Classical Music Recording Methods: A Conversation with Yuri Lysoivanov

The art of the classical music recording seems to get overshadowed by the actual music it records. In any given symphony, we may notice the beauty and virtuosity of the violinists, the strength and power of the horns, and the clarity of the woodwinds.

But do we ever really notice that gain riding that made the pianississimo audible? Or the lack of phasing from a good Decca Tree placement? That’s because our unsung heros of recording – our engineers – are working their subtle, but important recording magic. Well, hopefully…

Recordings can go awry very quickly without the right knowledge. I once had an engineer try to apply some of his knowledge of recording rock music to recording a violin. He mic’d the violin as if it was a guitar amp and tried to exclude any room sound. The result? My 1850s German violin sounded like a 1970s rusty tin can.

I have also seen colleagues put on concerts at major concert venues only to have a handheld, portable recording device put in the middle of the room. I’m sure the two mics on that recorder did not do their performance justice.

I had a chance to sit down with Yuri Lysoivanov, who is a classical music engineer, teacher, and Chair of the Recording Arts Department at Tribeca Flashpoint College in Chicago. In addition to training our next generation of engineers, he has recorded everything from a pipe organ Christmas album to Haydn's Creation with a full orchestra and choir.

Yuri helped to demystify the concepts of classical music recordings, sharing his advice about recording technique, gear preferences, and common mistakes to avoid. Whether you are a musician or an engineer, his advice will help you make a recording that you can be proud of.

How are classical music recordings different from non-classical recording sessions?

In the studio, knowledge of how acoustics work is much more important for classical sessions. When my students record a solo musician or a small ensemble in the studio, I expect them to do detailed research on how each instrument generates sound. Then it's on them to figure out the best place in the room to put the musician and the microphones. The room is just as important to the overall sound as the performer.

For concert performances, knowledge of stereo techniques is crucial. Again, it's about capturing the performance of the musicians and the response of the space. Luckily, there are many guidelines that are helpful and make life easier.

What equipment do you use?

I have a trusty pair of Neumann KM184 microphones that I use for my stereo pair, and I use a host of other microphones as outriggers as I need them. I will also rent B&K omni microphones if I want to do fancy spaced pair recordings.

For concert performances, I run everything to an Audient ASP880, which gives me eight independent channels for recording. I love the Audient because the preamps are pretty transparent for the price, and I feel confident that I'm capturing what I'm actually hearing.

I run the Audient output via light pipe to a Universal Audio Apollo Twin Interface, which connects via thunderbolt into a Macbook Pro Laptop. The Apollo also has 2 extra channels for recording, but I try not to use them because they are not as transparent as the Audient. The advantage of having the Apollo is that it comes with really good processing tools if I ever need them. All of this gets recorded into Pro Tools.

What equipment would you recommend for the beginner just getting into classical recording?

To me, the microphones are most important. Get a good pair of cardioid mics for stereo pairs. The vast majority of your sound when recording classical concerts is going to come from that stereo pair. I know many people who record concerts with nothing but a single pair and get great results. However, I enjoy having at least two extra support microphones.

I love my Neumann KM184s, but there are also better, much more expensive options out there. For studio recording, having a good ribbon microphone is very handy for string instruments. And of course, record in a space that sounds great!

In my opinion, there really isn't a great, inexpensive way to get high quality classical recordings. You have to invest.

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What are some typical microphone setups that you commonly use?

For concerts, I love, love, love using ORTF (French, 110 degrees apart) or NOS (Dutch, 90 degrees apart) settings for my main stereo pair. These two options get a great, wide stereo field with minimal phase issues. I will then supplement them with a spaced pair of omni microphones on either side of the ensemble and mix them in. Occasionally, I will also add a spot microphone or two if there is a soloist.

