Multitrack realism

March 15, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

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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2 comments on “Multitrack realism”

  1. Straw man logical fallacy: “plunk down a pair of mics and hit record”. Making a good NCP recording is harder than multi-tracking, and few engineers still know how to do it.

    I have been critically listening to acoustics and the difference between audio and music for over 50 years, and spent 20 of those years researching and experimenting to get to the point where I could build a room for chamber music with variable EQ, compression, and reverb and a state-of-the-art combination of articulation, intimacy, and envelopment.

    I independently discovered several of Chris Jaffe’s principles, he is the acoustician credited with more of the best symphonic halls in the world than any other, as documented in his book “The Acoustics of Performance Halls”. I went beyond his practice in miniaturizing those principles and incorporating more innovations into my ultimate live recording studio.

    I set a higher bar with the triple goal of making the best acoustic environment for chamber musicians to hear themselves and each other, connect them better to the audience, and ensure there was a spot to “plunk down a pair of microphones” and get a great recording. Microphones pick up sound very differently than ears.

    When the ensemble shows up, I have to arrange them carefully in the asymmetrical acoustics in configurations they may never have seen before. My decades of experience means I can guess close to the right position for the stereo pair. From there I have to use high-isolation headphones to tweak the mic position and the performer’s position. It took a year of tweaking the room and learning to hear through those headphones before the results were consistent.

    A factor that aided the reputation of Spectrum greatly was the patron started with a Steinway Model D. This is one of the top concert instruments, nine feet long and roughly 125dB peak output, the standard for filling 3,000 seat symphonic halls with “dynamic, warm, enveloping sound”. An obstacle for this project was the budget for the room, which only got us 55 seats in 75m2 on a special deal (after the 5 year lease, the rent doubled).

    I once asked the rental manager at Steinway Hall (who rents out over 15 Steinways a week) if he had ever put a Model D into 100m2 room. His answer: “I won’t rent a D into a room that small. It will overload the acoustics and sound terrible, damaging our reputation.” So I was faced with an ostensibly impossible task.

    I reversed that equation, creating “possibly the best place to listen to piano in Manhattan”:

    This is the acoustic equivalent to cramming a full orchestra into a primary school classroom.

    On top of that effort, I also cracked the code on speaker design to make the only speakers in history that sound like orchestral instruments, only louder, to conservatory trained musicians – including the Steinway D. The second set in the concert reviewed, the piano was amplified – and as a trick on the reviewer I had piano amplification on for the pieces that were scored acoustic, and he didn’t notice the difference between the state of the art piano and the state of the art amplification.

    Further, the recording and mastering engineer attended who had produced the recording of “The Fields Have Ears” (the electronic piece) for composer Michael Pisaro, and he said it sounded better in my room through my speakers than in the mastering room.

    There is another factor at play here in the discrepancy in our viewpoints. I attended up through 2019 roughly 100 concerts a year from inside the Schroeder limit. That is the dividing line were the reverberant sound energy equals the direct sound energy, 10th row or closer. This is the elite 10% of seats where the sound is clearer, and I record to match THAT sound.

    I prefer this sound to, for example, Dr. Keith Johnson’s “Reference Recordings” which have too much reverb and sound bloated to me. To sit in the “Prime Parquet” you pay premium ticket prices, and mostly have to purchase a season subscription. Some of these seats have been handed down for three or four generations.

    It is therefore no surprise that mass-market recordings were made to sound like the cheap seats in the back. Recordings as clear as mine also do not overwhelm the listening room acoustics like your mixed, mastered and gobs of artificial reverb recordings, so you need rigorous treatment of all six first reflection points to appreciate the difference. I listen in well diffused rooms with calculated bass leakage.

    These differences become exponentially more acute with surround recordings. The only ones I like are made with near coincident arrays, like Chesky, Lipinsky and James Johnston’s AT&T format recordings.

    So which ears do you trust – the ones with season tickets, a piano, and harpsichords in the living room played daily, or the ones that listen to commercial speakers and recordings for a living? I understand both arguments, but picked the drastically less convenient alternative because it results in more goose bumps and euphoria.

    After attending all those concerts and hearing live music every day for 20 years, mixed and mastered multi-tracks are annoying and fatiguing. Even if I am not consciously thinking about the sound quality while I am listening, I am sure it would show up in a polygraph.

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