Ensemble Recording with One Stereo Microphone
The usual recording process for most contemporary music: record basic tracks, overdub the rest of the instruments and the vocals, then edit, comp, and tune as needed before mixing each song. But there’s another way — one that is especially suited to acoustic music: record the whole group live in the room with no headphones and with a single stereo microphone. There’s an elegance to this type of recording, and it can yield superlative results. But “live in the room” recording does take a different kind of planning — pre-production, setup, rehearsal, recording, and post-production are quite a bit different than is the case with the more typical production. For the purposes of this article, let’s imagine a group of musicians and singers who want to record a project “live with no studio tricks.” Here’s a look at the process.
In general, pre-production for an album project should focus on the songs, the instrumentation, and the general direction the project should take. For a live recording, you can also choose to use a space other than the studio. When you’re recording live with a stereo mic, the acoustic space becomes much more important; it needs to be quiet (no outside noise from traffic, neighbors, or HVAC) and have a sound that is aesthetically pleasing and suited to the style of music being recorded. There’s no reason that a project like this has to be recorded in the studio; great live records have been made in churches, recital halls, barns, and living rooms. The room simply has to help the music sound great.
Beyond that, it’s also important to discuss sight lines between the musicians, where each will stand (or sit) in relation to the others, who will be singing, and whether the musicians should be able to move around during the performance (we’ll come back to this during the “Setup” discussion). Sight lines are important because visual cues may be the best way for the band to signal such things as endings, and things such as harmony vocals can work better if two (or more) singers are standing close together.
Since the goal is a great-sounding live recording, start with the microphone patterns. Should you go with a standard XY coincident miking setup with both capsules set to a cardioid pattern or a Blumlein setup, still coincident, but with two capsules set to a figure-8 pattern? The answer depends on the sound of the room; the Blumlein setup, with its figure-8 pattern, will pick up more of the sound behind the microphone — primarily ambience and room reflections. There will be some ambience anyway, so let’s assume the XY pattern is the choice. There should be no need for added equalization at this point; the project will be better served by proper microphone choice and placement.
Next, decide where in the room the musicians should be. As a default, try placing them against the shorter wall of the room but about a third of the way into the room (if you’ve chosen to record in a venue with a stage, set up onstage, of course). Have the ensemble play. If there are no obvious issues due to standing waves or odd reflections, then it’s time to consider mic placement. One constant in recording is that the farther away from the sound source you place a mic, the more of the room sound you’ll get. While this seems to imply that the best approach is to put the microphone as close to the musicians as possible, that’s not necessarily the case. As a starting point, try placing the musicians in an arc (not quite a semicircle) around the microphone with the microphone approximately 5 feet high and 4–5 feet in front of them so that the microphone is equidistant from all of the musicians.
The engineer should listen to what the microphone is picking up — from the control room if the project is taking place in the studio, but if necessary, on headphones if the project is being recorded in a remote location. This is when you start creating the mix: each musician’s position will determine their place in the stereo field. Once the general positions are set, start working on the relative levels of each instrument.
The two best tools for creating the live mix are (A) the distance from the mic and (B) the direction of the instrument. So, have the ensemble play; if a single instrument is much louder than the rest, then have that musician move away from the microphone until the balance is good. Conversely, softer instruments may need to be slightly closer to the mic. It’s also worth noting that, when the face of an instrument is pointed directly toward the microphone, it will tend to be louder (and brighter) than the same instrument pointed 45 degrees away from the mic. With a combination of distance and, when needed, pointing individual instruments slightly away from the microphone, a wide range of colors can be created. If there are singers, they have to be taken into account. Besides the need to balance the singer’s voice with the instruments, it’s a good idea to have the main singers in the middle of the group so that, in the final recording, the lead vocals are pretty much in the center of the stereo field.
Once a good overall balance has been reached, mark the spots where each musician needs to stand with gaffer tape. Mark the spot where the microphone sits, as well, in case it’s accidently moved. One last thing: before moving on to the rehearsal stage, be sure that there’s a convenient way for the engineer to communicate with the musicians. Since the best way to record live is without the musicians wearing headphones, set up some sort of talkback speaker in the room so that the engineer (and producer, if there is one) can talk to the group.
Now that the microphone is set up and all the musicians are in a decent balance, it’s time to rehearse the songs. Why? Because the nature of music is such that a static mix (in this situation, that means that all the musicians are standing in place and playing at more or less the same volume) will likely be the optimal approach.
When mixing a multitrack recording, the volume of each instrument can be adjusted throughout the song; but if you’re recording a live group with a stereo mic, those adjustments have to be made by the musicians. These changes are most commonly made in one of two ways — either the musician who needs to be louder or softer at a specific point in the song adjusts their playing to be louder or softer, or they move a bit closer to the microphone at that point. The idea of musicians moving around the microphone has a long history in bluegrass music. In the ’40s and ’50s, one microphone for the whole band was a common occurrence at festivals and concerts, and quite a few of the new generation of bluegrass musicians have gone back to the “bluegrass dance,” where the different musicians move into the microphone for solos and back away to let the next person in. Either approach can work, but if you choose to have the musicians move in relation to the microphone, be sure to mark the spot they’ll move to as well as their usual place in the ensemble.
It’s not cheating to record multiple takes of each song. Before each take, it’s worth slating the song by having someone say the name of the song and the take number. Perhaps the group will play each take perfectly, but it’s more likely that there will be small bobbles by one or more performers in every take. A good way to keep track of these small errors is for the engineer to have a chart for each song — a chord chart works, but even a simple block diagram with the sections of each song will suffice. As the group plays each take, the engineer can make a note of everything that might be an issue by writing the take number on the chart at the point the problem occurs. If, after a few takes, everyone’s part is great, then it’s time to move to the next song; though it’s a good thing to make a note of which of the takes is the best overall. If there are small issues on every take, the chart will show where those issues are; just make sure that every section of each song has at least one clean take. Knowing where problems are (and where they aren’t) will greatly facilitate matters in post-production. Repeat this process for each song.
When recording live, the engineer (and producer, if there is one) will be the person hearing what’s actually being recorded rather than simply hearing what it sounds like in the room. The musicians are hearing each other, but because they’re not wearing headphones, they won’t know how the balances are. Talk to them — if moving someone closer to (or farther away from) the microphone would help the recording, let the group know.
Once all of the songs are recorded (with multiple takes), it’s time to listen. All the takes of each song should have notes about mistakes, so start by choosing the primary (that is, the best) take of each song. Then listen to each section of the primary take to see if there is anything wrong with any section. If so, look at the same section of the other takes to find a better version of that section. It’s a relatively simple task to splice the best section (or a part of the best section) into the primary take. This, too, is not cheating. Engineers in the world of classical music tell of famous recordings with dozens — or hundreds — of splices in a single piece. This is one of the reasons to mark the floor, by the way; when the musicians stay in exactly the same spot, the sound of the group stays consistent from take to take. One note: if you choose whole sections of each song to splice, minor inequities in tone and level tend to be minimized since verses are supposed to sound different from choruses. In any case, spend enough time on each edit point to ensure transparency; if you can hear a splice point, work with it until you can’t hear exactly where one take blends into another.
A live stereo recording is a challenging undertaking. It’s also a wonderful collaborative craft. It’s a different way of working for most engineers — and a lot of work — but the results are worth the effort.