Think about how worked up we get as engineers and musicians over which mic to use, placement, the acoustics, etc. Think about how much time and energy is exerted in these endeavors. Now, imagine multiplying that by a factor of 60 to record an orchestra. That’s where I was about 15 years ago when I was asked to record an orchestra for the first time. I had recorded several ensembles up to that point but nothing at all on the scale of 60 or so musicians. Like any good engineer would do, when asked if I could handle such a project, I naturally said, “Of course, no problem, piece of cake.” Man, was I ever flying by the seat of my pants.To be completely honest here, as is often the case, I was referred to the executive producer by a mutual friend and the only reason I got the gig was because the orchestra we were going to record was located in Kiev, Ukraine and, since I’m fairly fluent in Ukrainian, I got the gig.
Late last year, I got another one of those phone calls informing me that another orchestral project was coming up. I can’t tell you how excited I get whenever these projects come up. First of all, they really take good care of me, make all the arrangements, book the flights and hotels, provide meals, transportation—I essentially have nothing to worry about except capturing the performance of the orchestra. Further, it is an enormous challenge but I love that challenge and I have a team of people to rely upon to get the job done. It’s really a completely different sensation to be involved on a project with a hundred people than one with a few people in a room.
In the past, we used to record these orchestras at the Dovzhenko Film Studio, the largest film lot in Europe. It’s a very old and sort of run-down place that served the purpose, I suppose but, this time around, we were going to be using a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of Kiev known as DZZ, short for “Deem Zvukozapis” which means house of sound recording.
Allow me to give you a brief explanation about the purpose of these recordings. You see, there’s a dance ensemble in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada named “Shumka,” (http://www.shumka.com) which means whirlwind. This year is their 50th anniversary. This ensemble used to tour with a live 30-piece orchestra. In the late eighties and early nineties, it became prohibitively expensive to tour with a live orchestra. So they decided to use recordings of orchestras for playback in the venues where they were performing. Thing is, these recordings didn’t seem to sound all that great in the large venues where they danced.
In my discussions with Michael Sulyma, the producer of the Shumka tours, I explained to him that the main problem was that the recordings they were using probably had natural or synthesized reverberation in the mix and, when being played back in a large venue, the auditorium itself was imparting reverberation, resulting in a wash of unfocused, muddy sound. I explained that the recordings needed to be as dry as possible and, in addition, the individual tracks for spot mics needed to be delayed to compensate for microphone distances according to the speed of sound. All of this, of course, made sense to Michael and I’m sure I impressed him with my knowledge and confidence. what he didn’t know was that I was essentially talking out of my ass. Well, not exactly, but most of what I was saying was theory and I had no actual proof or experience. Oh well, I guess I was taking a huge risk and could’ve failed miserably but, honestly, based on my experience thus far and my research (and imagine: I didn’t have Internet access back then!), I was confident that I could pull it off.
Anyway, in the end, as you might have gathered, I did, in fact, pull it off quite successfully, such that I’ve been invited back to do it several more times. This time around, it was to record several pieces for their 50th anniversary show to be held in Edmonton.
As I mentioned before, I’m always very well taken care of on these gigs. While I’m usually put on a direct flight from New York to Kiev, this time around, I was flown to London to meet up with Michael Sulyma, Shumka’s producer, Dave Ganert, Shumka’s Co-Artistic Director and choreographer and Andrew Scholotiuk, my assistant and Pro Tools operator for the sessions. We would have one day and one night in London where we could finalize our plans, set up some gear to make sure everything was working alright and have an opportunity to perhaps rent equipment in London in case it was necessary. You see, going to Kiev is kind of like going to a desert island of sorts. Actually, it’s really different these days and much better than it used to be. You can pretty much buy or procure anything you’d like in Kiev. that is, if you’re looking for an Armani suit or a Bentley. I was even surprised to see an unofficial Apple store in one of the underground malls. But, if you need a Digidesign 192 I/O or a Millennia mic preamp, uh, you’re pretty much out of luck.
