Master Class: Classical Recording With Michael Bishop

The Grammy-winning engineer shares tips for capturing "classical" instruments and advice for overcoming the challenges of recording in confined spaces
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Grammy Award-winning engineer Michael Bishop is responsible for some of the most amazing recordings you’ll ever hear. His extensive discography includes releases from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, The Cleveland Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Zuill Bailey, Cincinnati Pops and Symphony Orchestras, as well as projects with Arturo Sandoval, Hiromi Uehara, Stanley Clarke, Wild Cherry, and the James Gang(!). This year, he was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Engineered, Classical, category for Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, performed by Martin Pearlman, Jennifer Rivera, Fernando Guimarães, and Boston Baroque. Needless to say, Bishop knows more than a thing or two about recording a wide variety of “classical” acoustic instruments. Michael was kind enough to let me pick his brain for tips on recording string instruments, and advice for what to do when you’re confined to recording in a tight space.

Bishop recently finished recording Hand Eye, the new project from eighth blackbird (released by Cedille Records), a contemporary chamber music group (eighthblackbird.org). The dynamics of the group’s performance presented challenges similar to those facing anyone recording strings (or other acoustic instruments) in a small space. Ambient noise levels can be one of those challenges.

“We recorded Hand Eye at IV Lab Studios in Chicago,” Bishop explains. “It’s a nice sounding, small-to-medium size live room with a well-equipped control room. In the hallway leading to the studio is a rack containing the power supply and computer for the SSL 4000 in the control room, and there’s a single door between that hallway and the studio. The cooling in the rack produces noise that—under normal circumstances, with electric instruments—you won’t hear, but with eighth blackbird I’m dealing with piano, percussion, violin, cello, clarinet, and flute. The dynamics of the compositions are extremely wide, ranging from pppp (super quiet) to ffff (extremely loud), and noise from that rack was a problem. The studio had some large gobos that I used to make a labyrinth at the doorway that people had to go through to get into the studio. I draped packing blankets over the gobos to help absorb sound, and the right angles helped reduce transmission of noise from the rack. We made sure that when the last person went into the studio, they locked the door behind them to create a good seal.”

Given the current state of recording equipment, a studio can be set up just about anywhere, but Bishop stresses that “sometimes noise can be a deal-breaker when choosing a recording location. Outside traffic noise is really difficult to control and would rule out the ability to work in a particular location if the dynamics of the music are too wide,” he says. “I have gone into studios that otherwise looked like really nice places to work; they have it together technically but they are sitting right next to a freeway, and you can hear the truck traffic constantly going by. If you’re recording an instrument that is all electronic or amplified, it makes no difference— but I am often dealing with acoustic instruments and wide dynamic range, ruling out such places. You really can only get a nice, full tone by putting some air between the instrument and the microphone. When you do that, you start sucking up ambience—and that includes noise.”

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Jamming a microphone right up against a violin is definitely not the way to go. When asked how far he’d prefer to place a microphone from a violin or viola, Bishop replies, “It depends upon the size of the room. Placement would be very different on a stage versus a studio. One thing that always drives me crazy when listening to an acoustic instrument is if you hear that it was recorded in a small room but someone added reverb to try and make it sound like it was recorded in a big room or on a stage. That doesn’t make sense to me. It’s contrary to what I expect to hear. The musician is jammed into this small room, the microphone is really close and it sounds like it’s really close. You hear the small room but then you get this long reverb on it. Clearly, the long reverb is completely fake. You’re not getting the tone that you would get with an acoustic instrument in a bigger space.

“The room contributes to a string player’s tone. The more wood and room sound around the musician, the better the end result. The room can do much of the work for you in getting the tone from that instrument, and it will help the musician greatly. Any violin or cello player was trained to work with the room to help create their sound, and the sound of that instrument is not what is heard up-close. It is the sum of the direct sound of the instrument plus the reflected sound from the surrounding space. That is what produces the sound of an acoustic instrument.”

eighth blackbird in the studio. Space is clearly on our side when recording classical instruments. Bishop explains that it’s ideal to have six to twelve feet between the violin and a spotlight mic. “On a stage or in a larger room you also want to have a few microphones, or a single stereo mic, for ambient pickup ten to 15 feet from the instrument; and maybe a good ten to twelve feet above the floor. In that instance, noise becomes a really big issue because now you are getting a picture of everything, including the background noise. If background noise is too high, you may have to resort to being closer to the instrument than you’d really like, and that would change your selection of microphone.”

