String Recording Session
For my Final Major Project I organised a string recording session in which I composed and arranged two pieces of music, one for a promotional video for Brit Maison, a domestic goods retailer, another for ‘Magpie’, a short film. The piano part for the Brit Maison promotional video was co-composed with pianist Sam Norman, and there were some minor variations made to the ‘Magpie’ piece based on helpful suggestions from the string players I recorded. The rest of all the composition and arrangement work was entirely my own.
I organised booking of studio time, equipment, managed project budget and all the project’s personnel.
For a more audiovisual introduction to my Final Major Project, please watch my behind the scenes video log here, using ‘rave’ as the password to view the video (this is the password for all protected videos):
The biggest challenge I faced in this project was the sourcing of string players as I had little to no budget but wanted to source the highest quality players with the money I had. I decided that sourcing players would be my first priority as it could take the longest of all the pre-production, having already composed and arranged the majority of the music.
I have some friends studying at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and had met their friends at a social event, one of whom was a violin player called Josie Calver, and she performed regularly in a string quartet. I got in contact with her and briefed her on the project and she was happy to get involved, helping me source another violinist, violist and cellist. I offered Josie and the rest of her quartet a rate of £10 per hour for both rehearsal and the recording session which I calculated was the highest I could afford to pay them all. While this practice isn’t sustainable, I think it was an ethical and acceptable offer as the music recorded is only intended for educational use. This of course is far below Musician’s Union rates for audiovisual commercial projects, with the session fee for a 2 hour session, recording a maximum of 10 minutes of music, being £90 per player. These rates are part of the British Recorded Music Industry and Musician’s Union June 2011 agreement (http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk, 2013).
Unfortunately the other violinist in Josie’s string quartet received a shoulder injury and had to pull out for the recording session so I personally sourced a replacement, Katrina Bright, a violin teacher. In the end Josie and Katrina voluntarily gave up their payment as they knew I was the only one funding the project and the violist and cellist decided they were happy to receive expenses pay of £10 each for the day.
If this was a commercial project then I would be given a proper budget for direct costs and would have adhered to Musician’s Union standards. A more cost effective option to hiring a recording studio to record players is to hire musicians to record your music remotely. Websites such as eSession offer a directory of reliable musicians who can perform and record your music remotely to send back to you for use in your project for a fee (http://www.soundonsound.com, 2013). For orchestral recordings, composers for media often use Eastern European Orchestras as they are far cheaper than English Orchestras either recording remotely or in Eastern Europe, both options being considerably cheaper (http://www.screenedmusic.co.uk, 2013).
Since I recorded a behind the scenes video log of the recording session, I had thought beforehand about permissions and made sure everyone was aware of the video recording. At the rehearsal with the string players I ensured there were happy with being filmed. In a commercial situation, I would have secured contractual agreements with all the personnel involved both for legally binding agreement on fees for services, but also to agree that they would be happy to be included in filming. In an commercial situation, without such contractual agreements in place, I would be putting myself at risk for exploitation but also the freelancers I hire would have little legal protection.
On Thursday 16th May 2013, I had a meeting with the second violinist in my string recording, Katrina Bright, to go through the string parts for the first piece, ensuring they were easily readable and comfortable to play. During my meeting with Katrina I had her play my compositional ideas for the ‘Magpie’ theme.
I had to create the theme using a string sample library to playback my composition. The sounds you can produce with sample libraries are quite limited in comparison with real strings, so hearing a real violin play my melodies before my final arrangement of the piece, was incredibly useful. I asked her to play particular melodies with different articulations, which then caused me to make significant changes to my arrangement.
When I had notated all the parts for both pieces I sent them to Katrina to check through ensuring everything was notated correctly, as this was my first time arranging for a real String Quartet to record my piece, having used only string sample libraries previously.
Once Katrina had looked over the parts, I ensured that they were formatted so they would be easy to read on an A4 piece of paper, and printed out the strings parts for the players, in preparation for the rehearsal and recording session.
I met once with my lecturer, Steve Alexander, on the 30th April 2013 and twice with my course tutor, John Brough, on the 8th and 15th of May 2013 to discuss my Final Major Project, ensuring I was on schedule and well informed about how best to record the string players.
