Recording the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in 5.1

February 1, 2011


A jazz quintet walks into a concert hall and meets a symphony orchestra. That's not the setup for a bad joke, but a concert put on at Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver on Dec. 14, 2010. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and Marvin Hamlisch paired with Dianne Reeves and her quartet to put on a jazz Christmas show.

On hand to capture the performance for radio broadcast was Mike Pappas, chief engineer at KUVO in Denver. Pappas had previously done a live radio broadcast of Yo-Yo Ma and the Colorado Symphony at Boettcher in 2009 (see article in March 2010 issue), and in 2004 had recorded a previous show with Reeves and the Colorado Symphony.

Thucydides

Thucydides "Duke" Markos works the surround mix on a Soundtracs DS-00 broadcast console.


Unlike the 2009 show, the Reeves/CSO show was not broadcast live. Instead, Pappas recorded it using Logic for future broadcast in DTS 5.1. The primary challenge Pappas faced was integrating the mixes for the house, run by Reeves' sound engineer/tour manager Paul Boothe, and the radio. Pappas and Boothe coordinated on the microphone selection to create the best sound.

Pappas also helped select the FOH mixing console, a Digico SD7, and used the MADI interface to reduce cabling issues. The SD7 was used in place of the Boettcher's standard desk, a Yamaha PM3500, an old analog console that the house engineer, Aric Christensen, normally uses. Christensen also worked with Pappas and Boothe on microphone selection and tech setup for the FOH mix.

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra prepares to perform in Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall.

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra prepares to perform in Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall.


Because the event wasn't typical, Christensen was comfortable with Pappas and Boothe selecting equipment. "For example, we used MKH 8040 digital microphones for overheads," Pappas said. "We did do one or two double mikings, but it wasn't much. He was perfectly happy with our choice of Sennheiser MKH 800s on the piano. We had a couple of phone calls and swapped some Excel spreadsheets back and forth and got it all to work. We've got about 40 microphones that we are looking at, plus the front of house guys have about 50 that they are looking at, so we were able to get everybody on the same page.

"Because they were running a console that has MADI, the Digico SD7, we were able to split our MADI feeds from our rack, which has all the trio feeds, Dianne Reeves' vocal mics, the wireless mics and everything else. We gave them a feed of that digitally via MADI right to the console. Then they have their own rack with a bunch of orchestra stuff we don't need. It worked out really well, and instead of having to run a million miles of microphone snakes, we were able to do it on eight coax cables."

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Microphones

David Day and Duke Markos check the surround mix.

David Day and Duke Markos check the surround mix.


Pappas also configured three Neumann KM 133D digital microphones across the front of the stage. The KM 133Ds have an NMIC DMI-8 eight channel control box that provides phantom power and allows the engineer to set the sample rate, and then used his favorite rear-channel device, Fritz, to capture the audience and room. Fritz is a stereo dummy head Neumann KU100 box that was hung about 10 meters off the floor. The head was powered from a Grace M802R preamp.

Pappas employed a wide variety of microphones to get the best sound on the symphony. Most of the microphones were digital; for the analog ones, he used Grace M802R preamps with built-in A/D converters. Pappas ran optical out from the Grace units, as well as the digital microphone control boxes, to an RME ADI 648 that takes them all and then creates MADI from it.

"We are using a pile of digital microphones throughout the orchestra,” he said. "The first violins, second violins, violas and cellos, have Neumann KM 184 D digital microphones. The basses are captured with Sennheiser MKH 8040 digital microphones, and we're using a KM 133 D as a highlight microphone on percussion, which we thought was pretty fun, and then we are using a Neumann KMR 82 long shotgun microphone on the acoustic bass."

The Reeves Colorado Symphony Orchestra session block diagram shows how the mix was fed through DTS Neural Surround. (Click to enlarge)

The Reeves Colorado Symphony Orchestra session block diagram shows how the mix was fed through DTS Neural Surround.(Click to enlarge)


Mixing

Though Pappas has extensive experience mixing and recording, because of the potential for fires to break out, Pappas decided to bring in an old friend, Thucydides "Duke" Markos, to mix the show on a Soundtracs DS-00 broadcast console in the control room. Markos had five Avalon Acoustics speakers driven by Jeff Rowland Class D 1,000W amplifiers to monitor the mix, and tube traps to control room reverberation.

"I've worked with Mike on surround mixes since 2004," Markos said. "For something like this, the strategy is a bit different, because we are dealing with a hall that is designed for orchestral work, and it's not the best-sounding hall for classical music, and then when you add PA, it complicates things a lot. We have to find some kind of balance between getting that surround and making it sound coherent."

Markos used some compression on Reeves to help control the mix, as she is a very dynamic performer who continuously adjusts her microphone range to raise or lower her volume.

"It's really difficult, because you don't want to squash her down; you want to keep that dynamic range, so you really have to do some gain riding on her, and we do a tiny bit of leveling on her, but we try to do minimal processing on these recordings," Markos said. "We have an LA3A for a little bit of leveling. There's no compression on anything else.

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"It's really difficult, because you don't want to squash her down; you want to keep that dynamic range, so you really have to do some gain riding on her, and we do a tiny bit of leveling on her, but we try to do minimal processing on these recordings," Markos said. "We have an LA3A for a little bit of leveling. There's no compression on anything else."

The stage was configured with the orchestra surrounding the trio, so Markos was challenged to create that type of mix for the recording.

"In all of my live mixes, I try to pan them as they are live, because it helps to eliminate a lot of phasing problems," Markos said. "What we are basically doing is we have the orchestra surrounding the quartet, and we do everything audience perspective. So, for instance, we are panning the guitarist right, but not all the way right; we are panning him within the orchestra, so the quartet is within the orchestra just like they are onstage, and with surround, we have the opportunity to also pan things depth-wise, so we are panning things depth-wise as they are onstage. The quartet is up front, as are the first violins, so we try and keep the relationship there, because it really does help keep the coherence of the sound."

Recording

Pappas and Markos recorded the show on a Mac G5 running Logic. Though Pappas has recorded in DSD before, including the Yo-Yo Ma show, with the large number of microphones on stage, he felt DSD was too much.

"The reason we picked Logic is it is very simple and very quick and it works every time," Pappas explained. "We're recording to one single drive; we're not even doing a RAID. Knock on any cellulose product; it's never let us down. That's also being fed by an RME MADI card. You can put 56 or 64 channels of uncompressed audio on a single coax line. We have a send, a receive, and a clock, and away you go. I can run those 500' to 600' easy. We have 40 inputs, which for us is a huge amount to run. Doing that and split to the front of house and a relatively compressed load in and rehearsal schedule didn't allow us to bring in the DSD machines and run it all."

Markos created an LT/RT mix and fed it through a DaySequerra DownMix surround encoder using DTS Neural Surround. After taking the mix back to KUVO to fine-tune it, it was uploaded to PRI servers for broadcast through Public Radio stations nationwide using DTS Neural Surround. The show was broadcast on Christmas Eve to an estimated 1.5 million listeners.

"On that console (DS-00), you can go back and forth between the discrete and processed feeds right off the board and they are virtually identical," said David Day, of DaySequerra.

"This is going to be broadcast as a DTS LT/RT that can then be decoded at the other end with a home theater receiver into 5.1 so you can get a near-discrete experience. The signal is stereo-compatible with all surround systems which total hundreds of millions of units."


Horgan is a freelance writer based in Denver. Photos by Darius Panahpour.


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