So, we had a nice day and fun evening in London before heading off together on a flight to Kiev where we were met at the airport by Yury Shevchenko, the composer of Shumka’s music, Victor Litvinov, one of Ukraine’s finest choreographers and Oksana Solovyova, an interpreter and Michael’s right hand man, err, woman in Kiev. They drove us to a corporate apartment where we would stay just down the street from the studio.
Once we settled in, we had a chance to sit down and catch up with Yury, the composer, and talk about our game plan for the next few days. If I recall correctly, there might’ve been some vodka involved but I’m not sure…
After our brief meeting, Michael, Dave, Andrew and I went out for a walk on the town and a bite to eat. Of course, a beer run was in order and we were successful in our quest. We sat around, watching the Simpsons dubbed into Ukrainian and had a good night’s rest before our big first day at the studio.
Deem Zvukozapis is a purpose-built recording facility with four studios, one of which is specifically designed for orchestral recording. It’s an impressive building with grand steps leading up to its main entrance. It’s pretty much the Ukrainian equivalent of walking into Abbey Road Studios. Its echoey hallways added to that impression. We arrived a couple of hours before the session to set up our equipment in the control room. Andriy Mokrytski, the house engineer for Studio A had not yet arrived so we went in to check out the live room.
The live room was really quite impressive and wonderful sounding. Of course, as I mentioned, the main consideration was that we have a dry sounding recording, without too much ambience and, frankly, this hall was purposely designed to give a bunch of ambience, as much as 2.5 seconds worth. There was one other live room that could accommodate an orchestra but they weren’t equipped to handle the amount of inputs we would need for the number of microphones we’d be using for the recording. As usual, one simply improvises and makes decisions based on circumstances, weighs the pros and cons, takes a deep breath and proceeds.
Andriy Mokrytski finally arrived to let us into the control room. He was a tall, bald man with a somewhat serious expression. I was hoping he’d be cool and easy-going. After all, here I am, an outside engineer, coming into his house and, you know, some guys can get kind of territorial about things. That was the kind of thing I had to deal with at Dovzhenko Studios with the previous engineer the first time I worked with him. Well, this time around, it was apparent that things would be different. first of all, the facility was on a completely different level. It was actually staffed with a bunch of assistants and the rooms themselves were a lot more comfortable. After he directed a few assistants, Andriy asked me if I needed anything, to simply ask. It looked like things would work out well.
We had a bunch of auxiliary equipment to set up, both in the control room and live room. You see, these guys are normally outfitted to do 8-track recordings of orchestras—maybe a stereo pair or two on the orchestra with some ambient mics or perhaps a Decca tree array—not 32 tracks like we were planning on.
OK, so since we’re talking about gear, let me tell you what we brought with us and what we used for the recording. I’ll get to the mics later.
So, since we were shooting for around 32 tracks of input, I decided to use a portable Pro Tools HD3 system. Actually, I took the HD system from my studio in a Magma expansion chassis which would be connected to a pair of Digidesign 192 I/Os that the boys would rent in Edmonton and bring with them to Ukraine. I brought my MacBook Pro to run Pro Tools but we also had a backup PowerBook G4 which we actually ended up using instead. We didn’t need much horsepower at all since the PCI cards were doing all the hard work.
I brought my Millennia HV3D (http://www.mil-media.com/hv-3d.html) for 8 channels of super clean mic inputs and was told that the studio could provide 8 more channels of tube pres as well as their Yamaha 02R. I figured I’d use the Millennia for the main stereo pair and a few ribbon mics I brought with me. The studios tube preamp, which, by the way, I couldn’t really get a straight answer about exactly which brand of preamp we were talking about, would be used for the string section and the 02R would be used for things like piano, harp, woodwinds and other miscellaneous sources.
Andriy and I consulted on which mics we would put on each section or instrument. While he dispatched the assistant engineers to set up mics in the live room where the orchestra was slowly gathering, we continued to set up and connect the gear in the control room.
At a certain point, Andriy introduced me to an engineer named Genadiy (or Gene) who appeared to know who I was. I thought he might’ve known me from Dovzhenko Studio but he told me he worked for Hand Crafted Labs. (http://papa-movie.com/html/hand_crafted.html)
So, Hand-crafted Labs is a company based in Kiev that makes pro audio gear like preamps and compressors. I had learned about them and contacted them by email, inquiring about perhaps visiting them while I was in Ukraine but I never heard back from them. So, Genadiy is like their main designer and builder. As the name implies, their stuff is all handmade and Genadiy is the guy that does it all.
