Recording an orchestra

Hi all, I’m re-examining my mixes, particularly of the concert band. The problem here is that their set went from a flute quartet to a piece featuring two drum kits (both at stage front, left and right, showing off their two drummers). If I normalize the whole set, then the first three pieces are very quiet, and the mastering settings have barely any effect, because the ensemble doesn’t even get to the threshold settings. What do you guys do in that situation? I’m thinking ride the gain on the first three pieces and hope listeners don’t actually notice. It was a bit unusual. Just before the concert band got on stage, there was a small string ensemble, and I had normalized their part, but now they’re louder than the first three concert band pieces. I guess there is some happy medium.

And, I have to ask another question, thanks for your patience… why are SDC’s better than LDC’s for an orchestra/ensemble? I can think of two reasons not related to sound: hardly visible to the audience, and much easier to set up the ORTF or other method angle! I tend to use my LDC mics (AT2020) for anything where high frequency is an important qualifier, such as acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and drum overheads. For guitar amp, snare, toms, I’m using SM 57’s. Nobody cares about the high frequencies there! Thanks to all.

I would suggest mastering each song/piece on its own. For maintaining cohesiveness of the set, aim for different average volumes for the pieces (but not that different). If the flute piece is super quiet and drum piece is super loud, master these so that the flute piece is a little quieter than the drum piece. It’s a balancing act to maintain a difference, but to make them both listenable.

Some peeps who do classical would call that blasphemy, but I think it makes things easier to listen to. Gain riding that you suggest is a fine way to approach it.


SDCs are generally better for recording an orchestra for the following reasons:

  • Less visible (very important for live performances)
  • Generally better (more sensitive) for transient response
  • Generally better (more accurate) for off-axis pick up. This is a key reason, especially if you’re using ORTF where you’re picking up critical elements of the orchestra off-axis. Even when using a spaced pair (AB), SDCs will usually win out over LDCs because the reflections (reverb) they pick up will not have their off-axis responses skewed (freq) as an LDC might.
    • these are all generalizations. One needs to really analyze on a mic by mic basis.

      LDCs can have a slight edge in lower noise. However, good SDCs have such a low noise floor that this is irrelevant.

      All this being said, AT2020s are still fine for recording an orchestra. And if that’s what you got, it should be fine. The high freq lift helps for use as a main pair for an orchestra. As you go further down this path, you can consider upgrading mics. I used AT4050s at first, then (after a while of saving) bought a used pair of Schoeps mics (MK5 caps) from Vintage King. There is a big difference. It’s easier to dial in a great sound with Schoeps. Less monkeying with EQ or other measures (in fact, I almost never use EQ on the Schoeps). Sounds natural.


Thanks, Tom, I bought the AT2020’s based on affordability at the time. They’ve been good drum overhead mics. I am thinking SDC’s for reason number one: not so much in the way! And I have no experience with them, so I’d like to advance, eventually. My sense at this point is that the mic is far more important than the pre-amp, but the pre-amp is also important. I have the MR816csx for preamps, and I am sure there would be arguments about requiring a tube preamp, but I think it’s not my weakest link.

On the other hand, if I bought better mics, and fed them into a Zoom H6 (I only mention this because I was recently at a really good classical concert where the guy recording was using a Zoom H6 with Beyerdynamic SDC’s (I don’t know the model)) and I wondered whether the better mics would be a greater improvement than the presumably worse preamps of the Zoom H6). As I mentioned earlier, I’m wary of depending on my old laptop, and thinking of backup, so might want to buy a Zoom or equivalent as long as it would take external mics. But I don’t want to take a step backward from the MR816csx.

And thanks for your thoughts on mastering. I’m trying to find a middle course.

