Behind the Glass

Falling In Love

In the last issue, I wrote about a concert that PS Audio engineer Darren Myers and I put on, and how a SNAFU at sound check led us to try something we hadn’t really yet considered. We’d been preparing a smaller hall off to the side of the performance and music education center building to be a reverberant, live recording space. Given the length of natural decay in there, we hadn’t intended it to host more than a small group of onlookers during future video and audio recordings.

We followed up on the brilliant idea to move the concert into Grimes — the small hall — and what resulted was simply magical. Bella Betts and Joe Esposito serenaded the crowd of 50 or so, playing cello and violin (Joe) and mandolin, guitar and piano (Bella). Bella is into dance and theater, and has an impressive set of pipes. Vocals were clear, and dynamic range was huge. Our pre-show soundcheck ended up comprising of us removing mics and cables since the duo quickly decided to play and sing unamplified. And during that warmup of theirs, they also decided to take advantage of the possibility for dynamics by introducing whisper-quiet sections and growing to great crescendos.

Joe was inspired by the decay of the room and how it responded to his violin, and came up with an idea in soundcheck. Later in the show, he asked the audience to close our eyes and take a deep breath. Then, he proceeded to run through a number of arpeggios on violin, while walking around the room from row to row and in many cases playing as close as six inches from the faces of audience members. It was… pretty cool. Have a listen — this is from a Faulkner array in the third row, 7 feet up and about 20 feet from center stage:

It seems this magical little Grimes Hall has more potential to it than we had thought. What a plucky little spot — every time I visit I find another thing I like about the room.

Sometimes, the best laid plans go awry. And sometimes when things go awry, the special stuff makes itself known and your plans begin to change.

With the success of Bella Betts’ unamplified Invisible Audience concert under our belts, we quickly decided to host the next show in there… and the next one. And the one after that.

I would love to have spent real time on trying to record Bella’s show, but we were working under a shortened soundcheck timeframe and were mostly busy taking gear and speakers out of the room as the group warmed up. I threw up a couple mics by eye and not by ear before the audience filled the room, but the result, while interesting, showed the placement to be too distant from stage.

So, for the following Invisible Audience concert featuring perhaps the most technically proficient and tightest bluegrass group in the area, Masontown, I wanted to really dial in the recording. Originally, Darren’s and my plans for the hall was to record groups like Masontown direct to DSD and without an audience — and with the freedom to set up anywhere in the massive space for best sound. And we will be doing that. We’re pulling the trigger on a pair of Earthworks omnidirectional microphones right at this moment, so we’re about ready to start that side of the Invisible Audience project. Also, I’ve been diving deep down the rabbit hole of handmade ribbon microphones, and am almost finished with a pair. DIY column in Copper to follow, once I get them done and have measurements.

But here we had an amazing group playing in our amazing space, so why wouldn’t we try to record it well? If only to gain more knowledge about recording in the room and how different instruments interact with its boundaries. But also, when buzzing musical energy is alive and the musicians are so in love with how they sound onstage that they let loose and do more… you gotta get that on tape.

For this performance/recording, the timeline was better, we were committed to performing unamplified in Grimes, and I had even talked the band into having a practice in there to start thinking about playing with dynamics and to try to get them to fall in love with the space. On top of that, I wrote in my weekly column for the local newspaper about enchanting acoustic spaces and how rare they are, and promoted the show to that very large reader base.

And lo and behold, our problem du jour began to make itself known. In the week leading to the performance, 80 tickets were pre-sold. Sounds good, right?

The problem was that we had only fit about 50 in there before, and we did not know what the capacity really was. As more tickets sold, the CMA staff worried that we might need to move the show into the larger, theater and PA style room next door. Oh, no!

Everything to this point was sold on the magic of Grimes. I felt that we simply could not make this move without losing all that we had tried to build in the preceding months.