My initial idea to record the string players was to have them recorded in an old church to capture the sound of the church’s reverberation in the recording. During my meeting on the 8th of May, John Brough suggested that because of potential logistical problems, I could make an impulse response recording of the church instead, to capture the sound of the room so that I can then emulate it within my Digital Audio Workstation, adding it artificially to the string recording. After reflection, having received several quotes for Church hire in London I decided this was a better option for the project as it would save both time and money. Considering that I would not be paying the musicians, Union rates I also wanted to ensure that we recorded as close as possible to their place of study to avoid them having to travel along way with their instruments. This decided I booked my university’s recording studio and all the equipment that I would need and contacted Tom Ottley, a friend of mine, who was able to get us a free spot after my recording session to record an impulse response in a church in Central London that he attended. Had this been a commercial project I would have used my expenses budget to hire a church, for a 30 minute impulse response recording.
At my meeting on the 15th of May, I agreed on a draft recording plan to work from with John Brough and sent these notes on to my new sound engineer for the project, Ross Powley, so he was briefed on how I wanted to record the players. Previously I had a different sound engineer confirmed but he pulled out at the last moment so John Brough recommended Ross to me, having lots of previous experience in recording projects and whom I contacted to bring on board my production team for the session.
To make best use of such a dead room for an ensemble recording I decided upon John Brough’s advice to have the players line up facing the live room window, in position as they would be if they were performing at a concert. Positioning the musicians in this way gave us good space to have microphones in the right position and had the players in positions they felt comfortable to play in.
Before the session I was in contact with the video director, Sam Louka to ensure that he understood the brief and concept behind the video recording for my video log. Sam was an excellent replacement for another production team member who had pulled out quite late in pre-production and I chose to contact him about the project as I had worked with him previously, and I knew he would be reliable, and produce some quality content.
It was also understood between myself and all the members of the production team that this was a student production and as such there would be no payment for their work on it. It could however, be used towards their own degree work submissions. In that respect I ensured that the engineer, Ross Powley had a copy of all the recorded media after the recording session, so he could use it towards his final year portfolio.
On Monday 20th May 2013, I held a rehearsal for the longer piece, the Brit Maison promotional video, at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where the majority of the string players were from, in Greenwich. It was really good to meet the players in person before the recording session, although I knew one of the violin player through a mutual friend, as I saw this as part of building a working relationship between myself the composer and the players and this would prove vital during the recording session. If there’s a good working relationship between the two, they will not only play your piece but give attention to your instructions and share your vision to achieve the sound you are looking for. Before practising the piece I also introduced the musicians to the two projects so they were aware of the concept behind each piece and so have a better understanding of what kind of sound I would be looking for.
The recording session itself was on Wednesday 22nd May 2013 at my university, Ravensbourne’s recording studio, in North Greenwich. I ensured that I arrived two hours before the players to check over equipment that was left in preparation for the recording, locked away in the studio. I used this time along with my sound engineer, Ross Powley, to set-up the recording space as I had planned, setting up music stands, chairs and microphones.
When my video team arrived I introduced them to my sound engineer and prepped them for the shoot, highlighting key things I’d like them to capture and giving them a brief time and task outline of the session.
The last member of my production team to arrive was my assistant engineer, Jahmai Jones. I introduced him to the rest of the production team, both music and video, to ensure that everyone knew each other’s names for ease of working together during the session.
At 6pm, I went to meet the string players at North Greenwich station and then brought them to my university where I signed them in at the reception desk and escorted them to the recording studio. Once the players were brought into the recording studio I helped organise where they put their bags and coats to avoid any tripping hazards, for themselves or the production team, and introduced them to my production team. I then gave them a brief outline of the session and took them to their places in the recording space.
Each of the players had a close mic, the violins and viola each had a pencil condenser mic a foot above the player pointed towards the bridge of their instrument. The cello had an SE Titan, large diaphragm condenser mic, pointing at the sound hole of the cello by the bridge about a foot away from the instrument. In addition to using the recordings from the close mics, I wanted to record an overall sonic picture of the players to include in the final mix that would add spatial detail and some of the room ambiance, although the room was mostly dead. John Brough had suggested I experiment with using a mid-side recording technique as well a coincident XY pattern, stereo recording so that I could compare the two at the post-production stage and use the one I preferred.
