Choir recording — how to do it

Choir recording can be potentially frustrating or very rewarding. It is different than recording solo vocals or duets. There are new things to think about, different problems to face. We'll look at the challenges unique to recording a choir. I'll be targeting specifically a choir of voices, but you can use these techniques for instrumental ensembles too (orchestra, band, or other ensemble).

Here is a bird’s eye view of what we are going to look at:

  • Stereo recording
  • Room sound
  • Mic choice
  • Microphone technique
  • Mixing choir recordings
  • Special effects - EQ, compression, reverb, etc.

What about stereo sound?

Stereo recording is a sister subject of choir recording, something you need to know a bit about. I'll do a quick primer, but you should mosey on over to the stereo recording page to learn more about it.

A stereo track is simply two coordinated mono tracks played on two independent speakers, arranged on either side of the listener. They can be either speakers or headphones, but the have to be two separate sound sources or tracks.

To record stereo, you record two separate tracks, one for the left output, and one for the right. They don't necessarily have to be placed in a left/right pattern, but they will be panned out in the mix. When you play this back (on a stereo sound system) you will hear a soundstage. It gives dimension, or depth and width to the field of sound you are hearing, a feeling of "being there."

When you record one voice, stereo doesn't make so much sense (although you easily can). With one track, it can be panned wherever you want - you can make it sound like it's coming from the left or right. But with a choir or chorus, there is a sense of depth and location - and spatial positioning.

Have you ever listened to a recording in mono that should've been in stereo? Didn't it just seem to lack depth, clarity, and sparkle? I think stereo adds so much to a choir recording that I wouldn't do without it.

Room Sound

If you were to record a choir, where would you do it? Can you get 25 people in your bedroom or living room? (25 people is a medium sized choir.) You might be able to do it, but space sort of comes at a premium then. If you did it, you might notice that the group sound is just not what it should be. This comes from any number of things, but the room in which a choir is singing will have an impact on how they sound.

Also, anything needs breathing space to sound good. Try going into a closet or other very tight space, and sing a few notes, or play a song on your guitar. Now go into the living room, or other bigger space (but not outside). Does it sound different? How? This is a good exercise to experiment with, as it will give you an understanding of how room sound works.

A big group or choir needs a big space, but proportional to its size. Also, a choir will sing better (and love it) in a pleasing acoustical space - it helps their blend and the reverb reinforces their singing.

When you're placing mics for a choir in a larger room (or any size really), the distance you stay away from the group will make an impact on the mix between voice and reverb sound. But that's a topic for the mic technique section.

Mic Choice

One difference between recording solo vocals and a choir is the microphone situation. Obviously, you can't have a Neumann microphone for each choir member. Besides breaking the bank, you would have to separate the choir, and have a royal mess of mic cables. And could your recorder handle that many tracks?

Even if you went to all that trouble, and tracked each individual voice, you wouldn't have the "choir sound" that we want. The blend wouldn't be there - you would have to blend them electronically. Have you ever heard of the saying "The whole is more than the sum of it's parts"? This is one case where that is true!

Instead, use a stereo setup. A pair (or several) of mics placed at strategic spots will will do well. What spots? See below.

So when we record the choir as a whole, we need to make sure the mix is right. No one person should stand out above the rest; everyone should be on pitch and well blended. If you do your choir recording without checking these things, you might be disappointed with the results.

In other words, you need to mix the choir as you record.

Mic Technique

Well now, this cannot be covered in a few short paragraphs! But we'll do our level best, reserving a whole other page for further discussion on this matter.

I tend to like to use stereo recording for a choir recording. As you will see later, stereo is a 2 track attempt at reproducing the sound as closely as it can, giving you a "being there" kind of sound. Stereo stuff uses 2 or 3 mics placed in predefined patterns, like XY, ORTF, Mid-Side, DIN, AB, and so on. Each of these placements has particular blessings and difficulties, or else there would be one grand accepted method. There isn't.

Another popular way of recording a choir us seperating the parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, or SATB) and tracking each one separately.This gives more control in the mixing environment, like if the soprano overpowers everyone else on a line, you can pull them back. This method will give you 4 tracks (or however many you use) to play with, rather than the 2 or 3 with stereo. I've had good results with this when mixing these 4 tracks with a stereo pair of the whole choir.

Like I said earlier, I prefer the stereo recording strategy, because of the more accurate sound I get. But I do say that with understanding - it is slightly less flexible when it comes to mixing. I recommend you read my article on choir mic technique that goes into more detail on this subject.

Mixing

Mixing a choir recording is unique from a multi instrument/vocal recording. In one sense, it is easier, but in another it has new challenges that complicate it further.

With a stereo recording you have two tracks, that need to be panned far left and far right. That's simple enough, but all the other mixing needs to be done during recording. If a voice is standing out in a certain position, move that person back, or beside a person that blends a bit better. If you need more alto sound, switch some alto singers front and the overpowering parts back. A solo needs to stand out in the front, not too far that they dominate, but not back far enough that they are drowned out.

If you record each part separately, you have more options for panning the material. For this, I'll save the goodies for the specialized mixing for choirs page.

When working in the post-recording environment, you want to avoid bold or indiscreet plugins or processors. You don't have other tracks to mask the silly sounding stuff - choirs, chorales, choruses, orchestras, instrumental or vocal ensembles, etc, need a natural sounding recording. For this most of the fun weird stuff is out, like extreme echo, flanger, pitch modulation, etc. All your processing will do it's best to remain discreet, indistinct. Unless you are going for a purposefully distinct sound, use caution.

Special Effects - EQ, Compression, Reverb, etc.

These are fun aspects of choir recording, simply because of what you can make a choir sound like. Combined with the study of mic placement and technique, you can make a choir sound like what you want to! That said, it is your job to make sure they sound their best.

I use EQ some on choir recordings, to help me make up for the mistakes made in mic placement. But your goal is a natural sound, right? Lot's of EQ will start to make the recording sound articifial, a no-no in this world. The rule is easy does it! EQ can be a life saver, but it needs to be used sparingly on choir recording. That said, it is almost essential.

Compression is another handy tool, but again, to be used with caution. (As a matter of fact, anything you use on a stereo recording or choir recording should be used with caution!) A compressor will start to suck away the dynamic range of a choir, taking away their work on subtle dynamic nuance. I generally use a touch of compression, but keeping a good deal of breathing space for the group.

Reverb is another tool I love. You can record in good sounding spaces, but somethimes you need to fill things out just a tad. A reverb (set to a gentle sound, remember!) will do wonderfully. The problem is that many times it is very difficult to get a pleasing sound. With so many knobs to turn, a reverb plugin can be frustrating when you don't know which one to turn to get the sound you're looking for. But take heart, you will find it eventually, though it may take you a while at first. :)

Any other special effects are touchy - if you try weird stuff your choir recording may end up sound, well, weird! I use a de-esser sometimes, and a smidgeon of stereo positioning (but only to correct errors that happened previously), and a few others occasionally, but the bread and butter stuff are the EQ, dynamics, and reverb.


Choir recording is a stretch for a recording engineer, but a rewarding one nonetheless. It fills my ears with joy when I sit back and listen to a wonderful choir recording - you know what I mean, right? I enjoyed this survey of choir recording, and I hope you did the same.

I am always thinking about ways to make this more helpful to you as a choir recording engineer, so if you have any ideas to help me or questions you would like addressed, do send your input on choir recording.

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