How we recorded a choir, one voice at a time
If you know us, then you’ll remember that, apart from being big fans of electronic, experimental, metal and classical music, we just love the sound of a big, complicated choir.
Robyn, our vocalist and electronics-tweaker, has been singing in some of the best London choirs, and Laura (vocals and percussion) has even conducted a choir when she was at university.
From the Gregorian chants to Ligeti and Whitacre, we all listen to choral music daily. So, it was no surprise that our first micro-festival (Dilston Grove, 2014) featured a specially assembled Green Army Choir.
We asked all the artists that performed that afternoon to write a piece for this choir, and so we ended with five new choral pieces composed by Kirsten Morrison, Jo Quail, Aurora Lee and Robyn Sellman.
Immediately after the concert, however, Igor (our guitarist and producer) had this crazy idea to actually record and produce the five choral pieces — something none of us have done before! The result and the story of the recording process are below.
From what we know of the recording techniques, choirs are recorded in a reverberant space, like a church, with a few microphones dotted around the choristers. However, this wasn’t an option for us because we simply don’t have the means to hire a space like that for the rehearsals and the recording sessions, and all of our equipment is geared towards recording one voice at a time.
So, we decided to “fake it” and record each chorister individually. The final mix would bring them all together in a virtual space, similar to what Eric Whitacre did with his Virtual Choir.
The recording process was relatively easy. Most of the choristers were the members of the City Of London Choir, and therefore, quite experienced singers. OK, a few of them have never recorded “solo” into a microphone, but that wasn’t a problem at all.
Using our usual setup of a condenser microphone, Focusrite pre-amp, sound card and laptop, we quickly recorded them all.
The next part of the process proved to be the hardest.
As we ended up with hundreds of takes (all properly labeled), we had to employ the help of Anthony Barret of The Soap Company to do the editing. The poor chap had to listen to them all, select the best takes, remove all the coughs, snorts and laughter, and align them all so that they sound as a group singing together.
We anticipated a few problems with this recording approach, one of them being the fact that there was no conductor to keep the group together. Even though they all sang to the click track, there was enough variation in timing and rhythm, that we had to assign a “leader” for each vocal section and then align the rest of the tracks to this “leader”.
The next issue was the sibilance of the “s” sounds and the percussiveness of all the Ts, Ds and Ps, due to the close miking technique, which is usually employed in pop and rock music. We simply had to remove or make them quieter, because when you listen to a choir, you don’t really hear those sounds as prominently as we had them recorded.
This part was the most fun. Having all the tracks edited and aligned, it was time to get creative with the reverb. For each song, we tried to imagine a natural space where it would be performed.
These Eyes Have Seen is a traditional sounding piece, so we tried to place it in a small church.
In This World is a bit less traditional, but still a cappella, so a slightly larger church space was the choice.
This Path With Grace sounded like it would best fit into a dark, cold cave, so we tried to recreate it (it’s debatable if the reverb we chose does suggest this space, but we did have the “artistic licence”).
Kirsten’s Music Of The Spheres sounded like it was sung by a bunch of friends after an evening of occult entertainment, so we didn’t make the space very big. This helped the vocals merge with the electronic backing track better.
Finally, Discosaurus, was a bit of an experiment — we tried to keep everything quite dry and crunchy, but still had to imagine some sort of space for the choir. Maybe a large room would be the best description.
In addition to creating the virtual spaces, we positioned all the voices in the 3D space, by both panning them left and right, and by introducing a small delay for a few voices, to create the illusion of two rows of singers.
We think the result is pretty convincing. To the trained ear, it will be obvious that the choir was not recorded in the traditional way, but that wasn’t point of the exercise anyway.
We would like to thank everyone involved:
And the choir, who are:
Kirsten Morrison — soprano, alto
Rebecca Oppenheimer — soprano
Caroline Rayson — soprano
Clare Allsop — soprano
Robyn Sellman — soprano, alto, tenor
Laura Tanner — soprano, alto, tenor
Vera Shattock — alto, tenor
Gordon Banner — tenor
David Scott — tenor, bass
Igor Olejar — bass
Tom Fernley — bass