It’s that time of year!
Virtually all commercial rock, pop, country, urban, and jazz albums are recorded using multitrack digital recorders like the ubiquitous Pro Tools. Band members, their producer, and engineering team spend countless hours coming up with the parts, recording them, and assembling the tracks we experience as the final, complete, stereo mixes. But there ARE other approaches. And these other methods can deliver musical experiences equal to — and sometimes even better — the tried and true multitrack process described above. Not surprisingly, audiophile labels like my own AIX Records, Todd Garfinkle’s MA Recordings, Morten Lynberg’s 2L, Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Music, and others support these more direct approaches to recording, producing, and releasing albums.
I worked with traditional multitrack recording long before I made the conscious decision to embrace an alternative approach to making records. During my teenage years in Michigan, I owned a variety of reel-to-reel tape recorders. My first machine was a small rim drive, “toy” mono recorder with 3 ¼” reels. Later, I upgraded to a chrome top machine capable of two speeds and built for 5-inch reels.
When I graduated high school and loaded up the car headed to Ann Arbor for my first year at college, I made sure my Wollensak “all-in-one” recorder/reproducer was among the items that would grace my dorm room. However, all of those machines were limited to stereo recording and playback. They lacked the ability to independently record and playback to and from the two tracks. They didn’t allow overdubbing. What Les Paul invented back in the late 50s was only available in professional studios and at great expense … until TEAC introduced a line of semi pro reel-to-reel machines in the late 70s.
Musicians and aspiring audio engineers lusted after the TEAC Model 3340 or its smaller cousin, the 2340 (which was limited to 7″ reels). The 3340 was one of the first 4-track, semi pro machines. It could accommodate 10.5-inch reels and used RCA consumer type connections. It wasn’t as costly as the machines used in professional recording studios, but it was still beyond my budget. When I moved into my own apartment in Southern California, my first “studio” setup consisted of a Shure SM-57, a Dokorder 7140 (a cheaper 4-track machine), a HeathKit receiver, and a pair of Electro Voice speakers. I was anxious to start learning the craft and art of recording music. The Dokorder was a $400 machine, if my memory serves me well.
It wasn’t until many years later that I began doing “minimalist” recording while a student at CSU Northridge. I was hired as the teaching assistant for the electronic music classes and had access to the studios above the recital hall. The room was equipped with a couple of TEAC 3340 machines, a small TEAC Model 3 mixer, a couple of tube amplifiers, and two large Voice of the Theater speakers. I recorded hundreds of recitals using only a stereo pair of microphones from the electronic music studio. Two mics routed through a mic preamp directly to two channels on the stereo recorder and you’ve got what I refer to as a “sonic documentary.” Audio engineers learn stereo miking techniques used to capture a performance: spaced pair, ORTF, MS, and XY. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these methods but one thing they have in common is the rather “distant or hollow” quality of the recorded sound. The sound is less present because the microphones are some distance away from the performers. It’s noticeably different than the tight, close miking techniques used in the commercial recording.
In the 80s, after I had worked with the late Mike “Father Time” Denecke as a boom operator on feature films and commercials, I acquired my beloved Nagra IV-S portable reel-to-reel machine. It cost me $8500. I laid out another $1500 on the large reel adaptor (called a QGB) to record concert length programs on large reels. I made a pretty good living recording recitals and concerts around town. I captured music making in small auditoriums, large venues, and once in a very reverberant wine cellar.
At the request of a composer friend of mine, I once snuck my Nagra and a couple of Neuman U-87 microphones in my brief case into the Japan American Theater to record a world premiere of one of his works (the union wouldn’t allow a recording). Once the lights went down, out came my microphones, and the Nagra was switched into record mode! I’ve run hundreds of reels of tape across the heads of my Nagra. I know how to do minimalist recording.
Recently, I sent my Nagra and a reel of RMI 911 tape back to Nashville for a maintenance checkup and alignment. Glen Trew, one of the last factory trained technicians, called me last week to let me know that he was finished and would be shipping the machine back to the west coast. We chatted for a while about what he found and fixed. He told me that the machine is one of the best he had encountered. The recording and playback specifications exceeded those listed in the manual. The machine is capable of recording the audio band and beyond — 32 – 23 kHz. It’s only down one dB at 23 kHz. Amazing! I guess I should put it back in service!
Making records with a simple stereo pair does have advantages. Phase problems are eliminated or minimized and spatial depth is maintained. On the other hand, placing a single mono microphone in front of a guitar or other instrument, as most commercial engineers are taught to do, produces a decidedly one-dimensional sound. The signal is mono and flat. When it comes to mixing down 24 “flat” mono signals into a stereo mix engineers have to resort to clever panning, reverberation, delay, and other processors to try and bring depth back to the sound. Such is the world of commercial recordings.
Minimalist recording is widely used in classical and jazz recordings because the musicians know what “parts” are going to be played or they are improvising. It’s far simpler, less expensive, and requires a lot less time. When I recorded the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (the NJSO) in Newark many years ago, we had only two three-hour sessions to record Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The union orchestra’s time was very limited. Classical music and jazz are natural candidates for minimalist recording.
