‘Reflections’ on horn recording

Bear with me – the pun in the title will become clear as you read this.

I have been working sporadically over the past few months on a recording with a trombonist. The project consists of works for duos – trombone and ‘something else’. Each pair recorded in the same hall, but months apart. The hall is a small recital hall ideally suited for solo and chamber classical music, so it was a good fit. Up to this point, the other member of the duos have included marimba, trumpet, and soprano voice. Each of these has unique recording challenges, but they all have similar projection – generally forward.

One of the common challenges on a project like this one is to insure that all the separate sessions come together to make a cohesive sounding final product. In the hopes of having a consistent sound, I use the same main array (spaced pair of DPA 4006 omni condensers) for each session.  The positioning was similar, but individually adjusted to optimize the sound for each duo.

Enter the horn.  The French horn (though there is nothing French about it).  This strange and wonderful beast has evolved from hunting and ceremonial horns made from – well, horns. Animal horns. One of the unique features of the horn is its projection.  The bell of the horn points to the rear, on the player’s right side.  In a typical concert hall, the horn player’s sound bounces off the back wall and reflects to the audience.  That is how all of us (composers, players, engineers, and audience) are used to hearing a horn – never direct sound, always reflected.

Back to the recording at hand.  I prepped the stage in anticipation of the musicians’ arrival. The trombonist and I had discussed the stage layout briefly via email before the session, so I had a general idea of where they should be.  Trombone on the right (stage left) where he had been in all the previous sessions.  Horn on the left (stage right).  Both of them facing the center of the audience area. I setup the stage so that the performers would be far upstage – this would provide enough reflective wall behind the horn.

However, when the duo arrived, it was clear they had a different arrangement in mind. They had been practicing sideways, nearly facing each other on the stage.  In this position, the bell of the horn did not aim at the back wall. Nor was there any side wall to speak of.

First judgment call – should I ask the players to rearrange to work with my plan, or work with what they were used to?  I knew that making them conform to my setup would throw off their communication and potentially affect their performance.

Music comes first.

I’d rather have a less than stellar recording of a great musical performance than the other way around, so comfortable, communicating musicians are of prime importance.

Of course, I still need to provide a stellar recording, so now I had a new concern – would the horn sound appropriate?

As they made a quick test recording my worst fears were realized. The trombone both sounded great and matched the sound of the pieces it was going to coupled with. The horn, however, was another story. Much as I had worried, the horn sounded distant and diffuse. Without any surface behind it to reflect the sound, the horn might as well have been in another room.

Test Recording

What to do? I quickly ran down my options:

1. leave the setup as is, and rely on a horn spot mic to balance the sound.

I hated to do this, as I knew this had little hope of matching all the other selections on the project. The spot mic would have to be behind the horn and would pickup an unnatural sound.

2. try a different arrangement of the musicians on stage

This option was no better. I’d already considered and rejected that option. To begin rearranging at this point could quickly send the session down an unproductive path.

A 3rd option came to mind.  What I needed was a wall or other reflective surface behind the horn. I thought about rolling the grand piano behind the horn and raising the lid, but a piano sits too high off the floor.  Then it came to me…a drum shield. I brought in a 5 panel plexiglass drum shield and placed it behind the horn.  Time for another test recording.

Recording with reflector

Success.  The trombone and horn sound matched.

Now that the musicians and main array were set, I placed the spot mics.  These were two Royer R-122 active ribbons.  The trombone spot went in front and to the side, with it’s null aimed at the horn.  The horn spot sat next to the horn, aimed at the reflector. It’s null aimed at the horn, so as not to pickup the direct horn sound.