Recording an orchestra

Anyone got pointers on this? I’ve done my reading, but I don’t have a Decca tree with 3 high-priced omnidirectional mics.

It’s a fairly competent youth orchestra, that realized it hadn’t provisioned for professional recording. I’ve got a pair of LDC’s to use, and am planning to set up an X-Y. I have 8 channels to work with going into Cubase, so I could add 6 more mics if I had them. I’ve sat in on a session recording a classical orchestra, and it does seem that the practice is to have the Decca tree, plus some auditorium mics, plus some focus mics, usually on the principals in each section. That isn’t going to happen in my case!

One thing I’m worried about is levels. I record my loud band from time to time, and I know how to tame drums, bass, keyboards, percussion, and guitar. But the dynamic range for an orchestra is much larger than a fusion rock/jazz band. Do I set the input levels much lower than my experience would tell me, knowing I have 32 bits of dynamics to work with?

Thanks for any advice.

It would be worth you looking into hiring any extra mics you might need, depending on your location it might not be as expensive as you imagine…

If you’re in the UK the you’re spoilt for choice!.. even our local Council run theatre carries a half decent mic locker which they will hire out for a few quid a day… plus a credit card as damage deposit.

I’ve never recorded an orchestra, but I’ve heard good things about using a dummy head. I once read this rant by an old English guy who swore by it (can’t remember his name). He was a serious professional with many years blah blah blah.

Anyway, he basically took a flat piece of wood – more or less following the outline of a head as seen from above – then he added 2 short vertical walls to the top. One wall ran down the center, separating left from right. The other ran from “ear” to “ear”, separating front from back. Therefore he had 4 sectors, each in the acoustic shadow of its neighbors, thanks to the walls. He placed a mic in each quadrant, pointing away from the center. I think he used omnis? Anyway, he mounted this assemblage on a mic stand and placed it at a prime seat location, about head height, maybe a bit higher. So it was cheap and easy to do. He said it captured the hall ambience wonderfully, and since the orchestra itself had learned to play to that hall, why not try to capture that? He was a big fan of natural sound.

If I were in your shoes, I’d give his method a try. (Perhaps because I’ve worked many video gigs with 2 camera, and thus 4 mic inputs, we never had too much time for setup, and we needed to keep it cheap.) Just a thought.

Matjones, that’s a great suggestion, thanks.

ColinPark, intriguing idea. I wonder if there are any recordings done this way on the web.

The one time I had the opportunity to sit in the control room of a classical recording, I was quite amazed. We were actually in a room several floors above the recording room, and everything was connected via MADI. The recording engineer, who was also going to produce the mix, had set up channels for a Decca tree (three mics), several mics around the room for atmosphere, and spot mics on every section by the first chair. He had his favorite preset on the giant digital board (Lawo). The recording itself was captured in a laptop using ProTools. The control room had a large TV in the front flanked by two giant speakers and a center channel speaker underneath the TV. There were also two rear speakers and a subwoofer. The sound was the most realistic I’ve ever heard. I wish that was my home system!

The conductor came up after the session and reviewed the recording, making a suggestion here or there about highlighting this or that section. It was done in real time right there, and the job was finished.

I suggested to the engineer/mixer (tongue in cheek) that he could probably improve the recording with some Steven Slate analog plugins, which made him laugh. It is apparent that classical music, film scores, and TV are well beyond the analog vs. digital arguments.

If you are using 2 cardioid pattern microphones, you could do something similar to ORTF but with a larger median surface, such as a Jecklin Disk [], which can be easily made with foam and a wooden or plastic disk. They’re both simple approximations to the human head approach [].

I’ve tried numerous techniques from the “Decca Tree” which produces a good “stereo” recording but has some issues with imaging, to 2 or 3 Omni’s across the front of the ensemble (Telarc’s original approach), to various pickup patterns using a coincident pair microphone similar to the Neumann SM69 []. Crossed Cardioids at 90-degrees sets up the Hafler Dynaquad playback… which produces a simple matrix with quite a stunning surround sound with 4 speakers []!

However, reviewing the 1934 Alan Blumlein UK patent number 394,325 on stereo really nailed it [] by using a coincident pair of directional microphones which provide a good image, but don’t always pickup weaker sources outside of the main axes of the directional pickup.

I’ve not tried the Calrec Soundfield microphone system, which essentially performs a vector point analysis in the acoustic space [].

