Case Study: Recording Classical Music on Location for a Docuseries
Recording Sound for Season 3 of PBS’s “Now Hear This”
Recording both the music and dialog on Now Hear This’ Season 3 was one of my favorite productions I’ve ever worked on. My favorite jobs have always been ones where the world of video production and the world of music recording intersect.
While on an unrelated production, I got an email looking to set up a call to discuss recording sound for a docuseries about classical music. Having the experience engineering music in a commercial recording studio as well as equipment necessary for a production of this style, it was clear I was a good fit for the needs of this show. After a second call with the Director, the job was confirmed, dates were on the calendar, and a few weeks later I flew out for an adventure recording music all across the united states! We ended up filming in Fayetteville & Little Rock Arkansas, New York City & Rural New York, Colorado Springs, Chicago, San Luis Obispo California, Rural New Hampshire, & Boston.
Unique Challenges To Sound On This TV Show
“Now Hear This” is a travel docuseries centered on classical music as it’s subject matter. This meant not only recording dialog for the documentary portion, but also high end classical recordings on location (both indoors and outdoors) while packing light enough to fly across the United States as part of a small crew, but while also delivering the highest quality recording possible given the limitations.
Sound Equipment Package for Recording on Location
Having those laid out challenges meant we needed to have an equipment package to accommodate this TV show’s unique needs. *The production company, Arcos, had quite a collection of high end condensers. Between their mics and my equipment, we were able to really put together a really comprehensive equipment package together.
1 Sound Devices Scorpio Mixer/Recorder 32 track recorder w/ 16 mic preamps
8 Stereo Pairs Including Schoeps CMC641s, AKGC414 EBs, *Microtech-Gefell M930s, *M940s, & *UMT70s, *Josephson C42s, *Telefunken M60s, *Beyerdynamic M160s, DPA 4017s & more
5 Channels of Wideband Wireless w/ DPA Lavs
3 Camera Hops
3 Sync Boxes
1k Accessories to bring it all together!
Very often we’d find ourselves recording dialog & music simultaneously in “say and play” demonstrations. This made the Sound Devices Scorpio with an SL-6 the perfect recorder for this production considering it can record up to 32 channels of audio and has 16 built in mic preamps. With the SL-6 wireless receiver integration meant all 16 mic preamps were available for use with hardwired mics. This is especially important given the regular high channel count we’d see on this show. One occasion we had 15 mic preamps & 5 channels of wireless all coming in for a total of 20 channels recording simultaneously.
Recording Classical Music on Location
Unlike most documentary content where from a sound perspective you are for the most part just recording dialog & nat sounds; On “Now Hear This” a lot of the content involved capturing musical performances with professional classical musicians in unique spaces from concert halls to vineyards, classrooms, and on several occasions even outdoors.
The goal was always to capture the best representations of what is there, and in my mind that means two things.
- Capture the performance in the space. The space in which you record and musicians play in dramatically affects the end result. This is especially true for classical music where the performance space is such a heavily emphasized part recording’s sonic aesthetic. While many of the spaces had fantastic acoustics, I always believe in capturing not just the musician performing but the space in which the performance took place. Every recording we on the show had a stereo “main pair” of mics that captured an even stereo image of the musicians as they were in performance space.
- To give more finite control of the mix in post as well as add additional clarity and definition to the sound of each instrument, every musician or section was “spot mic’d”. When you have multiple sound sources close together bleed is inevitable, the goeal then becomes to minimize that bleed. This is where using polar patterns for their off axis rejection can in incredibly useful for minimizing the adjacent sources and prioritizing what you want to capture in each mic. I find hypercardioid and bidirectional mics to be especially useful when recording with classical ensembles
Embrace the space, and capture the best representation of the musician’s performance within the environment they are in!
Since this show was often shooting wides and tights simultaneously as well as recording dialog and music at the same time…not to mention the unscripted nature of the dialog; Booming wasn’t realistic most of the time for this show. As many people know lavs come with a lot of disadvantages too, such as clothing rustle and not as high of quality sound when compared to a quality well placed boom mic. To overcome this I leaned heavy on DPA Lavs (6060s and 4060s), since they are some of the best sounding lavalier mics out there. Additionally the host had wardrobe specifically for this show that was considered for sound which helped enormously.
Packing Light & Flying To Location With Gear
Since we were flying as a small crew, the amount of equipment we could travel with was limited to what was manageable with the footprint and crew size we had. Having just the right sweet spot of having everything you need from core equipment to all the accessories that can make or break you; while also being able to pack it down efficiently for flight. Most airlines have strict weight limits for baggage, even with media baggage.
For the audio side of thing I traveled with a K-Tek Backpack that held all my core essentials in a carry-on; That way even if my checked bags got lost we would still be able to film. For checked bags had a Pelican 1650 with all my accessories, cabling, etc in it, a personal suitcase, and a stand and boom bag. The production company also flew with a carry on 1610 full of microphones and a checked bag of stands. I also packed a couple of empty zip up sand bags that I could always fill on location with landscaping rocks or water bottles to get weight on stands as needed.
Working Cleanly for Video
Because this is for a docuseries and everything is also going to be on camera, this required extra attention to how things would look on camera. For some performances mics were permissible to be in the shot, and on others we’d shoot all our closeups first then pull spot mics for a wide take to keep mics out of all the shots. This wasn’t always possible, so mics being visible was permissible as long as their impact was minimal. When mics where visible it was preferred they were black mics, cabling & connectors, stands, etc. Cabling back to my recorder also needed to be run in the most desecrate way possible as well.
Editorial & Camera Support
Since this show was consistently shooting on 2-3 cameras (Two Canon C500s and 1 C300) at once and was a fast paced run and gun doc style shoot and for musical performances they would also edit in and out of multiple takes of music; It was of extreme importance to keep things clean for the post team. This meant every camera got a sync box providing timecode to the camera. Additionally they all had wireless camera hops providing reference audio for the editor to work from until it made sense to sync the multitrack WAVs.