My good friend Todd Garfinkle owns and operates MA Recordings. He and I were composition students at CSU Northridge in the late 70s AND we both offered location recording services for senior recitals. Today, I see Todd at audio trade shows. We share a love of audiophile quality recordings but our approaches — while purist — couldn’t be more different. He travels to unique, acoustically rich spaces and captures music performances using only two microphones. He’s recorded a variety of musical genres in subway stations, large cathedrals, caverns, and ancient stone buildings — all with only two microphones. The sound that he achieves with his custom modified microphones and stereo DSD Zoom recorder is appealing and clear. Todd has made a FREE sampler available through his website that I recommend readers acquire. Visit https://www.marecordings.com/ to download the album. It’s worth checking out. I have a number of Todd’s recordings and enjoy the diversity of musical content he sells.
Another friend, Morten Lynberg owns and operates 2L Records in Norway. We were once invited to Tokyo to speak on a panel on surround recording. He is also a minimalist when it comes to recording. Like Todd at MA Recordings, Morten “records in spacious acoustic venues: large concert halls, churches and cathedrals.” However, instead of producing stereo albums using a pair of microphones, Morten arranges as many as 12 microphones in a cluster elevated about 12-15 feet above the musicians in the center of a carefully arranged ensemble. The “tree” of microphones is arranged in a 5.1 or 7.1 array, which are then played back through standard 5.1 or 7.1 monitor system. Just like Todd’s stereo pair of microphones, there is one microphone dedicated to each playback speaker.
More recently, Morten has been experimenting with height channels in addition to the 5.1 or 7.1 array. He has released albums in Auro3D. He makes samples available for download at: http://www.2l.no/hires/index.html. These recordings are captured using DXD, which is a very high sample rate version of PCM — not related to DSD. He down converts to a variety of sample rates and formats for distribution. Again, the sound is glorious. The 2L catalog is full of classical and jazz albums made using minimalist techniques.
Morten’s work has been highly praised by reviewers and The Recording Academy. 2L has been nominated 2L dozens of times for Grammy consideration. In 2020, Morten finally took home a Grammy statue. Congrats.
A Multitrack Hybrid Approach
The minimalist approach doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons. First as I mentioned above, the sound lacks “presence”. When a stereo pair or a 5.1 cluster of microphones is hoisted above a group of musicians, it is just too far from the source. The inverse square rule applies to sound energy as well as light. The greater the distance from the musicians to the microphones, the less energy is received. It attenuates at a rate of one over the distance squared — the amplitude diminishes exponentially. If a “close mic” approach is used, instruments and vocals sound more present and detailed. The use of close microphones helped establish the modern sound of recordings. For example, it was critical to the success of Windham Hill Records. Listeners could hear every finger pluck and string vibration on albums by founders/guitarists William Ackerman and Alex de Grassi. I love the intimacy of close miking and I have employed it on all of the records in the AIX Records catalog.
Additionally, I generally use an ORTF stereo pair close to each sound source. The advantages of using a stereo pair over a single mono microphone are dramatic and include: a greater sense of depth, spatial accuracy, and detail. However, there are disadvantages as well. Arranging a lot of stereo microphones around an ensemble means sounds can leak into all of the mikes. This can lead to phase problems and unwanted filtering. It takes a great deal of care and experience to properly place as many as 24-36 microphones in close proximity. But it can be done.
A second and equally important advantage of using multiple stereo pairs of microphones and capturing lots of stereo pairs of audio tracks is the ability to mix the signals in a variety of ways something that is impossible when capturing an entire ensemble with a couple of microphones. The balance and spatial information that was present at the time of the original recording cannot be changed after the session. Being unable to create different mixes is a limitation that I cannot accept.
After I record 24-36 tracks on my 96 kHz/24-bit Digital Audio Workstation (I use Nuendo software), I return to the studio and mix down the tracks into three different mixes — a traditional stereo mix and two surround mixes. One of the surround mixes is a 5.1 “Stage” mix, which places the listener in the middle of the ensemble, and the other is a 5.1 “Audience” mix. The “Audience” POV puts you in the best seat in the house — the ambience of the hall is placed in the left and right surround speakers.
I developed my hybrid multitrack approach after having spent years recording commercial records in studios AND having lots of experience with a basic stereo pair — the minimalist approach. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to combine studio techniques with minimalist “live” recording methods. What would happen if I gathered a talented group of musicians on a stage in an acoustically rich auditorium, placed lots of stereo pairs of microphones in close proximity to them, and let them sing and play without an audience. The resulting recordings have plenty of presence, the flexibility to provide alternative mixes, and capture the magic of a live performances — and a complete record can be captured in a matter of hours not months.
If you would like to hear some examples of my work, you’re welcome to download an 18-track sampler that I produced with Sprint a few years ago. For a limited time, I’m making it available without charge at iTrax-Spring AIX Records Sampler. Please let me know what you think.
Different Approaches, Different Results
There is no “best” approach to making recordings. Producers of commercial records may find they benefit from piecing albums together over many months in a studio while producers of jazz and classical releases can finish a project much more quickly. And maybe there’s a middle ground that borrows techniques from both approaches that works for audiophiles — especially those who prefer surround and natural dynamics. Luckily, you get to pick.