Equipment Choices for Orchestral Recording


Can you simply purchase a handheld portable recorder and use it, with the built in microphones?  This really depends on what you find "good enough".  There are significant compromises made in handheld recorders, particularly in the microphones.  If you still want to go this route, there are some suggestions:  Purchase a unit intended for music recording, not just for voice.  The "dictation" machines record at a low sample rate and heavy digital compression that is adequate for voice, but cannot store and reproduce the full frequency range and dynamics of music. Make sure the unit you purchase can record ".WAV" files, not just MP3's at sample rates including 44.1K, and to at least 16 bit files, preferably 24 bit.  If you think you might ever want to use external microphones, purchase a unit that has balanced (XLR) microphone jacks, and has the ability to provide 48 volt "phantom power" to the microphone jacks.

When you make a recording using the handheld's built-in mics, mount the recorder on a tripod or stand if possible, above the heads or in front of the audience.  Although these are called "handheld recorders", your best results will come if it is solidly mounted, as any movement during the recording makes noise and degrades the consistency of the stereo image.  Locate the recorder some distance back from the front of the band, try 8 to 10 feet at first.   Setting it on a shelf or board is usually better than holding it in your hands, but having space around the microphones will give you better results.  If you do handhold it, hold it still, don't change the "aim" from one part of the orchestra to another. Moving it around will cause the stereo "image" to shift around when you listen to the recording. That can be very distracting.

Assuming you do want better recordings than the built-in microphones provide, read the following pages.


Choosing a Microphone

After purchasing a decent recorder, the next most important item is purchasing a good pair of microphones.  As I said, the microphones in handheld recorders have a lot of compromises.  The DPA lavalier microphones I use are of very good quality, but are quite pricey.  One big advantage of lavalier microphones is the portability.  I'm sure some of the less expensive lavaliers will be acceptable, look at the detail specifications.  First make sure it is an electret condenser mic, not a dynamic mic. Make sure it is omnidirectional, not unidirectional or cardioid. (Most but not all lavaliers are omnidirectional.)  Look for a flat frequency response from 20 Hz to 15 KHz.  A "presence bump" of 2 dB or less in the upper midrange is acceptable.  Look also for a maximum level before clipping of at least 130 dB, otherwise the microphone may overload and distort.  You will in all likelihood have to buy the XLR adapters and windscreens for whatever lavalier mic you purchase.

If you decide to purchase "stand mounted" mics, the first thing to look for, assuming you plan to use the "spaced omni" stereo technique described above, is that the microphones are indeed omnidirectional.  Most stand mounted single pattern microphones are not, they have Cardioid or Hypercardioid patterns.  While there are stereo techniques that use such microphones, they are beyond the scope of this article.  Also most such microphones have weaker bass response than omnidirectional mics, which is an issue when recording steel orchestras.  You want a condenser or electret condenser microphone to provide decent recording quality, not a dynamic mike.  You will probably discover that quality omnidirectional stand mounted microphones (or multi-pattern mics with an omnidirectional setting) are fairly pricey, more expensive than most lavalier mikes.  There are, however, some Chinese multi-pattern mics available at reasonable prices, and some of them are in fact excellent microphones.  One other item:  If you plan to record outdoors with stand mounted microphones, you may want to avoid "large diaphragm" condenser microphones.  The large diaphragm mikes are particularly susceptible to wind noise. unless you use a "heavy duty" windscreen.  Small diaphragm (or lavalier) condenser mikes are what you want outdoors.

What about "stereo microphones"?  The better quality condenser microphones are quite good, although many lack the bass response of spaced omnis and don't have as good channel separation as some of the stereo techniques using two microphones.  Avoid the inexpensive plastic ones with mini-plugs instead of XLR or similar connectors.  They are a waste of money, the built in mics in most handheld recorders are far superior. 

One thing you don't want to do is record using a pair of Shure SM57 or SM58 microphones spaced apart in front of the band.  These mics have a cardioid unidirectional pattern and will not pick up a good mix of all the instruments when used in place of spaced omnidirectional microphones.  They also have poor frequency response (they are optimized for handheld vocal or midrange instrumental use.)

Speaking of stands, with the lavaliers you can easily improvise, read my article on my equipment, HERE and HERE.  If you have access to two "junior boom" mike stands, aim the booms straight up, tape the cord of the lavalier to the top, with the mic a couple of inches in front of the top of the stand.


What about Mic Preamps?

Regarding microphone preamplifiers:  A valid question is whether you need a stand-alone mic preamp or whether the built in one in your handheld recorder is acceptable.  The answer is, it depends.  I own a very high quality stand-alone mic preamp and digital to analog converter, so I use it.  But I have used the built in mic preamp in the Denon-Marantz recorder, and it sounds quite good.  Some less expensive recorders have taken shortcuts, but it is not that difficult or costly to include decent mic preamps in portable recorders these days, and most recorders seem to have reasonably decent built-in preamps.  I'd spend my money on good microphones and a good recorder before I worried about a better stand-alone mic preamp.


Post Production Software:

You will need some software to properly edit your recording.  The software, at the minimum, needs to be able to do the following: To trim the beginning and end points of the recording.  To adjust the audio levels of the recording.  To include (either built-in or as a plug-in) a limiter to inaudibly remove extraneous peaks recorded with the audio, so your recording will play at reasonable levels on most playback systems.

A good choice (particularly because it is free!) is software called "Audacity".  You may want to get an additional limiter plugin, I'm not sure how well the built-in one sounds these days.

One last item:  It is important to have a good monitoring setup, with a flat frequency response when you are doing post-production, particularly if you are considering adding equalization.  If your system is bass-heavy (like many home consumer monitors), your final product will probably be the opposite, bass-weak. 

You should also listen to any final product both on speakers and with headphones.  More than half of all music listening these days is with headphones, and what you will hear in headphones is very different than what you hear from speakers.