'Traditional XY recording mimics our own ears. Like human hearing, XY miking relies on the time delay of a sound arriving at one input milliseconds sooner than the other to localize a sound within a stereo field.’ (http://www.uaudio.com, 2013)
The benefit of having a mid-side recording at the post-production stage is that it has more flexibility in controlling the stereo spread of the recording (ibid). This was my first time implementing this technique, I learnt how to successful conduct the entire process from recording, to matrixing and decoding through reading Universal Audio’s blogpost on the subject (ibid, 2013).
At Ross Powley’s suggestion we not only have one XY pattern stereo recording but two in addition to the mid-side recording. He rigged a pair of Neumann TLM 193 microphones in an XY pattern as well as using a Rode NT4 stereo microphone. The NT4 has two capsules and so is able to output in stereo, unlike the TLM 193s which have to be panned in postproduction so that they output together as stereo. The NT4 captured a brighter sound while the TLM 193s captured a warmer, sounding recording, both had unique qualities, and I was glad that we rigged them both even though I decided not to use them at the post-production stage.
During the recording of the theme for ‘Magpie’ the musicians made some suggestions as to how they could play the music slightly differently to better suit the brief. One suggestion was to have the first violin and viola play Sul Ponticello, the Italian term for ‘at the bridge’ (http://www.music.vt.edu, 2013). The usual position with a bow is between the fingerboard and bridge of a violin or viola, playing Sul Ponticello or ‘at the bridge’ produces a screechy, scratching sound, which was perfect considering the music recorded is for ‘Magpie’ which is a strange, psychological drama.
For a visual demonstration of a violin playing Sul Ponticello, Barnes & Mullins UK, have a great video by David LePage, Professor of Violin at Birmingham Conservatoire demonstrating the technique: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDEwJXPl01w.
I was glad to try out the musician’s suggestions, having the first violinist and violist play Sul Ponticello really enhanced the piece, making it sound more creepy and disturbing.
During the performance of the theme I was also able to make my own suggestions and minor amendments to the score, introducing some small changes in dynamics and having the cello play an extra 4 bars in one section to build the piece’s tension. I was glad that we had such a good working relationship and could sense such a creative atmosphere, where we were both bouncing ideas off of each other, and I think I got a far better result because of this strong collaborative element between myself and the players.
After the recording session on Wednesday the 22nd, in the evening I met up with Tom Ottley, a sound designer and friend I have worked on several collaborative projects with, to record impulse responses from a church in central London, St Helen’s Bishopsgate.
An impulse response recording, is a recording that captures the sound of a space by recording a loud noise and the reflections of that noise in any given space. There are several ways to create a suitable noise that will then produce an accurate recording of any given space’s reverberations. Tom suggested bursting a balloon as was suggested in one of our lectures on making good impulse response recordings (Durham, 2013). I agreed this would be the best idea, as it would easiest to do from a logistical point of view, which was important as I had to come straight from the recording session to meet Tom and capture the recording.
Before the recording the balloon bursts I decided we should conduct test recordings with one person using a Zoom H4N, handheld digital recorder to record and the other clapping in the church, in a position we were thinking of having the balloon burst in. We tried different positions with myself standing at the far end of the church with the Zoom H4N recorder while Tom clapped in the middle of the church and then on the balcony. After several test recordings I was happy to go ahead and conduct the recordings. We agreed on three different positions: balloon burst in the middle of the church with the Zoom H4N recorder 3 metres away, balloon burst in the middle of the church with the Zoom H4N recorder at the far end of the church and balloon burst in the middle of the church with the Zoom H4N on the balcony.
Once I had these recordings I was then able to edit them in my Digital Audio Workstation, Logic, so that the files began with the loud ballon burst, ended with the final reverberation of the church fading away and so that no background noise was included as there were a few people using the church having a quiet conversation in the far corner. They were aware of the recording and happy for us to conduct it, but on the third take with the balloon burst in the middle of the church and the Zoom H4N recorder on the balcony, their conversation made the recording unusable, despite their quietness in the other takes. As we were being given time in the church, to capture the recordings for free, we didn’t complain, but on a commercial project I would have hired the church and ensured that the recordings would not be disturbed.