What I’ve recently settled on is a pair of coincident microphones setup in Mid-Side fashion on either side of a Jecklin type disk, which can be easily made with foam and wood or plastic. I call it a poor man’s version of the Schoeps KFM-360 which Jerry Bruck had the clever insights to create using Schoeps microphones [].

Using an M-S type pickup permits varying the directionality and stereo spread of the array and can even provide surround pickup with a bit of simple phase reversals in one mic pair signals. But it requires 4 microphones: 2 Omni’s and 2 Figure 8 pickups. However, down the road, if you have cardioid’s now, you might consider augmenting your mike closet with a couple of Omni’s and a couple of Figure 8 pickup microphones (some microphones do permit setting them to several pickup patterns, so you might check those out too)!

This is probably much more than you need to know right now. But it gives you some technical insights into what’s out there, and how to apply them to various orchestral, chamber music or even soloist performance recordings that capture the acoustics and performers in them, depending on the desires of both the performers and recordists!

Good luck and don’t be afraid to experiment! That’s how you learn what works for you and your clients!

Thank you AES, you’ve given me a lot to research and think about. I had heard of ORTF but wasn’t thinking about it; this may be a good approach. Lots to read here, so thanks again.

Southae, that’s an excellent post. Thanks for the links and information.

Very cool thread… this is the sort i really enjoy :smiley:

Thanks everyone, lots of great information. I have three ensembles to record: a small string orchestra, a wind ensemble, and a medium sized youth orchestra, around 50 players. I’m now thinking, based on the comments, that x-y makes the most sense, with two LDC’s (cardiod), even though ORTF might make more sense for the largest group. Not to mention it’s my first time! Anyway, still nervous about how to set the levels, given that orchestral music in a live setting has a much larger dynamic range than what I usually record. I guess with 32 bits, I should set the levels lower than I might want to. Any tips on that?

Thanks again, everyone!

My 2c

Decca Tree - good omnis - like Neumann M149’s - over the conducter.

Spot mics like Royers R122’s - say 5.

Millennia pre’s recording @ 96 khz / 32 bit.

Good luck ! It’s the hardest thing to record…BTW

I’ve done a fair amount of recordings of orchestra, string ensembles, wind ensembles, Jazz big bands, etc… This being your first time, the key is to keep it simple. What LDC’s do you have?

Broad thoughts:

Keep it simple - 2 mics as a stereo pair is fine. Generally, SDC’s are a better choice than LDC’s. However, you can still get a very nice sound from a pair of LDC’s. Its probably best to stay away from complex stuff like Decca trees, jecklin discs, lots of spots, etc… Not that these are bad, but they add a degree of complexity that you should avoid on your first outing. Also, in a live setting, you need to minimize things that block people’s sight - which is another reason to avoid trees and discs.

Distance from stage - closer is generally better. The closer you are, the more direct, versus reflected, sound you’ll get. You can’t really take reverb out of a recording, but you can add it quite easily. Placing the mic array 10 feet back from the stage would be a good place to start for a school/youth group. However, you should consider SRA (see below) to refine placement.

Height of mic array - You’ll want some height. Ideally a few feet above the conductors head. This is done for several reasons. First, getting some height helps minimize audience noise. Second, it allows the stereo array to be pointed into the center/back of the group. This helps balance the sound.

Stereo Width (Stereo Recording Angle) - This can be a deep topic, and I don’t want to derail this thread. But you should consider the Stereo Recording Angle (SRA). Here’s the very highly condensed version. Stereo imaging is created by intensity differences (volume differences of left versus right) and/or time differences. Angling directional microphones (such as when using an XY array) provides a stereo image by intensity (volume) differences. Spacing microphones apart (such as when using an AB array) provides a stereo image by timing differences. Spacing and angling microphones apart (such as when using an ORTF array) provides a stereo image by both intensity and timing differences. SRA is an imaginary angle coming from the center of the stereo mic array. Sounds within this angle spread out nicely across the stereo image between a pair of speakers. Sounds coming from outside this angle are pinned hard left or right, meaning that they come from one speaker. You want to keep your orchestra in the SRA, ideally the edges of the orchestra would hit your the imaginary lines of your SRA. Some smart people have figured out the SRAs for various stereo mic arrays. Michael Williams was the pioneer here. His paper, The Stereophonic Zoom, explains this well. You can google for it, go to AES website, or try this Rycote link:

You want to avoid making a recording where everything is bunched up in the middle of the stereo field. This happens when picking an array with a wide SRA (like 180 degrees) and then placing the array back a distance from the stage. You want to avoid making a recording where everything is bunched up on the sides. This happens when the SRA is narrow (say 60 degrees) and it’s placed too close to a very wide group. If you want to visualize the SRA for different stereo mic arrays, Sengpiel has a great sight for this. Here’s the link:

Which Stereo Array?
XY - You’ve tentatively picked this one. It will work, but you can probably do better without much effort. Also, XY, where the mics are at a 90 degree angle, produces an SRA of 196 degrees. Very wide. Unless you plan on jamming these mics right up close to the performers, you will have the sound concentrated in the middle of the stereo image and nothing on the sides. Also, XY can sound a bit lifeless and dull. XY is coincident and this will not sound spacious as other arrays can. On the plus side, stereo imaging is good because of the ability of the mics to pick up intensity differences.

AB with omnis - this would be my first choice in a room with great acoustics. It will sound spacious and glorious. However, the downside is this will pick up bad acoustics and highlight them. Although I love this technique, I would not recommend this to you for your first outing. SRA varies depending on how far you space the mics apart.

ORTF - this is accomplished by spacing the mics 17 cm apart with a 110 degree angle between them. Combination of intensity and timing differences for creating the stereo image. Imaging is good, and it has a bit a spaciousness to it. This array, while not always the best sounding one, will almost never sound bad. Bad acoustics? Doesn’t matter - it will still sound good. I recommend you try this one as it is almost impossible to screw it up. It’s a very forgiving array. With an SRA of 96 degrees, it would work well in the situation you noted. Given that you have 3 groups going on and each are probably different widths, consider putting this up within the imaginary angle of the biggest group, then move the mic array closer so you’re clipping the sides a bit. Putting this mic array up would be simple. Imagine that the SRA is actually 90 degrees (easier to imagine than 96 and is close enough) and emanates from the center of the mic array. Move the mics closer/further to stage to tweak your distance as you visualize how wide the group will be. As I noted above, starting out at 10 feet from the stage is probably a good place to start.

Other arrays - there are plenty. Not worth considering for your first time out. Keep it simple.

Safety - If this is a live concert, you’ll want to take a few steps to keep things safe. Bring a roll of gaff tape and tape down your cords (mic cords and any power cords). Use a sturdy mic stand to get the mics up. If your stand isn’t sturdy/heavy, then consider using sandbags to weigh the base of the stand down. People bump into stands at concerts. You can use milk jugs filled with water and a bungee cord as an alternative to sand bags. I use a quickloc A-50 which weighs a ton and has solid steel legs. People have walked into it on several occasions and it has not been knocked down.

Bit Depth - 16 isn’t enough. 24 is plenty.

Sample Rate - 44.1 is fine. You can go higher, but its probably not worth it.

Setting levels - You’ll need some headroom, but you don’t want to leave too much headroom if you can avoid it. Aim for peaks to be between -20 and -12. Leaning towards -20 would be a little safer. If you get a sound check or any time in advance, ask somebody to wack the bass drum for the wind ensemble. That will likely create the loudest peak. Adjust from that. Your levels will need to change for each group. The wind ensemble might be the loudest. String groups tend to be quieter and will likely require more gain.

Backups - Live events generally don’t provide for second takes. If you can, have two machines recording. Use a passive transformer based splitter to make the split. Don’t use Y cords or other active contraptions (these are fine, but not for your first time out). Passive transformer splits don’t need power, automatically isolate the recorders from each other, and are dead simple to use. Even a cheapie splitter like the Art S8 is worth having. Your other choice is to throw up a second pair of mics going into a second recorder. Even putting up a simple Zoom recorder as the backup is worth it.

Hopefully this helps some.


Excellent post that, thanks Tom :slight_smile:

Tommie-boy, thanks for the great advice. I’ve got a pair of AT2020’s that I picked up for drumkit overheads. Cheapos. I also have four SM57’s, but I do guess that the AT2020’s are more appropriate. Now that you’ve also mentioned ORTF as a better starting point, as Southae did, maybe I’ll go with that. The smaller string orchestra and wind ensemble (around 20 members each) are on one day and the symphony orchestra is the next day (around 50 members). I was worried that ORTF would be too wide for the smaller ensembles, but it is true, they use up most of the stage anyway. Should I do ORTF on both days?

You’re certainly right about having two computers to record, and I certainly wish I had two. I was planning to use 24-bits at 44khz, as you recommend. I may be making a video, but I am pretty sure that the camera compresses the audio to MP3. So I guess that’s my only available backup. Maybe I can borrow a zoom. Do you use one stereo track or two mono tracks in Cubase?

