Recording Brass AND Woodwinds
by Blair Jackson
Mix, Jul 1, 2001
This month, we turn our attention to different methods of recording brass and woodwinds. We spoke with five top
engineers Michael Bishop, Al Schmitt, Richard King, Eric Schilling and Lolly Lewis, who cover a broad stylistic
spectrum to glean some specific tips and techniques to make your recordings sound as good as they can be.
It's not easy being a classical music engineer and a producer in a secondary recording market like the San Francisco
Bay Area, but Lolly Lewis has thrived there, working consistently and on a wide variety of styles, from early music to
modern. Unlike her engineer brethren above, she is loath to talk about specific mic favorites of hers, insisting, with
characteristic candor, "Mics -- it doesn't make a damn bit of difference. Everybody has preferences, but it's not, in any
way, the most important thing. The most important thing is the players and their instruments. You've got a good fiddle,
and it's going to sound fabulous if you've got a decent mic in a decent spot. If you've got something that's too close or
you don't have a good player, there's nothing you can do that's going to make it sound wonderful."
"I was really amazed that by picking the right mic and having great guys playing, there wasn't much you needed to do
to the horn mics, and I still find that to be true." - Eric Schilling
That said, Lewis will talk about her basic philosophy of miking and recording. "It all depends on the size of the hall and
the size of the section," she begins. "I like chamber music miked a lot more closely than most people do. I'm tired of
hearing so much room. I want chamber music to sound like I'm sitting in the room with the players and I can hear the
individual instrument and some amount of actual noise. But a lot of people don't like that, so the common wisdom is
to go much further away. What you've got to do is just listen and find what you like. If you put the instrument in a room
and then start walking away from it, you'll notice you hear some things when you're close and other things when
you're far away. You try to find a balance that gives you the elements of close and far away that you like. I know that
sounds a little vague, but there's no formula for that. A lot of it is really knowing the music and the musicians and
having some notion of how it should sound.
"One of the things that's particularly true with woodwinds is, if you're really close [with the mic], you get a lot of clatter
from the keys; tons. There's a lot of mechanical action with those guys blowing and the clattering. Same with string
instruments, of course -- you'll hear the fingers on the fingerboard, you'll hear little squeaks and string noises that are
just part of the instrument. The further away you get, the less of that you get. So, typically, you want to get far away
enough that you hear a little bit of that, but it's not going to dominate."
For larger groups, such as full orchestras, Lewis says, "You put enough mics up that you can grab what you want,
while still getting a basic sound off of the front array, which will always be your main sound. I would always use
large-diaphragm mics for my front to get that great, big, wonderful sound and use small-diaphragm mics for spot
miking. There is no 'right' way; that's just the way my mind works. Your own ears and your own sense of what the
musical style requires is way more important."
Lewis will augment her main array with spot or sectional mics as the music requires. She lists harp, guitar and quiet
woodwinds, like an English horn or something as instruments that sometimes need the reinforcement of a spot mic on
a recording date. "I want to be sure that I can grab that part and it doesn't get lost," she notes. "I want to hear every
instrument as clearly as I can. And to do that, I'll move the musicians around a ton until I get them in the spot that
sounds the best. Then I also move the mics around relative to that spot. On a Women's Philharmonic [disc] done up
at Skywalker, we had the brass section split on either side of the ensemble, so they were left and right. It was kind of
unusual, but it sounded fine. Then, the next time we came in, they needed to hear each other a little more tightly, so
we moved the horns back over onto one side. I'll do whatever works best; that's my philosophy."
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor