Practical ORTF recording project

Called to do a recording of the Shostakovich Piano Trio no. 2 performed by the Millfield Trio (Amy Yuan – Violin, Andrew Li – Piano, Mike Strahlman – Cello), here are my experiences on the research and technique and outcome of the project.

This project took me a bit by suprise, because my music tech teacher recommended me to do the recording for them. I agreed because it would give me some ambient recording experience, which I have never done before (at least, not seriously).

Recording would be done in a high noise-floor reverbrant music lodge (lots of traffic passing by). The look of the recording venue looked not too great, with the 7ft Steinway Grand piano very close to the brick wall behind and hardly any stage space. Musicians would be in close proximity and therefore reduce the stereo field.

The easiest technique would be the X-Y (crossed) pair cardiod mics, probably being AKG C1000s small-diaphragm condensers. Unfortunately, this teachnique has a narrow soundfield, and in the already narrow stereo field, it wouldn’t make it sound any better. In fact, we were in lack of a stereo bar.

After doing some research, I came across this technique called ORTF where cardiod mics are placed 17cm apart, with their capsules angled 110° apart. Any slight error in the placement could cause horrific phasing problems. Therefore, it would be necessary that a stereo bar be used. Sounded too troublesome, but more reasearch showed that ORTF yielded a better stereo field. So ORTF became my 1st preference.

I checked what choice of microphones I had access to, and I finally decided on taking a pair of AKG C414 B-ULS wide diaphragm condenser microphones as the main stereo pair. I also decided that spot miking could improve it, so I chose 2 AKG C3000S wide-diaphragm condensers (on hypercardiod) to spot the violin and cello. At first I was contemplating putting a spot (perhaps SM57) on the bass strings of the piano, but I decided that it would sound unnatural, and anyway the bass level of the grand piano sounded decent from my listening point. Frequency response was set to full (no filters) as I could filter what I needed later on.

The problem of aquiring a stereo bar was solved by my trombone teacher lending his stereo bar to me.

All this would be put through a Soundcraft Spirit Studio 16 track analogue mixer (I really needed preamps, but we didn’t have any suited for the job) into a M-Audio Delta 1010 Soundcard on a computer in a seperate control room. It would be recorded on to Cubase SX 2.01 .

I was originally planning to put some acoustic foam behind the piano on the wall, but later on we discovered that the trio was being filmed as well, and as the foam would look ugly, that idea had to be scraped.

Recording day arrived, and it took me about 1 1/2 to set up the equipment. The main stereo pair ended up about 3/4 metres away from the trio about 3 metres up, with spots coming in from behind the player’s shoulders, about a metre away from their instruments. The piano was dragged as far as it could be from the wall (which was about 30cm!) and was put on half-lid.

Timing for recording was timed around the school bell ringing, which made life a bit tough, but we got through the 1st movement without too much hassle. The 2nd and 3rd movements had to be redone (the trio was unsatisfied with their performance). Indeed, the high noise floor and sound leakage caused MAJOR problems in movement 4 when suddenly a police car zoomed by, it’s siren being picked up by the sensitive stereo pair. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to redo it, so it remained.

Draft processing, mixing, and mastering was complete by the next day (done on Yamaha MSP5 near-field stereo monitors). Considering the lack of equipment and the state of the venue, initial results were decent. The stereo field was quite wide, and the sound coming from the stereo pair was such that only a bit of spots were added on, for definition. The excellent AKG 414s did their job well, as no equalization was applied. Of course, the control room couldn’t have worse acoustics, so I might be mistaken about that. Some problems included traffic rumbling here and there, the police siren, and the mid-lows were slightly muddy (probably because of the acoustics).

For a first time ambient project, I think things went quite well, and has been quite an experience. Just be sure to set up your ORTF properly and try different positions in the room to get a good sound.

Useful sources

Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor – Introduction

Well known for it’s great virtuostic sections, how about its unique structure? Also it’s contrasts and it’s musicality

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), well known to the world as one who portrayed the ‘devil’, shows much struggle of character within his pieces. An accomplished piano virtuoso, many of his pieces require much technical skill to be played. Don’t forget about the music which lies underneath this show-work, though.

His Piano Sonata in B minor is something special. Normally Piano Sonatas come in the form of 3 movements (sometimes 4), different in character. Here, Liszt has decided to roll up everything into a half-hour long 1 movement piece. One can’t get bored listening to it, though.

His piece shows great struggle between two opposite characters, one angry, and the other calm. A bit like Schumann’s “Florestan” and “Eusebius”, I guess. So, excitement, tension, resolve is very much a part of this piece.

The piece may be divided up into a few sections (Opinions differ, but I would say 4 sections). The piece may be looked at as a fusion of the sonata form and 4 movements. The sonata form consists of – 1st theme – bridge – 2nd theme – codetta – development – 1st theme – bridge – 2nd theme (in tonic) – coda.

In this particular work, Liszt reveals the 1st theme and the bridge, both fast and virtuostic, and moving on through a slowing bridge before coming to what you could call BOTH the 2nd theme, and also the 2nd movement. In fact, it looks like the 2nd theme is a variation of the 1st theme.

Later, Liszt moves into a ‘development’-like section, before a ‘scherzo-like’ section which turns back into our 1st theme (hence recapitulation), and also like the 3rd movement. The bridge and 2nd theme come back again, before moving into a coda (or somewhat like a 4th movement).

Frankly, I think Liszt was a genius at coming up with this work. It’s a sonata form, it’s a few movements in one, and may be called a work on variations.

And thus the end of the introduction to this piece, and the wonderful world of music.