Recording Tips


Preamble

This page was inspired by the periodic questions on both the Memphis Horn List and Yahoo Horn List about how to record lessons, practice sessions, and performances. The emphasis is on simple techniques, using relatively inexpensive equipment, to make high-quality recordings of soloists and small ensembles performing classical music. I know there are excellent techniques other than those discussed here, as well as better-sounding (and more expensive) equipment. (Note: All links to other sites open in a new window.)

Introduction

Since I wrote the original version of this in late August 2006, the world of simple, economical do-it-yourself recording has really turned. So I have divided this page into two sections, the first about extremely simple, one-piece-of-equipment approaches, the second, a revision of the original text, about more flexible--but also more complicated techniques.


The Simplest Approach

Disclaimer: I have not actually made any recordings using this method. However, several people whose opinions I respect have recommended it.

Hand-held, all-in-one flash memory recorders with built-in microphones are the easiest way to record lessons, rehearsals, performances for pedagogical purposes. These recorders are very small, easy to slip into pocket, purse, or instrument case. They can be set on stage or another convenient location to make recordings. The files on the flash memory cards can then be transferred to a PC for burning CD's, editing, or other manipulation, if desired, usually via USB or Firewire ports.

Examples include, in alphabetical order:

If I only wanted to record lessons, practice sessions, and rehearsals, and didn't already have more recording equipment than any sane person needs, I'd investigate the recorders above. As of 29 Aug 2008, there are tutorials for several of these recorders on YouTube.


A More Flexible (and Complex) Technique

Below is a revised version of the original text of this page.

DPA Microphones, makers of high-quality microphones, has a good overview of stereo techniques as part of their Microphone University.

I suggest buying a pair of Behringer B-5 condenser microphones. I got mine for $70 apiece from Midwest Stereo. (Subsequently Midwest's price has increased.) I have also seen them occasionally at good prices on eBay. I have tested them by recording an organ in a good hall, and an orchestra in a so-so hall; I have also used them to record my practice sessions. Especially given their price, I think they hold their own well in the company of top-quality, professional-grade condenser microphones, the kinds of things DG uses to record the Berlin Philharmonic and Max Wilcox used to record Arthur Rubinstein.

The Behringer B-5's have both omnidirectional (picks up sound from all directions) and cardioid (picks up sound only from the front in sort of a heart-shaped pattern--the name comes from the same root that gives us cardiology, et al.) capsules. I think they are pretty neutral sounding. Get a pair of Audio-Technica AT8410 "clothespin" shockmounts or Avant Electronics SSM shockmounts to mount them; they will pick up feedback through the stands from movements on the stage if they are not shock mounted.

One nice thing about the Behringers is that if you don't like them you aren't out a lot of money. The bad thing about them is that they have no resale value. There's always a market for high-quality microphones, such as (in alphabetical order) AKG, DPA, Neumann, and Schoeps, among a very few others; generally, it's possible to get something like your money back if you want to sell them, and, historically, their prices have more or less kept pace with inflation. (That's no guarantee they'll continue to do so, of course!)

Rules of Thumb about Microphone Techniques and Placement

Cardioids

For solos, with or without piano, and small ensembles I think one of the standard cardioid techniques will work best and be hard (but not impossible: I've made recordings to prove it!) to mess up really badly. These same techniques can also be used successfully to record orchestras, bands, and choirs, though, especially with music containing a lot of low frequency sounds, omnidirectional microphones (see below) sometimes work better.

Get an AKG KM235/1 stereo bar and mount the microphones in an ORTF or NOS array. ORTF spaces the capsules seven inches apart and splays them outward 110 degrees. NOS uses 30cm (about 12 inches) and 90 degrees. ORTF and NOS are known generically as near-coincident microphone techniques; both approximate the spacing and angle of the human ear, minus, of course, the acoustical shadowing effect of our heads. Since neither the distance between capsules nor the angle is critical, in both cases you can eyeball the distance and angle unless you're making the recording for French or Netherlands radio; anything ballpark (e.g., the AKG stereo bar straight, with the microphones angled outward at 90-110 degrees) will probably work fairly well.

Cardioids will not pick up low frequencies as well as omnidirectional microphones at the distances typically used for recording classical music. However, when used close, cardioids display what is called the "proximity effect," which exaggerates the bass. Both of these phenomena are owing to laws of physics that are beyond the scope of this web page.

