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Sennheiser MKH 8030 part 2: mid-side recording

February 10, 2024
The Time and Mercy Band, comprising (left to right) Richard Ward, Jason French, Rob John and Kevin Burton.

Thursday evening was an inauspicious time to be heading out for a recording of a bluegrass band: it was a soggy wet evening here in rural Norfolk, with the narrow roads full of potholes lurking below rivers. It didn’t feel much like the Appalachian Mountains. Was it left, right, left, right, left and right again on the maze of roads around Mannington and Wolterton, or the other way round? And if I didn’t remember my left from my right, how on earth would I remember how to connect up the mics for some more mid-side recordings, building on my earlier comparative tests of the new Sennheiser MKH 8030?

I was heading back to The Forge, the studio of Kev Burton, where, a few months ago, I recorded Lucy Grubb and her band using a Blumlein pair of Rycote BD-10 fig 8 mics. This time it was a similar venture: a different band (albeit with the common factor of Kev on bass) – the Time and Mercy Band – and with a mid-side pair instead of a Blumlein pair. This was partly driven by only having a single pre-production Sennheiser MKH 8030 fig 8, but, also, because I wanted to test further the MKH 8030 in combination with the MKH 8040 cardioid as the mid mic, and throw the new Rycote BD-10 fig 8 and its cardioid (CA-08) sibling into the mix. Back at base, I’d decided that to compare the four mics in a mid-side array and allow any combination (but always using an immediately adjacent pair as mid and side mics), I needed a vertical array of five mics: that was BD-10 top and bottom, MKH 8030 in the middle, and the two cardioids between the three fig 8s. Getting them close together (I managed 4mm apart, which is better than many a back-to-back clip) was tricky and meant I couldn’t use individual shock mounts: but still wanting some isolation from a wooden floor and anticipated tapping feet, I then bolted the whole array to a pair of hefty (Duo Lyre 68 shore) Rycote Invision shock mounts, and, for belt and braces, put the stand on foam pads.

Heath Robinson would have been proud of this…

It was a little easier setting up than with the Blumlein recording, this time having all the musicians on one side of the mics and having no drum kit to manage in a fairly compact studio, but the principle remained very much as before – needing care to balance the different instruments and voices – for which having the studio’s control room, with its wonderful Midas desk (originally made for Frank Zappa) feeding into Logic, and Kev’s experience with it, was invaluable for reviewing each take. The primary feed from the mics was, again, to my field recorder.

We recorded three songs, but, for the purposes of this post I am going to focus on one, which the band call ‘Sugar Honey Babe’. It’s a traditional bluegrass song and has been recorded with many similar titles (and, of course, variations in the lyrics), and perhaps is most well-known nowadays as ‘Red Rocking Chair’.

OK, that’s more than enough preamble: to the results! First off, here’s a very quick and dirty video: one camera stuck on a tripod pointing towards the band and with the mics largely blocking the view of Rob on banjo. My excuse is that the focus was on the audio. The video switches between the various mic combinations and, as the previous tests showed that the two Rycotes are lighter in the bass department than their MKH 8000 series counterparts, a few options where the BD-10 and the CA-08 have some EQ: imperfectly applied, no doubt, but it reduces some of the more obvious differences between the mics. Other than the EQ on these few clearly labelled snippets, all the sound is as it was recorded: no reverb, no compression etc.

For those wanting to listen to the sound files without whatever YouTube does to them, here they are. I’ve not included the EQ’d versions as I am sure others can do better, or would at least want to try. These LR stereo files can, of course, be decoded back to the original mid and side channels, should you so wish (I’ve enabled downloading permissions on SoundCloud for them).

I’m not sure all the versions of the tracks with the Rycote mics given some EQ (as used where flagged up in the video above) merit inclusion, but here is just the one – the recording with the MKH 8040 and the EQ’d BD-10: although the EQ is fairly rough and ready, it does show the potential, should you wish it, to bring the mic nearer the MKH 8030.

