Recording "The Planets"

AR-P1010146.jpgOn Friday early evening I set up to record Gustav Holst's "The Planets" at the Macky Auditorium. Performing forces were to include the Boulder Philharmonic and The Ars Nova Singers. I've been recording the Boulder Philharmonic's live concerts since 1995. One evening, after several Martinis, J. Gordon Holt and I decided we wanted to make some live concert recordings. Gordon had been recording since his teens, while I had worked as an on-location recording assistant in Boston with Mica Shatner. We both missed it, so we approached the Boulder Philharmonic. As luck would have it, their regular recording engineer had recently graduated from CU and was moving away. Also, they couldn't refuse our price of free recordings...

Back to the Friday set up. Usually I use one stereo pair of mics for a whole orchestra. I have them suspended from Macky Auditorium's proscenium arch and then use a tieback line to pull them into their final location. The mic cables and tieback line can only be accessed from the catwalks above Macky's plaster lathe ceiling. To get there requires a four-story climb up a tightly curved caged-in circular stairway. Placing the mics is two-person job. Somebody goes up the stairs, lowers the cables and then raises them back up to specific points indicated by the second person, on the main floor. When I worked with Gordon I was the "up man" since Gordon was deathly afraid of heights. Once he tried to go up the stairs because he dearly wanted to see the catwalks above Macky, but he only made it up one floor before he looked down, turned an even lighter shade of pale than usual, and carefully retraced his steps back DOWN.

At the Friday set-up I was planning on using and extra stereo pair of mics for the chorus, so I was pleased to discover that the Macky stage crew had already set up two pairs of mics on stage. Great! That saved me at least ½ hour of set-up time, I thought. My partner for the recording, Fergus Stone, (we are not related by blood), began running the 400 feet of cable (4x100) for the chorus mics while I began setting up gear for the session in the control room.

Because of the extra mics, the signal chain was more involved than normal. Usually my recording rig is quite simple. I use a pair of Schoeps Colette microphone bodies fitted with a MK-8 figure of eight capsule and a MK-41 hyper-cardioid capsule. The reason the two capsules are different is so I can do M/S (mid/side) recording. The mics are connected through 200 ft. of mic line - 100 ft. of Audio Magic cable and 100 ft. of Canare Star Quad terminated by J. Gordon Holt, to a Grace Lunatec V3 mic preamp. The preamp has an M/S decoding circuit built in. I decode the M/S signal in the preamp and send a standard analog stereo feed to two recorders, a Korg MR-1000 for DSD, and a Marantz PMD-671 for 96/24 PCM.

But for a recording with orchestra and chorus I like to use at least one pair of microphones focused exclusively on the chorus. I usually end up either not using them or running their signal at extremely low levels. But some choruses simply aren't loud enough to compete with an orchestra so I like to have those mics for insurance. So instead of my usual signal chain, I planned to rout the feed from the Grace into a Mackie 1202VLZ mixer where it would join four channels from the chorus mics. At least that was the way it was supposed to work.

The first sign that things were not going quite as smoothly as I had hoped was when I discovered that the 100 ft. runs from the chorus mics to my mixer were the wrong sex and we needed to come up with four XLR gender changers to make our connections. We also had to reverse all four 100 ft. runs of cable. Anyone who's used XLR cables understands they are directional and are probably wondering how we could have reversed the cables. For some reason that I do not for the life of me understand, the Macky patch bay sends I was hooked into all had the wrong gender. turned a 15-minute job into a 45-minute one. Suddenly we were behind schedule. Since the orchestra began their rehearsal at 7:30 and we had only begun our set-up at 6:30, which is the earliest we could get into the hall, I began to be concerned.

Seeing our predicament a Macky stagehand pitched in to help us get back on schedule. While he reversed the chorus mic cables, I sent Fergus up the stairs to drop the main mic cables and backline. He'd done it before, but that was almost a year ago, so I gave him an abbreviated instruction set before sending him up top. The first problem he encountered was that all the colored tape markers on my main cables weren't there anymore, so I had to guess at when to say, "stop," when he began raising the mic cables into their resting position. But we nailed it and the final mic placement looked perfect. So what if we finished hanging the mics only moments before the rehearsal began...

Back in our control room, which is an upstairs dressing room complete with rows of bare incandescent lights surrounding the mirrors - very 1940's show-biz, I completed connecting all the components in the recording chain. When it was all done there was a small problem - no sound. I went back down to the stage to discover that all the chorus mics had been disconnected. Why? I checked with the front-of-house sound engineer (the hall was using these same mics for sound reinforcement) and he told me, "I tried everything, but whenever I connected your mic cables I got hum in my system. I had to disconnect them." I had to find another way to mic the chorus, who were already in position onstage. But that wasn't my worst problem. My main mics, which have never given me a lick of trouble, were also dead.

The only thing I could do was hike up the circular staircase to the catwalks to try to see if I could figure out where the problem was. Time to check the anti-perspirant. Going up four flights in a hurry at 6500 ft. elevation is not recommended for couch potatoes. Once up there I discovered, much to my chagrin, that Fergus had used someone else's pair of mic cables! I should have sensed something was wrong when "my" cables suddenly had no markings AND the usually tight XLR connections with mics were too easy to connect. Stupid me. But the last time I looked around there was only one set of cables up top, mine. Now there were two sets and Fergus had dropped the wrong pair. The only solution was to lower the mics back down, swap the cables, and then re-position the microphones. And we would have to do this while the orchestra was actively rehearsing.

Now it was Fergus' turn to go back up the stairs to redo the main mic cabling. I attempted to give directions over our two-way radio while trying to not be too obtrusive. After ten minutes we had the mics back up in position with the right cables, and I went back to the control room to check out the signal. To make life simple I went back to my usual minimalist signal chain without the Mackie mixer or the extra chorus mics. The sound was more than fine with my usual set-up. The balance between the chorus and the orchestra was so spot-on without the extra chorus mics that Fergus and I agreed that our set-up was done. When the front-of-house engineer asked what I was going to do about the chorus mics, I answered in my usual manner, "Screw 'em. I don't need no stankin' chorus mics."  And I didn't.

The recording itself went smoothly. Everything worked, the levels were correct. No sirens invaded the quiet parts and breakdown went quickly since we only had one pair of microphones to dismantle. Don't misunderstand me, I love making recordings, but I sure could do without some of the drama.

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