Thanks for the pointers on levels; that’s what I needed. I’ll be able to test it out in dress rehearsal.

Now I have to go do my reading on SRAs!

mbr, what you’re describing is what I’ve read about, but as a volunteer, I’d have to win the lottery first!


Hope you win it soon !

I like AT2020s. They are nice mics. I have a pair of the AT4050s, which sound similar. Both the 2020s and the 4050s have a little bit of a high freq bump. This will work in your favor as high frequencies will diminish a bit as sound propagates from the band to your mics.

The 57s wont be of much use. Neither the sensitivity nor feq response of the 57s make them suited to recording orchestra. However, you could set these up as a backup pair for giggles.

I would recommend using ORTF both days. If the smaller ensembles are on one day, consider moving the mics in towards the stage a little more so they fit the SRA better. Doesn’t have to be exact. Your concern about ORTF being too wide doesn’t make a ton of sense when the alternative you were looking at was XY. The SRA is almost twice as wide for XY as it is for ORTF. This is one of those counter intuitive things that people struggle with when they first encounter SRA. You would think ORTF, with it’s 110 degree mic angle would present a wider SRA than XY with mics at 90 degrees. But it doesn’t. Counter intuitively - the wider the mic angle, the smaller the SRA. Also counter intuitively - the further the mics are spaced apart, the smaller the SRA. If you get a chance, fiddle with the Sengpiel link. Start with ORTF and then see what happens if you depart from ORTF by increasing the mic angle (the SRA will decrease). Then change the mic distance and see what happens to the SRA.

By the way, if you don’t have one already, consider picking up an inexpensive adjustable stereo bar. Even something as simple as the K&M 23510 Adjustable Stereo Mic bar (which is only $20). You just need to be able to adjust mic distance and mic angles. If you have a protractor, bring that along too. I picked up an inexpensive one at Lowes. You can use it to set mic angles, and you can use it to help see the SRA.

Question of 2 mono vs 1 stereo file - I don’t track bands with Cubase when I’m in the field. I use dedicated hardware recorders - a Sound Devices 788T is my primary recorder and I use a Roland R-44 for backup. I typically record to one file (poly) then tear the file apart into separate mono tracks when I import to Cubase. If you’re recording directly to Cubase, I might go for a stereo file, rather than 2 separate mono files, as you’re drive is only saving one file at a time, not two. Although your computer can probably handle 2 files fine. If you recorded a stereo file, you can always pull the file apart into 2 separate mono files later if you need to. Panning for ORTF is where the left mic goes hard left and the right mic goes hard right.

If you have a dress rehearsal, definitely record that if you can. It will help you figure out levels. And…if the concert recording has a problem, all is not lost as you at least would have the rehearsal files. Besides - you can have a listen to your recording of the rehearsal and make adjustments for the concert. I have this same scenario with a jazz big band I’m recording in two weeks. I am going to record the rehearsal the night before, then record again at the concert. One of them is bound to turn out OK!


Seconding that, really excellent post. Thank you, Tom!

Thanks, Tom. I ordered the stereo bar a couple of days ago. My computer can easily handle 8 tracks at a time, and probably more if I had another input box. I appreciate all the advice you’re giving me!

A few more questions are occurring to me, if anyone can advise.

  1. Do you stop and save the recorded tracks after each number or do you just let it run? I’m on a laptop, and who knows what might make it crash. It never has crashed on me, but my laptop is quite old, running XP, and Cubase 6. I know, it’s due for replacement, but it’s been solid as a rock for recording my band using 8 tracks at once. It has dual disk drives. I think Cubase is doing autosaves along the way.

  2. Processing - I’m thinking basically normalizing, maybe a little reverb if the recording is dry, and equalization to taste. I’m used to recording my band (and I’m pretty happy with it), and I process the crap out of it, so this should be a lot simpler. But maybe it’s standard to do some light compression so that a wild cymbal hit or someone screaming “bravo” just behind the mics doesn’t lower the level of the whole thing?

  3. Presentation - do you give the organization the raw concert from beginning to end? I’m thinking not; I’ll break it into pieces but not down to movements. I’ll capture any conductor comments, and fade out on the applause. If I get decent video, I’ll apply the Cubase audio to the video in Sony Movie Studio, and add a few labels. And I guess nobody will listen to the audio only; they’ll post the video on YouTube, and that’s the final product!