Recipient of 10 Grammy awards, former chief engineer for Telarc and his own Five/Four Productions, Michael Bishop was always at the forefront of recording technology. DSD recording, high-res formats, surround sound, difficult setups – it didn’t matter as he was always on top of it. It’s safe to say that there was no one better when it came to orchestral recording and mixing. He was a fantastic engineer and an even better person who unfortunately left us a few weeks ago.
Michael was always there for me whenever I had a question about his area of audio expertise and was more than happy to contribute. He gave so freely of his time and energy even when I knew he was slammed with work. I was thankful then – I’m more thankful now.
Luckily he did leave us with some of his wisdom. You can find an extensive overview of his approach to orchestral recording in my Recording Engineer’s Handbook (there’s a little bit of it below), and hear a great interview with him on Podcast #170 from a few years ago.
The podcast came as a result of a PBS show of Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw with the Cleveland Youth Orchestra that I enjoyed, and noticed his name as mixer in the credits. It was great to reconnect and hear about his experiences, and now I regret not keeping in touch more (let that be a lesson. . .).
Because of the nature of the injuries that led to his death on March 29th, Michael’s family is left with some devastating medical bills. Donating to his memorial will help them out and help preserve the memory of Michael and his legacy.
Please go to the GoFundMe site to donate.
Thank you kindly.
Bobby O: I know you do a lot of sessions where the mix is done on the fly either direct to 2 track or multitrack with no overdubs. How do you handle leakage?
Michael Bishop: I let leakage be my friend. Leakage is inevitable for the kind of recording that I’m doing because I like to keep the musicians together as a group in the studio rather than spreading them all out with isolation for everybody. That means that there’s plenty of leakage and I just deal with it. I don’t have to have the isolation because typically I’m not doing overdubs and replacement of tracks. We fix things by doing new takes to cover the spots that we need to cover. They’ll take a running start at it to cover the measures that they need and we’ll edit it later, which is very much a classical orchestra style of recording.
By keeping people close together the leakage generally becomes less of a problem. The further apart that you get the musicians and the more things that you put in between causes delays and coloration, particularly on the off-axis side of a microphone, which is already colored. This only exaggerates the effect of the leakage. That’s something I learned from John Eargle’s very first microphone handbook. Using omni’s, I learned how to work with the leakage in the room and make it a pleasant experience instead of something to be avoided.
Are you using primarily omni’s?
I like to start with an omni before anything. Now there are particular instances where I’ll immediately go to something like a figure 8, but I’ll use figure 8’s and omni’s more than anything.
Does the type of music you’re recording determine your microphone selection?
Of course, because there are certain things that the musicians or the producer or even the end listener expects to hear on a particular style. Like if it’s a straight ahead blues recording, then there’s a sort of sound that’s typical of a drum kit on that kind of recording, so you use something fairly raunchy like a 414 in places, where on a jazz date I might use a 4006 or a Sennheiser condenser. Then there’s the plain old thing of putting a 57 on a guitar amp where it just works, so why reinvent the wheel?
What’s the hardest thing for you to record?
A very small acoustic ensemble or a solo acoustic instrument, but particularly small acoustic ensembles like a string quartet. They have less to hide behind and I have less to hide behind (laughs). Actually, I think recording a symphony orchestra is fairly easy in comparison to a string quartet. It’s pretty easy to present this huge instrument which is an orchestra because just the size and numbers can give a good impression almost no matter what you might do. You have to really screw it up to do badly there. But a string quartet is really difficult because you can hear every little detail and the imaging is critical, particularly if you’re working in stereo. It’s really hard to convey a quartet across two channels and get proper placement and imaging of that group. That’s one of most difficult tasks right there. It becomes easier in surround.
Is your approach different if you know that the end product will be in surround instead of stereo?
Absolutely, because a stereo recording has to present width, depth and all of the correct proportions of direct to ambient sound, and in surround you have more channels to present those aspects.
Is your approach similar to the norm when recording an orchestra, with a Decca Tree and house mics?
My approach on an orchestra has never been with a Decca Tree. It started out very much following along in the steps of Jack Renner, who originally hired me at Telarc, and who developed the well-established Telarc sound on an orchestra that the label is known for, so I needed to be able to continue that tradition of the so-called “Telarc Sound.” At that time when I first started, Jack was typically recording with 3 omni’s across the front of an orchestra and perhaps two omni’s out in the hall and that was it. I followed along in that tradition until I came up with something of my own to contribute.
I changed it from the 3 omni across the front to 4 omni’s across the front with the two center mics being 24 inches apart, so it was a little like a half of a Decca Tree in the middle, but the positioning was very different. A Decca Tree typically has that center front M50 (or whatever microphone) well up above the conductor and into the orchestra somewhat. That, to me, presents a sort of a smear when the mics are combined because of the time-delay differences between the front microphone that’s ahead of the other two mics. These delays destroy some of the imaging and produce a bit of comb filtering to my ears, which is why I never liked the Decca Tree. If you were taking those microphones and just feeding three separate channels it would be OK, but that’s not how it’s used.
So having the microphones in a straight line across the front gave a clearer sound and I could get perfectly good focusing with careful placement of those two center microphones to get good imaging through the middle of the orchestra. That’s one thing that I always look for; the imaging across the orchestra that lets me feel where each musician is on stage. Use of spot mics pretty much destroys that, so I tend to shy away from using them.
