The Minimal Microphone Technique
Contemporary Analogue Mastreworks
Classical music has its own unique qualities. The process of capturing and reproducing it is unique as well. The multi-mike, multi-track technique usually used for rock and jazz, although widely used for classical music, isn't suited to the enormity of a symphony orchestra or the sensitivity of a chamber trio. The sensitive qualities of fine classical instruments combined with the brilliant perfection of the concert halls where this music is performed are only properly captured by the microphone-placement technique known as minimal miking. That is, two microphones only, placed the distance apart of an average human head, with a small amount of absorptive substance between them.

When we sit in a hall listening to music, we receive much, much more information than we initially realize. We note not only the tone of the instruments but also their location, their spacial relationships to each other, whether they are on the left of the stage or the right, relatively close to us or relatively far away. We sense what the walls of the concert hall are made of and their location by the effect they have on the sound arriving at our ears. We percieve the number of people who are in the hall (how many tickets were sold that night) and their sound-absorbtive quality, which changes the amount of reflection, hence the reverberation quality of the hall and, therefore, the sound of the instruments.

All of this and more is analyzed and perceived by our ear-brain listening system based on the information we pick up with our two ears. It is time-related information: how long does it take for the sound to reach your ears, the sound from one instrument farther away, one to the left, the sound off the rear or the side wall, the perceived reverberation.

All the spatial relationships we hear are understood because we are used to the perceptions we make with two ears. If we attempt to capture acoustic music with more microphones than we have ears to listen with, we alter the perceived reality of the music. When we sit in the hall listening to a 107-piece symphony orchestra, we hear the entirety of the orchestra reach our ears at a certain time interval. The collective sound of the orchestra travels to our ear-brain listening system in a complex, but focused and coherent, spatial and harmonic picture.

If we then mike the same orchestra with 15 or more microphones, each very close to, if not right in front of, each section, we are in essence putting an ear close up to each section of the orchestra. We create a very unreal representation of the orchestra's sound. We create more time paths than we have ears to perceive them with. Instead of hearing the orchestra as a unit from the 22nd row, we are hearing each section from, sometimes, mere inches away. This robs us of a time-real or phase-real perspective on the orchestra, and yet it is phase coherence, this realistic time perception, that is one of the components responsible for our enjoyment of the live musical experience. Additionally, when we get the time alignment or phase of the recording correct, not only are we recording more life-like spatial information, but we also have more realistic tonal or harmonic information. Both spatial and harmonic accuracy are locked to correct or more correct phase. The fewer microphones we use, the better our chances of more correct phase.

Since we have become used to hearing close-miked, multi-miked, multi-tracked recordings, we believe this to be the norm and the best way to listen to classical music. While there are some record labels using minimal miking, they are small and are not sought by the public at large. People who are not necessarily regular buyers of classical music will not pursue these labels but instead will buy the labels and artists that they have heard of and are familiar with -- the huge labels -- the ones which all multi-mike/multi-track their recordings. Some of these buyers have not been to enough concerts to have learned to detach themselves from the music long enough to begin analyzing what the instruments sound like technically and acoustically. The result, as so often is the case in this world of accepted mediocrity, is that recordings of inferior quality are virtually forced into the buyers' hands.

Changing to minimal miking would be simple and, in fact, more cost effective for both the label and the orchestra.

It is true that so far, with the available technology, we can only reproduce some, perhaps most, of the musical experience; however, we at Contemporary Analogue Mastreworks believe that the most important technique in the chain is minimal miking. It allows us, human organisms, the opportunity to listen to the instruments being recorded in the way that our brain most understands them: two microphones being listened to by two ears.

It is with these thoughts in mind that we have used and will continue to use minimal miking to record classical music. We feel that an extraordinary art form deserves extraordinary and progressive techniques to capture it.