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Double quintet recording session tips?

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Matthias Calis, Feb 16, 2019.

  1. Hello all! Soon I'll be doing my first recording session with a double quintet and I thought it might be worthwhile to ask the collective hivemind for some tips to make the most out of it. I have seen Mike's Brass masterclass and there's a lot I can already take away from that, yet I was wondering if any of you had perhaps some more wisdom to share. Here are some concrete questions I have:

    • Is it strictly necessary for each player to have their own headphone if they're overdubbing over virtual instruments or could you get by with just the conductor hearing the virtual backing sound (assuming a sufficientyl skilled conductor)?
    • With a double quintet is it better in your experience to close mic each mini section (clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flutes, horns) or would I be better served by setting up several room perspectives? I have six microphones at my disposal (2x MXL 770, 2x behringer C2 (judge me), 2x line audio CM3) and I am considering getting 3 more MXL 770s, but I am not sure if it will be worth the investment.
    • I'm a little unsure if I should notate the music in C with each accidental marked or if I'd be better served by simply notating in the written key. Any advise there?
    • Are there any woodwind or horn players here who have particular grievances about certain pitfalls I'd best avoid?
    • Yours truly will also be the recording engineer of this session and while I've already picked up a lot from online tutorials on how to best mic a section like this (and have done two prior recording sessions, one with a choir and one with a string ensemble), I'd be happy to hear any tips anyone might have? The recording space will likely be a small hall with a high ceiling and is almost entirely made out of wood.
    • As I am also still in the middle of the composing process, I would be happy to hear any shortcuts/tips/guidelines writing for this particular section. Are there certain ways (dare I say: formulas) to write for a section like this that are guaranteed to work? For example: I know that putting bassoon low, clarinets above, oboes above that, and flutes above that in terms of registers is a fairly "safe" way to orchestrate. That's the kind of tip I'm looking for?
    • Any additional advice about either instruments, recording, or human factors to take into account?
    Thanks very much in advance!
  2. Fun! Are these existing ensembles that are collaborating, or 10 people reading and recording for the first time? How much rehearsal preparation are you planning prior to recording?
    I prefer to have in-ear monitors or one can over ear and one off. I think the players would prefer to react to backing track. If the group hasn't rehearsed the track, then a conductor will help (cue-ing entrances, a pair of ears outside of the ensemble, leading the rehearsal, etc.).
    Tricky question. I'm not a mic guy. I'll say that recording individual players placed in the room will be easier to edit, but sound sterile. The chamber musicians will react and blend in an ensemble setting better than multiple solo takes. On the other hand, fracks in the horn part, missed notes, or pitch issues will be very difficult to adjust in a mixed session because of mic bleed. The presence of actual bodies will have an impact on the room sound. My preference would be to have a stereo pair for the room and another one slightly closer for details (blend to taste).
    BEFORE setting up the mics, I'd have the ensemble run through sections at various placements in the room until you get the ideal room sound. Then use gaffer tape on everything (chairs, stands, mic stands/angles) so that you can recreate the room if you'll record over several sessions or days. Likewise, save your mixer presets for quick recall.
    Most musicians are capable of reading either just fine. The vast majority of actual ensemble literature is composed with key signatures, whereas most film scores are written with no key (eliminate key signature reading errors). The key signature conveys a sense of tonality (if that's the style of the composition), but the players will know what to do with or without it. Just watch out for transposition errors on your part.
    Sure, a ton. Don't write high and soft for the horns. Give plenty of rests in the music (easier to drop in edits and important for endurance). Make sure the articulations make sense (be consistent with your markings). If you have a long multi-rest, be sure to add cues to aid the performer. Also, number the measures (at least every system) and maybe include rehearsal markings at significant musical moments. Think about breathing and phrasing - too often people write these obnoxious ostinati that don't account for the performer's necessity to breathe. Unison writing can be a challenge, especially if the group isn't well rehearsed. Balancing harmonies helps when the chords are balanced (more roots, fewer 5ths, fewest 3rds, etc.). Oh, voice leading matters even for winds. I could go on, but you get the gist.
    Keep in mind the directional nature of the instruments and the audience's perspective. Don't mic the horns from the rear (unless you are lacking clarity in the room). If you do mic from the rear, go off-axis with the bell. Many people place baffles (wood boards) behind the horns (angle upwards slightly), but the players don't like this. Bring carpet mats if you need to dampen floor noise (foot tapping, french horn mutes, etc.). Make sure the lighting is adequate. If you're recording from a separate room, be sure to have a working talk-back system in place. Mark the studio door so people don't interrupt. Have extra mic cables (noisy cables & bad connections can be a pain). I'd place the stereo pair slightly above the ensemble (a couple of feet) and about 2/3rds of the way down the length of the hall. You don't need much stereo spread for a chamber group.
    Grab a bunch of scores off IMSLP.org and compare (articulations, dynamics, technique) with recordings. Each of these instruments has their own timbre variation to consider throughout their register and dynamic range. Horns are kind of the wild card in this setting. They can play a variety of roles: bass, melody, counter-line, and harmonic rhythm. There are interesting effects as well (stopped, muted). This chamber ensemble is all about color variety (as opposed to brass ensemble which is naturally homogeneous), so use the full palette of instruments and ranges. If the players are proficient pros, then there are some doubles that might be worth exploring (piccolo, alto flute, english horn, contrabassoon, eb clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet), but that's asking a lot. If you are writing for doubles, the cost goes up - also account for the time needed to transition between instruments.
    Mental and embouchure fatigue are real. If the group is rehearsing and recording in the same day, plan for breaks. Fatigue leads to more intonation errors and challenges the higher range accuracy of the horns. This is why I recommended taping the position of the setup. Players will get up, stretch, take a water break or whatever, and slide the setup ever so slightly so that subsequent takes don't sound like the same room or position.
    All the best.
    Aaron Venture and Matthias Calis like this.
  3. #3 Matthias Calis, Feb 16, 2019
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2019
    @Bradley Boone those are all excellent, practical and immediately applicable tips. Thanks very, very much indeed! Great stuff!

    Edit: the plan is to do a single session with 2 hours of rehearsal, about an hour's worth of break time, and another 2 hours for the final recording. I am definitely planning to keep the mics open during both the rehearsal and the actual performance on the off chance I get a golden take during rehearsal.

    Fatigue is definitely something that has been on my mind a lot, both physical and mental. I think I want to slip in a few small breaks during the 2 hour rehearsal and 2 hour performance time in addition to the break in the middle, just to keep everyone as fresh as possible.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  4. Established ensembles or individually contracted musicians?
    For staples of the genre, check out Beethoven’s wind octets & Krommer’s wind partitas. They may not represent your style, but they show typical balance, dynamics, & pairings.

    Other tips I thought of after my marathon post:
    • Have a couple extra sets of scores & extra ears to make notes of sections of good takes
    • Consider different layouts (bassoons & horns in the back; flutes, clars, oboes in the front...or large arc seated in pairs, do you have access to risers?)
    • Some halls have nodes that ring at certain frequencies, you may need some curtains, foam, or more carpet to break it up a little
    • Pre-plan the sections you need to get in one take & those you can cut in
    • If you are planning to cut in, start a few bars before so you have similar room noise in the cut
    • Label your takes in a way that makes sense to speed up the editing on the back end

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