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Wrong-Headed Recording Practice


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I just read an interesting article about just the kind of wrong-headed surround recordings about which I've been speaking.
Mix Magazine
had an article in their February, 2015 issue about a new recording of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra doing Beethoven's
9th Symphony
along with his
Choral Fantasy.

 

The recording engineer for the recording was Mike Pappas, and if ever an engineer needed to be forced to listen to the recordings of the people I mentioned above (Fine, Leyton, Van Gelder, Aubort, et al) Pappas is certainly Prime Example Number ONE!

 

First of all he used
sixty-six microphones
on one 80-piece orchestra! His rationalization for this abomination? His own words:

 

"I realized that more people have home theaters than stereo systems these days and they want their music to sound at least as spectacular as a movie soundtrack
(and what pray tell, does a movie soundtrack, accompanying a film, have to do with a concert piece like Beethoven's 9th? - GG)
. That big diffuse Decca/Zubin Mehta-conducts-the-LA-Philharmonic kind of thing has become passe. People don't listen to music that way any more."
(Who doesn't listen to music that way any more? People who would like this kind of presentation likely don't listen to Beethoven
at all
! - GG)
.

 

Pappas continues...

 

"I want [my surround recording] to be like watching high-definition television.You watch a golf match on HDTV and you see every blade of grass; I want you to hear every string in the orchestra, hear every flute, every harp, every part of it. We have 80 musicians on stage; if you add-up all the years they've been playing, it's centuries of experience. I don't want a single one of those people, who spent decades honing their craft, to get lost in my recording. I want every one of them to be presented to his or her fullest ability"

 

Well, huzzah for what Mike Pappas wants, but what did Beethoven, who is, after all, merely the composer of the work in question, want? Well, I can tell you what Beethoven didn't want, and that was for his orchestrations to be placed under a microscope any more than Michelangelo wanted his Sistine Chapel ceiling to be seen from inches away, or for his David to looked at under a magnifying glass so that each chisel mark is visible rather than the entire work.

 

This kind of perspective is wrong in every way. Anyone who knows anything about music will tell you that a string section is what happens when 12-or-so violins play in a space. Their sound blends in that space between the stage and the audience's ears. That cannot be faked by electronically mixing a bunch of individually close-miked violins together in a mixing console. Beethoven knew how to orchestrate for the concert hall. He knew (although by the time he wrote his 9th, he could no longer hear) what the effect was of ensemble playing on a concert audience. Nobody needs people like Mike Pappas second guessing the musical geniuses of the past, present or the future.

 

I am reminded of a story involving one of the British Decca engineers and Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) with regard to the premeir recording of his 8th Symphony shortly before his death in 1958. Decca was recording this symphony, in stereo, with the London Philharmonic and Vaughan Williams' friend Sir Adrian Boult was conducting. Listening to the playback in Kingsway Hall, RVW suddenly sat bolt-upright and exclaimed "STOP!", the engineer immediately halted the playback.

"What is wrong Sir Ralph?"

"What is that tuba doing there?" replied RVW.

"Ah," answered the recording engineer, proudly, "we couldn't hear it in the control room, so we added a highlight microphone to bring it up.

"You Ninny", retorted an irascible Vaughan Williams. "That tuba is playing softly so that only the brass section can hear him. His part is there solely to help the brass keep time and count. The audience is not supposed to hear him!"

 

So much for recording engineers second-guessing composers.

 

The Colorado Symphony with Andrew Litton conducting Beethoven's Symphony #9 should be available on Blu-Ray audio-only surround soon for those who just have to hear classical and surround done badly.

 

Comments? Dissenting opinions?

 

George

George

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Lol @ that anecdote!

 

Reminds me of my conductor who would tell whole sections of the orchestra, the brass for example, to play a passage "continuously just a few inches below the surface, so the audience only feel your presence because the rest of the orchestra is 'building on your fundament' " (bad translation but you get the idea)

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Lol @ that anecdote!