Recorders - If you’re set on Zoom, consider an F4 or F8 over any H series. Better preamps. F4 currently on sale at Sweetwater for $599. However, for $50 more, you could get a new Sound Devices Mix-Pre3. If you think you’ll need more channels, consider the Mix-Pre6. Preamps on F4 will be better than H series. Preamps on Sound Devices will be better still. If you could stretch your budget, I’d pick Sound Devices over Zoom for the following reasons:

  • Limiters. Zooms are digital (meaning AFTER the A/D converter). SD uses analog limiters BEFORE the A/D converter. Bottom line - if you have unintended peaks, the SD will handle them much better with far less distortion. I ALWAYS record with limiters on when on location at live events. You never know what’s gonna happen. I’m good at setting levels, but the safety net is important. If you always get sound checks, maybe this is less important. I have gigs where I don’t get good sound checks, so limiters are key.
  • Support. I have called SD support a few times when issues cropped up with my 788T. Every time I’ve been quickly connected to a knowledgeable SD engineer who helped me resolve my issue. With Zoom - you’ll not have anywhere near this level of support.
  • Sound Quality - it doesn’t get better than Sound Devices. I paid about $8K for my SD 788T with CL-8 attachment. The fact that you can get SD quality now for under $1K is phenomenal.
  • Reliability - pros use SD for a reason. They work, are rugged, and reliable.

Another recorder comment - I also have a Roland R-44. It’s a nice recorder. Very easy/simple to use. And i actually use the built in mics for recording some school events my kids are in. However…the sound quality is not on par with my SD 788T. Different league. R-44 isn’t bad, just not as good. Also, my R-44 has digital limiters, which i’ve bumped against from time to time. They do not handle overs as well as the SD analog limiters. You can hear some distortion on the R-44.

tube Preamps - I would not use tube preamps on location. One - I don’t want to have to plug into anything. I’m free of power outlets and all of the headaches that can accompany that (getting clean power, conditioners, finding outlet, more cabling to manage, etc…). Two - SD preamps are very clean (but not sterile) - so no need for external pres. F4 or F8 pres are fine also. Three - tube pres are often used to color the sound (although this often comes more from transformers than the tubes), which is not what I’d want from a classical recording.

Which is more important - mics, pres, converters? Mics are first. Pres second, as long as they’re not too noisy. Converters last. Converters are quite good these days and it doesn’t take a lot of $$$ to get decent conversion. However, mics are different. It generally pays to get more expensive mics.

If you can hold off on buying mics for a while - save up for a used pair of Schoeps with MK5 caps. Versatile as can be omni or card. Sound is fantastic. You’ll never regret having a nice pair of schoeps mics. And they hold their value.

If I had your setup and was looking to plan an upgrade path, I’d do it as follows:
1 - Get an SD recorder. Less headaches with power. Would also eliminate using a laptop and separate interface. Less to carry. Easier to use. AT2020s, while perhaps not ideal, still turn out respectable results. You’d still need laptop, etc… if you used it to be redundant. However, getting at least one recorder off of the power grid helps for stability/redundancy if somebody trips over your power cord (or if breaker blows), the battery powered SD keeps on going. If you bought another recorder down the road, you could ditch the laptop.
2 - Buy a passive mic splitter.
3 - Mics. Get SDCs with a slight HF lift to be used as a main pair. If you could save up for a while, consider a used pair of Schoeps with MK5 caps (benefit of omni and card patterns). If that is beyond budget, consider other small SDCs.

Just my 2 cents.


I was not set on the Zoom, it’s just that I met someone who was using one for this purpose, and was thinking of redundancy at low cost. I was concerned about mic-pres though. So your input is very useful. The Mix-Pre3 would seem to be a much better choice for the money for this purpose. I even wonder if it is a better primary solution than my laptop with the Steinberg MR816. The MR816 is supposed to have decent preamps with phantom power, and given my usual recording of my band, the eight inputs has been very useful to me. I don’t have examples of a bunch of these devices to compare, but I used to use a MOTU interface, and the Steinberg seems to me to have much better sound.

Then I’m wondering, if I have a Mix-Pre3, do I really need redundancy when recording live? No moving parts anywhere, battery powered, it must be extremely reliable. Meanwhile on the laptop, there’s operating system, Cubase, hard drives, power cords, firewire cable, etc. that are all vulnerable.

I never even considered a tube pre-amp, and I’m glad you confirmed what I already thought, which is mics most important, pre-amps next, and converters third (nowadays). I got those AT-2020’s for next to nothing, so I really have to consider an upgrade, and you are no doubt right that I should wait and save up.

Thanks again, Tom.

