Choosing the Best Recording Equipment Microphones

SBO Staff • ChoralJuly 2009Roundtable • July 28, 2009

So you want to record your choral group and don’t know where to start? With so many different types of equipment out there, recording may seem to be an overwhelming feat. CD recently caught up with a few experienced professionals who offered their expertise on microphones and other recording tools, as well as opinions on getting the best sound out of your choir.

The Equipment
When it comes to recording equipment there are many options from micro recorders to wireless microphones and everything in between. Kellori Dower, director of choral music at Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, Calif., has had the benefit of using her school district’s sound equipment. “Our district’s equipment is much better than ours. We appreciate having the use of outstanding condenser microphones, speakers, and monitors by Marantz and Yamaha. Our goal is to duplicate the best sound of the room that we are playing in.” As with many school groups, Kellori’s group performs in a variety of places small elementary schools, multi-purpose rooms, large gyms, and stadiums. “We modify our equipment based on where we are. Since many of our recordings are done for auditions, we use the school theater and turn it into a recording studio with our portable equipment.”

Kellori uses a 16-channel house unit by Wenger, which her choral department acquired in a deal along with choral risers seven years ago. It came with two Community speakers and a monitor. “Since we bought the initial system, our district has enhanced it with wireless capabilities, a better amplifier, and additional speakers. We also have 12 SMR microphones. We now have the ability to record live or in a studio session on campus.” Kellori also offers advice on the placement of your singers when recording. “It is easy to just set them up in the normal order on stage, but in my opinion this could be an error. You should arrange your group to get the best recording sound, rather than having them stand where they would live.”

James D. Moyer, choral director at Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Penn., mainly works with a professional recording engineer for almost all of his choirs’ concerts and special projects. However, the Pennsbury High School Choral Department owns two recording devices the Superscope PSD340 and the Korg D1600 mkII. As James says, “The Superscope machines work great for individual audition CDs and things that we need to record right away. We also own four Sennheiser MD 421-II microphones.”

For a good recording setup, Brad Zabelski, audio engineer for the Central Bucks High School Choirs in Doylestown, Penn., suggests the following, “When choosing or purchasing equipment, emphasis should be placed on the equipment closest to the sound source. The order of the signal path would be: microphones, preamps, and A/D converters. Therefore you would put most of your resources into the microphones, then decent preamps, and lastly the A/D converters. You can get a better sound from good microphones and decent preamps and converters than you will from mediocre microphones and very good preamps and converters. If you are dedicated to doing your own choral recordings, invest in a good two channel preamp and a decent interface. Many interfaces come with two or four built in preamps, but stand-alone preamps are much better than what they put into most interfaces.

“Grace Design, Millennia Media, and Sound Devices all make good two channel pre-amp units,” Zabelski continues. “The interface may be several hundred dollars, and the two channel pre could be between $600 and $1,800. In terms of microphones, cardioids are the most common, and I would recommend a pair of wide cardioids for two channel, dedicated choral recording. You will get a much nicer sound on the low end and a more rounded sound overall. Wide cardioids exhibit a better response to low frequencies and are what I call ‘less pointed’ than standard cardioids, meaning their reach has softer edges which blends more room sound with the direct sound. Although omni microphones do amazing things I wouldn’t do a choral session without them now they can be harder to use due to the fact they require more care in positioning to capture the best results. I would recommend that a choral director who wants to purchase a pair of microphones stay with cardioids or wide-cardioids.”

The Cost
In addition to all of this equipment, there are a lot of little necessities as well, such as headphones, cables, and mic stands. If this sounds like a hefty financial investment for your music program or possibly a time-consuming task, it can be. There are several ways to look at the investment. As Brad views it, “Having the right equipment doesn’t necessarily mean you can do great recordings on your own. The reality is, particularly in relation to choral concert recordings, it takes time to set things up properly. And time is certainly something choir directors don’t have in the hours leading up to a performance.”

For some educators, like James D. Moyer, recording equipment is just too cost prohibitive. “We find it to be most cost effective to use a professional recording engineer than to try to buy and keep up with the latest equipment. The newest technology comes out too fast for our budget to keep up.”

Other educators, however, feel as though the investment is worth it and are confident enough to do the recording themselves. Gregory Cleveland, director of vocal music at Walled Lake Western High School in Detroit, Mich., has used professional recording equipment and mini digital systems. “I currently use ProTools software to do all my mixing and recording. For big recordings, we will pull out the equipment, but I have done many recordings using some of the micro recorders from M-Audio and Zoom. No matter what the pros say, I believe live acoustics are so much better than digital effects. A choir in the Salzburg Cathedral is what I like the best.”

The cost of equipment may not be such an obstacle if funds could be recouped through CD sales or fundraising, but that rarely happens. As Kellori Dower sees it, “Our choirs have not made recordings specifically for commercial purposes, but we typically have several parents and community patrons who purchase them anyhow. In other words, I would not record my high school choir just to make money although in these tough economic times, it is starting to look interesting. Our focus is great music; the profit we receive from our inspired work is gravy.”

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