Recording Tip: Finding a Suitable Recording Venue

April 5, 2014

Location, location, location.

Being in the business of recording acoustic and ensemble music performances, one of the questions that I am asked by potential clients is, “Where would you record my project?” Because each potential venue has its pros and cons, my answer is always a series of questions designed to narrow the field to find a place most appropriate for them and the material they want to record.

What is the size of the performing group? What do they do? Is it a choir or instrumental ensemble? If it’s a choir, will there be accompaniment, and what will the accompaniment be? If it’s an instrumental group, what does it consist of? The venue needs to have enough room to be comfortable for the performers. Generally, a space should be proportionally sized to the size of the group. A single performer can work in a large space but a large group can (and will) acoustically overload a small space.

There is also the consideration of being so near the surrounding walls, that the reflected sound that bounces off the walls is almost as strong as the sound produced by the group, but because the path of the sound is slightly longer than the path of the direct sound produced by the performers, it arrives slightly later. When these two sounds are combined at he microphones there is a colouration of the sound, which is highly undesirable.

So in the end, when it comes to venue size, in most cases, larger is better.

Sometimes the style of the music being performed needs to be taken into consideration because the style is associated with a particular sound. Take Gregorian chant, for instance. That style of music works particularly well with a very reverberant space, and would be much less appealing in an acoustically dry space. On the other hand, if the acoustic is so reverberant that the reverb time can be measured with a calendar, then that probably won’t be a good choice in most cases. As a rule of thumb, the length of the reverberation shouldn’t interfere with the articulation of the music. In other words, if you are on verse two, you shouldn’t still be hearing verse one.

Does the group need a good piano and is one available in the venue? A piano can be rented, but considering that one needs to be professionally moved in and out of the venue, this will significantly add to the cost of the project. Consider, too, that some venues will not agree to have one moved in for fear of damage by the movers.

Then there is the consideration of noise, or rather, how quiet is the space? Things like proximity to streets and traffic sounds need to be considered. Sometimes choosing a time of day or a day of the week that is less busy can solve this problem. But now this becomes a scheduling issue for the group, and for the venue. Interestingly, wintertime in snowy regions tend to be a bit quieter, because the snow has a deadening effect on traffic noise. Leaves have a similar effect in the summer.

While we are on the topic of noise, the venue’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems are often the sources of a lot of it. Of course, this is seasonal and unless the system is exceptionally quiet (almost never), you will be asking to have this system shut off during recording. The owners/managers of the venue must agree to this possibility in advance for a venue to be considered and they should have someone on site that knows how to do it.

Sometimes, even this isn’t enough. I did a recording at a church where there was a neighbour several doors away that decided that yard work involving a leaf blower was the thing that needed doing that day. This is where diplomacy becomes a required skill.

In addition to all of the above considerations, as a recording engineer, I look for a room that I can use as a control room to set up in. It is important to be isolated from the sound of the performance so that the recording can be monitored accurately. It should not be too far away from the recording space to make last minute microphone adjustments a bit handier, and not too much travel time is involved for the performer’s listening sessions between takes. It should be at least large enough that an 8-foot table can be comfortably setup in it. And a comfy chair is always welcome.

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