Recording On Location: A Case Study

Intro

Recording in the studio for 12 hours a day and weeks on end? Mixing alone in your bedroom again? Generally spending too much time in windowless spaces? Sound familiar? It’s time to take a look beyond your curtains and comfort zone and step into the world of recording on location.

Written By Hamish Dickinson

Written By
Jimi Maffei

Intro

Using the example of a recent video and audio recording project I worked on with the Eroica Ensemble, I’ll illustrate the fundamentals of recording on location in the hope of inspiring some of you to hit the road with a handy 5-step guide.

The Project - ePod Nano (4,000 songs for ensemble)

The Project - ePod Nano (4,000 songs for ensemble)

The Project - ePod Nano (4,000 songs for ensemble) Picture

The Project - ePod Nano (4,000 songs for ensemble) Copy

The project I will use as a case study was an audio and visual recording session at St. Judes on the Hill, Hampstead. The piece ePod Nano was composed by Kings College Phd Student and close friend of mine Jocelyn Campbell; and the Eroica Ensemble (conducted by Toby Thatcher) would be the ensemble performing it. The ensemble consisted of 14 musicians: 2 Violins, 1 Viola, 1 Cello, 1 Double Bass, 2 French Horns, 1 Trombone, 1 Trumpet, 2 Flutes/ Piccolo’s, 1 Clarinet/ Bass Clarinet, 1 Harp and a percussionist playing Vibraphone, Glockenspiel, Snare, Suspended Cymbal and Woodblock.

 

The aim of the project was to record the audio for Joc’s final portfolio, and to film the piece as content for the Eroica Ensemble to promote their move away from traditional concerts and help construct an online media platform for contemporary classical music.

1. Pre-Production: Get to know

1. Pre-Production: Get to know

 

The first step when approaching a location recording is meticulous planning in the pre-production stage. Firstly, an understanding of the project itself is key, and getting to know your client and the rest of the team before you start is a great way to figure out personalities and plan a work schedule before the session begins.

 

If, as in the case with the ePod project, there are multiple production teams working on the session, I would advise you make the effort to introduce yourself and exactly what you’re aiming to do on the day.

 

 

 

 

It can be easy to forget that film crews often have no idea about the processes of recording audio professionally and it can lead to nasty surprises on the day if you’re not clear with your intentions early on.

 

It’s also a good idea to make the time for a recon mission to scope out the acoustic character of the room you’ll be working in, and to solve any noise issues you might have with traffic, loud heating/ plumbing, buzzing lights etc.

 

This is also an opportunity to take note of the facilities available to you such as the available parking, number of power supplies (check the fuse box for how many circuits there are and how much load they can take), access to bathroom and kitchen facilities (tea and coffee can fix a lot of issues on set!) and whether there is storage to safely lock up your equipment overnight if necessary.

2. System Design: Choose Your Weapons Wisely

2. System Design: Choose Your Weapons Wisely

 

Once you’re familiar with your team and the space you’ll be working in, you can start to design the system needed for the job. Working in an unfamiliar space means that you are responsible for checking every aspect of your rig is sturdy, and that you have backups and spares for all conceivable hiccups along the way (... there are always, always hiccups along the way).

 

Plan for the worst-case scenario, try to preempt potential difficulties and be confident that you can still deliver good results should everything go against you on the day. In the case of ePod, my initial concern was the vast dynamic range of the piece, and potential issues with noise building up over a large channel count.

 

Notated in the score are “breath notes only” for the brass parts and “scratch tone” or “half scratch tone” in the string parts... at triple pianissimo! Because these textures make up a huge part of the composer’s compositional style, it was critical to be able to capture these clearly, as well as the more bombastic fortissimo parts.

