Recording The Classical Orchestra
A Conversation with KUSC-FM audio producer Joseph Magee
Written in 1988 for MIX magazine by Mel Lambert
In this day and age of consumable everything, it’s refreshing to come across a radio station that’s dedicated to providing quality music for its listeners. One such outlet is KUSC-FM, an affiliate of American Public Radio located near the campus of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. KUSC produces a wide variety of classical concert recordings, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Broadcast Series, which comprises 26, two-hour programs heard once a week throughout the U.S. on the American Public Radio Network and commercial stations. Now in its 10th Anniversary Season, the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra Broadcast Series, hosted and produced by Gail Eichenthal, is reportedly the most listened to symphony orchestra program in the U.S.
The engineer-producer responsible for recording the entire concert series is audiophile Joseph Magee, a jovial native of Seattle, Washington. Magee also handles remote and studio recording duties for a wide variety of KUSC and APRN concerts, including the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Series, Los Angeles Music Center Opera Company, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group and various visiting symphony orchestras. He is assisted on most sessions by recording engineer Fred Vogler.
Magee also serves as a lecturer at the USC School of Music, where he teaches classes in studio techniques and remote/location recording. An accomplished musician with a BA in Music Education from Central Washington University, and an MLA from USC, he also serves as an independent consultant to a number of orchestras, record companies and equipment manufacturers.
Original Microphone Array: Blumlein Crossed Figure-Eights
For the 1987/88 season of L.A. Philharmonic recorded broadcasts from the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, downtown Los Angeles, Magee had developed a new microphone rig based on spaced omnis, in place of his usual Blumlein pairs of crossed figure-of-eights.
“When I first joined KUSC in 1983,” Magee recalls, “we were using a Neumann SM69 [stereo microphone]. I would have preferred an AKG C-24, which has a slightly ‘bigger’ sound, and a flatter frequency response, because the SM69’s frequency response only goes up to around 15 kHz and the bottom-end down to 60-70 Hz.
“The very first thing I did was to acquire a vintage C-24 - which, as far as I could determine, once belonged to Frank Sinatra - on consignment at Coast Recording, Hollywood. I had to reject a lot of second-hand mics, however, because I don’t like the sound of later C-24s. But this one from Coast sounded very good, and I used it for about a year as the primary pickup in a traditional Blumlein array.
“But the Blumlein pair wasn’t without its own problems. Apart from having to use a couple of touch-up mics on stage, the figure-eights’ back lobes pick up a great deal of audience noise. And, given the brightness of the hall here at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, placing a pair of condenser figure-eights, with their extended HF response posed problems, particularly for strings - a movement up or down of two inches could radically alter the ensemble sound. Also, covering a piano concerto with crossed figure-of-eights wasn’t really an ideal situation!”
Magee says that he experimented with an additional MS array to cover piano, while using the Blumlein pair to capture the ensemble. “It became difficult, however, to set up other touch-up mics because they never matched up perfectly with the Blumlein pair’s precise imaging perspectives.”
About that time, Magee noticed that engineer/producer Doug Sax and musician/producer James Boyk were both using Coles Model 4038 ribbons in crossed figure-eight configuration with great success on classical recordings, and decided to give them a try. “Once I’d successfully developed a way of rigging the pair of large ribbon mikes - using a custom-designed, lightweight aluminum mounting bracket designed by Ted Ancona - I discovered that the reduced top-end performance of the ribbon element, compared to a condenser figure-eight, had taken care of the brittle, high-end problem.”
The downside, he recalls, was that orientation of the stereo pair became far more critical. Blumlein pairs of Coles 4038 mics prefer to be aimed flat and low, and fairly tightly into the ensemble. “I had problems with being too low over the first two rows of audience seats, but the array sounded wonderful on strings and brass! The main drawback, however, was that the Coles ribbon wasn’t really ‘fast’ enough for percussion.
“I used the Coles rig for about one and a half to two years, but during that time had been experimenting with spaced-omni techniques - I wanted to reduce the amount of audience noise that the Blumlein Coles were picking up.”
Current Mic Layout: Spaced Omnis in Modified “Decca Tree” Array
It was while planning a series of recordings for the Royal Opera during the 1984 Olympics that a donation of $10,000 from The Times-Mirror Group, who also sponsored the event, enabled KUSC to purchase a collection of Schoeps Colette cardioid and omnidirectional microphones, finished in non-reflective grey.
“We listened to a lot of Schoeps mics,” Magee offers, “and were able to select matched pairs. Because we were supplied with a large number of units for the opera recordings, I could match mic bodies to pre-amps and retain the best combinations. The Schoeps were later used with the L.A. Philharmonic, and our experience led to the evolution into our current series of Sennheiser MKH Series mics. The Sennheiser MKH-20 omnis that we subsequently purchased for use here also have sequential serial numbers, and are reasonably matched.”