Once I had edited the two usable takes I then opened them in Logic’s Space Designer, a convolution reverb plugin. ‘Convolution reverb can…playback the sample of the given space and ‘convolve’ or ‘add’ it to an audio signal being fed into it.’ (ibid, 2013).
What this means is that my recordings of the reverberation of St Helen’s Bishopsgate can be added to my string recordings by Space Designer so that they sound as if they were recorded in the church.
The two usable takes had such different and interesting qualities to them. When the Zoom H4N recorder was positioned at the far end of the church the convolution reverb produced had a very dark reverberant sound. When the Zoom H4N recorder was positioned 3 metres away from the balloon burst, the reverb produced was a much brighter sound. I was very glad with these results as I was then able to tailor the two reverbs to my two pieces that had live strings recorded. Brit Maison’s live string recordings, and piano part, produced using a piano virtual instrument plugin, best suited the brighter reverb as a lighter, reflective piece. While I used the darker sounding reverb for ‘Magpie’, as it is a dark, unsettling piece and having a dark sounding reverb made it feel more sinister and twisted.
When I was mixing the music for the two pieces, I decided to use the mid-side recordings for an overall stereo picture of the players as it gave me more flexibility so that I was able to easily create a wider stereo image for the final mix that I liked.
Before I could use the mid-side recording, I had to decode it in my DAW. I copied the recording of the side mic and hard panned one copy, left, and the other to the right. Then on the copy panned hard right I had to reverse the phase of the signal, which I was able to do in Logic’s gain plugin (http://www.soundonsound.com, 2013, http://www.uaudio.com, 2013). As I had two identical copies of the side mic signal when played together with one panned hard left and the other hard right they partially cancel each other out so it sounds lower than if two signals were playing at the same time. This partial cancelling out of audio signal is called partial phase cancellation which occurs when the waveforms of two signals are out of alignment (http://www.soundonsound.com, 2013). Reversing the phase on one of the signals means that partial phase cancellation is avoided and i’m able to have the same side mic recording panned hard left and right which, combined with the mid mic creates a wider stereo image then an XY coincident pair, like my pair of TLM 193s that we rigged for the recording.
One my mid-side recordings were decoded I was able to control the stereo width of the music by increasing the volume of the side mic recordings panned left and right. The louder the side mic channels were, the wider the stereo image it produced.
For an audiovisual demonstration of this, please watch the following video; you will be able to see the side mic channel volume increase, a visual display of the music’s stereo image changing in reaction to this and hear how that sounds:
During the post-production stage of this project, I had to source an editor for my video log and was able to bring Timothy Last on board. I gave him the footage we had shot at the recording session and briefed him, giving him an outline of the narrative for the video and the concept behind it. While Tim produced a rough cut of the video log, I prepared and recorded a voice-over for the video which I then sent to him mixed with the Brit Maison music as a backing track, to give him a good idea of what the final soundtrack would sound like. Based on my voice-over Tim produced two more edits, the next was near to perfect but there were a few minor changes I wanted him to make. Once I had the final edit I then mixed down the final sound and music for the video log, using my string recordings for Brit Maison, from my Final Major Project recording session, as background music in the video log.
The New BPI MU Agreement 2011
http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/The-New-BPI-MUAgreement- 2011.pdf, accessed 2013.
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul09/articles/onlinesessions.htm, accessed 2013.
Orchestral Session Recording
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Mid-Side Mic Recording Basics
http://www.uaudio.com/blog/mid-side-mic-recording/, accessed 2013.
At the Bridge
http://www.music.vt.edu/musicdictionary/texta/Atthebridge.html, accessed 2013.
Reverb, Convolution Reverbs & Impulse Responses
http://learn.rave.ac.uk/moodle/mod/resource/view.php?id=46890, accessed 2013.
Stereo Microphone Techniques Explained
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/feb97/stereomiking.html, accessed 2013.
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr08/articles/phasedemystified.htm, accessed 2013.