In this blog post, I want to give you a quick guide behind the recording of the music for the documentary The Donation, which I and my colleague Gerardo Garcia Jr. worked with last year (2019). Watch it on SVT Play here. We did a so-called sweetening session, also called overdubbing, which means that you bring in one or more musicians who make a recording to already pre-recorded material.
To help us, we had Jorge Velasco, an established recording and mixing technician who is also based in the heart of Los Angeles. He has more than 10 years of industry experience, and has worked with artists such as Selena Gomez and also producers such as Bob Ezrin and Salaam Remi. We have the pleasure of continuously working with Jorge in our productions.
Gerardo Garcia Jr. (left) and Jorge Velasco (center)
It can be easy to have a glamorous picture of filming sessions, especially when it comes to here in Hollywood. But there is a lot of work and preparation behind these jobs. A big piece of the puzzle in this is the budget issue. Usually, recording in a larger studio is an expensive affair. The most affordable option today, as we all know, is to use your own home equipment. It saves a lot of money in the wallet (dollars in my case).
One disadvantage of home recording is the limitation of gadgets. The ideal scenario would be to have access to a large set of equipment available in larger studios, such as different types of microphones, mixers, amplifiers and “you name it” – which can be crucial to bring out that special sound you are looking for, and that lavish recording studios are optimized to reduce room noise and other unwanted.
I will now go into exactly what equipment and microphone types we used during the recording of the music for Donationen. We had the privilege of recording at the legendary studio “The Village Studios” where artists such as John Lennon, Elton John and Nine Inch Nails have hung out!
Before the composition process started for this project, we decided that we would bring in two musicians, more specifically a cellist and a pianist. With this in mind, it was easy to compose music, and give cello and piano a more prominent role in the music.
We prepared stems (different soundtracks) for the pianist and cellist that they could play. Before we arrived at the studio, we had provided Jorge with these stems in good time, which in turn created a Pro Tools project for each cue (the different pieces of music in a movie / TV series are called cues). The musicians were provided with headphones so that they could hear each other as well as clicks / prelays (prelays = stems), and us in the control room. We communicated with them via a talkback system that was in the Neve 88R table.
Prepared stems (different soundtracks) for the pianist and cellist
Isolated sound sources for greater flexibility
Jorge placed the grand piano we would use in the middle of the large recording room and the cellist in a smaller separate recording room, to be able to isolate the two sound sources and have more flexibility in micromanaging. In this way we would also achieve a more personal and intimate sound; the character of the music was in the more emotional and naked direction. Both piano and cello would be the highlighted instruments throughout the composition.
Recording of piano and cello which are the main instruments in the music for Donationen
Softening of the cello
We set up a total of five cello microphones that were connected to a Neve 88R mixing console, and then connected the output from the Neve 88R to the inputs of a Pro Tools system.
The cello was miked up with a Neumann U47 near the sound holes to capture heat and “low end” (bass). We also set up an overhead stereo pair above the music stand to capture more of the strings themselves, as well as to get stereo width. The cellist sat in a separate recording room so as not to get the piano sound into his mics and vice versa.
There was a combination of microphones arranged in stereo and some in mono for both piano and cello. Part of the sound control was to ensure that the balance between stereo pairs (L&R) and mono (center) would be complete, which means that nothing should be too unbalanced from left to right or center. Jorge adjusted the correct volumes via preamp gain for each microphone.
The softening of the cello
Tip! No matter what instrument you are recording, be sure to listen and choose the best microphone placement based on the specific situation. Each sound engineer has their own opinions and expertise when it comes to mic placement, which also varies depending on the type of microphones used.
How did we record the grand piano?
Jorge set up two pairs of stereo mics, Neumann M49 x 2 for left-right at the grand piano, AKG 414 x 2 inside the grand piano near the hammers and a mono Coles 4038 in the middle of the piano near the middle-C. The reason for this specific setup was to get both a close intimate piano sound and at the same time a depth. Using a combination of mono and stereo mics is to capture both a near and more distant sound, which gives a more accurate reflection of how we hear a grand piano.
The mic placement regarding the recording of the grand piano
Good to think about: Grand pianos are usually recorded in a larger recording room. Due to the size of the instrument, the mic placement will have a big impact on how the recorded sound sounds.
Videos from the recording of the Donation:
Listen to the entire soundtrack here (Spotify)
Tips for you who want to work as a sound engineer:
A common beginner mistake is to place the microphone too close to the source and try to record as loud as possible.
Practice working at a fast pace and making as few mistakes as possible.
Listen carefully to the source where the best sound is, so that there is an empirical starting point to choose the right microphone and location.
It helps to be a B-personality; discipline, patience and a detailed mind are a good recipe welcomed by musicians, artists, producers and composers.
Remember to use your ears!
In the next part, we go through production and mixingpart of the music. Do not miss it!