And, finally, for a bit of fun, here’s a version of the video with the MKH 8040 and MKH 8030 pair throughout, rather than chopping and changing mic pairs. I’ve added a little reverb to this version.

So the verdict this time? As with the Blumlein pair recording, that’s one for others perhaps. The balance of the recording is far from perfect: we didn’t have endless time to fiddle around with placement, and, even if we had spent hours on it, it would have been hard to balance, say, Rob’s backing vocal and his (much louder) banjo. On a different note, rain can be heard on the studio window too: so not ideal. But putting the MKH 8030 into more real-world action with a largely acoustic band (there was a little bit of amplification for the bass) was useful, not least seeing how it performed with the MKH 8040 and just how much difference was noticeable when swapping out to different (and less expensive) mics, and what a bit of EQ might do to that. As before, my take is that the MKH 8030 is a first-rate mic, pairs well with the excellent MKH 8040 (as entirely expected), but that the considerably cheaper BD-10 is decent too and that, with some EQ, comes much closer to the MKH 8030 – especially when used as the side mic in a mid-side recording. As I’ve said before, it’s good to have these two new choices in the limited field of SDC fig 8 mics: happy days!

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A little bit of Blumlein

October 10, 2023

I’ve long been a fan of simple set ups for music recording, often using a mid-side pair only. That’s partly due to the fact that I like the idea of a stereo capture (rather than close-miced instruments and vocals panned across the left-right field), but also reflects the nature of what I do: location recording, with no studio and the natural tendency there – since the 1970s – to use multi-mic and multi-track recording, overdubbing and tinkering for as long as you wish. This is not to deny that there’s a hugely creative side to the typical studio recording approach, and it allows you to record instruments in ways just not possible without it. Of course, a simpler approach has remained the case with much recording of acoustic and classical music, although, even there, the number of spot mics can be vast these days. But recording of bands – with drum kits, electric guitars etc. – has been largely the province of the multi-mic and multi-track approach in recent decades, with only the occasional exception.

One such exception I have enjoyed has been John Cuniberti’s OneMic series of recordings. John is a hugely experienced engineer, with years of the studio multi-tracked approach under his belt, so it has been fascinating to see and hear his journey into a simpler approach: in his case using a stereo pair of ribbon mics, arranged as a Blumlein pair, in the form of the single stereo AEA R88. John has an excellent YouTube channel with examples of his recordings and videos, as well as behind-the-scenes videos, which are invaluable for others attempting something similar.

With a pair of the latest pre-production Rycote BD-10 fig 8 mics in hand, I was keen to try something in this vein: that is, to capture a whole band at the same time just with a Blumlein pair. Besides, what’s the point of a fig 8 mic without a good Blumlein work out? With a fraction of the skills and resources of a Cuniberti, expectations were much lower, but that’s not a reason not to have a go!

For anyone not familiar with the approach – which, like so much in stereo, goes back to the work of the brilliant engineer Alan Blumlein in the 1930s – a Blumlein pair comprises a pair of fig 8 mics usually arranged directly one above the other, so that the two mic capsules are angled at 90 degrees to each other: in that sense, like an XY pair. This gives you a stereo field in front of the mics and, with the rear lobes of the mics, to the rear: the stereo field to the rear, of course, is flipped. There’s plenty of signal at the sides of the pair, but it’s not the place for a direct sound source: at right-angles to the pair a source would be, say, on the left from the perspective of the front lobes, and on the right from the perspective of the rear lobes. Quite evidently, a recipe for a phasey mess. So, a Blumlein pair isn’t the answer to micing a group ranged in a circle around the mics, but does let you spread them in an arc of 70 degrees in front of the mic and a similar arc to the rear. Setting relative levels of different instruments and vocals is, needless to say, a question of adjusting loudness of the sources and/or distance from the Blumlein pair.

