Friday, October 3, 2008

Recording Unusual Instruments

QUESTION: How do you prepare for and record unusual instruments?

Here at Avatar Studios, we like a challenge. If there is something unusual to record, we want to do it for the sake of testing what we know and to learn from the experience to further our recording know-how. We'll work with the client and their circumstance, especially if we are allowed a little experimentation. We have recorded unusual instruments before such as Tibetan long horns (Radongs) and Japanese Taiko drums with great success.

We recently worked with a steel drum band called Steel Sensation. The band consisted of five steel drums (two tenors, a double-second, cello and bass) and regular drums. It is not everyday we work with a band like this. We thought it was such an interesting case study that we decided to document our efforts by taking photos and shooting video footage without really thinking about what we would do with the material.

Capturing the Sound of Steel Drums from Kirk Imamura on Vimeo.

Roy Hendrickson was the engineer on the session. Our first step was to talk to the client and ask them a few questions such as how they normally played together, whether it was loud or quiet, what is important about their sound and what was not as important, did they encounter any problems recording in the past, ...etc. In this case, the band wanted to be able to play together and since the arrangements were intricate and interdependent, it was important for the band members to see and hear each other. The band had difficulty in the past with getting good recordings at other studios. Some of the problems included getting too much overtones and not being able to capture the feel of the group playing together nor the tone of the bass steel drum sound.

The next step was to figure out a recording strategy that matched how they played and made them feel comfortable while playing. We thought Studio C would be best suited for this. Studio C provided a large space, often used for large ensembles, with good line of sight. We isolated the drums in one of five booths available in the live room to separate it from the steel drum sound. All the steel drums were placed in the main live room so everyone can hear and see each other. Not knowing what to expect, Roy wanted to leave some flexibility to make adjustments after he heard the band play. When played, steel drums are quite loud. Neumann U-87 microphones were used on each steel drum. A Decca tree with AKG C414 mics was used to capture the overall sound since we got great results in other similar situations. The recordings came out great and the band was very happy.

Rough mixes from the session was sent back to Trinidad where the arranger resides. Some of the tracks were played on the radio there and the response from the tracks was overwhelmingly positive. People were amazed at how great the band sounded, even as rough mixes.

Steel Sensation wanted to come back and record more songs. Even with the good results we got in Studio C, we wanted to make improvements, particularly with the bass steel drums sound. Studio A was selected because of the larger space. The natural reverb of the room complemented the steel drum sound. This time, Roy wanted to isolate the bass steel drums in its own isolation booth. The drums were isolated once again and the rest of the band was placed in the middle. Gobos were placed in between the cello and double second steel drums for better isolation. Once again, U-87s were used on all the steel drums. This time, instead of the Decca tree, two overhead mics placed high was used to capture the sound as it reverberated off the dome ceiling. The recordings were even better with the bass steel drums coming through clear and well defined. Isolating the bass steel drums was the key for this success.

From the footage and photos that we took, we put together a short video featurette to illustrate what we did to capture the sound of steel drums. The video is available above.

If you have unusual instrumentation or any unusual recording requirements, bring it on! We'll be waiting for your call.

About the Band:
Led by Ian Japsi, Steel Sensation is a 5-piece band. The members of the band either descend or are descendents of Trinidad and Tobago, where steel pan originated. Pan music was an early influence in their lives. They have individually played with different steel pan groups in Trinidad and U.S. All music is arranged by Amrit Samaroo, son of the world famous arranger, Jit Samaroo. Ian is Jit's nephew and Amrit's cousin. Amrit resides in Trinidad. The concept of the band was to have a small steel drum ensemble that played unique arrangements of songs from diverse genres. The other members of the band are very young. They were already playing the steel drums when they met Ian and Amrit. The band is currently playing at Tavern on the Green.

1 comment:

Gabriel said...

Dear Avatar Guys,

I've been reading the blog since it started. It's great to have such well stablished professionals sharing experiences with everybody. I always had the feeling that our duties are very "lonely" in some sort. I'm the chief engineer on a recording label's studio in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I've always felt I had too little "contact" with people that do the same things as I do, the long hours, the decisions.
Thanks for making this "link", we're not alone! Hehehehe...
Best regards,
Gabriel Pinheiro.