By |John Rowley
Making a successful recording of a choir whether it’s a large male voice choir or small children’s choir, depends on a number of crucial factors. Before I begin I want to clear up a couple of common misunderstandings. Firstly you cannot make a successful recording of a choir in a conventional recording studio unless its got some huge live recording rooms or is built specifically for the purpose like Abbey road studios in London. 99 % of commercial studios have small acoustically dead rooms primarily for recording electric instruments. This brings us to the next great fallacy that for a room to be good acoustically for recording it must be flat or dead sounding with little or no ambience. This is wrong. The room is your friend and the following article will describe what to look for when choosing a good venue for recording your choir. I know because I have been recording choirs, orchestras and brass bands for the past 20 years.
To get a successful recording the best start is to search for mobile recording studios or location audio recording in your area as these guys will be used to dealing with large musical groups in big ambient spaces such as town halls, churches etc. Go for someone with lots of experience as anyone can turn up with a couple of cheap mics and a laptop.
Location sound recording or mobile audio recording has its own set of rules and problems that set it apart from more conventional studio recording but fortunately it has one huge advantage over recording in a studio and that is size. Live concert recording is always done in a large good sounding venue and no matter what they say, size does matter and amazingly things can even be too big!
Video Tutorial – Recording a live Church Choir
The whole point of location sound recording is to enable a large ensemble like a choir, orchestra or brass band to create a blend of the direct sound of the group with the natural ambience or acoustics of the venue.
With this in mind there are really 3 separate elements that all contribute to the finished sound of any mobile recording; Choice of venue, the preparation of the choir, and the skill and experience of the engineer. Get all three of those things right and you will have a great sounding recording.
The choice of location or venue really is a critical factor in determining what the final recording will sound like. All venues large and small have their own unique acoustic properties that interact with the performance of the musicians and some concert halls become famous for their great sound whilst others achieve notoriety for theirs’.
However its not to say that you have to hire a famous concert hall for a great recording and over the years I have made some very fine sounding recordings in local Methodist chapels, old churches, village halls and even school halls can sound very good. As a rule of thumb you really can say that if the hall sounds good to sing or play in then chances are it will also be a good venue for a location sound recording. Generally with a choir you really need a space that will comfortably fit everyone in 4 or 5 times and with a fairly high ceiling. This space then begins to work for the recording, blending the voices into an overall sound so that no individual parts stick out. Of course, sadly people don’t come with a volume control and occasionally there is someone who gets to be heard above everyone else and this is where the recording engineer and the musical director have a discreet word!
Some churches really are too big and can have a massive reverb that washes over everything though of course some religious music is written specifically for this type of location.. I have made many mobile recordings in old medieval churches over the years and while they are great in that they are often the largest and least expensive venue you can get they do have a number of things to look out for. The first is the natural reverb of the church. Whenever I walk into a venue for the first time I always check out the natural reverb by making a single loud clap and listening and counting for the reverb to die away. Most old churches have a nice smooth reverb between 2 and 3 seconds but some large churches, Minsters and Cathedrals can have huge reverbs that can be a real problem. Some also have strange flutter echoes because of their layout where the sound bounces back directly off a wall making a repeat. Other things to remember are that in winter churches can be very cold places and often have very little light on a Decembers afternoon. Methodist chapels are often a pretty good size and can have really nice acoustics but really avoid chapels or any buildings with dome roofs as they can be a nightmare acoustically.
Try to find a place that is not on a busy road as traffic noise is a real problem along with the occasional ambulance or motorbike. Make sure that you can get facilities for a drink in rest periods and that there is adequate power. Old churches can sound ok but they can be very cold places in winter and remember it gets too dark to read music by 3 pm in winter.( I live in Yorkshire) Access used to be a problem for the mobile recording studio but today we can get a virtual recording studio on a laptop and running cables to an outside van are pretty much a thing of the past. but some old churches still don’t have mains power sockets in the nave or chancel.
I have made many recordings in school halls and not just of school choirs. They are a good local asset and some school halls can sound pretty good, They usually share one of the most important characteristics of a good sounding venue in that they generally have a high pitched ceiling which is great for blending the sound. Quite often schools can have a very nice piano and in East Riding schools I know of three Bluthner grands, two Bechsteins, a really nice Richard Lipp and a beautifully restored 7 foot Ibach . On the other hand some schools have unplayable old uprights but you can still use the venue, just bring along your own digital Roland or Yamaha piano.
The second vital element in getting a decent recording is the preparation of the choir.
Being prepared has not only served the boy scouts well but is an invaluable piece of advice when it comes to the recording session. By the day of the recording the choir needs to be ready to give a great performance and it doesn’t matter what level of accomplishment the choir is, if it is rehearsed and positive you can make a nice recording. This means organising a schedule of rehearsal running up to the date of the recording so that by the day of the recording everyone is ready. Recording sessions are expensive and really shouldn’t be used for rehearsal purposes.
It can be a big decision to make a recording but there are a number of useful tips to make sure that the day of the recording is a pleasant and successful experience.
Firstly you need to look carefully at the choice of material you want to record. Always choose material that you know you can do well rather than attempting material that is beyond your standard. Its far better to have all the material of a good standard and remember your rivals will always want to hear a bad performance!
Just because a CD can hold 75 minutes of music don’t think that you have to fill it.
Decide on anything up to 15 pieces that you are confident with. A running time of anything around 45 minutes to an hour is fine and even if you are wonderful after an hour the listener will want a change.
Choose a variety of material with some light and shade so that there are different moods on the CD unless of course it is your intention to produce a CD of hymns or songs from the shows.
I can’t stress enough the importance of the venue and if you can do so, get a rehearsal in there so there are no surprises on the day of the recording.. When a choir starts singing it resonates in the room and I have had all kinds of strange vibrations from buzzing light fittings and roof panels to loose window panes rattling in sympathy!
Oh and finally did I mention Practice, practice, practice.
3. The recording Engineer
Mobile recording really does have its own set of rules and I know from experience that often, really good studio engineers have a difficult time with location recording because they haven’t got the experience of recording in large rooms. Experience gives you confidence and I know that as in most jobs, you not only have to be good at your discipline you also have to be good at managing people. This is really true of handling a recording session with a choir of 30 or 40 people! So the engineer has to have experience in location recording but also he needs to have some pretty good equipment to make a good recording of a choir. Choirs inherently have a huge dynamic range and some quality microphones are an absolute first starting point when considering making a recording of a choir. There are a number of different stereo recording conventions that different engineers favour but essentially you are looking to produce a stereo picture of the choir so that you can hear the different sections but not necessarily the individual singers. You also need to be able to effectively balance the accompaniment with the choir and so I tend to mic up the piano and record it onto its own track. That way you can get the best positions of the choir and the piano and if necessary bring up the level of the piano at the mix back in the studio.
In the next article I will be looking at the nuts and bolts of the recording session, the microphones and recording platform as well as talking about digital editing and post production.
John Rowley is the head sound engineer of Reelsound, a high end mobile recording sevice for choirs, orchestras and brass bands covering the UK and Europe. http://www.reelsound.co.uk
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