With cardioids I'd start with the mikes 6-8 feet back from the performers. Move closer if there's too much room sound; move backward if the recording is too "in your face." Adjust according to your (or the client's!) taste; there's no other right or wrong about it.

Spaced omnis

Spaced omnidirectional microphones work well in good acoustics, especially for recording large groups like orchestras, bands, and choirs. Owing to laws of physics that are beyond the scope of this web page, they will pick up low frequencies better than cardioid microphones at the distances typically used for recording classical music. However, they do not exhibit the proximity effect of cardioids (see above) when used close to the sound source. Divide the group in thirds with the microphone stands. Alternatively, put a microphone even with the concertmaster and whoever's on the right-hand side in the analogous position (principal second fiddle? principal cello?).

Spaced omnis can also be used for small groups like string quartets, woodwind quintets, soloists with piano, or even small orchestras. For these sorts of ensembles, place the stands 16-20 inches apart. With small groups, cardioids (see above) often provide a more natural sound and stereo image.

Start with the microphones three feet back from the ensemble, and then adjust according to taste as with omnis.

Other Microphones

I think the Behringers sound better, especially in cardioid, than the other often-recommended "cheap" condensers, the Oktava MK-012. The sky's the limit with microphones. A stereo pair of some models will cost as much as a new car, and a stereo pair of ELA-M 251's will cost as much as a very nice new car. (Note well, though, that I do not recommend the Telefunken ELA-M 251 for recording classical music.)

I suggest small-diaphragm microphones for classical recording. They have more uniform off-axis frequency response than large diaphragm microphones, and thus tend to sound more neutral.

For those not on a budget, the Schoeps CMC5 body and MK5 capsule will provide superb results. (My personal favorite Schoeps model is the justly-revered M221B with M934C capsule.) In addition, DPA and Earthworks, among others, make top-quality microphones. I am not a big fan of the current offerings from Neumann, probably the most famous maker of professional microphones, for recording classical music. However, the now-discontinued KM84 (a cardioid, and not to be confused with the currently-manufactured KM184) is one of my all-time favorite microphones. If you're seriously into recording classical music, don't pass up a chance to acquire a good stereo pair. They were very popular in their day and many were produced; so they are plentiful. Unfortunately, they are still highly esteemed, which keeps the prices up. In the case of all microphones mentioned in this paragraph, but particularly the Schoeps M221B, be prepared for sticker shock.

If you do buy Schoeps M221B's, make sure you get the real thing, not one of the Hungarian knockoffs.

Ancillary Equipment

You'll need some kind of recorder. If I didn't have anything and was just starting out, I'd get a flash memory recorder like the M-Audio Microtrack II. It is clear to me that the world has moved away from anything with moving parts, and very far away from tape, for audio recording. (Though some posters to the Ampex Mailing List measured the original Microtrack's phantom power at less than 48V, this was supposed to be corrected in the Microtrack II, and my Microtrack II measures 50.7V open circuit.)

I think the Microtrack II is fine for the purposes described here. However, after using mine for several years, I have concluded that it is not a serious professional tool. I have found that recordings it makes often have some glitches. A click lasting a few samples is fairly common. So far I've been able to edit out those with no one the wiser except me (and now you). I also had an experience where the recording had an intermittent static or crackle that I was unable to reproduce when I tried to diagnose it. (Fortunately, this recording was of a rehearsal and thus did not really matter.) Much worse, however, it occasionally locks up completely, losing whatever recording is being made. This behavior seems to be random; I haven't figured out how to reproduce it at will. This is no tragedy when recording practice sessions, but would be a major disaster if it happened while recording a recital being given for a degree or while expensive professionals are "on the clock." The meters are small and hard to read in dim light and the level and other controls are also small. The headphone output, though adequate for earbuds, will not drive headphones of the sort one might use for monitoring at a level high enough to be useful. So if you are planning to produce a CD, record your senior recital, or take someone's money in exchange for making a recording, I suggest using a different, more robust recorder.