 

To resolve this issue, we (my trusty co-engineer, Max Anstruther and myself) decided on a 3-step miking approach:

 

  • Room Mics - A pair of Advanced Audio M49’s as the main stereo pair (roughly 10 metres high, and 10 metres from the centre of the ensemble, spaced pair). These would capture the acoustics of the church, create a natural stereo image of the ensemble, and constitute a large proportion of the mix.
  • Section Mics - condenser microphones placed in various stereo formations at roughly 1 metre from the individual sections of the ensemble. These included XY Neumann KM184’s on the percussion section, ORTF Schoeps CMC 6’s (cardioid) on the woodwinds, XY AKG 414 ULS’s on the strings, and STC 4038’s on the brass (1 behind the Horns at the back, 1 in front of the Trumpet and Trombone). These gave us more control over the balance of the various sections in the mixing stage.
  • Close Mics - DPA 4099’s on all the strings and brass, and on the clarinet/ bass clarinet, in order to ensure we would capture every detail, even at the quietest points of the piece. The intention was to use these to pick out details subtly should we need to, and ideally the bulk of the material would be captured with the 2 previous techniques.

 

 

 

Note that if you plan to use a similar multi-mic approach you will need to be careful of phase issues that can arise. We made sure we respected the 3:1 rule at all times, and it’s always good practice to check the phase relationships as you go.

 

Now that your input count is calculated (allowing for a few extra channels if possible) and your mics have been selected, you will want to think about preamps and the I/O you will be using.

 

We used 24 Audient pre’s (2x ASP800, 1x ASP880) due to their exceptionally clear character and unhyped quality, and their small and simple design. They were perfect for this project and really did capture the performances amazingly well.

 

They also have exceptionally low noise and my anxieties about building up noise over many channels were quickly put to bed.

 

The HMX and IRON functions on the ASP880’s also proved useful in giving a couple of sources a little extra texture when needed. Everything ran into an Antelope Orion 32 interface connected to a newly custom-built hackintosh computer running Logic Pro X.

3. Logistics and Rentals

3. Logistics and Rentals

 

Although this still counts as part of the Pre-Production phase, it’s worth highlighting the importance of the logistics of organising your team and your equipment.

 

The most common cause of wasted time is simple, avoidable disorganisation; and when you’re working in and around other people’s schedules these delays can cause a chain reaction leading to serious issues later on.

 

When the budget doesn’t allow for a designated production manager, it will be your responsibility to arrange the transport and logistics for your team and equipment. Even if you are working alone, it is worth writing up a production schedule so you can keep track of how efficiently you’re working on the day, and so everyone can clearly see the plan before you even begin.

 

 

 

 

Time really does go unbelievably quickly when setting up a full system from scratch so always try to schedule a couple of hours more than you think you’ll need to set up. As a reference, It took us 5 hours from the get-in to being completely set up and ready to record... with no breaks!

3. Picture

3. Logistics and Rentals

In the case of ePod Nano, it was clear early on that we were going to have to rent a lot of the equipment we needed. The earlier you can source your equipment, whether borrowing or renting, the less stressed you’re going to get, and the less time you will have to spend thinking about it.

 

It’s always a good idea to run your system design by a trusted friend just to get a second opinion, and more often than not they will have a useful suggestion or highlight a potential problem that you would not have considered.

 

A good tip to be aware of is that many rental companies do not operate over the weekend, and so if you are renting over this period you will only be charged for the working days, which can be a game-changer in terms of your budget allocation... Thank me later!

4. Monitoring

4. Monitoring

 

It might seem obvious that monitoring is important, but let’s take a second to appreciate exactly why it is important. As an engineer we need reliable monitoring to; listen out for unwanted noise; keep an eye on the phase correlation between sources; compare mic positions to find the ‘sweet spots’; identify faulty/ noisy signals; and sometimes even just to hear the performers so we can communicate with them comfortably.

 

For the performers it’s so important to have a clear monitor mix that they can play along to. if they are uncomfortable or fighting against a mix, it’s almost certainly going to have a negative effect on their performance.

 

We were fortunate at St. Jude’s in that it had a small isolated room at the back of the building which allowed us to keep our rig out of the way and monitor with a pair of Focal Twin 6 BE’s (we would never have known about this had we not gone to visit the location beforehand... just sayin’).

 

We also didn’t have to worry about monitoring systems for the players as, being the excellent orchestral musicians that they were, they intuitively balanced their performance between themselves and the given space.

