Session Recap: Recording the new symphony "Shifting Sands" with composer Marc Harris.
Last week we had the immense pleasure of welcoming composer Marc Harris to Manchester for what would be our first full orchestra session since COVID restrictions had been lifted in the UK.
Marc's piece, titled "Shifting Sands" is a 3-movement symphonic work that combines a classical orchestral style with influences from film composers such as John Williams and Maurice Jarre. The piece contains an strong Middle Eastern and Arabian flavour, conjuring up images of rolling sand dunes and a never-ending desert.
Marc's music was very dense and featured complex interplay between the different instrument voices. It was therefore crucial that we approached this recording in a way that would capture as much of the detail and fidelity as possible.
In this article we will break down how we planned and undertook this recording project and share some tips and insights for you along the way.
This project began several months ago when Marc got in touch after seeing one of our Instagram posts. He explained how he had been writing his symphony over the past year and was now looking to have it recorded.
Due to the timing, we knew we weren't going to be able to get a full orchestra back together for a few months at least. This gave us a nice window of time to make preparations for the recording, with Marc refining each movement and making sure everything in the music was nicely balanced, and the NFO team working out the mic setup and schedule.
Once pre-production was complete and Marc had sent us the finished orchestrations, we distributed the parts out to our musicians for them to practice before the session. We also had the extra luxury of having a reference video from a rehearsal performance that marc had arranged down in London. This was really useful as it gave us a good idea of how the instruments would blend together and which instruments should be cut or added to the ensemble if any. (We ended up removing 1 x oboe from the lineup as the oboe had no problems cutting through in the rehearsal).
With all of this was in place the next step was to head to The Stoller hall for the recording itself.
How to record a symphony - Tip 1 Preparation is crucial. Make sure the musicians and conductor have as much information to prepare with as possible, and organise a prior rehearsal if you are able to.
Location: The Stoller Hall
Project: Shifting Sands
- Record the symphony with the highest level of musical detail, with special attention paid to the interweaving melodic lines between instrument groups.
- Make efficient use of our time - 2 hours per movement.
- Deliver a stunning final product that will serve as a platform for the symphony as a piece of compositional work. Increase awareness of the composer through plays on radio/streaming and performances by other orchestras.
The instrumentation used in this session was 18 violin, 6 viola, 6 cello, 3 bass (basses with the extra C string) 3 flute, 2 clarinet, 1 oboe, 2 bassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpet, 2 trombone, 1 tuba, 4 percussion, 1 harp.
As we can see thats pretty much a full orchestra, so our microphone setup needed to be correctly structured in order to capture all of the different elements.
We opted to use a Schoeps MK 2H spaced pair and a pair of DPA 4001 in an ORTF setup for the decca tree mics. This gives us maximum flexibility in the mix and allows us to cut between one or the other, or a blend of the two depending on on the context.
Schoeps MK 2H / DPA 4001 - Spaced pair / ORTF
As for the spot microphones, we tailored our choice to what worked best for each instrument group.
For example, each instrument in the string family has a "front" and "back" microphone, which helps to add depth and bring out the full dimension of the sound stage, whereas wind and brass are both recorded as groups as opposed to individual spot mics, with the exception of the flutes and horns.
Our channel list for the session.
Our technical manager Simeon Ogden had this to say:
"Recording orchestral music its commonly agreed with good reason that the microphone capture is predominantly through main microphone systems at the front of the orchestra with ancillary microphones placed where required.
Recording Shifting Sands saw us use 2 sets of main microphones, not with the idea that these would be combined but to give us to options or ‘flavours’ of the main sound. Firstly, was a stereo pair of Schoeps MK2H omni-directional microphones placed on stereo bar 85cms apart and a stereo pair of DPA 4011 cardioid microphones in ORTF configuration placed at the centre of the main stereo bar. The reason for using two sets was to give different options when we come to mix down. The Schoeps give a good overall ‘open’ stereo image with a bright top and by nature of being omni directional pickup a great amount of low-end, this set can be a little congested in the mid-range due to their placement. The DPAs give a ‘surgical’ sound, a good stereo spread but less open than the Schoeps, cleaner mids due to the technique used and duller top end (which can be a desirable feature). These microphones make up anywhere between 70%-100% of the sound in the mix.