 

Reminds me of my conductor who would tell whole sections of the orchestra, the brass for example, to play a passage "continuously just a few inches below the surface, so the audience only feel your presence because the rest of the orchestra is 'building on your fundament' " (bad translation but you get the idea)

 

 

Yes, I get the idea. The point is that not every instrumental part in an orchestra is was intended by the composer to be heard by the audience, just as not every instrument is supposed to be as loud or make it's presence heard as strongly as other instruments. Orchestration is part of the composer or the arranger's bag of tricks and is used to flesh-out out a piece of music in ways in which the audience might not even be aware, but they would be missed if they were absent.

 

That's the thing about recording music designed for the concert stage. The only way to do it justice is to record the sound field (that is to say, the space that the musicians occupy) rather than the musicians and their instruments themselves. If a recordist views his job as providing a pair of surrogate ears for the home listener, with an eye to providing the proper perspective of the "best seat in the house" and picking-up the sound heard at that best seat; no more and no less, then he has fulfilled his obligation to the music, the orchestra and the listener. To me this is not an debatable issue. Providing a true stereo (as opposed to the multi-channel mono that Mr. Pappas was championing in my example, above) perspective and capturing a concert piece as it was written to be heard, is Job One.

 

That's not to say that highlight mikes can't be used where necessary or that mikes can't be placed in the back of the recording venue to pick up hall ambience (either to add to the stereo mix or to separate-out for surround purposes) as long as the main mikes are some kind of overall stereo pair to give proper perspective, soundstage, and imaging.

George

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Yes, I get the idea. The point is that not every instrumental part in an orchestra is was intended by the composer to be heard by the audience, just as not every instrument is supposed to be as loud or make it's presence heard as strongly as other instruments. Orchestration is part of the composer or the arranger's bag of tricks and is used to flesh-out out a piece of music in ways in which the audience might not even be aware, but they would be missed if they were absent.

 

That's the thing about recording music designed for the concert stage. The only way to do it justice is to record the sound field (that is to say, the space that the musicians occupy) rather than the musicians and their instruments themselves. If a recordist views his job as providing a pair of surrogate ears for the home listener, with an eye to providing the proper perspective of the "best seat in the house" and picking-up the sound heard at that best seat; no more and no less, then he has fulfilled his obligation to the music, the orchestra and the listener. To me this is not an debatable issue. Providing a true stereo (as opposed to the multi-channel mono that Mr. Pappas was championing in my example, above) perspective and capturing a concert piece as it was written to be heard, is Job One.

 

That's not to say that highlight mikes can't be used where necessary or that mikes can't be placed in the back of the recording venue to pick up hall ambience (either to add to the stereo mix or to separate-out for surround purposes) as long as the main mikes are some kind of overall stereo pair to give proper perspective, soundstage, and imaging.

 

It is worse then you thought. I'm a drummer. Often the high hat chick sound with the left foot closing the hat is there to keep time for the band and isn't necessarily meant to be heard by the audience. The squeaky foot pedal on many Led Zeppelin tracks...

 

The good news is that recordings don't have to be imitations of real life - they can be different from what an audience hears at a concert...

 

George Martin, Alan Parsons, Trevor Horn and many others have proved that recording engineers can help produce works of art that enhance what the musicians are doing. The occasional tuba or squeaky foot pedal may make it through into the final mix....so recordings do have unintentional sounds too. Sometimes it is the magic of the moment that a recorded mistake becomes legendary.

 

Many famous sounds were mistakes and people love them. The opening to the most famous Police song was when someone leaned on the piano by mistake. Similarly the Beatles have a strange chord to start one of their most famous songs which may or may not have been originally intentional but made it to the recording and became so.

Benchmark DAC2, Active speakers: ATC 150's, 100's, 20's, C6CA, C6 Subwoofer.

 

Headphones: Only for playing drums. I don't like sounds in my head. The best headphones suck. Nothing can replace good speakers played loudly. And nothing absolutely nothing is a substitute for live music!

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It is worse then you thought. I'm a drummer. Often the high hat chick sound with the left foot closing the hat is there to keep time for the band and isn't necessarily meant to be heard by the audience. The squeaky foot pedal on many Led Zeppelin tracks...

 

The good news is that recordings don't have to be imitations of real life - they can be different from what an audience hears at a concert...

 

Maybe with pop music, not with classical music. Every time a classical piece is recorded with a forrest of microphones and 8-48 channels, it sounds ridiculous; a travesty even. Like a cartoon of a symphony orchestra.

