Don't Forget to Give Yourself Some Space
If you're getting ready to record your next album, you're probably thinking a lot about getting the best performances from your musicians, the mix, the cd packaging and how to pull off your Kickstarter campaign. But before you get started, give some thought to how you treat your chosen recording space. Here are three keys to getting it right:
#1 The recording space is another instrument
Your choice of repertoire, instrumentation and performers are reflections of your artistic vision, right? Well, so is choosing the space for recording. Like your instrument, acoustic environments have their own ambience, qualities, and reverberation times, as unique as fingerprints. Your space can elevate your recording or diminish its quality, much like an out of tune viola or a strident soprano.
Listen to this recording of The Robert Shaw Festival Chorus singing Rachmaninov Vespers (recorded by Telarc engineer Jack Renner) in the Church of St. Pierre, a 12th century cathedral in Gramat, France:
Moody Sergei Rachmaninov with his liturgical masterpiece, a nod to his many hours as a 19th century child sitting in the pews of the Russian Orthodox Church, would have been pleased. The ancient hall provides a seemingly endless decay, wrapping its ambience around the singers in a perfect dance: the music is timeless, eternal, ethereal.
Sometimes it’s about just getting out of the way and letting the magic happen: Rachmaninov wrote his Vespers in just two weeks; the Chorus nailed their performance in five hours and Jack Renner managed to capture them with a single pair of Danish made omni-directional microphones suspended in the center of the ancient circular space.
#2 Musically speaking, bigger isn’t always better
some halls and churches are exquisite live and reverberant spaces,
they may be too live to record intimate chamber music like a string
quartet or french art song. By the same token, some studios may be too
small to record these specific genres without sounding too close,
unnatural or “flat”.
Rachmaninov’s “All Night Vigil” is about a multitude of flawlessly synchronized voices singing directly to God. Now imagine that crew stuffed into Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood, New Jersey studio projecting their instruments into that much smaller and drier space without the decay, the reverb, the spooky medieval romance of a cathedral in France.
But listen to A Love Supreme, Van Gelder’s iconic 1964 recording of the John Coltraine Quartet. Not one bit less spiritual: think of the droning mantra at 6:07 in “Acknowledgement”; you feel you are eavesdropping on four monks at prayer:
bop and later free form jazz developed from a long tradition of music
created in tight spaces, for small communities, homes and watering holes
and that’s how this record works too.
Warning: don’t read the next 78 words if you’re not a super nerd:
Rudy Van Gelder was famous for being extremely secretive about his recording techniques, although there are pictures which can explain the basic principles: great mics (which he often covered so they couldn’t be identified), little reverb, limited eq and a pure signal path. Check out the photo below of Herbie Nichols in Rudy Van Gelder’s living room: the mics on the piano are a Neumann U47 tube condenser microphone and an RCA 44 type ribbon microphone.
#3 As Fleetwood Mac would say, "you can go your own way"
Jeff Buckley, the American singer songwriter, recorded only one album, Grace, before his tragic, early death by drowning at the age of 30. But we can at least be thankful that we have that recording.
Listen to track 8, the Corpus Christi Carol as sung and played by Jeff Buckley:
Although this a classical composition by British composer Benjamin Britten and originally intended for a traditional live sounding hall or church, Buckley went brilliantly rogue and chose an arrangement that utilized a rock recording studio. Although I’m sure considerable time and listening went into deciding how his guitar amp was miced and processed, the sound is pristine and ethereal. But what really stands out for me is the way his voice was recorded. It’s extremely close and clear but he uses his voice to create the color and timbre, as if the decaying stone walls of a cathedral in Quercy, France were coming up from inside his body. The mix has just the right amount of reverb and eq without “gilding the lily” -- truly sublime. I recommend stopping what you’re doing right now and listening to this entire album.