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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 fig 8 was set conventionally 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:

Audio Projects Film Projects Live Music

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.

Audio Projects Film Projects

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’.

Audio Projects Film Projects

Experimenting with moving or POV stereo ambiences…

March 6, 2021
Setting off in the cause of research…or seeking ridicule?

I think Lockdown III must be getting to me: I’ve been pondering over stereo ambiences for film lately, wondering if they ever are or should be recorded while moving to match the POV (point of view) of the camera?

This was stimulated by thinking about sound for an upcoming project with drone footage, where the drone will follow the course of a small local river from source to sea – flying fairly low and slowly. I want the sound to match the view – along the bubbling stream, the passing over of weirs, cows and sheep being flown past etc. Obviously bunging a couple of mics on the drone isn’t an option given the noise of the motors and rotors, so any ambiences will need to be recorded quite separately. Initially I thought of helium balloons: I calculated that seven normal-sized party balloons would lift a pair of Rode Wireless GO II transmitters into the air, but, the more I have thought about this the more complex it seems: a totally windless day seems essential and, even then, trying to stop the mics spinning or, harder, trying to get the balloons in the right place seem fraught with difficulties. And then, more fundamentally, what does a moving stereo recording actually sound like? In other words, would it even be worthwhile trying to do this?

Recording to the miniscule MixPre-3

Drawing a blank through internet searches (the nearest thing being people trying to record the sounds of – say – a bike travelling, rather than just the ambience without evidence of the mode of transport), and not knowing how the soundtrack of any film with apparent moving stereo ambiences was actually made, it seemed easiest to experiment. A bicycle appeared to be the best bet for near-silent travel, as long as fast speed or free-wheeling was avoided. After initial less than satisfactory attempts with semi-binaural set-ups of lav mics by my ears and either side of a rucksack (both getting far too much bike noise, and, also, showing up the inadequacies of furry wind-protection for these mics), I rigged up a boom pool to a sheet of ply, cut to the shape of a rucksack, to mount the mics well above me (so further from the bike and road noise) and to prevent unwanted rotation. The mics were omni SDCs mounted end-to-end in a single blimp to minimize windnoise (see my post here on using mics in this way). Extending the boom pole very far got unwieldly, so it was only partly extended. Sound was recorded to a Sound Devices MixPre-3 on a light harness. The results were in a different league to the lav mic experiments, but the bike was still very evident and, above all, I’m not at all convinced that the sense of movement is very strong. This last point is critical. In short, I have no doubt that a better result could be achieved by recording general ambiences and specific sound effects from static positions and amalgamating them into the soundtrack to give the illusion of moving through space: doubtless this is what sound designers know and do, anyway, but it is good to experiment and find that, sometimes, the seemingly logical approach doesn’t work. And if, in doing so, I’ve gained an eccentric reputation in the village (yes, cycling with a blimp on a vertical boom pole does look extremely silly), then so be it…

For anyone interested, here is a recording of one of my tests with the SDC spaced pair in blimp, including the reaction of a passing neighbour.

Audio Gear Audio Projects

Something (not so) nasty in the woodshed: fun with figure of eights

January 7, 2021

It has been a drawn-out project, what with Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions, but currently I’m midway through recording an acoustic album for Norfolk singer-songwriter Luke Chapman. It’s a long way from some of Luke’s other musical pursuits, such as the stoner grunge rock Rolodex of Gods. After an initial session at Oulton Chapel (lovely acoustics), we have since been using the woodstore part of his workshop on the edge of the Barningham Hall estate: by day Luke is a woodcarver.

With a sitting position and songs with a huge dynamic range, Luke’s voice and guitar playing need the mics to give as much separation as possible between the tracks. Early tests included using a ribbon mic on his vocals (a NoHype Audio LRM-V), but I have since been using three Rode NT2a mics, all in figure-of-eight pattern so that the nulls are used to great effect to cut out spill as much as possible: the guitar mics – a stereo pair – are parallel at 300mm spacing, one aimed around the 12th fret and one towards the bridge. The results are sounding good (to our ears): the Rode NT2a is often underrated, but the HF1 capsule (also used in the Rode K2 tube mic) is quite different from the harsher capsule of the Rode NT1a and is a pretty neutral beast. And so quiet (7dBA) that you can hear the rats running around in the roof as we record. The three mics are fed through to the ‘control room’ (the main workshop) to a Sound Devices MixPre-3: simple, but effective.

I’ll post more – with some audio – as the project continues.