So much for the theory: the task is to translate that into action. With Lucy Grubb and her band willingly volunteering for the exercise, choice of venue was largely dictated by the need for good monitoring: with ‘mixing’ created in the setup, it was essential that the band and I could listen back and adjust the set up as necessary. The bassist, Kev Burton, happily let us use his studio – The Forge – where the band has previously recorded their multi-track releases: the wonderful Midas desk (originally made for Frank Zappa) was reduced to monitoring duties (from a passive split and feeding Logic), while the primary feed from the Blumlein pair was to my Sound Devices MixPre-3 recorder. Kev’s experience with his studio and the expert ears of the band were crucial to getting the balance right.

Monitoring in the control room, through the Midas desk, Logic and some Tannoy Little Gold monitors.

It was a tight squeeze in the small studio, with the hardest thing controlling the level of the drums, even with brushes and a special kick-drum beater: there was only so far we could move the drums away from the mics, so the drummer, Paul Weston, detuned his snare to great effect, and we put a gobo in front of the kit. The electric bass amp was placed on a chair in front of that (to get the bass central and nicely balanced with the kick drum), with Richard Poynton, on electric guitar and singing backing vocals, nearer the mic, and a little to one side. Closer to the mic, but centrally on the other side, was lead singer (and song-writer) Lucy Grubb, playing acoustic guitar (with a little amplification behind her). Left and right of her amp, were amps for Richard’s guitar and for the keyboard of Piers Hunt: all three were on chairs/beer crates to get them off the floor. Placement of the keyboard and the bass players themselves didn’t matter: it was all about the position (and volume) of their amps.

Getting distances and angles from the mic pair for lead and backing vocals was essential: Richard’s guitar amp (a Fender Champ) was at the same angle to the mics as his guitar, but on the other side of the mics, behind Lucy.

There was precious little room for any lights or cameras, but, nonetheless, a rough and ready film of the recording seemed worthwhile, so here – with a video of one of the three songs we recorded – is what I managed. The sound has seen no processing other than addition of a little reverb: there is no compression, EQ etc.

So the verdict? Well that’s one for others perhaps. But from my perspective and, more importantly, that of the band, what we got was a very faithful sound of the band in the room. Everyone was engaged in the idea of balancing or ‘mixing’ at source and I suspect we’ll be back having another go before long. Oh, and the BD-10s faired rather well as a Blumlein pair, I thought!

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Gems in the Rough

March 12, 2023

Lucy Grubb wanted to have a video made of her acoustic performance of a new track ‘Magpie’, to enter the GemsOnVHS annual contest – #GemsInTheRough2023. The requirements are an original song and a video specifically made for the contest. If you are not familiar with it, Anthony Simpkins’s GemsOnVHS was begun about 12 years ago and comprises a mass of field recordings (or, rather, videos) of what might be broadly described as folk musicians. The musicians (almost all relatively young) are mostly from the US, but not exclusively so, and they are mostly lesser-known artistes without recording contracts or large followings. There are exceptions, of course, such as the recordings/videos of Willie Watson made two or three years ago – long after he had come to fame with the Old Crow Medicine Show and, then, his solo career. Some other well-known musicians have been caught by GemsOnVHS at an early stage in their careers, with the videos doubtless helping them along the path: the most obvious example is Sierra Ferrell. It isn’t quite a case of a latter day Alan Lomax, but it is a great way of finding some more obscure, but talented musicians, not least as few will ever have the commercial success that means they will make it to the UK. And the intimate field recordings resonate with my own interest in such an approach.

The requirements of the annual contest don’t mean that there is a need to follow the GemsOnVHS production style: indeed, many competition entries are made using no more than a smart phone. Given the weather (very wintry here last weekend, when Lucy blew back to rural Norfolk for a couple of days) an inside location was pretty essential, so I suggested the workshop of woodcarver Luke Chapman: Luke’s a good friend and another talented musician, and I have been recording him over the last few years, more latterly in his workshop. It has a reasonable acoustic and seemed suited to Lucy’s music and the ethos of GemsOnVHS. While Anthony Simpkin has always favoured near-invisible miking (relying on lav mics), I’ve not been so convinced about this one element of the GemsOnVHS productions: it seems a little contrived and rather contrary to the honest field-recording approach, and suggests undue emphasis on the visuals. Anyway, I much prefer visible mics (above all for audio quality) when filming field recordings of music: and it is good to see, or rather hear, that many others do as well – perhaps most notably the folks at Playing for Change.