Turns out that the 8 channels of tube pres we were going to be using were HCL Affinity pres. (http://papa-movie.com/html/preamp.html) So, I was totally excited to have a chance to use these pres first hand. You see, HCL has no distribution outside Ukraine. While they do accept orders and ship outside the country, it’s via regular postal service and, uh, would you trust the post office to deliver a tube preamp from overseas? Uh, I don’t think so.
As I mentioned before, the orchestra was gathering and rehearsing the material in the live room while we connected the gear and set up mics. The stuff we record for Shumka isn’t like your average orchestral session where you’re recording a Beethoven symphony—this is all original material, specifically composed for the choreography and the musicians have never seen this music before. Now, these musicians are among the best players in Ukraine. They come from the Kiev Symphony, Kiev Ballet and Radio Symphony orchestras. You put anything in front of them and they can play it. The level of musicianship is ultra high but the music is sometimes challenging and these guys might get one pass as a rehearsal and we’re laying it down so the pressure’s on.
When we were ready in the control room, us boys from out of town were invited to greet the orchestra in the live room, exchange greetings and get the recording session underway.
At this point, the conductor, Sergei Malovaniy, began to rehearse the orchestra. I went out into the live room once again to get a sense of the ambience and the sound of the room.
While the musicians took a brief intermission, Andriy came up to ask me what I thought of the studio. I told him that it was certainly a wonderful studio and that I felt bad that we weren’t really going to be utilizing its true sound, its acoustics because the application in this case was so specialized and we actually wanted as little of the room character as possible. At any rate, I told him how impressed I was and how comfortable we felt. In a few minutes it was time to take levels.
Moving as fast as we could, we took levels on what ended up being 27 mics. Not the easiest thing to do with an orchestra because you want to get levels in the context of playing but everybody isn’t playing at the same time so, you solo the tuba and he’s not playing those bars and, when they are playing, maybe the percussion behind them isn’t playing and when they kick in, it’s a whole different story. Well, it’s a challenge. In this case we’re dealing with a 24-bit depth with a dynamic range of 144 decibels which is well within the range of an orchestra. Thing is, the orchestra can go from whisper quiet to enormously loud so it’s a bit of a challenge. I try to get things as loud as possible while leaving enough headroom. We usually aimed for average levels around -20 dB FS. When levels were set, the orchestra did a quick tune-up… and we were ready to roll.
So, recording original orchestral music isn’t at all like recording a Beethoven Symphony which the musicians have heard or even played many times. Even when the material is quite well known, pieces are often recorded sections at a time, maybe doing 32 bars or so several times before moving on. In this case, with new music, the orchestra is sometimes just concentrating on 8 or 16 bars at a time, depending on the complexity of the pieces.
Let me take this opportunity to go over the mics we used on the various sections and instruments.
