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  • Writer's pictureJames Meder

Peninsula Youth Orchestra & Beethoven's 5th Symphony

Three times a year I have the pleasure of recording the Peninsula Youth Orchestra in Belmont, California. I've been working with the group for close to 15 years now and I'm always trying to improve the quality of my recordings. Over the years I've slowly invested in better and better equipment, but the real advances in quality are due to refining my mic techniques.

During the group's most recent performance in May 2022, I took the time to try a few different ways of arranging the front two microphone pairs (4 mics total on a single stand). This setup is made possible by a horizontal pole roughly 60cm long where the 4 mics can be placed in various arrangements. The mic stand is placed directly behind the conductor about 12 feet high. This height allows for the concert hall's room sound to be captured, while also being high enough as to be out of the line-of-sight of the videographer's cameras. Ideally the mics ‘hear’ a very similar sound compared to what the conductor is hearing. Pretty cool!

The outer two mics are AKG 480 mic bodies with ck62 omnidirectional capsules, while the inner pair are Altec m53 mic bodies with 42a cardioid capsules. Sometimes these mics will change depending on the mics I have available, but I've been quite happy with this setup. The omni AKG's capture a wide frequency room tone while the Altec cardioid has a more focused and detailed sound. When these 4 mics are combined (usually very similar in volume level within the mix) and panned hard left and right, they represent a full picture of the orchestra's various sections as well as the ambience of the concert hall itself. Within the mix, these mics represent about 80% of the sound you hear (the rest consisting of the closer spot mics).

This is where the fun part comes in... The positioning of these 4 microphones drastically change the sound of the orchestra. The outer AKG mics remained the same for this performance - they were angled about 110° and placed on the far sides of the mic pole (a sort of spaced pair). But the inner Altec mic pair (silver color) was changed a couple times until I arrived at a placement that I feel sounded best.

I started out with the Altec pair in a spaced ORTF setup, mirroring the outer AKG mics (sometimes this is referred to as a Faulkner Array or a Double Main). I've used this placement in the past and like it, but feel that the middle of the stereo image is often lacking. There seemed to be a ‘hole’ in the center where the power of the orchestra was missing its impact.

To counter this, I placed the Atlec mics in an X/Y arrangement, where the capsules of the mics were almost touching and placed at 90° angles, a perfect right angle. I was surprised to hear that I had corrected the problem of the missing center image, but now felt there were holes in the middle of the left and right sides... it felt lopsided now.

Finally I arrived at a proper ORTF near-coincident pair setup (as seen in the photos). The mics are placed at 110° but only about 17cm apart and slightly overlapping each other. This mic placement is often thought to mimic human hearing most closely, which could be why it felt most comfortable to me. This positioning gives a very solid stereo spread from left to right with no 'holes'. The orchestra retains power and feels like it's surrounding the listener from all sides evenly - while also allowing each section to be localized enough so that you can hear where they are placed within the group. Be sure to listen to Beethoven's 5th attached, which was recorded using this mic setup.

I will continue to strive to improve my recording quality but am really happy about the sound I achieved for this performance.

A couple ideas I plan to consider in the future:

  • how do each of the techniques relate to phase relationship between the mics?

  • how does the vertical angle of the mics affect the sound (pointing the mic capsules higher or lower toward the musicians)?

  • how does the overall height of the mics influence the sound?

  • are there other mic techniques to try?

Thanks for reading and be sure to leave comments or questions below.

Attached is the recording and mix/master from May's performance of Beethoven's 5th symphony in its entirety - 33 minutes! Enjoy!

Download link:

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