Of course, not all microphone techniques are equally visible or as suited to field recordings. So to keep the set-up simple and comparatively unintrusive, for this recording I went for a variation on double mid-side recording. Using three SDC mics, the Rycote BD-10 fig 8 mic was set conventionally with the null pointed at Lucy, just above the top of her guitar, so that its lobes faced left and right; immediately below this a supercardioid (Rycote SC-08) pointed upwards to capture the vocals, and immediately above the fig 8 a cardioid (Rycote CA-08) pointed downwards to the guitar – aimed around the 12th fret. There is a Sound on Sound article by Hugh Robjohns from a few years ago that discusses and illustrates the approach. The two different MS pairs can be decoded separately and combined as wished. Doing this as a one-man band, camera work was necessarily simple, which suited the nature of the contest. I used three cameras, two on tripods and one hand held (sans gimbal) to give a bit of energy to the video: a Lumix G9 with a Meike T2.2 35mm cinema lens; one Lumix GX80 with a Meike T2.2 16mm cinema lens; and another Lumix GX80 with a Panasonic f1.8 25mm lens. I took lights, but left them in the car: it seemed over the top, and, while a combination of daylight and fluorescent strip lights might not seem ideal, the combined diffuse lighting works OK and keeps it real.

We did three takes of Lucy’s song and went for the third: there was no audio editing at all (processing was limited to adding a high-pass filter, setting levels, choosing stereo width whilst decoding the MS pairs, and adding a little reverb), and the video editing was simple too (a little bit of colour matching and then grading). Anyway, here’s Lucy’s entry:

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Tony Hall – man and melodeon

October 22, 2022

Tony Hall’s melodeon playing has long been much revered in the world of folk music, and can be heard on Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s ‘Silly Sisters’ album, on Nic Jones’s ‘Penguin Eggs’ album, and on his own recordings: ‘Field Vole Music’ (1977), ‘Mr Universe’ (1995), and ‘One Man Hand’ (2008). Despite his many live performances over the years (not least with the weekly performances of The Vonn Krapp Family Band for around 50 years), there are few videos of Tony playing. Given his unique style and, also, his relaxed and humorous stage presence, this is a real pity. A few years ago I set out to rectify this, but Covid intervened and, to be honest, Tony got slightly cold feet about such self-promotion! But patience rewards those who wait, and with the help of a mutual friend (thank you Matt!), a few weeks ago Tony agreed to the recording and filming of a live performance.

Tony’s set followed a harvest supper at his local church so I had no wish to intrude too much on the occasion. A low profile was essential, and there would be little to no time for adjusting gear on the night. With such events, preparation is, of course, very much the order of the day, so in the weeks beforehand I had a sound check with a stand-in melodeon player (thank you Rob!) and a lighting test (the church lighting looked hopeless) one evening.

On the audio side, recording melodeon (and accordion) is challenging since so much sound comes out of the sides and, of course, the left (bass) hand moves in and out. I’ve tried various techniques over the years, and the sound test before this session confirmed my conclusion that the best way is to record with mics positioned either side of the instrument. It’s also how Tony has mics set up whenever he uses a PA, so it was good to have a set up that was comfortable for him too. I’d have preferred omni mics, not least as the acoustic was good, but with an audience liable to sing along or cough, and, even, the potential for a bit of clatter from someone having their third helping of pudding (I wouldn’t blame them as they were marvellous!) I went for cardioid mics, and angled them a bit so the rear nulls had some effect. Mics either side gives a much fuller sound than a stereo pair in front of the melodeon, but, of course, if hard-panned left and right the mics make the instrument sound 30ft wide: after playing around and testing on speakers and headphones in post, I settled on panning 40% left and right. I used a pair of Rode NT55s. For vocals, I wanted as much separation from the melodeon as possible, so that I could vary levels after the event, and would have preferred a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) fig 8 so I could use its null to good effect, but, conscious that this would mean the rear lobe would pick up the audience too much and that it would be far from discreet, went for an SDC hypercardioid – the AKG CK93.