In addition to these microphones as part of the main system we had two AKG C414s in omni as outriggers placed halfway between the main pair and side edge of the Violins (left) and Cellos (right), these help with stereo width but also I’m looking to capture more of the strings in these. Then we have an AB stereo cardioid pair hallway into the concert hall as ambient room microphones. There was a ORTF pair of Nuemann KM184 microphones covering the wind section, a pair of AKG C414s covering the brass section. These are for small lifts during key moments as they suffer from bleed of the percussion when they’re really going for it.
Spot mics on certain instruments are then used to add very small bumps in volume when needed but usually no more than 3-5dB and predominantly looking only to get the high end clarity from these and not an isolated sound as bleed into these mics are high but also desirable."
How to record a symphony - Tip 2 Space your microphones out correctly to capture the full dimensions of the sound stage.
Recording is underway in The Stoller Hall.
When recording is in progress the conductor dictates the flow of the session and leads the players through the piece. With a composition of this size, we broke the music it down into smaller digestible sections and worked through one by one. Each of the sections overlaps with the one before and after to allow for smooth transitions when comping the takes in the edit stage.
As you can see in the picture of Melvin's annotated score below there is a huge amount of detail in each movement, and it really took a lot of prior research to understand the music well enough so that we could most honestly express the composers intentions. We were also able to meet with Marc the evening before for a listening session and score read-along, which helped our preparation greatly.
Melvin's annotated conductors score.
Our music director and session conductor Melvin Tay had this to say about his preparation and the recording process.
"It was so great to be back working on a symphony (and a brand new one no less) when recording Marc Harris’ Shifting Sands. When preparing such a piece, I usually start with studying the overall structure and form before zooming into the specific details. Prior to the recording day, Marc and I spent a few hours discussing the details in the music so that I knew clearly what he wanted from the music.
It also took a lot of meticulous planning to balance the time we had with getting the best takes. On the recording day, we spent two hours on each of the three movements; each movement was divided into four substantial chunks which allowed us to focus on the details yet allows us to maintain a sense of coherence.
During the session, not only am I always trying to efficiently manage the time, I am also constantly looking out for our musicians’ stamina so that we are always able to get the best takes. It was so helpful and important to have extra pairs of ears in the booth, as what we hear on stage is very different to what one hears with headphones - thank you Marc and Nico!"
Some percussion instruments used in the session.
As you can imagine, the conductor has a lot to think about both before hand and during the recording session. There are so many angles to consider and balance against each other musically speaking, and when you factor in the organisation and time management side of things then it becomes a very difficulty task to carry out and execute correctly. Melvin you have done an expert job once again!
How to record a symphony - Tip 3 Manage your time effectively so that each section of the piece has been covered with 2-3 strong takes.
Undertaking a piece of this scale was an interesting challenge and definitely tested us in many ways. We are thrilled with how everything came together for the recording and can move forward feeling confident in taking on future large scale recording projects.
Special thanks to all of our wonderful musicians, who's showed incredible stamina and concentration in this session, and thanks again to Marc for choosing record your symphony with NFO. It was an honour to realise your musical vision!
Marc Harris joins the orchestra for a picture at the end of the session.
"After spending years writing my first symphony and polishing it up in Cubase I was desperate to get it recorded by a professional orchestra. Though slightly dreading the process, Jack, Melvin and the team made the day absolutely superb and totally painless. All the musicians were superb sight-readers, Melvin is the most amazing conductor and really brought out the best in them, the hall was acoustically amazing, and Jack made sure that the whole process went without a hitch, in fact the only downside was my train to London being cancelled! I can not recommend them highly enough. When I finish my second symphony they will perform it."
Marc Harris - Composer
That wraps things up for this blog post. The story is not over for Shifting Sands however, as the piece features parts for a mixed voice choir and a church organ which we will be recording in separate sessions over the coming weeks. Stay tuned to find out how we get on with recording these final elements.
We hope you enjoyed this post!
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