Here are some choir recording logistics tips we’ve developed working with choirs in the studio. You can find audio recording tips on many other web sites. These logistics tips are to help make the choir tracking experience more comfortable for everyone.
- If singing with pre-recorded music, for monitoring, feed the phones mix into a small FM transmitter. There are many available for less than $200. Then have the choir wear portable radios and headphones. You’ll have a few folks who accidentally change the station but it sure saves a bundle on monitoring equipment. Use radios that lock on frequency if possible. Also, mark measures in the track in advance.
- Choirs work from measure numbers or verses/choruses in the music, not time code. As soon as possible, mark measure numbers in your editor or jot down time codes that correspond to measures. If possible, mark obvious starting points in the track in advance. Obvious starting points would be a few measures prior to verses, choruses and bridges.
- ALWAYS roll a backup recorder. It’s difficult to get many people together for anything. Don’t expect that people will be able to come back later to fix issues.
- On that same note, use the best Mic’s, Mic Preamps and A/D converters you can get your hands on. You’ll only get one shot at getting it right.
- If space, style and available tracks permit, mic each section separately in addition to your main stereo pair above the director. The main stereo pair will usually do 90% of the work, but it’s nice to have options after everyone goes home. Spaced omni ambience mics are also advised.
- If you are tracking at a venue away from your studio, bring plenty of DI boxes. Then toss in a few extras.
- Be ready to play notes on a keyboard or piano. Good directors will always want to lead the choir in warmups. If the group is singing with a track, they may not bring their own pianist along.
- Put printed sheet music on stands and try to have copies of the music that will not require page turns.
- Cover metal music stands with thick cloth. Metal music stands ring if not covered.
- Pull the music stands up to a high level so the singers don’t have to look down while singing.
- Take digital photos of the setup and mark locations of singers and mics with tape. The goal is to be able to recreate the setup when needed (like after lunch or the next day).
- Record a click-track to go with the accompaniment. You might not need to use it but it will often save the day if the choir is having trouble staying together.
- If recording with more than a stereo pair, get close to the stereo mains and click some sticks together a few times. This will make it easier to time-align digital tracks later.
- If the budget permits, get separate takes of each choir part, or just of problematic choir parts. This gives options later during editing.
- Have the choir sing the last note of the song without the high notes if the music calls for them. Record a separate track for super high notes. You can pitch correct one soprano on a track by herself.
- Most choirs struggle most with cutting off together and blending. Suggest that the choir rehearse cutoffs and blending extensively in advance.
- Be sure you will have enough parking to accommodate the group.
- Have plenty of bottled water, AT ROOM TEMPERATURE, available for each singer. Cold water will not benefit the vocal chords.
- Groups of people need adequate rest room facilities. Be sure to stock up on plenty of hand soap (from a pump), towels and toilet tissue. Some germ-a-phobes find shared hand towels repulsive so a roll of paper towels is also a good idea. And at the risk of being indelicate, burn a beeswax (not scented) candle in the restroom.We burn candles in each room the choir will be in. Some people are highly sensitive to chemicals in any form, so no scents other than maybe from essential oils.
- Communicate suggested hygiene tips to the choir members in advance. Since everyone will be in close proximity. Absolutely NO perfume or cologne! Use of personal care products (deodorant, shampoo, conditioner) without any chemicals is highly encouraged. However, tooth brushing is a good idea.
- Lots of bodies in a room create lots of heat. We’ve installed flex ducting with in-line duct fans (mounted at the opposite end of the ducting) to expel heat from the room. We’ve found the combination quiet enough to operate while recording.
- Have stuff to do for folks that are not part of the recording process. We encourage those recording not to bring anyone that isn’t vital to the recording process but sometimes additional bodies are unavoidable. A few Disney DVD’s in another room can do the trick. Just leave the sub woofer off so the movie doesn’t end up in the choir tracks. And no playing basketball!
- If the session is especially important, video tape. Be prepared to accommodate three cameras if a video will be made of the tracking session.
- Prepare packets of info about the studio. At a minimum give each person one of your business cards so they can contact you for any future recording needs.
This question came in by email:
Q: In your experience, for a 50 person choir…are monitors for the choir a normal thing and/or necessary? I have mentioned to some of the choir members that the music director wants monitors for the choir and some have said, “Why?…I can hear everything just fine.”
