PRO SOUND NEWS
Symphony Hall Recording a Classical Undertaking
by: Peter Arsenault
When classical music enthusiasts and sonic purists are pressed to name the world's most acoustically perfect performance spaces, three halls are consistently and immediately mentioned: The Grosser Musikvereinsaal in Vienna, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and Symphony Hall in Boston. While the Grosser Musikvereinsaal is widely accepted as the best of the absolute best, many
CD FRONT COVER
Photo of inside Symphony Hall from rear of second balcony, taken by Pierre Paquin before the dress rehearsal
Bethany Paquin (age 13)
standing on the famous Symphony Hall podium
consider Boston's Symphony Hall to be a very close second, and it is unquestionably regarded as America's preeminent example of acoustic perfection. Boston's new 2,600-seat hall was built in 1990by Charles McKim of the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, using the Gewandhaus in Leipzig and the Boston Music Hall as models. McKim was commissioned by Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the world-renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881. McKim, under the guidance of Wallace Clement Sabine, an eminent physicist and founder of the field of architectural acoustics constructed the sonic shrine as we know it today.
So how does an engineer go about recording a live performance in an environment of this incredible sonorous magnitude? Surely, Symphony Hall, by its very nature, must demand precision, if not perfection, of an engineer. Pierre Paquin, proprietor and chief engineer of Dennis,
Massachusetts - based Sound Dynamics Associates, ponders this question. "The biggest thing about recording in a place like that," he says, "is that you have to have a huge history of listening." And if the hall itself doesn't impose daunting standards of excellence on an engineer, surely the benchmark broadcasts and recordings made in Symphony Hall in the 1950s and early 1960s do. These documents, engineered by symphonic recording pioneers as William
Paul Soares - Pierre Paquin - Robert Conklin
(Soares and Conklin were Assistants)
This is a staged photo imitating the famous
Monteux - Koussevitzky - Munch photo
also taken in Symphony Hall's small green room
Busiek, Kenneth G. Wilkinson and Gunther Hermanns remain, to this day, as a paragon of audio excellence. Paquin, who has an unbridled passion for both classical music and its history, acknowledges both the contribution and the strict criterion of excellence set by these progenitors of classical recording. "I know their failures, and I know their successes," he points out, "and their successes are very, very good. The most satisfying recordings made in there [Symphony Hall] were by Busiek, for broadcast purposes, and by Wilkinson, for Decca London.
Sound Dynamics Associates was recently contracted to record The Concord Chorus' Performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which took place in the revered Symphony Hall on April 13. The chorus, celebrating its 50th season, was supported for the concert by the 60-piece Boston Festival Orchestra. To further satiate his visions of grandeur, conductor F. John Adams bolstered the 120-voice Concord Chorus with the addition of the Dedham Choral Society.
While Paquin enthusiastically applauds Busiek's techniques, it is quickly evident that he does not mimic them. Specifically, Paquin prefers not to record from a conductor's vantage point. "When you have an atmosphere of excellence," he explains, "how are you going to deal with that? Are you going to deal with that in terms of what other recordings have sounded like over the years, or are you going to deal with it in terms of how it actually sounds when you're out there - row 20, in the center? In terms of the beauty of the place, and respect for the acoustics of the place, the only way to record in Symphony Hall, as far as I'm concerned, is to record it from the point of view of the audience listening."
To achieve that goal, Paquin, Like Wilkinson, uses a multiple-mic setup. Paquin's six-mic array, however, is is somewhat more judicious than his occasionally extravagant predecessor. "I am of the school that less is more when recording classical music," he says.
For the Missa Solemnis recording, Paquin used omnidirectional Neumann KM 83s for his main stereo pair, which were suspended from Symphony Hall's upper balcony. This suspension point placed the mics 15 feet from the front of the stage, and approximately 14 or 15 feet in the air. They were toed in slightly, to enhance both the stereo image and low frequency response. The mics were not, however, aimed directly at the orchestra. In explaining this, Paquin notes the directionality of any microphone above 10kHz, including those with an omnidirectional pickup pattern. Although aiming the mics slightly above the orchestra and chorus reduces the high end, Paquin feels that this is compensated for in the digital recording process. Aiming the mics in this way also helps reduce sibilance from the chorus.
The classic and timeless nature of this miking configuration is not lost on Paquin. "I like spaced omnis because I think it has more of a place in the history of recording this kind of music in stereo. RCA
To enhance the main stereo pair of Neumanns, Paquin chose to mic the large chorus with two Shure SM-81s, arranged in an X-Y configuration. These were placed at center-stage, amongst the woodwinds, and were elevated to a height of approximately 12 feet. "
Lastly, to mic the soloists (vocal and violin), Paquin used two Shure SM-80s flanking the left and right areas of the podium
The six microphones were mixed through two Benchmark mixers Paquin prefers for what he describes as an "open sounding" high end. Paquin also praises the clarity of the Benchmark mic pre-amp. No equalization was used, save for the low frequency rolloff switches on the SM 81s and 80s
The stereo mix of the six mics was recorded directly onto a Sony PCM 2500 DAT machine. Paquin quickly dismisses the notion of recording to multitrack. "If you're going to make a statement about recording, and philosophy, that cannot be re-worked by anyone else, you have to do it in two channels. The master has to be in two channels, so no other engineer can come along and say, 'I can do a remix of this." When questioned about the potentially dangerous technique of mixing and recording on the fly, he shrugs, "You have to know the music, and know when the problems will occur." While Paquin is reluctant to dismiss analog recording, he prefers to record in the digital domain, primarily for the convenience of long-term storage. "It opens a field of preservation that extends well into the next century," he says.
The final CD of Paquin's recordings is an audio artifact that clearly reiterates not only his recording principles, but also the true sonic beauty of Symphony Hall. The listener can virtually hear the air move in the quieter passages, and a great sense of space is quite evident, although there is no overbearing reverb (reverb time in Symphony Hall is 1.8 seconds when occupied by an audience), as there tends to be in many concert halls. The numerous statues and niches, placed strategically throughout the hall, serve nicely to give the upper end of a wonderfully refreshing lack of harshness. The chorus sounds breathtakingly huge and powerful and emanates a glory that truly befits its environment. Symphony Hall is clearly one of America's preeminent acoustical environments, a unique sonic treasure, and Paquin's recording does an admirable job of capturing its aural beauty.
"A recording," Paquin muses, "is more than just an opinion; it's a factual happening." And when an engineer attempts to document a happening at Symphony Hall, that engineer needs to be prepared - prepared to meet the imposing expectations and precedents set not only by the great engineers of the past, but also by one of the world's most hallowed halls. A daunting task, indeed.
HQ mp3 audio excerpt here