 

George Martin, Alan Parsons, Trevor Horn and many others have proved that recording engineers can help produce works of art that enhance what the musicians are doing. The occasional tuba or squeaky foot pedal may make it through into the final mix....so recordings do have unintentional sounds too. Sometimes it is the magic of the moment that a recorded mistake becomes legendary.

 

Again, this can certainly be true of pop music, much of which can't exist outside a studio anyway. Even on concert tours these bands have to take their studio with them and the audience listens to the groups through loudspeakers powered by that studio equipment so the band sounds as much like it does in recordings as possible. Not knocking this approach, you understand. For this kind of music it sort of goes with the territory. But this kind of concert performance has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of concert music that I was talking about.

 

Many famous sounds were mistakes and people love them. The opening to the most famous Police song was when someone leaned on the piano by mistake. Similarly the Beatles have a strange chord to start one of their most famous songs which may or may not have been originally intentional but made it to the recording and became so.

 

Again. Thanks for your comments, but we're talking apples and oranges here.

George

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Maybe with pop music, not with classical music. Every time a classical piece is recorded with a forrest of microphones and 8-48 channels, it sounds ridiculous; a travesty even. Like a cartoon of a symphony orchestra.

 

 

 

Again, this can certainly be true of pop music, much of which can't exist outside a studio anyway. Even on concert tours these bands have to take their studio with them and the audience listens to the groups through loudspeakers powered by that studio equipment so the band sounds as much like it does in recordings as possible. Not knocking this approach, you understand. For this kind of music it sort of goes with the territory. But this kind of concert performance has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of concert music that I was talking about.

 

 

 

Again. Thanks for your comments, but we're talking apples and oranges here.

 

 

Ok. Then I will just point out that close miking is a standard industry technique/practice. It is expensive to assemble an orchestra and keep trying different things and to find the best listening spot and getting everything to sound good So engineers like having multiple tracks and multiple mikes and being able to re-assemble everything afterwards to sound "optimal" Sometimes a musician messes up or plays in a way that the conductor is not totally happy with and close miking allows that instrument to. E adjusted or in some cases overdubbed if necessary. If you record everything with minimal microphones you just get what you get - problems identified later on are much more difficult to fix.

Benchmark DAC2, Active speakers: ATC 150's, 100's, 20's, C6CA, C6 Subwoofer.

 

Headphones: Only for playing drums. I don't like sounds in my head. The best headphones suck. Nothing can replace good speakers played loudly. And nothing absolutely nothing is a substitute for live music!

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I feel you miss the point if you made this statement. The best recordings have typically been minimally mic'd AND minimally processed. You always just get what you get- silly to expect otherwise...

If you record everything with minimal microphones you just get what you get - problems identified later on are much more difficult to fix.

Forrest:

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Fortunately we have the option of voting with our wallets.

 

Multi-mic'ing, engineering intrusion, misguided producers, uninterested conductors, challenged musicians.... It may all end in dreck, but I bet I can find a different Ninth (already over recorded, but again, it's a free market) that can be enjoyed instead.

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I feel you miss the point if you made this statement. The best recordings have typically been minimally mic'd AND minimally processed. You always just get what you get- silly to expect otherwise...

 

I did not explain well enough. Minimal mic'd does not allow for much adjustment AFTER the recording has been captured. That is what I mean by "you get what you get". More channels and more individually captured microphones allow for more adjustment of the mix AFTER recording. It is a practice today and industry standard that has evolved as technology has become cheaper. Sports events used to be captured with minimal TV cameras but technology allows a lot more angles to be captured. Sure this is not anything like the experience of enjoying the game live from one particular seat but only Luddites would protest against the Sports TV presentations that capture key moments from multiple angles.

 

So for me, I love going to live shows or being at the game - nothing beats that! However I enjoy recorded music just as much as I enjoy sports on TV for the DIFFERENT presentations it can bring.

 

Hope that makes it clearer - not trying to say that minimal recordings aren't great - I have many - especially the ones Michael Bishop did (usually minimally mic'd) on the ATC's they used at Telarc. I have many Mercury Living presence "you are there" recordings too. Some of the older stuff is fantastic. So just to say there isn't an absolute right or wrong - a recording does not HAVE to be an attempt to produce the exact listener experience at that show....

