Keith Johnson goes behind the scenes of The Bowie Variations with Keyboard Magazine!
The Recording Chain
- Coles 4038 Ribbons, matched pair, probably early 1970 manufacture
- Sennheiser MKH 405 FM directional condenser, modified 1960s manufacture
- Sennheiser MKH 105 FM non-directional condenser, modified, 1960s manufacture
- Spectral DMC-10 Preamplifier, all discrete circuit with cascode upgrades, RIAA phonograph equalization removed.
- Preamplifiers: Handbuilt, discrete circuit with servo and response corrections for dedicated and modified MKH microphones.
- Console: two groups of passive mixers each with 4 x 2 channel pairs.
- Analog Parametric Equalizer: All discrete circuit 4 x 2 channel pairs
- Pacific Microsonics Model 2 digital converter.
- Monitor Speakers: Handbuilt using Skanspeak and Tiel drivers, discrete circuit active crossover, corrections, and powering
- Sonic and Sound Blade Workstations
Music, Venue, and Equipment Setup
Mike Garson’s compositions and performances in this recording span a wide range of complexity, dynamics, emotion and structure. His playing can have delicate buried fugue like developments concurrent with intense big passages. The recording needs weight yet it must reach in for soft Disklavier settings, damper shadings, and passages where hammers barely touch the strings. A concert setting characterized by a deep, wide stage and big piano sound that is free of presence accenting would be best for his tracks. They need dimensional room and smooth energy spectrums to reduce our mental and cognitive processes involved with perception so we have less intrusion on the listening experience and artist connection. Presence peaks, bright harmonics, excessive center staging, and learned distractive sounds must be suppressed.
Concert halls like the Oxnard Performing Arts Center [where the album was recorded] eliminate room annoyance; baffle sound and resulting close mike compromise. We can move pickups – have working distance yet achieve close in sound. Generally, we use spaced omni-directional and centered stereo accents for the piano – Yamaha closer in than Steinway and over the keyboard for Bosendorfer. Garson setups place the main omnidirectinal pickups at the rear of the piano for bigger staging. Pianos drive the floor or stage very hard so we float all microphone stands. Cables transmit this stuff so holders can be useless for this isolation.
We began the sessions with two microphone setups, each quite capable of making a well- balanced recording. The Coles as a single point 30 degree, or almost blumlein pair was placed about six to seven feet high in front of the piano. The other setup had the modified MKH-405s as an angled out close spaced pair. Both types create the articulate center image we hear focused on the tenor strings of the piano. But, sound would be thin and dimensionless so both setups get MKH-105 stereo pairs with larger spacing between them looking along the bass strings from the back of the piano. These microphones became the dominant pickup or mix and in this position, their outputs have much random phase to help create big weight and a large stage. Placed 3 to 4 feet high, their distance from the piano is set for a best compromise of time – phase coherence with the front directional pickup. Later, both microphone groups were moved to maximize low frequency energy for bass notes just below the inherent drop-off of fundamental production from the piano. Then placements were fine tuned for strike coherence. I use the mike preamps and headphones for this on stage audition – setup mix. Finally, hall or ambience microphones, also MKH-105s, were placed and mixed to create fill and end of track reverb tails.
After physical assembly and tests were completed for the control room, the active monitors were room-calibrated and recordings of pianos, orchestras, and noises were auditioned. Then, once our ears had adapted to the speakers, the stage setups were mixed, played and compared. Usually one setup is chosen and we go with it for the sessions. However, as expected, we found parts or passages in the Garson works to favor either Coles or MKH. Consequently, a swap scheme for later post-production was thought possible. Once a proximity effect from the Coles was equalized, the two setups had comparable balance and better mix capability. Experience is mandatory as this kind of thing is risky. Inappropriate EQ frequently kills a recording for everyone except for those in the control room.
Session complications? Always. This time, a noisy microwave transmitter attached to the hall, truck and buss traffic, softer playing than expected. They’re processed and become part of setup choices. For most tracks, the MKH setup reaches in for subtlety but can be edgy and distracting on loud passages where string harmonics develop. The Coles setup presents a smooth melodic singing character – virtually undistorted when strings are almost breaking, but the pickup has less resolution, particularly for very soft playing. For most musical passages, the setups sound reasonably close so swaps were made anticipating their need. In this manner, the piano might be versioned as an orchestra, where instrument sections and soloists make statements. We get into the music without forced presence.
Keith O. Johnson