Most contemporary bands you have recorded would love to pitch a tent in your studio and camp out for a while, knowing the studio is a fun place for creative experiments, and where today’s engineer/producer can perform small miracles in the process.

When recording classical, on the other hand, the engineer is prohibited from changing the basic sound beyond the occasional splice or the addition of reverb, so what goes in comes out, artistically speaking. Classical musicians, therefore, tend to view the recording process as a reflection of the state of their art, rather than a production of something new. As a result, the recording is more work than play.

So whatever you can do to put the musicians at ease will help, and the best way to do that is to exhibit confidence, patience and attention to detail. This sends a message to the musicians—they don’t have to worry about the engineer, who is instead looking after them. On a further note, classical musicians will also respect you if you can pronounce composer names and speak fluent Italian. Well, maybe just the words starting with A, such as andante, adagio and allegro.

So, the musicians have finally arrived and have taken their positions. While they warm up, focus on the instrument balance and room ambience. Requesting the soloist move forward or back to achieve a better balance is well within your role as engineer. Also move the mics forward or back while listening with headphones to balance direct sound with room signal.

Finally, add some tasteful hall reverberation such as a bright, medium-sized hall. In terms of size, a medium rather than large hall better fits what you are recording, essentially chamber music rather than a large ensemble such as an orchestra. Hall ambience sounds brighter in person than when reproduced over stereo. The reason for this is that our ears point more to the sides than straight ahead, and as a result, they pick up the higher, more directional reflections better on location than when played back over a typical front-positioned stereo system.

Here’s a reminder: before you start tracking, advise your clients to remain quiet for a few seconds at the end of each take. This is more of an issue than when musicians are recorded in isolation, where one culprit can be dealt with easily. (I don’t care to mention how many sighs and chair squeaks I’ve had to deal with during fadeouts, especially during classical sessions.) Also, the pianist should be made aware that over-exuberant pedal thumping will be picked up by the highly sensitive microphones.

After playback, ask the musicians for input regarding the instrument balance and make adjustments accordingly, to the mics and/or soloist position. I have found that raising the mics can bring out a soft accompaniment, while moving the soloist forward balances things his or her way.

Be sure to get a list of musical selections before you start so that you don’t cut off a performance between movements. Even so, the soloist will often chose to break between movements anyway. Unless you are given submission guidelines that specifically prohibit editing, you may replace less-desirable sections or movements with better takes. Punching in to fix notes, on the other hand, is seldom if ever used.

After recording classical music, there’s not nearly as much of the usual post production needed. Assuming you are recording to a digital workstation, don headphones to trim the selections and apply fades. Take care not to fade final notes while they are sounding; a gentle fade of about three seconds from the final reverberation down through the ambient noise is fine.

Regarding equalization, run flat unless there are problem resonances that need notching. Although the popular Waves Q10 is not the high end of their line, it will perform extremely narrow notching that most other equalizers can’t. On the other hand, if you find the sound generally murky due to microphone/preamp inadequacies, try this: dig out your microphones’ frequency curves and offset their response deviations with a quality equalizer. The basic equalizer that came with your DAW may not have the tranparency necessary for this style, so opt for a higher-end plug-in such as Sony Oxford, the Massenburg, or Waves Renaissance EQ.

You’re now ready to bounce your files through your effect settings and then burn the requested CD copies. Needless to say, don’t use office-supply store CD-Rs that might play inconsistently on the boom box down at the conservatory office. Use professional brands engineered for music such as Mitsui, Taiyo Yuden or Quantegy.

Show me the money!

So now that we’ve got our classical act together, how do we book classical demos? The place to start is your local college or university, particularly one with a string program. If you can make contacts there and hang a few tasteful posters, you will eventually get bookings, as the business definitely exists.

You must then be ready to demonstrate to potential clients a sensitivity to classical music, even if you don’t listen to it. Once you’ve booked and completed that first session, make sure everyone present, including soloist, accompanist, parent, and teacher, gets a business card. These are motivated, conscientious, gregarious folks who will take your services very seriously and spread the word for you when the occasion arises. Classical musicians respond more to referrals than to advertisements. Piano accompanists, especially those in wide circulation, will be particularly good at referring your studio to their young protégés.

Once you get underway with classical demo services, you might find, as I have, the non-compensatory rewards are also fulfilling. Musical standards are quite high and the people involved tend to be articulate and intelligent. The only downside is that your client who wins a coveted audition as a result of your demo will probably have to move away!

Joel Fairstein runs Castle Acoustics, a recording facility in Knoxville, Tennessee. Check out his website at www.castleacoustics.com.

 

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