Benchmark DAC2, Active speakers: ATC 150's, 100's, 20's, C6CA, C6 Subwoofer.

 

Headphones: Only for playing drums. I don't like sounds in my head. The best headphones suck. Nothing can replace good speakers played loudly. And nothing absolutely nothing is a substitute for live music!

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Ok. Then I will just point out that close miking is a standard industry technique/practice.

 

No argument there! It is industry standard technique, and for some types of music it is the proper technique. Just as in some instances, "frapping" (using contact mikes on the instruments) is the proper technique. But it is the wrong way to mike a symphony orchestra, a symphonic band, a string quartet a vocal chorus, etc.

 

It is expensive to assemble an orchestra and keep trying different things and to find the best listening spot and getting everything to sound good.

 

It's expensive for a mechanic to take your engine out of your car to replace the main bearings too. It's much cheaper and easier to pour in a can of Marvel Mystery Oil. But would you want your car "fixed" in that manner?

 

Odious comparisons aside, I do understand why it's done, but that type of multi-channel, multi-track corner-cutting is every kind of wrong.

 

 

So engineers like having multiple tracks and multiple mikes and being able to re-assemble everything afterwards to sound "optimal".

 

Except that it doesn't sound "optimal" unless somebody's definition of optimal is a joke, a cartoon, a jumble of instruments playing together with no thought as to ensemble sound, or musical integrity. a recording in which not even lip service is given to the performance or the listener.

 

 

Sometimes a musician messes up or plays in a way that the conductor is not totally happy with and close miking allows that instrument to be adjusted or in some cases overdubbed if necessary.

 

That's not generally done in classical recording. Whole sections are often re-recorded and 'spliced' into the finished work in place of the error, (Heck, I've done that myself) but not individual instruments.

 

 

If you record everything with minimal microphones you just get what you get - problems identified later on are much more difficult to fix.

 

I do it all the time. It's not difficult to find the optimal spot for a stereo pair of microphones and the results are often jaw-dropingly real sounding. Every instrument is exactly where it should be in the soundstage. The listener can close their eyes and point to the trumpet being behind the oboe, the triangle seems to float over the percussion on the extreme left, just as in a concert hall. Most importantly, the strings sound like a string section, not a dozen or so violins close-miked, pan-potted and electronically mixed into the correct left-to right position (with no depth)!

 

There is no excuse for using the techniques that you outline above for classical music, and thankfully, while it was standard practice back in the Late '60's, the 1970's and 1980's, it's not done much these days. Most producers and engineers have learned what their audience wants to hear in classical recordings, and gives it to them.

George

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I did not explain well enough. Minimal mic'd does not allow for much adjustment AFTER the recording has been captured.

 

That is correct. Thankfully, there are ways to fix it that do not require a forrest of microphones and a plethora of multi-track recording channels.

 

 

That is what I mean by "you get what you get". More channels and more individually captured microphones allow for more adjustment of the mix AFTER recording.

 

By the results, I take that to mean more chances to make the recording sound abysmal!

 

 

It is a practice today and industry standard that has evolved as technology has become cheaper. Sports events used to be captured with minimal TV cameras but technology allows a lot more angles to be captured. Sure this is not anything like the experience of enjoying the game live from one particular seat but only Luddites would protest against the Sports TV presentations that capture key moments from multiple angles.

 

comparing TV sports production practices with serious music production practices is comparing apple and oranges. The best classical performances are NOT recorded in the manner you outline. Pop is a different matter. Nobody expects pop to sound natural because nobody knows what "natural" is since this is largely studio-bound music making. In such as case these overdubbing and multi-track tools actually do enhance the experience and are useful and often indispensable tools in the recordist's bag of tricks.

 

So for me, I love going to live shows or being at the game - nothing beats that! However I enjoy recorded music just as much as I enjoy sports on TV for the DIFFERENT presentations it can bring.

 

There's the difference between us. I am into audio to virtually transport me to the concert hall. I want to hear classical recordings that are documents of great performances. I don't want to hear a string of 100 instruments lined-up between my speakers (which is what you get with multi-mike and multi-channel recording techniques) with no depth no image and each instrument artificially pan potted into it's location in the lineup (at best) or grouped into three mono groups -left, center, right, (at worst).