 

This, unfortunately, will not always be the case. If for example you are recording overdubs, you will need a headphone amp of some description for the performer/s to hear what they are playing along to. You will also need to consider if you require separate mixes for different performers playing simultaneously (drummers won’t need much drum level in their mix but everyone else will, for example).

 

If you know you will need several mixes, find the time to set up a rough mix prior to the session so you only have to adjust levels rather than having to fiddle with the routing on the day. It really is worth the effort, I have always performed at my best when my monitor mix is clear and I feel like I’m playing ‘into’ a track.

 

Try to think of it from the performer’s perspective: If you’re having to concentrate on listening because the mix is bad, then you’re concentrating less on your playing. It’s counter productive to rush the monitor mix.

 

If you don’t have the luxury of an isolated room with a decent enough acoustic and a pair of good monitors, you will need headphones and a mix for yourself to monitor whilst tracking.

 

Be careful not to use open-backed headphones when recording quiet sources, closed-back headphones are going to be more appropriate most of the time so invest in a decent pair if you don’t already have some.

 

These are all considerations that will be dependent on your project but it can be easy to underestimate just how important monitoring systems are for helping you and the performers feel comfortable, and to deliver the best results possible.

5. On Location Etiquette: Keep Your Cool

5. On Location Etiquette: Keep Your Cool

 

When working as part of a larger crew there is a level of understanding and respect needed between production members, and an awareness that there will be compromises that will have to be made along the way.

 

This can sometimes be challenging, particularly under strict time constraints, but remember that the relationships formed on this job can always lead to opportunities in the future. It’s in your interest to keep things light-hearted and amicable no matter the conflicts of interest you may encounter.

 

Saying this, it’s equally as important to stand your ground when you need to and not get pushed to the sidelines, film crews can sometimes think they are the most important thing on set. Not having the confidence to assert yourself might impact your ability to get good results so be prepared to fight your corner.

 

 

 

 

During our shoot there were constant changes made to the layout of the ensemble for the film crew, which meant having to rearrange mic placements on the fly. When the camera operator needed to be told to NEVER touch the ribbon mics EVER again, I took 30 seconds to calmly explain why, and made sure they understood instead of getting angry.

 

As in the studio or in a live setting, our role is to engineer the atmosphere on the job, as well as the equipment we use. Recording on location is no exception to this.

5. On Location Etiquette: Keep Your Cool Picture

 

If you are working with a film crew, it is critical to approach how you’re going to transfer and label files for syncing purposes. I find that a simple printout which both audio and film crews can take detailed notes on a take-by-take basis, is the best way to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

5. On Location Etiquette: Keep Your Cool

We were confronted very early on in the session by a musician who claimed fixing a DPA mount to their instrument would damage it, and although we knew this wasn’t the case, locking horns with a difficult character early on in the session risks damaging the vibe and can effect everyone’s overall performance. We chose to comply and use the left over mic and input on another source, which actually worked better anyway!

5. On Location Etiquette: Keep Your Cool

6. Re: Location

 

Adding a portfolio of location recordings to your website could open up possibilities for new work and an alternate revenue stream without necessarily having to invest in any new equipment, and using the skills that you already posses as a studio or live engineer.

 

Suddenly you’re recording live concerts for local bands, high-quality demos at rehearsal studios, local choirs, classical concerts, student projects... The list goes on. Working with film crews in particular also opens up a wealth of opportunities such as live sessions, dialogue recording for interviews and short films, and corporate promotional videos.

 

These projects usually have far larger budgets than similar sized music projects, which means you can put a few pennies into the Fairchild jar when you get back to your beloved studio!

To hear the final piece in full, click here.

Matt Kilford

About the author:

Jimi Maffei is a sound engineer and recordist from London. He first began recording his own musical projects in the south of England and abroad, and is no stranger to working outside of the studio on DIY projects. Now based in Glasgow, Jimi engineers at Anchor Lane studios, and continues to record on location as well as live sound engineering for music and theatre.

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