This is not a unique setup. I have also seen a lot of other concert engineers use a spaced pair and call it a day. I try to avoid using spaced pairs, but I did use one for the organ recording because the organ itself was huge and the microphones were only able to be a maximum 15-20 feet away from it due to the architecture of the space. In that case, having an ORTF pair would be limiting because it's not far away enough to capture the entire width of the instrument, so a spaced pair would be a better bet.

How have your methods changed over time?

When I first started, I used to use too many microphones being that I came from a studio background. It didn't initially click with me that the main stereo pair is going to do most of the work, and I tried to do too much and get too creative – sometimes to the chagrin of the performers who weren't used to seeing so many microphones around them. I simplified my setup pretty quickly.

I am also starting to get more comfortable with post-processing, specifically adding reverb. I've come to accept the fact that you often can't choose the room that you record in, and sometimes a high quality, artificial reverb may sound better than what is actually coming from the room.

What are some common mistakes or misunderstandings that you see either your students or performers make?

My students are so used to putting a microphone up close in front of everything – especially drums – that the idea of putting one a few feet away is generally foreign to them. But oftentimes, that space is what makes classical instruments sound great – especially violins and violas.

It also helps when we get a performer in that moves around a lot when they play. Related to that, pointing a mic directly at the instrument may pick up a lot of sonic harshness and mechanical noise from the player.

For performers, the most important thing is to practice...So college students: skip the Friday night party once in awhile, and go hit the practice rooms instead."

For performers, the most important thing is to practice. People who aren't used to studio time tend to vastly underestimate how prepared they need to be. Generally, this isn’t an issue for professional musicians, but some of the up-and-comers we've brought into the studio have been a different story.

I kid you not, we had one college student tell us to pause the recording so that he could rehearse this cello suite. And no, we are not going to edit your performance for a scholarship audition – that's totally unethical!

Knowing your part isn't enough. We use very sensitive microphones that will pick up all sorts of details in the performance, so having great technique is important as well. It's imperative that musicians – especially solo musicians – are extra prepared when they come into the studio.

So college students: skip the Friday night party once in awhile, and go hit the practice rooms instead.

What is your post process?

I generally keep it pretty simple. If it's a good ensemble in a good room, I do a simple master using iZotope Ozone where I bring up the overall level of the performance to about -16 LUFS. There may be some simple limiting involved, but it's so subtle that you'll never hear it.

If the room is bad, I will record with the mics a little closer to the instruments and then will use an artificial reverb to give the performance some space.

For concert recordings, if the client wants a CD release rather than just an archive, I will run iZotope RX to denoise parts of the recording and will take time to remove coughs, chair squeaks and other noises as needed.

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What tips would you give classical engineers?

First, be precise. I've seen so many theater setups where a guy just hangs a stereo pair (usually in ORTF) that isn’t actually angled right or is leaning to one side, and they just call it a day. That's a huge pet peeve of mine.

I bring an assistant with me for concert recordings (yes, I pay them), but it's worth it because they will help me adjust things. It's not uncommon for me to set up during the rehearsal and then have an assistant adjust the mics until I give them the thumbs up that it sounds the way I want it to. It really is worth it to me to optimize that stereo pair – even if it's just for an archive recording. Maybe I'll get more lazy about it when I get older.

Recording is a partnership between the engineer and the artist who both share the same goal"

And two, become a pro at iZotope RX. I don't care if you are the greatest recordist in the world, you do not have the magical ability to turn off the air conditioning noise, accidental chair squeaks and bodily noises of your audience. If the client wants a CD release of a concert, being able to minimize or remove that stuff is a great skill to have.

What tips would you give classical performers heading into a session?

Practice, practice, practice. Our microphones will hear everything. Be at the top of your game before you enter the studio.

Similarly, take good care of your instruments. Your lack of instrument maintenance will be noticeable in the recordings.

And lastly, don't be afraid to ask the engineer for basic comforts, like lowering the lights, getting a different chair or music stand, a bottle of water, or to change positions. Recording is a partnership between the engineer and the artist who both share the same goal. We will happily work with you to help you give the best possible performance that you can give.

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