The Behringer B-5's, like the other transistor microphones discussed here, require 48 volt phantom power (aka P48). Something like the Audio-Technica CP8506 will do the trick if the recorder or mixer you are using does not provide it.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you connect phantom-powered microphones to equipment with unbalanced inputs, you MUST follow the instructions in Neumann-Information 84 222, "Operation of Neumann FET 80i Microphones with Unbalanced Inputs." The circuit in figure 6 on p. [4] is likely to be the easiest and cheapest to implement; it can probably be built into the shell of an XLR connector. (I say "probably" because I haven't tried it because I have no need to do so.) Though this is written from the perspective of Neumann FET 80 series microphones and power supplies, it is equally applicable to other makers' equipment. Failure to do this will short out the phantom power supply. The exact result of shorting out the power supply will depend on how the power supply and the equipment connected to it are designed.

Tube microphones, such as the Schoeps M221B, do not use phantom power and require their own special power supplies and cables. These power supplies are readily available for most microphones. They also don't require any special precautions when used with equipment having unbalanced inputs.

For omnis you'll need a pair of Atlas MS-10 microphone stands or equivalent. For ORTF or NOS you need only one stand. Atlas TB-58X extensions and AD-5B adaptors for the MS-10's will get them up around 8-10 feet high. In most cases you'll probably want the mikes as high as you can get them, but as with placement, experimentation is A Good Thing. All the microphones mentioned here are light enough to use on an MS-10 without worrying about the stand falling over from the weight.

The last thing you'll need is cables, lengths that total two 100 foot lengths (e.g., two sets of four 25 foot lengths) with XLR connectors on each end. I suggest "star quad" (Canare L-4E6S or suchlike) in orange (for visibility). Unless your time is worthless and you like the frustration of working with shielded cable, buy them with the connectors attached.

Reference Sources

The standard college-level text on recording is John Eargle's Handbook of Recording Engineering. There are at least four editions, from 1986-2003. The fourth edition, of 2003, is the latest as of August 2006. For the purposes discussed here, any edition will be equally good.You can skip the math and cut straight to the discussion of microphone placement for various purposes. Nothing much has changed in that area of audio since Blumlein's stereo patents of 1932 or so and the Bell Labs experiments of about the same time.

For a technical discussion of microphone types, how they work, and the physics behind them, download Gerhart Boré's book entitled Microphones from the Neumann web site.

Recorded Examples of Microphones

The audio clips will give you an example of how various microphones sound, from the cost-is-no-object to the extremely budget-concious level.

These recordings were made 13 August 2006 by Dale Krider, DMA, FAGO, playing the organ of Takoma Park (Md.) Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The recordings are copyright © 2006 by Dale Krider and Howard Sanner. All Rights Reserved. They appear here by kind permission of Dr. Krider. Any further use of these recordings without written permission of Dale Krider and Howard Sanner is prohibited.

These recordings were made 4 February 2001 by Adam Graham, playing the organ of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, College Park, Md. The recordings are copyright © 2006 by Adam Graham and Howard Sanner. All Rights Reserved. They appear here by kind permission of Mr. Graham. Any further use of these recordings without written permission of Adam Graham and Howard Sanner is prohibited.

These recordings were made 23 May 2010 by Kristin Marciszewski, Jarred Schultz, Garrett Stair, and Alex Wedekind at Westminster Baptist Church, Westminster, Md. The recordings are copyright © 2010 by Kristin Marciszewski, Jarred Schultz, Garrett Stair, Alex Wedekind, and Howard Sanner. All Rights Reserved. They appear here by kind permission of the performers and their parents. Any further use of these recordings without written permission of Kristin Marciszewski, Jarred Schultz, Garrett Stair, Alex Wedekind, their parents, and Howard Sanner is prohibited.

The four recordings above of the Holst "Marching Song" from Songs without Words, Op. 22, are the same performance, recorded with different microphones and techniques. The performance is by the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra, A. Scott Wood, conductor. It was recorded at Montgomery Station, Riderwood Village, Silver Spring, Maryland, on 9 December 2012. The recordings are copyright © 2012 by the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra and Howard Sanner. All Rights Reserved. They appear here by kind permission of the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra and A. Scott Wood. Any further use of these recordings without written permission of the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra, A. Scott Wood, and Howard Sanner is prohibited.


Links working as of: 31 Jan 2009.

I get no financial or other benefit from any of the companies or organizations mentioned. They are listed as a service to users of this web site, and no other representations are implied or intended. In most cases the same goods and services are available from other sources, possibly at a better price than those cited here.


Created: 20 Aug 2006
Revised: 20 Jan 2013