Overhead—Neumann SM69 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=hist_microphones&cid=sm69_publications)
First violin—1 AKG 480 (http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,225,pid,225,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html)
First violin—2 Neumann U89 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=current_microphones&cid=u89_description)
Second violin 1—AKG 480 (http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,225,pid,225,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html)
Second violin 2—Neumann U89 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=current_microphones&cid=u89_description)
Viole 1—AKG 480 (http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,225,pid,225,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html)
Viole 2—Neumann U89 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=current_microphones&cid=u89_description)
Celli—AKG 480 (http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,225,pid,225,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html)
Celli 2—Neumann U89 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=current_microphones&cid=u89_description)
ContraBass—Neumann U89 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=current_microphones&cid=u89_description)
Piano—Neumann TLM170 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=hist_microphones&cid=tlm170i_publications)
Harp—Neumann U89 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=current_microphones&cid=u89_description)
Tsymbalum—Neumann TLM170 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=hist_microphones&cid=tlm170i_publications)
Flute—Neumann TLM170 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=hist_microphones&cid=tlm170i_publications)
Oboe—Neumann TLM170 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=hist_microphones&cid=tlm170i_publications)
Clarinet—AKG C391 (http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,230,pid,230,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html)
Bassoon—AKG C391 (http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,230,pid,230,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html)
Trumpets—Cascade Gomez (http://www.cascademicrophones.com/cascade_GOMEZ.html)
Trombones—Cascade Vin-Jet (http://www.cascademicrophones.com/cascade_VIN-JET.html)
Tuba—Cascade Fat Head (http://www.cascademicrophones.com/cascade_FAT%20HEAD.html)
French Horn—1 Neumann TLM170 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=hist_microphones&cid=tlm170i_publications)
French Horn 2—Neumann TLM170 (http://www.neumann.com/?lang=en&id=hist_microphones&cid=tlm170i_publications)
Percussion & Overhead drums—Cascade Fat Heads (http://www.cascademicrophones.com/cascade_FAT%20HEAD.html)
Kick drum—AKG D112 (http://www.akg.com/site/products/powerslave,id,261,pid,261,nodeid,2,_language,EN.html)
We continued the recording session for around 4 hours to complete the special anniversary “Hopak” which is an 11-minute long dance. So, around 4 hours to record less than 12 minutes of music. Sounds like a lot? More than you expected? Less than you expected? Well, if nothing else, you can appreciate the amount of work that goes into a project of this scale.
When the session was over, we took a taxi to a restaurant not too far from our apartment and had a late dinner. More importantly, we managed to buy an enormous amount of beer.
The following day, we met at the studio with Yury and Sergei to listen back to the previous days takes and select edit points for the 11-minute Hopak. Later, the orchestra arrived and, having had set the levels the previous day, we were rolling in no time. We went through some other new original material written by Yury shevchenko for Shumka.
When we had completed the tracking sessions at DZZ, we dismantled all the gear that we brought with us that was in the control room. We left all the mics in place so that we could measure microphone distances. The reason for this is so that I could later slip the tracks to maintain a more accurate relationship between the arrival times of sounds at the various mics. For example, when timpani are struck at the back of the orchestra, their sound is picked up by the microphone overhead a millisecond or so later but the same sound is picked up by the violin mics perhaps 30 milliseconds later because the sound has traveled some 30 feet. So, in order to make the sources more coherent, the timpani mic would be delayed by roughly 30 milliseconds to match the sound being picked up by the other mics. Yeah, it’s all a bit theoretical but engineers had been doing it for a long time with delay processors on spot mics so it wasn’t such a crazy idea years ago when I started slipping ADAT tracks during mixes and it really seemed to work. With Pro tools, it just got even easier to do it. Michael swears that FOH engineers in the venues where Shumka performs always comment on how great the music sounds and how realistic it comes across so, for what it’s worth, I’m sticking with this program.
Anyway, we took the Pro Tools system back to our apartment. The following day, we took the rig to Yury’s house and set it up to listen back to the rest of the session takes and choose further edit points. In fact, we did a very quick edit of everything without devoting any time to getting the edit points smooth and accurate. I would do that later in New York.
So, as has become a little tradition, on the last night of our stays in Kiev, Yury and Sergei like to take us out for a nice dinner at their favorite home-style restaurant in kIev called Harbuz. The last time I was there I got so smashed that it still makes me shiver and cringe. You see, people in Ukraine really like to make toasts and drink vodka. And it’s kind of a tradition that everybody takes a turn making a toast and when you have about 12 people making toasts and then even taking second turns, well…
This time around, I learned that, after drinking a full glass after the first toast, it’s OK not to drink the entire glass of vodka after the subsequent toasts so I was able to pace myself. In fact, I was absolutely determined not to get plastered.
At a certain point, I asked Andriy Mokrytski how he came to be an audio engineer and how he got into perhaps the best studio in Ukraine. He told me that he was in the Army and got involved with the army chorus and band. He began working as a sound engineer during their concerts and tours. He pretty much just learned on the job with nobody teaching him anything really. He had heard about DZZ and visited them while he was still in the army. They told him to come back when he was done with his service. He came back a few years later and said, “Do you remember me? You told me to come back and apply for a job here.” The guy at the studio said, “Oh, yeah, sure, just fill out an application.” A short while later, he was taken in as an apprentice. Sort of reminds me of Geoff Emmerick getting into EMI studios at Abbey Road with virtually no experience. Anyway, Andriy worked under a well-known classical engineer for nine months and eventually got behind the console and began engineering by himself and has now been there for 20 years and has recorded hundreds of classical cDs.