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And what sort of microphones does Bishop prefer? “An omnidirectional or subcardioid condenser would probably be suitable for distant miking because the sound has blended in the room and you’re getting the sum total of that sound with the condenser mic,” he explains. “When I have to place the microphone closer I tend to use a ribbon microphone because working close with a ribbon mic won’t get as brutal-sounding as a condenser mic can sound. A condenser microphone close-up on a string instrument isn’t a very good combination for my taste. I’d rather take a high-quality ribbon mic such as an AEA or a Royer, go in close, and deal with the proximity effect by tailoring the bottom end just a little bit.” (Editor’s note: Proximity effect is the increase in bass response resulting when a directional microphone is moved close to a sound source.)

“Sometimes proximity effect provides a little ‘oomph’ to the body, and the musicians tend to like that, but ribbon mics are also very conducive to having the top end equalized to bring out a little more air than what might ordinarily be heard. Ribbons typically drop off pretty quickly on the top end (i.e. most ribbon transducers have an inherent high-frequency rolloff ), and a ribbon transducer just seems to be more compatible with acoustic instruments than a condenser capsule. There’s something about a ribbon that sounds more like what the instrument produces when you’re standing right next to it. You can get a perfectly good sound using a condenser mic, but it takes a lot more work.”

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For the Hand Eye sessions, Bishop used AEA R84 (passive) and AEA A840 (active) ribbon microphones through AEA RPQ mic preamp/EQs. The R84s recorded the violin and cello, while the A840s were used to capture reeds and flute. The inherent figure-eight pickup pattern of the microphones gave him a way to manage unwanted leakage from nearby instruments.” (See sidebar for a session photo and list of microphones used on the percussion instruments.)

“At IV Labs I made good use of the studio’s wood floor,” Bishop continues. “We had gobos with a wood side and an absorbing side set between the piano and the quartet. I faced the wood side toward the strings to keep their area fairly live. Working in IV Labs was a challenge due to the overall size of the room. We had way too many musicians for that size room and the setup needed to accommodate both piano and substantial percussion instruments. I had to place microphones very close to the instruments. My decision to use ribbons was both for tonal reasons and knowing that I could take advantage of the figure-eight pattern. The instruments were in really close proximity of one another and I needed control over each one. Working with the null of the figure-eight pattern was very important in being able to isolate instruments from each other in tight quarters. A ribbon mic has the null points to the sides 90 degrees off-axis, and pickup from the sides can be 90 dB down relative to on-axis pickup. I tried to orient the pattern so that the instrument I wanted from a particular mic was on-axis, but also so that the null faced the adjacent instrument that I didn’t want bleeding into the mic.

Bishop added that some reflections reach the microphone on-axis but they are fairly minimal. “At the same time I had three Sanken CO100K omnidirectional microphones on the piano, again working in pretty closely. You can do that with omnis and not get a clustered sound or proximity effect. (Most omnidirectional microphones exhibit little, if any, proximity effect –Ed.) If I jam three cardioid microphones into a piano, it gets really claustrophobic-sounding. I don’t like that sound. I like a more open sound. Omni mics— particularly the Sanken CO100K condenser mics—can be placed very close without making it sound like you have your head next to the hammers.

eighth blackbird’s Percussion Setup
Vibes:
a stereo pair of Royer R121 ribbons
Concert bass drum: Sanken CO100K, AKG D112, and Yamaha SubKick
Cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drums, mounted toms, bells, woodblocks: Shure SM57, Sennheiser MKH800 in omni, cardioid, and figure-eight patterns as needed; DPA 4011 cardioid; Royer SF12 stereo ribbon
Kick drum: AKG D112 and Yamaha SubKick “In regards to preamps, I always choose microphone preamps for their ability to transparently amplify a mic signal. That’s why I typically use Millennia Media, UpState Audio, GML, AEA, and Integer Audio preamps, among other top-quality microphone preamps, Bishop explains. “I never look to the mic preamp for ‘color.’ If I want to change color or tone, I’ll change the microphone, its relative position, or use some other electronics and/ or plug-in after the preamp. I like to make choices right then and there at the session regarding what I’ll record and how it will work in the final mix. The AEA RPQ is an excellent preamp because I have the flexibility of running inputs with phantom or not, and it has high- and low-end contour controls. If I have to work a ribbon in really closely I can use the low contour control to dial down a bit of the proximity effect, or I could add in some air using the high-end contour. In this kind of setup I’ll go straight from the preamp to the A/D and not add any compression, though in other contexts I’ll add a bit of compression during the recording process.

