Recording a full sized harp is most similar to recording a grand piano. The harp is basically a piano placed on its side, turned vertical and stripped of its hammers and housing.
For this session I recorded a custom built chromatic harp without the pedals that you’d expect to find on a concert harp.
We first tried to record in a small acoustically treated room, but found that we had some mild low-frequency resonances and not enough reflective space for the harp to really speak. It was too boxed in for an instrument meant to be played in an orchestras setting.
(As an aside, the main recording room would have been perfect, not to big not to small, not too dry not to reflective- but it had strange interference from a newly constructed cell tower which could be seen outside the studio windows. The radio tower noise itself was odd and didn’t sound like an electrical hum. I searched the room checking heating, air conditioning, and electricity before being told that the whole building was suffering from the weird signals on recordings.)
So, we ended up recording in the kitchen.
This space was large and bright enough to give the harp room to unfold its sound.
I used a microphone setup similar to what Noah Georgeson described on Paul Tingen’s blog, while recording Joanna Newsom’s ‘Divers’.
I’ll start with the most important mics.
Two Schoeps Small diaphragm cardiod condenser microphones on either side of the strings. I was worried about phase at first, but when rotated to a kinda reverse ORTF pattern- 180 degree angle- they sounded quite phase coherent. This particular pair beautifully picked up the precise sound and intensity of fingers plucking the strings. If these were used alone they might be too sensitive, but mixed within the context of the other mics it works really well.
The Gefell M930 wandered around a bit before finding a home at the bass of the harp in front of the soundboard. We were searching for a defined low-end, and the RE20 on the lowest hole at the back of the soundboard was not cutting it. So the Gefell M930 was originally placed at the back of the soundboard to supplement the sound. But it wasn’t adding definition so I put it at the bass of the harp pointing toward the string and it sounded great. Next time it would be wise to have another Gefell on the opposite side of the soundboard. The Gefell picked up an amazing about of body and warm beefy character of the harp.
These three mics alone carried a lot of the weight in the recording and in the gain staging and leveling process they were the most prioritized. They also mixed well together.
The next most useful mics were a stereo pair of Coles 4038’s in ORTF set about a harps distance from the harp. This is your basic listener position. They are great room mics and could be used by themselves for a ‘natural’ and warm sounding recording.
(As a side note, speaking of what is ‘natural’. . . Sometimes what sounds most realistic or natural on a recording actually has some hyper-realistic qualities in terms of mic placement or post-processing.
Taking the harp as an example- the instrument is rather complex, and in my opinion, like a drum set or piano, requires multiple mics to replicate the rich impression it makes on us when we’re listening to it in person.
The idea that putting two microphones like these Coles 4038’s up in ortf format a few meters away from the instrument to ‘mimic’ the two ears of a listener – that this is most ‘naturalistic’ way to record doesn’t seem quite accurate to me. When you listen to an instrument in person you actually have the ability to process the character of a sound in a much more complex way than two microphones. Your ears can wander from the sound of finger plucking to bass resonance to the wind in the trees outside.
Listening to a recording of two microphones of the same instrument/performance/location doesn’t yield the same sensuality of listening that it does in person- the way our ears can wander and focus- much like the way we see.
This richness can be approximated when many microphones, each with its own snapshot of the sound, are used to create what I think is a more ‘natural’ experience of the recording.
Comparing a microphone to a camera is one way of understanding this ‘framing’ that a microphone does. In the same way that a camera frames a shot, a microphone frames the sound of a particular source. But neither the camera nor the microphone effectively mimics the experience of seeing a image or listening to an instrument in person. Instead what gets closer visually is when you have multiple cameras merging their image to create a virtual reality feel. This combining of images is kinda normal in the audio world where many microphones are taking many different snapshots at once and then blended or mixed together to form one impression of the instrument.
Although the microphones are doing something that our ears cannot; that is picking up the sound image from multiple locations at once, like I said earlier the microphone is actually limited the way it listens. Thus combining microphones and mixing them together is a more naturalistic approach to recording, mimicking the sensual complex character of embodied listening. )
By the way, why should listener/audience perspective be more privileged than player perspective anyway? The player is sure to hear an extreme amount of intricacies in the sound, including very close finger plucking. Isn’t that then ‘natural to the player’? )
What matches nicely, every time, with close room mics are far room mics. The coles are my close rooms and the far room is a Neumann TLM 103. I guess I like the close room + far room combo from recording drums. I find that having early and later reflections is always super fun while mixing. If I were recording in a huge space I’d like to have mics progressively place in distance to catch all the major reflections 10ms, 20ms, 50ms, 100ms, 250ms, 500ms, 1s, etc. . . Overkill or most amazing concert hall recording ever? Here’s the TLM 130 catching the far room feel.
Next is the Electro Voice RE20 the only dynamic mic used in this recording. Which is slightly sad given that I love dynamic mics, but what we were going for was solo harp in high def and dynamics on the strings, for instance, wouldn’t have been needed as the harp doesn’t need to compete with anything else in the mix but vocals. The RE20 does some solid work with the low-mid range adding a very characteristic and solid tone. It’s positioned at the lowest hole on the soundboard at a distance which felt good to the hairs on the back of my hand- not too much bass, not too little. It was leveled rather low on this recording because the Gefell was really killing it on the detailed low end. Still though, if this recording were for a rock or pop purpose the RE20 could be very useful.
The last mic used was another Neuman TLM130. It was positioed to recieve the air coming from the top hole on the back of the soundboard. It seems far away in the picture, but once Hans (the musican and composer) tilted the harp back to play it was rather close. This Neumann was first used as a room mic before the Coles showed up- it sounded great in the small room and the main room but for some reason really sucked in the kitchen/living room where we ended up- so it got stuck in the back. It actually doesn’t sound bad here, but it doesn’t mix too well with the other mics. It kinda ruins the perceptual image of the sound of the harp- that is, what’s coming out of the back hole is just a lot of everything; high, mid, and low end. All that sound isn’t spaced out like it is on the front of the harp, and it kinda ruins the stereo image. Not that we were necessarily going for a precise stereo image- like you do with a piano running from bass notes on the left ear to treble on the right. So, was this mic superfluous for this recording; yes. Should I have just taken it down? Yes, most likely. But hey, – whoever is doing the mixing may find it useful in ways I wasn’t able to.
Here’s an overall shot of the close mics.
The session was recorded in Logic Pro X instead of my usual Pro Tools. The first song ended up using the maximum amount of tracks (286 or so), even with Logic’s cycle record function. That’s a lot of takes and a lot of editing!