It was great to have a chance to hang with Andriy, a real kindred spirit and, of course, we got to geek out over gear and all. He spoke very highly of the HCL stuff so I was truly happy to hear such a testimony from a third party about the products from HCL. I have no doubt that, next time I’m in Kiev, I’ll be sure to return with some authentic Ukrainian hand-made tube gear.
So, while Andriy and I traded studio war stories, Dave and Andrew chose to drink at full throttle and, actually, they didn’t even slow down when we got back to the apartment. In fact, we still went out for beer in the middle of the night. Ah, my kind of gig…
When we got back to the apartment, I had a sort of morbid thought. You see, the guys from Edmonton and I would be flying on the same plane from Kiev to London for a two-day layover before we took our separate flights home. Normally, we’d fly straight from Kiev to our final destinations with full backups of the sessions on FireWire drives with each party. Since we were traveling together, in case our luggage got lost or, even worse, if our plane went down, there would be no record of the sessions. So I made a quick copy of all the files and gave them to Yury to hold onto and bring with him to New York in January when we were to mix the recording.
The next morning we flew to London for a relaxing two days. I took Andrew to see the West end production of Avenue Q (http://www.avenueq.com/) which was my fifth time seeing it. Man, that was a complete blast. I also had a chance to catch up with some old friends and hang out at some of my favorite London pubs.
On the flight back to New York, I had that feeling I usually get when returning from one of these orchestral projects. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of such unique projects on such a large scale. It’s not often that your average engineer gets to record an orchestra. And, yeah, I know that the reason I got the gig was not because of my engineering chops but I have managed to rise to the challenge. It’s like George Hrab (http://www.georgehrab.com) says, “Talent won’t get you the gig but it’ll help you keep the gigs you get.” I thought about how Andriy Mokrytski was lucky enough to get the job at DZZ. I suppose I could’ve chickened out of that first gig with as little experience as I really had but, well, I’m a confident person and, like Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
So, a month or two later, Yury Shevchenko and Michael Sulyma came to New York along with Kim Nahachewsky, Michael’s right hand man, err, woman at Sulyma Productions (http://www.sulyma.com) in Edmonton. Yury and I spent two and a half days mixing everything for the big show. The challenge in mixing this music is to make it sound as natural as possible for playback in a large theater and making sure each part is heard well enough to support the dance cues and leit motifs. Also, there’s a considerable amount of bleed between the various sections. In other words, with the brass right behind the viole, if you raise the level of the strings and the brass is blaring at the same time, you’re going to get bleed no matter what. It’s not just a matter of setting levels and bringing them up or down. At any given point, you have to consider what’s going on all around the orchestra.
So, the whole project from preparation to final show spanned six months. That’s, of course, only my involvement. All the choreography and everything, I’m sure, took way longer than that. And now it’s over. I can’t believe how quickly the time passes. I spoke with Michael Sulyma earlier today. He just got back from Beijing yesterday and is flying to London tomorrow. He’s opening a show in London this summer with another group for whom he’s producing a show and Shumka will be doing more shows this summer and there’s talk of a tour in Brazil next year. Ah, what a jet setter he is…
So, I can’t wait until the next time Michael calls me and says, “Wanna record an orchestra?” Each time I do it, it’s a brand new challenge with new problems to solve and new ways of solving them. As I sometimes mention on Twitter, I’m the luckiest person in the world to do what I love doing. Yeah, sometimes I have sessions where things get a bit tedious or even frustrating and sometimes even exhausting. But these orchestral projects, as truly exhausting as they can be are truly rewarding and I come out of it each time feeling that I’ve grown some and learned a bit, perhaps. I’m always thinking about how I can improve upon what I’ve done in the past. So next time I go to Ukraine, it’ll be in pursuit of bettering my best. Oh, and to buy some Hand Crafted Labs tube gear as well.