Classical Music Recording on Location at Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall
Written by Henri Rapp
The Good Looking Photos by Evan Prunty
Classical Recording Goals
If you listen to great hi-fi classical recordings, they are transparent, dynamic, natural, life -like. I wanted to capture the performance as if you were sitting right there in the room with the artist. Given the fact it was a location recording and not in the studio, I couldn’t bring much more than what I needed. I threw all the mics & recording gear in a big pelican case, had 5 stands, and a backpack full of cables.
Mixon Hall is a breathtaking space, seeing a photos of it doesn’t do it justice. I’m not sure who designed it, but whoever did knew a lot about acoustics. It’s even designed to where you can change the decay time of the room but changing something inside the walls. It’s a fairly live room that is very large; but it can get surprisingly reverberant with relatively low volumes. I didn’t know what to expect upon arrival, but once I walked in I could hear them rehearsing, and the room sounded beyond my expectations!
The instruments will only sound as good as the musicians, however the musician will also sound only as good as the instruments. Fortunately in this case both the musicians and instruments were of exceptional calibre. The piano was this awesome thick Steinway & Sons Grand Piano, super warm and punchy with great sustain. I’m told the violin was handmade by a luthier in Maryland, definitely the clearest and cleanest sounding violin I have ever recorded.
Microphones & Techniques
Keeping in mind I wanted it to sound like I am sitting the room, I first had the violist play and walk around the spot until he found the best sounding spot on the stage, then we dragged the piano off to one side to give a little space between them. I didn’t want any mics to be really close to the instruments, but to far and there would be too much bleed, so I opted for a nice happy medium and used polar patterns to afford me a slight bit more isolation. On the violin I used an older AKG C414 EB in Bidirectional mode with the null pointed straight towards the piano. On the grand piano I used two Oktava MK-012s with cardioid capsules in an XY configuration giving me a nice stereo image, as well as making one side more low end dominant while the other being more high octave dominant. This will later let me pan the violin ever so slightly to the side opposing the higher octaves. If you listen to the each instrument soloed up, of course there is bleed from each other, but they were at a distance where it was primarily it’s intended source. At larger distances phase becomes a bit less relevant, and instead just adds another coloration to the other instrument. For example the violin mic had some nice early reflections of the piano in it. A big part of the sound of classical music isn’t only the instruments but the sound of the hall. I walked around the hall while they rehearsed and found a spot I liked and set up a mid-side configuration of a Handmade U87 as the mid, and a Neumann U87 as the sides mic. This gave a nice stereo image of the hall, and the instruments from the perspective of the audience.
Preamps & Recorder
For Preamps & Recorder I could have dragged our API Lunch Box down there, but instead I opted for my Sound Devices 664 Mixer & Recorder which is battery operated (So that’s a plus for recording on location). It’s designed for location recording for TV & Movie production, so the preamps are super high gain, incredibly low noise, and very transparent. It has 6 Mic in, 6 Line Ins and and integrated 16 track recorder. The preamps are on par with Millennia or Neve, and boast 93 db of gain! (Which make them so awesome for classical recordings.) With every channel having built in analog limiters, sudden unexpected peaks are no problem at all!
With mixing I tried to keep it super simple, a touch of light EQ, and a smidge of compression on the room to bring up the audible reverb tail. About half of the sound of the recordings is room microphones, filled out with close mics giving it a bit more focus.
Take a listen for your self, but it goes to show, quality microphones with great preamps, in a great room, with great musicians will always sound great!