If being able to get a wonderful recording in any space sounds like a tall order, it is. There will be some spaces that have so much echo and reverberance that they are very difficult to use to record. However, if you pay attention to how the room sounds, and are willing to work with microphone placement, you can get a good recording in almost any room. With most churches and schools there aren’t many options, so it’s worth figuring out how to make the best of the space you have available.
Rule number one, two, and three: listen. Use your ears. Record a little bit, play it back and listen, move the mics, record some more, listen. Go into the hall and listen. Pretend your ears are microphones and listen. That’s what the pros do, I’ve watched them.
Many years ago I was playing with a brass quintet and we needed to record a performance in a large cathedral. There was a lot of echo as the sound wound its way through the cathedral, and we were afraid that our actual playing would be obscured. Fortunately we had a recording engineer who knew what he was doing. He put two good directional mics (more about directional mics in the mic article) directly in front of us about 10 feet away, and the recording had just enough echo to make us sound really good- in fact, the recording sounded better than we did!
The farther the mics are from the musicians the more ambient sound you will pick up. A little ambient sound can be good, but more is almost never better. I’ve seen mics set way at the back of a church and the result is usually bad. If there is an audience the mics can pick up more of the audience than the musicians, even without an audience mics placed at the other end of the room from the musicians will pick up more of the room than the musicians. In general keep the mics as close to the musicians as you can.
Churches and gymnasiums often have strong reflected sound from the floors, wall, and even ceilings. That can be a problem. If you are doing a recording with no audience it may be worth covering the floors with rugs or cloths.
The material that the sound is echoing off makes a difference, too. The reverberation from wood is much better than concrete. Probably you don’t have the budget to tear down all the walls and replace them with wood, but sometimes people bring in sheets of wood and set them against the wall.
If you go to a good concert hall, you will probably note that although the room itself has a fairly simple shape, there are lots and lots and lots of reflective surfaces, some of them very small, that redirect the sound in different directions. If you have to record in a gymnasium or other very boxy room you will be able to hear why. You can’t completely fix a boxy room, but bringing in furniture and putting it in places where sound will get reflected in different directions may make a difference.
No room is perfect, not even great concert halls, and the sound of a recording will always be different from what you hear as an audience member. The important thing is to experiment before the day of your big recording so that you have a chance to work with setup and placement of mics. Later I’ll be telling you all about the great reverb, echo, EQ and other features of our RipEditBurn Plus software, but if what you’re feeding into the record program is garbage, it will be really hard to make your recordings sound good.
Listen and adjust is the rule of the day. It can be frustrating at first, but with some listening, thought, and effort you may very well be able to radically improve the sound before you have recorded so much as a note of the music.
by Tom Jeffries, Chief Blazing Officer at Blaze Audio
Tom is a former professional musician who has been running companies that develop audio software for 33 years.