Photo Credit: Peter Matulina

Acclaimed recording engineer Richard King has worked with such diverse talent as Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Bell, Ben Folds, and Renée Fleming, has been awarded 14 Grammys (including one Latin Grammy) for his achievements in classical, jazz, Broadway, folk music, and film scoring, and spent 15 years as an engineer at Sony Music in New York.

King, who is also an Associate Professor at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, recently completed his debut book, Recording Orchestra and Other Classical Music Ensembles (Focal Press/Routledge) for release this fall. As one of HARMAN’s Lexicon Professionals, King has generously given us a sneak peek into a chapter that explores the debate between using room mics or artificial reverb when recording acoustic instruments.

An excerpt from Recording Orchestra and Other Classical Music Ensembles  by Richard King  (reformatted with permission)

Richard King New Book Cover Recording Orchestra RKingI have a rather strong opinion about room microphones, and I am sure that many very successful engineers would disagree with me on this count, but I find that room microphones are not as useful as one might think. Certainly they are needed in live recordings for capturing applause and audience reactions, and for recording information for use in the rear channels of a surround sound recording, but for stereo recording I normally go without, and here is why:

  • To really find some interesting and properly de-correlated room sound that will enhance the overall combination of main and support microphones, it would take hours of experimenting to optimize and refine the placement of the room system.
  • In a sub-standard hall, room microphones will simply bring greater attention to the undesirable characteristics of the space.
  • In an exceptional hall, it should be possible to achieve the perfect balance of direct and diffuse sound at the main microphones, as long as they are properly positioned.

 I am a strong advocate for the use of artificial reverberation over room microphones. A good reverb program will offer complete control of reflections, diffusion, timing (pre-delay), size, shape, timbre, and of course decay time. Most of these parameters are unavailable for modification when using room microphones alone. Improper use of reverb however can completely ruin a recording – great care should be exercised when using artificial reverb so that it doesn’t sound like artificial reverb.

Artificial reverberation is a remarkable tool for enhancing recorded sound. Adding reflections to a source signal will increase the sense of power and richness of the sound. This is because an increase in reflected sound from a signal gives the impression that it is quite loud, as it is exciting the surrounding environment in a stronger manner. Adding reverberation is a great way to increase perceived loudness without adding gain. Incorporating room microphones into a mix will provide additional reflections and diffuse energy, but for better or worse, the quality will be much the same as in the main microphone system. This is especially true when omnidirectional microphones are used. For a significantly increased decay time, or longer “reverb tail”, an artificial reverberator will provide a more suitable result in a shorter amount of time.

In the same way the spot microphones should not be brought into a mix without careful consideration as to their level and function, reverberation should be used in a very specific manner, and the result should be critically evaluated. Using the wrong preset, for instance, can be catastrophic. While subtle amounts are easy to manage, it is also possible to add a significant amount of reverb that “complements” as opposed to exactly matching the sound of the recording venue.

The trick to working with reverberators is to adjust the parameters so that the added reflections and dense decay are seamlessly blended with the original sound. As long as the listener is unaware that anything synthetic is influencing the recorded sound, the engineer can dramatically improve an otherwise uninteresting or exceptionally “dry” recording. If the reverb sounds artificial, there is either too much of it, or the settings have not been optimized to the fullest extent.

In general, different lengths of decay and room sizes should be chosen for each application. The following settings for overall reverb time are offered as a rough guide:

  • Chamber music: ~1.8 seconds
  • Opera: ~2.0 seconds
  • Orchestral repertoire: ~2.2 seconds

Material from this excerpt is from the forthcoming publication Orchestra Recording and Other Classical Music Ensembles © 2016, and is used by permission of Focal Press.

Asked about his personal choice in artificial reverb, King said, “When I was a student, we had a Lexicon 224 in our studio at school and, when I got to Sony, we had 480Ls in every room. Then the 960L came along and we’d say, ‘The 480 sounded like a real concert hall and now the 960 sounds better than a real concert hall!’

“For a long time, the 960 was my go-to reverb in film scoring; it was nice to have the 8 channels and high sample rate. Now we have a few of the Lexicon PCM 96s at McGill.  At home though, I use the PCM Reverb Plug-In Bundle and the sound is very close to that of the hardware units. I get great results with it and use it on virtually all of my recordings.”

Thanks, Richard for your insights; we’re looking forward to the book! You can learn more about Richard King at http://www.rkrecording.com.

Are you a producer or sound engineer with a preference for room mics or artificial reverb? Share your experience in the comments.