As can be seen from the accompanying diagrams, to mic the sound of the LAPO within The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Magee uses a primary array of four Sennheiser MKH-20 omnis laid out in a modified five-microphone Decca Tree array. (This configuration was named after the pioneering work done by Decca recording engineers in the mid- to late-Fifties, using a central array of three omnis mounted on high stands around the conductor’s podium, with an additional pair of spaced omni microphones located in front of the orchestra. The three, centrally positioned omnis are designated as the left, center and right pickups. The majority of the label’s current classical recordings are still made using variants of the Decca Tree array.)
At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Magee has rigged Sennheiser MKH-20 omnis as the inner left and right pair of a modified Decca Tree layout. The MKH-20s are located approximately 8.5 feet above the stage floor, and between 18 inches to two feet in front of the conductor’s podium. The mics are spaced about 3.5 feet apart, angled down by about 17 degrees from the horizontal plane and pointed into the string sections. (The center omni used in a “traditional” Decca Tree is omitted in Magee’s modified version.)
To provide a more focused central image, Magee has added an ORTF pair of Sennheiser MKH-40 cardioids, whose subtended angle has been widened out to 100 degree. The ORTF pair is mounted about 1.5 feet above the center line between the second pair of MKH-20 outer spaced omnis, and around 12.5 feet from the orchestra. An additional, distant pair of outer Schoeps MK3 omnidirectional mics are mounted in line with the inner MKH-20s, and separated by about 40 feet.
“The center ORTF pair is now perfectly mono/stereo compatible,” the audio producer comments. “I balance the spaced omnis - which give you a wonderful frequency response - against the ORTF central pair, that gives you directionality and a sense of ‘centralization.’ My next stage is to convert the inner pair [of spaced omnis] to a second ORTF pair, which should give me some wonderful imaging and depth.
“With this current setup, if I rely on the rear or outer MKH-20 omnis as my main pickup, the inner omnis are very compatible. But, if I favor the ORTF pickup, then the inner spaced pair can cause problems.” Magee notes that he uses approximately 3 dB less level from the ORTF pair than the main, outer spaced-omnis. He then adds in the inner omnis at between -6 dB and -10 dB relative to the main spaced-omnis, followed by the distant outer pair of Schoeps omnis at an equivalent or slightly lower relative level to the inner pair. “But all of these level ratios,” he stresses, “and very dependent on the performance I am recording, and the orchestra involved. The values just put me in the ballpark.”
“A good friend of mine, [independent scoring mixer] Shawn Murphy,” he continues, “is experimenting with an ORTF in the center and anther ORTF as the forward pair. Shawn quite often uses Neumann M-50 omnis in a Decca Tree-type setup for film scoring dates, mainly because it gives him a great left-center-right image, plus good HF response on the strings. An ORTF setup will also give him a good mono-sum for the center.”
For reinforcing or touching up the sound of certain instruments, Magee uses additional spot microphones on stage. “The selection of spot mics will vary from concert to concert, of course, but for a recent orchestral recording I was using a Schoeps MK47 hypercardioid on the bass, to give me that extra ‘definition’ of the bow on the strings; an AKG C4141EB set to cardioid on the harp (I sometimes use a Schoeps MK5); and a pair of spaced Schoeps MK5 cardioids for vocal solos.
“With this system I can determine the width of the main [outer] pair by the placement of the inner [orchestra] pair and where it sits in the mix. If the main pair is a little bit wider, I can bring up the inner pair to get a little more definition and it will fit in with the overall balance and image from the outer pair. If the outside pair is too tight, however, you have nowhere to fit the inner pair. So there is a very careful balance there. Sometimes on specific works I will go for an incredibly spacious, ‘bigger-than-life’ sound, and I’ll stretch out the main pair a bit, and rely more on the inner - but I can only bring up the inner pair if the outer pair is wide!”
When Magee records at an outside venue, either as part of his duties for KUSC or as an independent engineer, he has a set routine for finding the best location for his modified Decca Tree microphone array. “To determine where I would mount the central pickups - which gives me a focal point - I listen primarily on the outer pair to detect direct from ambient sound, which tells me how far from the players they should be. Then I determine the height, which is a function of overall timbre - i.e. how the strings sound, particularly the high strings.
“For hanging mic systems, I work with two assistant engineers: one up on the mic cable lines, and another down on the guy lines. From my rough rigging plots, I might be as much as a foot off which, given all the other constraints, can radically alter the sound. From experience, I know that if I’m working with the Schoeps MK2 I need to be a little further back from the ensemble, and a little lower and a little bit flatter with the angle of inclination. Whereas with an MHK-20, I need to be a little tighter to the ensemble, a little higher and a little steeper.