And I also wanted reply to your comment on limiting. In my current setup, any limiting would be in my laptop, so I’m pretty sure if I go into the red on the MR816, my only recourse is to try to cover it up in Cubase. So that’s why I was trying to be very conservative on the input levels, given 24-bit dynamic range. I didn’t hit red once last time out. I hit red every so often when the band is recording, but nothing so ridiculous as to be a problem with our music. But on that Mix-Pre3, having an analog limiter in front would be really useful in a concert recording. Anyway, I think I understand that correctly!

If you are recording a live event with no second takes, i would recommend redundancy -no matter how good the gear is.

OK, getting ready for the local pro orchestra this weekend. I did buy the QuickLok A50 in the meantime, so at least that issue is solved! Man, that thing is a heavy beast! I think someone would be more likely to break a shin than to knock it over.

I took a look at “The Stereophonic Zoom” pdf, and I think I have a better understanding of the SRA (I hope) so I’ll set up my ORTF to keep that in mind – basically by moving the stand back a row or two if necessary. I still have no redundancy, which is unfortunate, but the orchestra management is not too worried since this is just for archive, and nobody seems to have listened to any of the archives in years! I am truly appreciating the advantages of battery power, so maybe before the next one, I’ll be there.

One consideration that occurred to me is that while I’m recording in Cubase, I don’t have to sit there with my headphones on – I can see the wave forms as they come in, so I know if anything has gone wrong. With a portable digital recorder, I suppose the operator really must wear headphones the whole time?

Another thing I’m wondering is if 32-bit float would provide even more headroom. I’m using 24-bit now. But if I used 32-bit, wouldn’t I be able to take in a very low signal and still have tons of headroom? I know it takes more disk space, but that’s not going to be a problem. At least in this particular instance, I’m going to be able to record the dress rehearsal, so I should have a good idea of the peaks.

I’ve listened to the recordings of the orchestras from around the area, and I’m not too fearful. I think my mics are not going to be the weak link. Redundancy definitely is. But the ORTF approach, subject to consideration of the SRA, should provide a decent recording. As far as I could tell, the last guy who did this job used one stereo mic, and I assume inside it’s an X-Y array (what else could it be), so maybe I can do something a little better, I hope, if the laptop keeps running.

Love to hear anybody’s advice at this point, thanks.

Glad you got the A50. I’ve had mine for many years and it’s still going strong. As I get older, I ponder how long I can keep carrying that thing around. It is a beast.

Portable digital recorder question - nope, you don’t have to wear headphones the whole time. Meters indicate signal being recorded, conceptually similar to wave form drawing you look at in Cubase. I don’t wear headphones much when recording live events.

Bits question - 24 is enough as it picks up plenty of detail while leaving a lot of headroom. I haven’t recorded with 32, so I can’t comment on this based on experience. Maybe somebody who has used cubase to record at 24 and 32 bits can weigh in.

Mic point - you’re right. Stereo mics are often XY. You’ll do much better with your ORTF array.

Redundancy - you’re right here too. This is your weak point.


Was thinking of the bits question. I’ve never seen or heard of an AD converter that operates at higher than 24 bits. Maybe a 32 bit converter exists, but I haven’t seen it. So if the converter is at 24 bits, would it make any sense to have cubase recording at 32 bits?

Thanks Tom… I’ve recorded in 32-bits float (a project that was passed to me). In general, I guess it’s overkill. But if, as you think, the converter is working at 24 bits, then I can’t think of a reason to record higher than 24 bits. Anyway, 24-bit is huge headroom as it is, so I guess I’ll stick to that. Wish me luck!

You know, I was wondering, as a sort of side issue, what makes one pre-amp better than another, assuming they’re solid state. I know lots of people want tube pre-amps for coloration, but that’s clearly not applicable for a live classical performance (I think - maybe somebody feels it’s a subject to discuss). I am wondering what an expensive solid state preamp has that an inexpensive solid state preamp doesn’t have. I can only say from experience that my Steinberg MR816CSX seems to have a better recording sound than the unit it replaced, at MOTU 8-pre. I still have that unit, but I only use it to record additional percussion tracks!

This is great thread. Thanks for all the good advice and ideas.

It may be generally a quiet forum, but there are a lot of smart and genuinely helpful people here!