A: Monitors are normal, regardless of group size if anyone in the choir is struggling to hear the piano or what is being said at the pulpit. Monitors can help everyone lock in with soloists also. But I almost always limit what I send to choir monitors to piano, pulpit and solo mics only. Otherwise they become a feedback hazard. And the more sound sources you send to he choir, the more you have to worry about the choir mics picking up.
I also find it very helpful to make all (or at least most) aux sends feeding choir monitors post-fader.
I could hear defeat in his voice as he described being the new music director at a small church. Eric (not his real name) wanted to know if I could come down on a Saturday morning and tell them how to fix their sound problems. I asked a few questions and we set a date.
When I arrived. the pastor invited me in to his office. He sighed and then began to list the problems that had been having. He told me of regular complaints from the congregation about volume being too high or low and the sound “not having a good quality”. Also, the platform dwellers were not hearing what they needed in the monitors. The usual stuff really. I took notes so I would remember to address every problem. But I knew 80% or the problems would be solved with one change.
We finished our meeting and headed over to the church sound room. You’ve seen them. Maybe you have one. It’s a room in the back of the auditorium where all the sound equipment is set up and operated. And placing the mixer in that room was the cause of probably 80% of their problems.
I will explain, but first I need to introduce one term that will make it easier to communicate. The term is ‘Front of House’. This is a weird industry standard term like Accounts Payable is in accounting. It is abbreviated FOH and means the position where the sound guy sits who is mixing for the live audience (as opposed to mixing for a radio or internet listener, which would be called a “media mix”).
Why putting FOH in a room was the causing most of the problems:
1. You have to hear the room
This is key: Mixing for a live audience involves a handful of sound sources
- There is acoustic noise in the room. These are sounds you can hear when the sound system is off. Some can be significantly loud, like a trumpet section or drum cymbals.
- The room itself will resonate when certain notes (frequencies) are sounded. The room is actually amplifying those frequencies; making them louder. At the same time, some other frequencies may not be getting through well at all. As sound waves bounce off of surfaces, some will collide just right and cancel each other out, making them quieter.
- There are noises in the room from the audience, air conditioner, traffic outside, etc. The volume of the FOH mix needs to allows sound sources to be heard above the noise floor.
- If there is singing, you should sing a bit to make sure the instruments are not making it impossible for the audience to hear themselves singing. But you have to be in the auditorium yourself for it to work.
- And of course, the sound system joins with these other sound sources as one contributor.
Mixing FOH from inside a sound room is like painting a portrait while wearing a blindfold.
2. The FOH person mixing should be as engaged as anyone on the platform
Put another way, the mic should always be turned up on time. And by “on time”, I mean before the person on the platform starts speaking, singing or playing into it. There can be a lot happening and the FOH operator needs to be on it. I’m tough in this, but not having a mic turned up on time is embarrassing for the FOH operator, frustrating for the person trying to be heard and a distraction for everyone in the audience. Attempting to mix without the ability to hear is bad enough. But I’ve also found the relative isolation of the room makes it much easier for distracting conversations. It is important for the FOH mix operator to be as in-tune with every moment of the event as everyone on the platform. Simply no other person has as much impact on what is heard.
3. The FOH mix operator should not be concerned about the media mix
This goes along with not being distracted but I wanted to break this down even further. A media mix is a mix intended for an audience that will listen without being in the room. Examples would be radio, podcast, live web stream or CD recording. Media mixing requires a nearly opposite approach than mixing for live audience. The media mix operator has a goal of providing a sense of the room and live audience feel without having the acoustic and room sounds automatically mixed in. Acoustic and room sounds must be added via strategic mic placement and mixing. And a media mix SHOULD be in a room, though it is still important to have a great view of the platform (or video monitors).
Sometimes I am in situations where I have to do both. My solution is always to mix for the live audience but send direct outputs from the console to a multitrack digital recorder that I take back to the studio for post production in a treated environment. Get the best of both worlds that way.
4. The FOH mix operator needs to see the audience and stage well
If people are covering their ears and glaring at the sound operator because it’s too loud, it would be good to be able to see that. Also, the FOH mix operator must be able to see all of the stage well so cues are not missed.
My advice – If you have a sound room now, keep it! But...
Placing the FOH mix position in an enclosed room won’t fix every audio problem, but I dare say it will offer one of the greatest improvements possible. My advice would be, if you have a sound room now, keep it. Make it the media mix location. Buy a mic splitter, snake and another mixer that will become your FOH mixer. Place the FOH mixer out with the audience, ideally about two-thirds of the way back in the auditorium and not under a balcony.
If you have questions, I would be glad to try to help.