Just what exactly is choir mic technique? Simply put, it is the skill and technique used in placing microphones for recording choirs or ensembles. It is knowing what mics work best, where to place them, and using various microphones, placement, and room space to make the choir sound their best.
Just as there are many possible "right" ways to record anything else, there are many ways to use your choir mic technique skills. As you learn and gain experience, you'll find ways that really don't work the best, and some ways that are worth trying again. But the quest for a perfect setup will never be over. It's kind of like life - you never get done, even though we run out of time.
In this article we will look at several techniques and methods for choir mic placements and choir mic technique.
For the sake of this discussion, when I say choir it will mean a vocal ensemble of about 10 to 50, or even higher. You can use these principles on instrumental ensembles, orchestral or non, but I will be specifically applying them to a choir. Even the size of the choir I gave is a wide range, but the principles still apply, even with a larger group.
The subject of choir mic technique, or choir recording and stereo recording are very intertwined - it's hard to talk about the one without mentioning the other. So make sure you check out the page on stereo recording for background info.
So that out of the way, let's begin.
There are two main schools of thought on how a choir should be recorded - with a stereo recording (or binaural), or each part separately. We'll discuss each idea, and I'll show you what I think as we go along. 🙂
When I say part I mean a section of the choir, like soprano, alto, tenor or bass (conveniently arranged in the acronym SATB).
For choir mic technique in this method of recording choirs, each part has to be physically separated. We use a microphone for each section, and do a mixdown later, so we will end up with 4 tracks, plus any solos required. This method of choir miking has strengths and weaknesses inherent in it's design.
First the strengths - you have much more control over the post-recording work of mixing. Each part is tracked separately, so you can adjust the levels individually. If the tenors just blasted a note at the end, just pull their part back in the mix, or if the alto should've come out a tad stronger in the middle, it's a cinch to bring them up a bit.
Also, by recording separately, you usually move the mics closer to the group to avoid leakage. Therefore you will get a closer, or intimate sound (which is neither good nor bad, just a sound color that's available).
The inherent weaknesses are as follows - you are not doing a true stereo (binaural) recording. This can sound good (I know of a studio that does the part by part method a lot and gets very good results), but it's not quite true to the source, it doesn't have a you-are-there character.
While you are getting each part equally, you are not getting all parts together - when you mix, the tracks recorded at separate physical locations are brought together, many places to one, whereas a stereo recording is recorded in (roughly) 1 location, giving you a more realistic listening experience.
The farther away the mics are from the singers, the more bleed you will get, or leak through of one part to the other microphones. This helps unify the sound, but defeats the purpose of mixing the tracks separately.
Choir mic technique using a stereo recording will sound natural, much more like a "you are there" experience. We have several mic placement patterns available for use, the most popular being XY, AB, ORTF, and Decca Tree. They use both cardioid and omni-directional mics. I'll assume you know what these are (to find out, see stereo recording.).
There are a few different ways of doing this, but the most popular is to use an XY pair. Take two cardioid microphones and place the capsules at the same place, one right above the other. Angle them 90 degrees, so it looks like the corner of a square. (The diaphragms should be directly above one another.) Pan the inputs of the sound board to far left and far right. Ta-da! Your stereo signal!
Now you have a stereo microphone pair setup and ready to use, but where should you put it?
Try starting with the mic stand(s) about 12 feet from the choir or group. I usually put the microphones high, and pointing slightly down. If I have three rows of people standing on risers, I aim the mics angling downward at the middle row.
From there, listen to the sound with your ear. Go ahead and stick your head in there, listening at various spots to find the "sweet spot". Move the microphones out and in. You probably want to keep them centered for your stereo sound. Try raising and lowering them too; that might yield an altogether different sound!
The most important piece of advice I have is experiment. After you do a few choirs, you will know what a good choir recording will sound like. This will help you a lot in setting the microphones up and listening for a good sound.
Spend enough time setting up. Don't try to rush — that will cheat your choir out of getting the best possible sound. Act like you know what you're doing, because you do! Choir mic technique is not learned in one session.
If you have more than one set of mics, try using a combination of stereo microphone techniques. Try using a ORTF pair closer to the choir, and a spaced pair further back. (More on ORTF and spaced pair setups in the stereo recording article.)
Other considerations that come into play are the room size, natural reverberation, and the size and quality of the group. Choir recording is very general — there are a million (I think?) different ways to do a choir recording, of choir mic technique.
My main tip is already stated: experiment. Take your time, and do it right the first time. Sure, you'll make mistakes, but learn from these.
Let me know your experiences and observations in choir mic technique. What helps you the most, or what one tip would you share with anyone considering choir recording? I'd love to hear from you, and you would help make the experience for others easier.
Lee started his career in recording with an auspicious goal - record tracks of his own voice singing in harmony. As a hobby project, it didn't have the funding to go to a studio and pay for someone to do it for him. Like many of you, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps to learn the art of recording.