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In my view, there’s nothing quite so inspiring as working with talented and experienced musicians in a recording studio. I always enjoy these sessions enormously—your arrangement is all organised and the backing track mix is ready; now you’re just sitting in your studio waiting for the player to arrive.
Sample collections are of course in plentiful supply for all the main orchestral and jazz instruments, not to mention a vast range of ‘off the beaten track’ instruments, ranging from ethnic and indigenous to just plain outlandish! But a real player can bring so much more to your music.
If recorded in a suitable setting with the right type of microphone, the sound is guaranteed to be absolutely authentic for one thing. The other big factor is the session musicians’ own creativity. They bring their talent and ‘take’ on your song arrangement and the added value that brings is very often invaluable.
Here’s an excerpt from an arrangement I did a while back that features a live flute carrying the melody. The piece then continues on into a bridge section. A beautiful tone and intonation is crucial when the instrument in question features this far forward in the mix.
Here’s another excerpt in a somewhat celtic style; this time a violinist. As I recall, this player played from a part I had previously written out with score-writing software, yet the particularly beautiful tone and style of intonation here would be extremely difficult to emulate with instrument samples.
Of course, recording ‘real’ players brings its own set of specific issues and problems to solve. These range from what microphone to use, to how best to prepare the track for the arriving player. Your general aim should be to try to make the whole experience as comfortable and natural for the session player as possible.
Remember they will most likely be attempting to play a part they’ve never seen before, while trying to acclimatise to your studio set-up and the track itself, all at the same time. In this tutorial, we’ll take a look at a range of instruments at the classical end of the spectrum, and see how best to prepare for a session with any one of them.
Violin, Cello, Flute, Trumpet, Harp
If we think of the symphony orchestra as ‘families’ of instruments (strings, woodwind, brass, etc.) you’ll notice I have chosen one or two from each group, and also included the harp, which requires a slightly different approach. Most classical musicians have one thing in common: they normally read music very well, as that formed a key part of their early music training. It is therefore quite likely that they will expect to see a notated part on the day.
I’m not suggesting that classical musicians don’t or won’t improvise. Some of them do that very well. But chances are they will feel a lot more comfortable working with a sheet of music printed out in front of them. So I am going to assume you plan to write out your part, which you will most likely do using a notation software package.
Creating a Notated Part
Once you have your arrangement in mind, how much detail should you include on the part? In the classical world absolutely every nuance is covered: expression, phrasing, bowing marks, etc. There’s no right answer to this, but I tend to favour the ‘bare bones’ approach, as you can always work on the details with the players input during the session.
Here’s a song intro that features a cello part. Afterwards, the cello part ducks down into a lower register when the lead vocal enters.
The part I gave the player for the intro is written below (admittedly rather short!). I tried to give them a clear bar count from the beginning of the song. There would have also been a quietish click track running in their headphones to help cue them in.
When I write string parts, I tend to leave out bowing marks as these will be discussed during the session, and the player will know how to play the part technically to sound the way I want.
Here’s another MP3 example, followed by the notated part. This time a violin plays the melody line:
The part I gave the player at the time would not have contained any bowing markings but I have added them above, based on how the performance went. It’s important to know the precise limits of the instrument, and also the kind of sound it can produce across its tonal range when you write the part.
Tip: It’s a good idea to have some kind of orchestration dictionary available to you that can give ranges and describe basic instrument characteristics. There are a number. My personal favourite is ‘The Essential Dictionary of Orchestration’ by Dave Black and Tom Gerou. This is inexpensive, unfussy and also pocketbook size; so it is easy to carry around.
I’ve worked with all of the above in my own studio—violinists playing in a ‘celtic’ style and also a more classical approach, jazz flute and classical flute. I have also recorded celtic harp several times, but an orchestral harp only once. On that occasion I was very concerned as to whether the instrument would actually fit into my studio, which has quite a low ceiling.
When the player arrived, she surprised me by refusing to allow me to help her unload the instrument from her estate car. (Clearly she was thinking about the cost of the instrument, and my own lack of experience in carrying one!) She promptly produced a trolley suited for the purpose from somewhere within the vehicle. I’m happy to say the height of the instrument cleared the height of my studio... but only by about two inches!
Here’s an example of how the celtic harp can sound. This is taken from a song introduction.
What Microphone Should I Use?
In general terms, using any reasonable quality condenser microphone should produce acceptable results. A large diaphragm condenser microphone like an AKG C414, or a Neumann U87 would be a typical professional choice for such a situation, but many other options are also possible.
Placement of the microphone is crucial. In general you’ll want to place the microphone quite close to the instrument as this will reduce room ambient noise. See the table below.
Direct and Ambient Sound
The natural ambient sound of the room will become increasingly apparent as a microphone is placed further away from the sound source. In fact, the sound level decreases by a factor of 6dB as the distance doubles, which is quite a lot.
The amount of direct sound relative to room sound can be controlled by both the distance of the microphone from the sound source, and to a lesser extent the polar pattern of the microphone (cardioid or omni-directional).
Will you be miking the instrument in mono? My preference would be to record all these instruments onto a mono track with a single microphone source, with the exception of the harp which might well benefit by having a stereo pair of microphones set up a slight distance away.
Here’s a chart which gives some specific hints and microphone suggestions:
In practice, I often seem to find myself standing next to the player while they are warming up, trying to listen for the ‘sweet’ spot where the tone of the instrument comes across most effectively. This is the spot where your microphone needs to be focussed, and is where you should be looking to set it up. However, do also check it isn’t getting in the way of the player or obscuring his or her view of the music. Violinists and cellists will need room to bow their instruments.
With the flute, I’ve noticed the sound can vary quite a lot depending on your microphone position. Too near the mouthpiece and you might risk getting too much breath mixed in with the sound, but too near the keys and the sound begins to become dominated by the clatter of fingers on keypads. It’s quite surprising how a good microphone will pick up the smallest sound, however negligible you might think it is at the time.
A bit of distance from the instrument often ends up being the safest option, especially if you plan to use any compression later, as this will bring up the noise floor quite a bit. Mistakes are easy to make, and I have certainly been caught out in the past; and have found myself listening back later to session takes with the odd noise or two that shouldn’t be there, long after the player has vanished!
Orchestral or Concert Harp
The harp is unique in that it has 47 strings organised non-chromatically. The player plays using a set of pedals arranged for both feet at the base of the instrument to change the tuning of these strings.
Most harpists that record regularly have extra felt fitted to dampen these pedals, which can otherwise make quite a clunky sound! It’s generally best to set up a stereo pair of microphones somewhat at a distance from the instrument, to avoid unwanted pedal noise and finger noise on the strings.
In the next article, I shall be looking at how to record jazz instruments, which requires a different approach altogether. We’ll also look at other vital technical issues like how to set up a great headphone mix, and the appropriate use of compression and tuning correction.