OK, concert recorded successfully! Turns out there is a guy in the orchestra who is well versed in live recordings. He came to defend me when I was explaining to orchestra management at the dress rehearsal that I needed at least two seats reserved for me. Evidently, the guy before me put his boom stand right against the stage, so the boom did not block any seats, and there were no wires crossing the space between stage and seats. But I was not willing to put my mics right over the conductors head, and that giant A50 clearly impeded two seats. The orchestra guy supported my arguments, so management caved in, made some seat changes, and blocked two seats for all concerts going forward.

The dress rehearsal recording went well. My new friend in the orchestra volunteered to bring his own Zoom F8 recorder to the concert so that I would have redundancy, and he also had an ART passive mic splitter. So on concert night, in a matter of 5 minutes, we set up his recorder and sent my mics to both recorders (direct to my Steinberg MR816). Everything worked perfectly. One of the great features of the F8 is that you can replicate your mics to other channels, the purpose of which is to allow you to sequentially lower the input levels. In this case, my new friend set it up with four stereo inputs (two by mic cable and two by replication), and he set the inputs lower for each pair. This is a great technique for avoiding overages and distortion – if the first pair went over, you have three others to rely on. But I have not heard what his recorder picked up so I can’t comment on the preamps. Reviews online seem to indicate it’s a pretty good box.

My 10-year-old laptop captured everything, I had no moments going into the red (having determined the levels the night before), and the backup machine also recorded everything as far as I know. Once you get insurance, you don’t really need it!

I had people in the seats on either side of my two seats, even though the concert wasn’t sold out. Turns out the front row seats are the cheapest, and the hard-of-hearing like to snap them up. Not only do they have difficulty hearing the orchestra, they have difficulty hearing themselves. Including involuntary bodily noises. At one point, the person next to me began to hum one of the more popular melodies, and he couldn’t hear me when I whispered to him. And I have a pretty good idea what he had for dinner. But the A50 goes high enough that I can’t hear it in the recording. That’s at least one advantage to putting the mic up by the stage instead of by the seats, but, I can report that my recordings are much more alive and stereo than the last guy’s. Still, whatever these aging fans do, one thing they do is show up and pay, so lots of respect to them; this orchestra wouldn’t exist without them.

Actually, I’m pretty pleased with the overall stereo effect. Lots of coughs, though, further back. The mics were maybe 12 feet behind the conductor, who had his musicians around him right up to the edge of the stage. I had the A50 as high as it would go, so it was a little over the conductor’s head, but not much. I think I fit within the SRA of 96 degrees.

As I mix, I’m not so happy with the bass. There were four basses at the extreme right of the stage, but the percussion was put at the extreme left. The last piece, Scheharazade, features a lot of percussion. Turning up the bass (perhaps to compensate for my cheap mics) also turns up the low percussion. Still, I think I’ve got a good representation of what they did. Long live live orchestras!

I had another complaint (from one of the organization’s board members) that my laptop was too bright, and he wanted me to turn the screen toward the stage. Of course that would have meant I couldn’t see it. But I did realize I have to turn the brightness down. And this is yet another advantage to a dedicated digital field recorder. So I am thinking my next purchase is one of those (probably SoundDevices Mix Pre3), and the ART splitter has to go with that. Then, it’s better mics.

I had anxiety about the power cord, but fortunately nobody kicked it up. During intermission I stood on the cord in front of all the equipment to ensure that if the cord was kicked, it would come out of the slack on the other end. I also had anxiety about recording levels, and I began to wonder if there is a specific downside to recording too low at 24-bits. I think, based on my limited knowledge of LPs, that you can fit an orchestra into a 60Db range or so, and with 24-bits, you have something like double that, so even if you were 60Db too low, you would still be ok. Have I understood that correctly?

Thanks for everybody’s help on this project!

Great to hear your experiences mate :slight_smile:

Yep i’m still enjoying this one…

I’m glad it all worked out and it sounds like you asserted what you needed. I also think it was very smart to have a backup recording and the overload protection on the backup tracks is a very wise move.

Maybe you’ll post something on “made with cubase” eventually for us to hear a bit of?

Good luck with future projects.

Hi Stephen, maybe I can do an extract. Going to deliver the mix tomorrow, so let’s see what the management thinks!