Multitrack Realism

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Multitrack Realism

It has been said that the simplest and most effective means of getting a perfect stereo recording is to plunk down a pair of stereo microphones and press the record button. The fact this is rarely done suggests there’s likely more to the story than simplistic views.

In fact, the vast majority of recordings—especially the great ones—are multi-miked and often multitracked. The reasons for this are both clear and unclear to me.

If we go back in time to the 3-channel microphone setups of classics like those from the RCA Living Stereo series, we can hear what works and what doesn’t.

What works is hearing the orchestra as the conductor would. The three microphones were placed just above the conductor’s head and it was up to the conductor, as it always is, to keep the orchestra in acoustic balance. These recordings are good but hardly what one would call intimate or immersive.

Compare these older style recordings with those of the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler series with Tillson Thomas conducting. My eyes crossed trying to count the number of both onstage and hanging-from-the-ceiling microphones. Multi-miked and multitracked, this format is the polar opposite of the simple 3-channel recordings of yore.

If you have time to make the comparison it’s likely going to be instructive. The more modern Mahler recordings are huge, spacious, intimate, and immersive in all the ways the older 3-channel attempts were not.

Of course, there’s plenty of great small-venue recordings using minimal microphone techniques—even bigger ones with great success like those my friend Ray Kimber has achieved using his minimal microphone technique known as the IsoMike.

The bottom line in recording: it’s all up for grabs in the hands and ears of the recording and mixing engineers.

Like everything in audio, there’s no perfect method, just the occasional once-in-a-blue-moon perfect results.

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Paul McGowan

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