The day of the show, I took a deep breath and just began to pack in chairs. One row, all the way across the room with a 3-foot aisle in the middle, fit 12 chairs. Wait a minute here! Maybe this could work.

Darren and I lugged chair after chair into the space, and when we ran out of room we had close to 130 chairs set up. Who would have thought! Here’s a picture Darren snapped of the room loaded down with chairs before the show:

We fit 130 chairs, and eventually, 129 audience members into this old Lutheran chapel for the Masontown performance.

So, by the skin of our teeth, we pressed on and set up in the room. I decided on a Blumlein pair that I would place onstage a few feet from the performers. I placed the mics, laid the special patent-pending pro audio Iconoclast cables that were donated by Belden, plugged all of the batteries into Darren’s mic preamps, fired up a Stellar Gain Cell DAC for the last 12 dB of gain and sent the signal to a NuWave Phono Converter that created a 96KHz/24-bit PCM stream.

The band showed up, and, on cue, fell in love just as I hoped they would. But as they started playing, I realized we might have to sneak some PA augmentation into the mix, to get high frequencies from the vocals to carry all the way to the back of the hall.

Wanting to preserve images in my recording, I knew I couldn’t just throw monitors up on the sides of the room and have the group sing into a crappy dynamic stage mic. No, we needed to get creative here.

The band had brought a nice tube vocal mic with multiple pickup patterns available, so we put our heads together and decided to use it in conjunction with a small monitor wedge placed behind the group and angled 45-degrees upward. We used the guitar player’s pedalboard-mounted Grace microphone pre and some EQ to take the bass out — bass is usually what causes feedback — and after walking back and forth and making adjustment after adjustment we found the right volume and balance.

What made the setup work well for this style of music, is that the musicians used that vocal mic as a focus point a foot and a half closer to them than my Blumlein pair. They’d approach it to sing, and also to solo. So in the act of mixing themselves for reinforcement they were really mixing themselves well for my 2-channel signal. To make the auxiliary microphone play best with the wedge monitor behind the group, we set it to a figure-8 pattern and pointed the pickup null at the reinforcement speaker.

What could have been improved in retrospect is more direction to the band to get closer to the vocal mic for a better balance. Still, if you give these tracks a listen you’ll see they just need a bit of gain to suck you right into the “you’re there” experience on stage.

Let’s talk about bass for a minute. This room has an uncanny ability to support a flat bass response. After the show, the bass player Bradley Morse lingered and chatted with Darren and me about our project. He had long wanted to record Bach’s Suites for Cello on double bass, and soon we were talking about scheduling for a recording. In the moment he started to play a movement or two, and speaking of movement I asked him to move around a little. By then the chairs were gone, and we could clearly hear the frequency balance reach perfection when he stood underneath the apex of the ceiling and was about a third into the room. Makes sense, if you think about it!

Following are selected MP3 files for the Masontown show in our Grimes Hall. I’m still trying to talk the band into doing something with the high resolution originals, but we’ll see. This is really excellent music, and to an audiophile it has an excellent balance and sense of being there on stage. My hope is to make hi resolution recordings of these live shows, and if they’re good enough, coax the bands into offering the lossless downloads on their Bandcamp pages or something. I want all aspects of this series to be good for musicians, including a possible revenue stream.

If you’d like the original files, let me know by emailing [email protected]. I’ll make a tally and bring it to the band, and perhaps we can get them up there for download. In the meantime, listen to these and take a look over at their website to keep up with the band and learn more.

And buy their album! It’s really fantastic.

P.S. One show note. In the following music you can occasionally hear a foot tapping, and it’s sometimes off beat. The band’s mandolin player, Dr. Mike Canney (a biomechanical engineer by day) has a tendency to tap his foot while playing, curiously wandering on and off beat as he plays. His mandolin never sounds off beat — how’s that for the amazing human brain! During the recording of their album In This Time the band had to place a pillow under Mike’s foot to remove the distraction. I kinda like it! Enjoy.