“That’s because the MHK-20 picks up more ambient information - so you can afford to go a little bit tighter. And, because the MKH-20 isn’t so ‘steely’ as the Schoeps, you can afford to get high and work at a steeper angle. The latter orientation gives you better definition, and you can choose which instrument or groups of instruments in the ensemble you want to favor.
“Being first and foremost a musician - my first degree was in music - I visualize the array in musical terms. I then consider it from a photographic viewpoint: How are the microphones ‘seeing’ the instruments in the ensemble; the acoustical perspective, if you will, of what those mikes are detecting in the far field, and what kind of snapshot the polar pattern is taking. The differences can be incredibly subtle; a matter of inches of movement can throw off the entire perspective.”
Mixing, Processing and Monitoring Equipment
Monster Cable M1000 is used between the mics and the Jensen pre-amps, and also for the line-level send to the control room located in back of the auditorium at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Benchmark pre-amplifiers are used for the MKH-40 ORTF cardioids, while Boulder Twin-Servo pre-amps handle all other microphones. (At the time of writing, Magee was planning to replace the Benchmarks with Twin-Servo pre-amps.)
For the majority of the 1987/88 season, Magee was using a 20-input/8-bus Panasonic WR-T820B console. “The 820B has faster chips everywhere compared with the original version,” Magee explains. “Considering how little this console costs, it’s amazing how good it sounds!
“I particularly like the 820B’s grounding scheme; I can hook up lots of gear to this board without any problem, and the headroom is excellent. When the orchestra opens up out there, I need to be able to handle a lot of dynamic range. Sometimes I can never be sure that what happens in a dress rehearsal is going to be the same level on the night of a performance. The LA Philharmonic does a pretty decent job of matching levels from dress to night time, but other ensembles can literally jump in level - specifically the percussion section - by up to 10-15 dB. On other consoles I’ve used for orchestral recordings, the headroom disappears quickly.
“The 820B’s EQ section is also very effective, and very ‘quick.’ Not that I use a great deal of EQ on the mic array. The main pickups are run flat, and I just roll off the low-end for the close orchestra mics in front of the conductor, because of the air conditioning we have up on the stage. I also EQ the spot mics and the returns from the Lexicon Model 200 digital reverb. Because the hall here [at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion] is rather short, I use extra reverb to lengthen the hall’s RT60. I send a selective mix to the 200 - I wouldn’t buss the mikes from a chorus section, for example - and EQ the return to make the processed sound fit in with the particular piece.
“Earlier in the year I was using a Lexicon 480 in here, which outperformed the 200. The first thing you run into whenever you try and liven up a dry-sounding hall using artificial reverb is ‘muddiness.’ How am I going to gently add in the sound of a larger hall when I’ve already achieved a sense of definition and detail with my main mic arrays? But the algorithms in the 480 sound so good that the device suddenly became a musical ‘enhancer.’ I can take a string section, for example, and make it sound as if it had expanded a little bit, and overlapped into the section next to it; the sections sound full, not muddy.
“By being able to control all of the early-reflection parameters with the 480, I can also correct the anomalies in this hall: too low of a proscenium, and a non-cohesive, reflective shell. Also, the 480’s two separate stereo channels allow me to set up independent processing for the voices and the orchestra, for example.”
For the latter part of the 1987/88 L.A. Philharmonic season, Magee replaced the Panasonic WR-T820B with a new WR-S840 Series console.
The stereo mix is recorded in the control room on a pair of overlapped Studer B67s running at 15 ips with Dolby A-type noise reduction. Tape is Agfa PEM469, selected for its low print through performance, operating at a reference of +3 dB over a 250 nWb/m flux level. Magee also records the mix to a dbx Model 700 CPDM digital processor and a companion half-inch VHS videodeck. “The dbx serves primarily as a backup for potential record release,” he confides. “We’ve had records released from some of our earlier 15 ips masters, which bothers me. Major labels are now pursuing the LA Philharmonic to release some of its concert tapes, as well as some British labels. For me the dbx Model 700 is the best sounding of the various digital processors.”
For monitoring, Magee uses ADS 980 loudspeakers modified internally with Monster Cable PowerLine 2, and using M1 as interconnect. The 980s are powered by a RAMSA Model 9220 amplifier.
“Through years of experience, and having an understanding of the technical aspects, I determine how each of these parameters will affect the sound. The bottom line, however, is how the classical orchestra sounds over the air during the recorded broadcast, or on record or Compact Disc. All my skill goes into selecting the tools and recording techniques that will achieve the greatest sense of reality for the listener.”
Joseph Magee on a new sound system from The Hollywood Bowl.
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