Recording a pipe organ and choir

I’ve now recorded the choir of St Mary’s, Fishponds on a few occasions. I’ve found a formula I like for the choir, but I’m still undecided on what works best for the organ. This article gives a bit of an overview of the things I’ve tried, and the results.

Where everything is

Before I get stuck in, let’s see a diagram of the church so it makes more sense when I talk about microphone placement.

  • The choir sit in the chancel of the church, which is narrower than the nave and has a lower ceiling.
  • The organ is mounted on the wall above the main door, at the opposite end from the choir. The bases of the pipes are about 3m from the ground, and the whole assembly is probably 5m tall and 3m wide.
  • I sit near the front of the church with my mixer, laptop and other kit.
  • The nave of the church (not including the chancel) is approximately 20m long.

Microphones

  • For the choir I’ve always used an XY pair of small-diaphragm condensers (Behringer C-2, approx £40 a pair). I’ve varied the position slightly to alter the balance between the men (who sit further left as we look at the diagram) and the ladies (nearer the right). I’m happy with the presence of the choir. The microphones lack a little bit for the basses and tenors, but the choir sound close and intimate with enough reverb to give a sense of open space.
  • On most occasions I use a single large-diaphragm condenser (a Behringer B-1, approx £100) for the organ. I stick it on my tallest stand – just over 3m tall. This puts the microphone about level with the bottoms of the pipes, which is not ideal. It is a few metres away from the pipes, and I tilt it upwards to face towards the centre of the front diapasons (bearing in mind there are many shorter pipes behind the diapasons), so it collects a good mixture of sound. In general I’m happy with the sound of the organ captured by the B-1, although it’s only in mono. It has a pseudo-stereo feel when combined with the stereo feed from the choir mics, which pick up a lot of the organ’s reverb.
  • On the most recent recording, I decided to use an XY pair of cheap dynamic mics (Behringer XM1800, approx £25 for 3) for the organ. I thought the true stereo effect added a lot, and the dynamic mics did a good job of capturing the low frequencies of the organ. However, being cheap dynamics, they produced quite a bit of noise (which I mainly removed on the computer) and the response to the very high harmonics wasn’t great.

Samples

It’s all good and well talking about it, but we should listen to some samples.

All of these recordings feature the XY small condenser mics for the choir (which also pick up stereo reverb from the organ). The difference here is choice of main organ mic.

Organ with XY dynamic mics Organ with single LD condenser

Conclusions

  • You’d think an expensive (ish) LD condenser would blow cheap dynamic mics out of the water. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case here, and I’m not sure why. I think it could be simply that the dynamic mics are working in stereo, and the LD condenser is just in mono.
  • Perhaps this means the solution to my problem is to buy another B-1, and have the ability to record in stereo using an XY pair of LD condensers.

2 Comments

  1. Jonesey
    September 13, 2010
    Reply

    Interesting article … especially as I need to record myself on the Pipe Organ with a Choir for a course.

    I’ve got a Zoom H2 which I was going to use … do you have any experience of using a hand held to try and capture a Choir and the Organ?

    Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Jonathan
    September 13, 2010
    Reply

    I’ve heard lots of good things about the Zooms, but I’ve never used one. Around the same time as I wrote this article, I also posted on the linux-audio-user mailing list to ask if anyone else had attempted this kind of thing.

    There was a large amount of discussion about it, so you might like to read the thread: http://lalists.stanford.edu/lau/2010/06/0450.html

    Some other people said they had used Zoom handhelds for recording an organ. I think it would be OK for making an OK recording, but it would be unlikely to match the quality of commercial classical recordings.

    Where is your organ in relation to your choir? In my case they were at opposite ends of the building, which was a massive spanner in the works. If they are roughly in the same part of the church then you’ll probably be OK. I don’t know if the Zoom can attach to a tripod or stand, but it might even be OK placing it on a table etc.

    Churches, choirs and organs vary so much that the only helpful advice I can give is to try it. If you can get into the church on your own before the recording, try playing the organ with the Zoom in various locations until you find one that sounds OK. At least you get a head-start before the choir turns up then!

    If you get any interesting results, please make a note of your microphone placement and post them here (or email the recordings to me separately if you can’t upload them) and I’d be interested to hear how a Zoom sounds. Hopefully it will also become a useful resource for other would-be organists who have Zooms 🙂

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