Capturing Choral Charisma Tips & Tricks For Producing Vocal Ensembles (Part 1 of 3)

12-19-2013 12:49 AM

It’s that time of year and the tide of jingle riddled music graces the airwaves once again. Christmas is a season that celebrates largely religious music and the coming of the carol, and we can all expect and agree that the most prominent display of Christmas music is going to be through the medium of the voice.
Given the impending approach of Christmas, I thought it relevant to impart some simple tips and tricks for working with choirs and vocal ensembles in a production and recording capacity. Before we look at microphones in depth, it is pertinent to address pre-production due to the inevitable element of close interaction the producer or engineer will have with the ensemble being recorded.
The Vocal Architecture & Terminology
The most common ensemble vocal configuration is undoubtedly the Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass line up, also known as SATB. The SATB configuration is used not only in liturgical music but also in almost every vocal ensemble arrangement due to the powerful tonal blend it provides and its flexibility for creating and performing dynamic and interesting melody. The diversity of the human vocal range makes for endless arrangement possibilities and writing for voice is an incredibly rewarding endeavor. While many productions are possible without much exact theoretical musical knowledge required by the engineer or producer, in the case of choral music and singers, it is always a major advantage to be able to understand their perspective and their preferred terminology. The voice is arguably the most personal expression of music there it, so extra care and consideration is often required to tease the appropriate performance out of the singers.
The most common musical elements a producer should be aware of in regards to communicating with the choir and conductor are dynamic markings, phonetics/pronunciation and the sonic difference of the sections. For the purpose of proper gain staging and healthy recording levels from the very beginning, the producer or engineer should try and acquire a demo recording or a copy of the score for the piece. Familiarising oneself with the dynamic levels of the piece ensures that the recording process is as healthy and efficient as possible and no peaking or unflattering noise floors will exist. The second integral preparatory process is the clarification of the phonetic pronunciation of every word in a piece. If you are unfamiliar with Latin, Italian, Germanic, or French vowel pronunciation for example, then you absolutely need to meet with the director or arranger in advance of a choral recording session. A choirmaster will be acutely aware of the correct diction and while they are hyper sensitive to mistakes during recording, it is still a prerequisite that the producer or engineer is aware of the accuracy of the lyrical content as a second pair of ears., just like in a regular commercial recording. Conductors have little interest in the labor intensity of a re-recording session, so it is important to get it right the first time.
Finally, an intimate awareness of the sonic identity of the SATB format is also important for a successful session. The ability to sight-read choral music in the studio is not a requirement (it is very helpful though!) but more so the ability to understand which line sonically belongs to which voice type in an arrangement is what matters. If you are unable to mark out technically any errors in the vocal parts, then familiarising yourself with the voicing at least and using your ear to discern the sections for potential pitching errors etc. is a hugely valid exercise. The conductor is going to rely on you too, as the co-ordinator of the session, to provide constructive feedback so that the choir can fix their mistakes fast and keep the flow of recording continuous and uninterrupted.
Part 2 to come.
Denis Kilty is an Irish music producer, songwriter and composer for commercial and game music, based in Dublin City. –