3 days, 11 microphones 1,800 miles, 3 cameras, 3 lights, 8 hours of tomfoolery.....
Since its beginning, we have been the primary recording engineers of the Connecticut Summerfest Music Festival, but this last year was different than all the others. The festival is planned a year before the first day, which means that for this year it was planned in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic. So instead of have an in person festival, we had an entirely virtual one.
So what does that mean for us? For one, we would have to offer our services in a remote manner. And that meant, when it came to recording the Front Porch Ensemble we would have to go to Michigan. That means we are packing a car with 11 microphones (I actually brought closer to 15), 3 cameras, 3 lights, a Pro Tools system, microphone preamps, all the mic stands and cables and drove 900 miles to the University of Michigan to record for one day and then drive the 900 miles back the next day (3 days in total). My little car was definitely a little sad till I got it tuned up again.
The room we ended up using to record was Hankinson Rehearsal Hall which was for better or for worse, a big, semi-treated box. Once we started setting up I started to hear some hard reflections from the other side of the room. To combat this, we closed all the curtains in the space. This ended up making the room relatively dry with all of the mid frequencies to high frequencies. The ensemble wanted to set up in a small arc, piano, bassoon, violin, and then percussion which visually was a nice balance. As far as percussion goes, there was a range of instruments (glockenspiel, vibraphone, high-hat, toms, kick-drum and more) and I knew from the offset that the percussion wasn't probably going to need much help with close-miking, particularly compared to the bassoon and violin.
Now a quick run-down of the equipment and recording process.
- Main pair: MKH 8020s (spaced) into the DAV Broadhurst Gardens
- Piano: Stereo pair of KM 184s (ortf) into the other two channels of the DAV
- Bassoon: Cascade Fathead II (with lundhal) into a Jensen twin servo mic pre
- Violin: KMR 81 into a ina217 based mic pre (similar design to the DAV) which was attached close to the main pair
- Percussion: pair of KSM 141s (in spaced omni) catching mallets and hand percussion into the ina217 pre
- Kick: Fet47 on the outside of the kick into a JLM dual99v.
- Toms: two c414s close miked into another two channels fo the ina217 preamps.
- Main shot: Sony A7III with 24-105mm lens from the center front
- Closer shots: 2 Sony A7IIIs with 24-70mm lens from 10ft to the left and right pointed at 2 and 2 of the performers.
- B-Roll: Either hand held or on stand, Sony A7III with 24-105mm lens.
Since we recorded at 4K, the video editor was able to zoom in and do close-up shots. The lights were set up with two in front doing a wash, and then one light hidden behind the lid of the keyboard adding that little bit of hair glow of the tops of their heads.
We recorded each piece in around 20 Takes and then afterwards recording close up B-roll shots of the instruments. Before each take we had a verbal take number with quick info of the section, and then a visible clap to help align the audio and video. All in all, the entire session lasted around 8 hours including setup, lunch and take-down.
Thoughts, problems, malfunctions, concerns.... So here is the part of the post where I tell you everything I wish we had done better. For one every time I see the bassoon spot mic I cringe, as it is off target by about 3 inches... And then using the KMR 81 as a violin spot was good, but it picked up a lot of high-hat in particular so I had to mix that in sparingly. The center camera was slightly tilted which meant in order to correct the tilt we chopped off a touch of the sides of the shot. I wish we had a brighter wash light for the front of the ensemble. And then biggest issue of all was the room and the Kick and Toms. Man they just sounded massive in the room. It's a large room so the lower frequencies have the space to just live and then all the treatment didn't control them at all. This meant that every time that Kick went off, it was like a cannonball had been fired. Luckily the worst offenses could be fixed with the mix.
The edit and mix. So, editing 20 and some odd takes into a single piece all while making sure the video edits work is a bit of a back and forth process. Audio was first which since we took good notes of each piece during the recording session we had a good idea of which takes went where. there are always a few times that you would need to go with a different take (missing parts, tempo inconsistencies, ugly note, to name a couple) but this was relatively straight forward. Once edited and passed by the ensemble the piece is sent to video editor along with precise time-codes of where each edit happens. And then it's just working on the mix and getting the final product done.
Most of the mix was just keeping a nice intimate sound, with a good amount of energy and then fitting those percussion hits into the mix. I ended up using a lot of the spot mics to bring the sound of the ensemble a little more energy. The mains still had that glue that a spaced pair really brings to small ensembles. In most cases I ended up not using the kick-drum and tom mics, which got picked up well in the other mics. There was some Verbsuite Classics (Bricasti impulses Vienna) reverb on the microphones, when the piece was a bit more soft I added more, and when the piece was driving I pulled some back.
In the last piece there were super loud toms and kicks for long sections which really drowned out some of the other instruments. So how do you make it so that the ensemble is more balanced? Well I mixed it more like I mix modern rock/pop music. I used a buss compressor to gently push the transients back a touch and bring the rest of the ensemble up to their level. For this I ran the piece through the 5057 orbit summing mixer, into a pair of 250EQs (sonteq EQ clones) and to a CP4500 stereo compressor (SSL glue compressor). And since this piece was so driving and the toms pushed the hard sections I was able to get away with a little bit more "character" from the equipment I used.
This was definitely one of the highlights of the year. The ensemble is full of awesome people to be around and it was a great session, even though we ended up getting sidetracked a few times with Ghostbuster theme songs and random tangents. Please check out the final pieces on the Connecticut Summerfest youtube page and reach out to ask any questions you have! I glossed over a bunch of the nitty gritty details in this.
Shot of b-roll being captured.