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“For example, when I work with (cellist) Zuill Bailey I’ll typically use an AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone paired with the Integer Audio ribbon microphone preamp, with the mic six to eight feet away from the instrument for the main pickup,” says Bishop. “Then I’ll add a couple of Sanken CO100K omni mics as outriggers to the R88 to provide the overall air and space that I need. The Sanken omni mics have a rising high-frequency response on-axis that I can use to dial in some top end because high frequencies attenuate across distance. The farther the sound travels, the more the top end attenuates. Ribbon mics droop on the top end to begin with, and I’ll want to counteract that a little bit. The Integer Audio and RPQ preamps have such low self-noise that you have the freedom to bring up the top end as needed without bringing up self-noise. There again a quality tool makes the difference, where the impedance of the preamp loads the ribbon correctly and amplifies what is essentially a very difficult signal to deal with. Try to do that with an ordinary board preamp and you’ll get an awful lot of noise.”

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According to Bishop, anticipating the mix process is a valuable skill to possess during the recording process. “I usually track to DSD for most of my recordings, but I knew that eighth blackbird would be highly manipulated at the mix stage due to the contemporary nature of the compositions and what the group was talking about regarding the end product. Some of those selections had upwards of 48 tracks in Pro Tools… a lot of percussion and miscellaneous parts called for by the composers. To maintain flexibility in the mix stage, some of those parts had to be done as overdubs so that we’d have extreme control over them and would be able to manipulate them. The composers intended that recording technology would be employed as part of the composition It may not literally be what is happening on stage, whether it’s an orchestra, a string quartet, or whatever—but I put together a picture of what the musicians wish to convey to the listener. I don’t usually make ‘documentary’ recordings.”

Bishop admits that dealing with a less-thanideal room is a balancing act of capturing the right detail, warmth, and tone. “You have to know every aspect of your tools,” he advises. “Having a very high-quality ribbon or condenser microphone can help you in what might otherwise be a crummy situation, but you can take a mediocre microphone and make it sound really good by playing up to its strengths and avoiding its weaknesses. Don’t just think, ‘well I’m going to put this mic here and deal with it in the mix,’ because by that point your hands are tied. Find the sweet spots and the tools that work best for your given situation. It makes a difference in the end.”

Space for Strings
Bishop’s tips for placing players in the room

“There’s usually a magic spot on any stage or in any room where the combination of direct and reflected sound come together. Anybody who is playing a string instrument is hearing the space around them and that affects their dynamics and performance. That’s their feedback loop. You want the musician in the spot that is most conducive to their performance, and then place your microphone(s) to capture that. I’ll sometimes try to create such a sweet spot by use of reflecting (rather than absorbing) gobos. I let the musician get comfortable and positioned for how they want to perform, and then come to them with my mic placement.

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“A highly experienced violinist, for example, knows how their instrument will sound to a listener. They know that what they hear from the violin next to their ear doesn’t resemble anything like what the rest of us hear. They know what they are putting out in that room at some distance, and that’s what they want for their recorded sound—if they are sensible(!). I have worked with less-experienced instrumentalists who think that the sound of the violin they get right next to their ear is what everyone else should hear. And that usually isn’t anyone else’s idea of a good sound. That can be a difficult situation, but the sound also needs to be music-appropriate. Celtic violin is typically closer and brighter sounding than a classical-style violin. The violin for eighth blackbird varies between a very close, aggressive sound to a beautiful sound with bloom and tone—so adjustments have to be made depending upon the intention. Having a good conversation with the instrumentalist and how their instrument is going to be used in the recording will make it easier to mix. Get it captured the way they intended in the first place, instead of trying to impose something on it later that might be difficult to impose. I’d rather make musical choices at the recording stage and trust my intuition on the spot, as opposed to making those choices later.”

Steve La Cerra is an independent audio engineer based in N.Y. In addition to being an Electronic Musician contributor, he mixes front-of-house for Blue Öyster Cult and teaches audio at Mercy College Dobbs Ferry campus.