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Miking and Acoustics

I love that "tubby" sound of early stereo films, as well as rather close miking and dry sound utilized in films of that period, I certainly understand some people's complaints about the sound of rerecorded film scores. Growing up, I always was enraptured with the sound and playing of Victor Young's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, Ernest Gold's IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, Miklos Rozsa's BEN HUR, Max Steiner's HELEN OF TROY, Dimitri Tiomkin's THE ALAMO, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes, the original music tracks would be issued on LP, but more often we had to settle with rerecordings, made right after the film sessions. Often times, these LP only rerecordings were done with a smaller orchestra, which never had the impact of the originals.

Unfortunately, working with European orchestras today, the standard operating procedure is going directly to two-track DAT, which means all the mixing must be done live. Bill Stromberg and I were never keen on the acoustics we had in Berlin. We recorded in a church that had much too much reverberation, which is very unkind to "busy" music with a lot of counter lines and thick harmonies. Now, that kind of venue would be perfect for chamber music or string dominant music, but something like CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE or GUNGA DIN, too much detail is lost. But this type of acoustic is perfect for music such as Bernard Herrmann's string heavy THE NIGHT DIGGER. It was done at St. Giles, in England, and it is gorgeous.

Bill and I are very happy now to work with the Moscow Symphony orchestra. I believe we have a good compromise with the acoustics there. Details of line can be heard, but without the artificiality of extreme close-up miking. We feel the reverb. is natural and not too much. The brass have that punch and we have the ability to "spotlight" certain solo instruments that a strictly "acoustic" recording would render inaudible. But it is extremely tough to get all this with a live mix. Sure, I would love to record on 24 tracks and fuss with the mix for six months, but that ain't going to happen with today's methods. Whatever the faults, it makes these performances and sound designs sound more real or natural, or musical, if you will.

For a piece of music like Herrmann's NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a "Phase-4" type of recording is marvelous. You hear all the instruments as single instrument or line. Every instrument is spotlighted. While this is great for some music, this miking method can be detrimental for certain music by Debussy, Ravel, Steiner, or Newman. Much of these composers music is designed orchestrationally for a combination of instruments to create a "new" or different tone color. For example, Max Steiner loved to have a middle range melody played in unison by flute, bassoon with certain articulations by vibraphone. With a Phase 4 recording, you would hear the distinct playing of these three instruments, but miked from the front of the orchestra, you get this wonderful new tone color made because of the blend of these instruments...sounding as one.

When Bernard Herrmann wrote his music for GARDEN OF EVIL (and his first stereo film), he actually indicated (by graph on the score) what channels (left, center, right) certain orchestra sections should emanate from. When we rerecorded this score, we followed his wishes...even to the point of setting up the orchestra in unconventional ways. Even though it presented many problems such as having three Bass Drums or three sets of Timpani spread out from far left to far right, it was right for the music.

So to conclude this rambling post, we try to let a particular score and its orchestration determine our final decision as to miking technique or placement. Though for consistency, we try to mike an entire suite or score in a similar method and not change mike placements within a Suite. This would prove very distracting when listening....to have instruments jump in and out of "focus" or "move" around in the mix.

Copyright © 1997 by John Morgan.
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International Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)