Anyway, I quickly moved from that to using a Neumann KU-100 dummy head in the middle as part of the quest for better imaging across the middle. It got in there by accident. I was really just trying it as sort of a surround pickup and experimenting with binaural and one time I got brave and threw it up there in front over the conductor and that became the main stereo pickup on the orchestra with omni outriggers out on the flanks.
What do you do for the hall?
For stereo I continue to use a couple of omni’s out in the middle point of the hall, but when I started actively doing surround some years ago, that wasn’t satisfactory any more for the rear channels. They were too far removed in that they got the reverb but the sound was always somewhat disconnected from the front channels.
So early on I brought my surround mics fairly close up to the stage and started to experiment with a number of different setups which I’m still fine-tuning, and I probably forever will because it’s such a difficult thing to capture properly. Often those surround mics are anywhere from 15 to 20 feet out from the edge of the stage depending upon the house. They’re not out very far at all. The most common surround pickup that I’ve been using is two M/S pairs out there, looking forward and back on each side. They would be assigned to Left Front/Left Rear and Right Front/Right Rear as far as the decoding output of the double M/S pair, so I’ll be using a figure 8 and a supercardioid, usually the Sennheiser MKH 30 and MKH 50, which are the easiest ones to use in this case. Often I’ll be using the Sennheiser omni’s as the flanks to the KU-100, although sometimes they’ll be Schoeps depending upon the music and the hall.
How much time do you have to experiment on sounds in a new hall?
Luckily I’m pretty good at enrolling people to go along with my crazy ideas. I’ll get the orchestra management to allow me to hang microphones during the orchestra rehearsals in the days leading up to the session. I’d like to have a good day during their rehearsal time to experiment with placement. I’ll always get up on a ladder and get up in the air to listen for where the sweet spots are. There’s that magic blend up there that just doesn’t seem to happen out in the house, so I’ll find the right height and distance for my mikes relative to the orchestra and try them there during the rehearsal if at all possible. This is probably against all AF of M rules, but I don’t ever record when doing that sort of thing so there’s no danger of using material that isn’t paid for. This is all due to the good graces of the management of the orchestra that I can even attempt this.
In cases where we can’t do this, all I have is what the AF of M allows, which is technically 5 minutes at the top of the session. That’s one of the drawbacks of recording in the States, which is where I work most of the time. Overseas you have the luxury of being able to have the mics up and do extensive sound checks during rehearsal. Of course, the time there is not as tight either because you’re not restricted to the 3 and 4 hour typical orchestral session.
Have you done any experimenting with the surround mics that are presently available like the Soundfield?
I’ve used the Soundfield on a number of sound effects recordings. I’ve tried it briefly on a couple of sessions and came to the conclusion that I really didn’t like that much of a point source for picking up either stereo or surround. While it was technically correct and it’s a wonderful way of manipulating the sound after the fact, there’s something about the musicality of it that I didn’t like. It doesn’t have the width that I look for either, which is something that I’m accustomed to getting with spaced omni’s and the various combinations that I use.
The other thing that I’ve tried is the Schoeps Sphere, which is an excellent means of recording surround particularly in the Jerry Bruck combination of figure 8’s combined with the brightening center in the sphere, but it’s somewhat limited for the type of recording that I typically do with an orchestra.
Do you start with the same setup every time?
Every session is unique, but there are places that I visit regularly [in an orchestral setting] so I know where to start on those. There are still a lot of things that need to be different given the piece of music that we’re recording.
How about the electronics?
The electronics are steady. I use a standard setup of Millennia Media preamps all around.
What’s your approach to doing an ensemble in the studio?
There the performer is taken out of the natural setting of a performance space, which you are trying to recreate because you don’t want to represent a studio sound usually. Since people are screened off and set up more for sight lines than for anything else, you’re not necessarily presented with a nice acoustic blend out in the studio, so there isn’t a whole lot to record ambience on. If I’m in a situation where I’m in a tracking and overdub situation, I will often record at least a three track pickup. Like for a sax overdub, there’ll be a single pickup for the sax with at least a stereo ambient pickup, which will give me something to work with latter on.
How far away is the ambient mic?
Oh, not very far away at all – maybe 6 feet. If that doesn’t get enough ambience, I might change the mics to cardioid and flip them around to face away from the instrument. One thing that I’ve been working with a lot has been double dummy heads (Neumann KU-100’s); one facing the instrument or ensemble and the other with its back to the ensemble and pointed upward and away from the group up into the room.
I tried this a couple of years ago with a small acoustic ensemble in a little performance space outside of Baltimore. I had a second borrowed head that I just put out there to try. It didn’t sound right facing the group, but as soon as I turned it around facing the room (and this is with a spacing of only 3 to 5 feet between the two heads,) it became a 3D sort of experience with only 4 channels. I did add a center mic (an MKH 50) to solidify some stuff that was closer to the stage and that helped.
Where the mics placed back to back?
They were back to back with hardly any spacing. If you listen to the rear channels only, it sounds like almost the same recording as the front channels except that the timbre has changed because it’s coming in at the back of the head. The high frequencies are somewhat muted and, of course, the delays are somewhat different. The combination with the front head was just about ghostly.