Problems with recording choirs

by Gary Sherman
(England)

My experiences of such recording is frustrating to say the least. I only use a stereo mic’ing setup but have yet to find a sound that I think is acceptable. The main problems tend to be a lack of bass/warmth and too much sibilance. I understand the latter is largely a product of the acoustics of the environment but all too often this very unpleasant effect seems exaggerated. I dislike doing too much in post production but have tried running the recorded signal through a de-esser however, this has been to no avail.


The other problem (lack of bass/warmth), makes each recording a real disappoint to me as I can take off my headphones in the session and hear that the depth of sound is there, but when monitoring or listening back to the recording afterwards I find it’s being lost.

I have tried various mic settings/configurations and heights, from about 4 feet to 12 feet, yet nothing seems to improve the situation. I find not surprisingly, that the further I move from the choir the less warmth I capture so favor a setup roughly level with the edge of the singers. Having only recorded groups of around 50 singers, this hasn’t produced an unbalanced effect which I imagined might feature a prominence of the “edge” performers.

I have the same problem of lack of warmth with organ recitals, although it is much less pronounced and can generally be considered a reasonable recording.

Locations I have worked in include various chapels within Oxford university; the church where Gustav Holst was choir master and others in my area of the UK.

With orchestras I get a very good recording indeed with mics generally placed about 20 feet behind of the conductor.

Microphones I have tried are AKG 391, which I have now sold, Neumann KM184 which I still use and a Pearl MS8, which I know isn’t designed for this type of application but sounds remarkably close to the Neumanns. The advantage is that being a MS microphone it gives me the opportunity to play with the stereo width after the event.

Examples are posted as follows (Pearl MS8 and Nagra LB):

http://archive.org/details/Songways-MarchingUpToFreedomLand

http://archive.org/details/SongwaysChoirEdingtonPrioryChurch

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Oct 13, 2012
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Re: Problems with recording choirs
by: Lee - Bedroom-Recording.com

Some more thoughts for Gary, in addition to my last comment.

Per our email conversation, you posted this link: http://archive.org/details/OxfordOccasionals-WestGallaryQuirechoir--Soundroom

It uses the KM184s, and I can see why you are disappointed with the sound. However, it sounds like they are somewhat far away from the choir. What would happen if you put them significantly closer? Right now there is more room sound than choir sound - the balance would be greatly aided by bringing the choir closer.

As an added benefit, the bass frequencies would be boosted.

I also hear much more sophistication in the sound of the KM184s compared to the Pearl used on the other recording. As I read in some of my recording books, you can't polish mud. In other words, the better quality signal you start with, the better the potential end result.

Lee
Bedroom-Recording.com

Oct 13, 2012
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Re: Problems with recording choirs
by: Lee - Bedroom-Recording.com

Hi Gary,

I read from your question that you know a little about recording, and are not totally green. You seem to have equipment that should work fine for you.

Re the microphones, I like my Neumann KM184s a lot. I use them when I'm doing separately tracked parts (like bass, soprano, etc). I've seen someone else use DPA, which I think are very good, but I've never used them.

As far as your overall problem, I'm not quite sure what to say. I would like if you can point me to some samples to reference. Then I can speak more clearly to your question.

I generally find that I like to do EQ work on my stuff. I don't view it as a lesser thing than recording "pristine" original sound. Instead, I think anything I can do to make my tracks better is a good thing. Obviously, too much processing is not a good thing, but I find that gentle boosting of low frequencies helps add that warm sound I think you're talking about.

I listened to a bit of the samples, and here are a few comments.

The two choral samples you have are both with the Pearl mics, and not the KM184s. Observations the recordings:
- the your choir is set up so the men are farther away from the mics than the altos are
- the mic sounds like it is not flattering the choir at all - it may be nice for mid-side, but the sound is not as fine as the Neumanns. If choral recording is asking too much of the Neumanns (which I think I disagree), then it is asking far too much of the Pearl.

You say warmth has been lost - I say that the mic picked up too many frequencies in the mid and lower mid range. EQ is learned by much practice. I agree with you that sometimes "post" work makes things sound "amateur" and noticeably worse. But that is amateur work - good work is transparent, and tries to bring out what should be there.

A good rule of thumb for EQ is: be gentle. If you think it needs 8db of adjustment, leave it at 4. Always spend multiple sessions on it - don't take 2 hours one day and do it once & for all. Time gives your ears to reset, and a better perspective on the sound.

See if you can get a better sound on the choral tracks using 4 or less bands of parametric EQ. I would find one or two places to cut between 600hz and 2khz. You can boost slightly around 200-300hz, but very slightly, or you get a boomy sound. Gently cutting in some uppers (4-8khz) will bring back some warmth.

I'm giving you these numbers, but realize they are my first guesses. I would spend an hour trying to fine tune things. Play with the width setting of the EQ too.

Lee
Bedroom-Recording.com

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