Filming gear needed to be equally discreet. The bad lighting was solved by a single softbox lantern (the SmallRig 65cm version) with a SmallRig 3616, which is a COB LED light that is bi-colour (so I could set colour temperature to match the church lights at 2700K). Lanterns are so much gentler on the performer than a rectangular softbox, and the single light didn’t intrude unduly: as benign as a standard lamp. Cameras were a Lumix G9 and two Lumix GX80s, two cameras roughly at 45 degrees, and one, low down, centrally, to catch Tony’s fingers on the melodeon buttons (so aficionados can see how he does it). All three cameras locked off on tripods, and two unmanned: far from ideal, but nicely low key. With a bit of varied cropping from the 4k capture for the 1080p output, that gave some variety in the shots in the final video. And low-key video suited the occasion anyway.

So the end result? Well judge for yourself, but it certainly captured something of the event, is a step up from the few mobile phone videos of Tony online, and was a reasonable stab given the understandable constraints. And the bonus? Tony is keen to go on and make a proper album in the same church this autumn/winter, without an audience. He doesn’t enjoy the stress of studio recording, or the excessive editing of multiple takes to create the performance that never was, but he’s up for a relaxed recording in his local church, which is great news: Tony still has many a song/tune he would like to record for posterity. Obviously there will be scope for much improving the sound of the audio from the harvest supper gig, so more anon.

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Acoustic recording and video – in a summerhouse

June 24, 2021
Relaxed and ready to record: left to right, Richard Poynton, Lucy Grubb and Richard Ward.

As part of the promotion of her new EP, Lucy Grubb was keen to have videos made of acoustic performances of a couple of the tracks, to be made very simply in the summerhouse of her banjo player/guitarist, Richard Ward. This involved just two members of the band, providing backing vocals, guitars and banjo, so quite different from the full band, studio recordings on the EP.

With simplicity being the order of the day, and minimal set-up time, I went for a mid-side pair of SDC mics: the AKG CK94 fig 8 as the side mic and the CK93 hypercardioid as the mid mic, into a Sound Devices MixPre-3 recorder. Just to have an extra option, I also rigged up a third mic – a Rode NT55 with the cardioid capsule – as an alternative mid mic, but this really wasn’t the right polar pattern: the main challenges were the balance of the three performers (with a focus on Lucy’s lead vocal) and the difficult acoustic of the fairly narrow untreated summerhouse, all while trying to have a visually unintrusive set up. With hindsight, and given that birdsong is clear in the recordings anyway (in part due to the open doors behind the camera view in the photo above), I think I’d have preferred to record outside under the gazebo you can see in the background: but the band were warmed up and ready to go and, besides, the free-range chickens might have been more challenging still…

On the video side, I simply ran three Lumix cameras: a G9 close to hand on a fluid-head tripod so that I could move it as necessary, and a pair of GX80s on static tripods. Very basic, but it gives the two videos a bit more interest than a single static shot, without stretching the one-man audio recording and filming too far. We did two takes of the first song and three of the second, selecting the best in each case: there was no audio editing at all (processing was limited to a bit of compression and a little reverb), and the video editing was simple too (with colours left as straight off the cameras).

Mid-side recording, with the CK94 (centre in the photo) and CK93 (bottom): the NT55 cardioid mic (top) was not used. Incidentally, you can see the lower profile of the old-style Rycote back-to-back clips (between the bottom two mics) vs the clunkier newer-style clips (between the top two mics) with the wider spacing this brings.
And here’s the video/recording of one of the songs, ‘Waste My Time’.