 

Hope that makes it clearer - not trying to say that minimal recordings aren't great - I have many - especially the ones Michael Bishop did (usually minimally mic'd) on the ATC's they used at Telarc. I have many Mercury Living presence "you are there" recordings too. Some of the older stuff is fantastic. So just to say there isn't an absolute right or wrong - a recording does not HAVE to be an attempt to produce the exact listener experience at that show....

 

I understood you the first go-around, but when it comes to classical recordings, there is a right way and a wrong way, and the kind of multi-miking and multi-channel recording done by Mike Pappas in that above referenced Beethoven Blu-Ray disc is just wrong. I put up with enough of that back in the late '60's and the Seventies with Columbia (and later the incompetent J. David Saks at RCA) when recording Ormandy and the Philadelphia orchestra, EMI and the London Philharmonic, DGG and Von Karajan with the BPO, etc. Thankfully few people record that way any more. If I had my way. None would.

George

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I don't have much more to add. You seek a very specific type of recording. I agree that for you George the approach used by Mike Pappas is wrong headed. However I feel there are people out there that prefer the extra detail and edge that a close-mic'd setup can bring to a recording, even a classical one and even if it is not the same experience as attending a concert.

Benchmark DAC2, Active speakers: ATC 150's, 100's, 20's, C6CA, C6 Subwoofer.

 

Headphones: Only for playing drums. I don't like sounds in my head. The best headphones suck. Nothing can replace good speakers played loudly. And nothing absolutely nothing is a substitute for live music!

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I don't have much more to add. You seek a very specific type of recording. I agree that for you George the approach used by Mike Pappas is wrong headed. However I feel there are people out there that prefer the extra detail and edge that a close-mic'd setup can bring to a recording, even a classical one and even if it is not the same experience as attending a concert.

 

 

OK., Let me ask you this. Are you one of them? And if so, what do you find attractive about a recording of a symphony orchestra that sound nothing like an symphony orchestra? I'd really like to know because it makes no sense to me. Even the economic part makes no sense. I've read for years that a throwing up a forrest of microphones and recording each instrument to its own track was somehow more economical, but how can 60 or more microphone placements possibly be more economical than a mere two? Just setting the mikes up and deciding which model to use on which instrument has got to take hours of engineering time. Then there's setting up the recording console, labeling each input and each multi-track output. I know about the latter because when I record a jazz ensemble, I often have to directly input to the mixer, electronic piano, electronic xylophone, Fender Rhodes pianos, accent mikes on some acoustic instruments, etc. and I have do the same thing (though not on that scale, obviously) and it takes a long time.

George

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OK., Let me ask you this. Are you one of them? And if so, what do you find attractive about a recording of a symphony orchestra that sound nothing like an symphony orchestra? I'd really like to know because it makes no sense to me. Even the economic part makes no sense. I've read for years that a throwing up a forrest of microphones and recording each instrument to its own track was somehow more economical, but how can 60 or more microphone placements possibly be more economical than a mere two? Just setting the mikes up and deciding which model to use on which instrument has got to take hours of engineering time. Then there's setting up the recording console, labeling each input and each multi-track output. I know about the latter because when I record a jazz ensemble, I often have to directly input to the mixer, electronic piano, electronic xylophone, Fender Rhodes pianos, accent mikes on some acoustic instruments, etc. and I have do the same thing (though not on that scale, obviously) and it takes a long time.

 

No I'm not one of them. Sorry but I really don't have anything useful to add. Classical recordings indeed depend a lot on the acoustics of the venue. So to sound good they need to be captured from far field. Concert halls tend to sound best. RT60 times need to be higher than for other types of music. Whatever is used to record an orchestra it should or must have some far-field microphones. Often the best spot to capture ambience is about 25 feet above the conductor. I don't think an engineer would ever only use close mic'd sound to record. Same applies to a drum set. You need some microphones above the kit (usually two) in addition to the close mic'd toms and snare.

Benchmark DAC2, Active speakers: ATC 150's, 100's, 20's, C6CA, C6 Subwoofer.

 

Headphones: Only for playing drums. I don't like sounds in my head. The best headphones suck. Nothing can replace good speakers played loudly. And nothing absolutely nothing is a substitute for live music!

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