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An inside view of the weirdest recording session ever, at the BBC!

Take a 300-year old bass line, a cello player with just seven days' experience, and some highly uncool-looking musicians... and make a recording that is really top of the pops for weird!


In this era of more-of-the-same and wall-to-wall blandness, I love to hear something that is really unexpected. And this was really unexpected. For the purpose of Red Nose Day 2013, the people at BBC Radio 3 let their hair down, and not just a little.

What you are going to hear and see is a performance instigated by Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch who apparently learned the repeating eight notes of the bassline of Pachelbel's Canon (you'll know it) on the cello in just seven days, never having played the cello before. Then some wacky musicians join in. Here's the video of the recording session...

What I like about this is that it isn't what you would call 'normal'. It isn't normal for Radio 3, it isn't normal for music, and it probably isn't normal for anything. I hear too much bland normality every day, and I find this very refreshing.

I also like this clear demonstration that it's fun to be uncool. No-one at the BBC is cool, and they are at their most uncool when they try to be cool (the pianist with the hat, the bearded rapper). No-one at Audio Masterclass or Audio Masterclass is cool either and that's the way I like it.

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There are some interesting features about this recording. I should say at the start that I don't mean to criticize the project. I think it's great, but there are some issues that anyone recording acoustic instruments should think about.

First off is the microphone position for the cello...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

I always like to think, really think, about microphone positioning. What I would imagine here is a real-live person listening to the cello. Standing in front of the cello, leaning over. Would anyone actually listen like that? No? Well if you're going to put the microphone there, then there should be a good reason for it. Maybe it does sound best there. There's always a best position, for each individual combination of instrument, room and microphone model.

You may have noticed that the video is often out of sync with the audio. Let's not worry about that.

At 0:25, the studio is rocking to the vibrations of string players, all wearing headphones, indicating that we are already into the overdub phase of the session...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

Notice the very high microphone positioning. Once again no-one is ever going to listen from such a position. This, to me, conflicts with the baroque-pattern instruments, which are used in preference to modern-pattern instruments in the quest for authenticity of sound. One might consider that authenticity of listening position might be appropriate too.

For the ukulele band at 0:39 there is a high pair of mics in an ORTF-like configuration, supplemented by individual mics...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

Is this a belt-and-braces approach? Does the engineer intend to choose between the stereo pair or the close mics later? Or is he following the philosophy that the more complicated you make the job, the more important your role seems (especially to your employer)?

At 0:47, we see the mixing console, which looks to me like a Studer Vista 6...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

No, not everything in the big wide world of audio runs 'in the box'. And broadcasters can't be bothered with vintage Neves or U47 clones. They need equipment that works well and efficiently.

At 0:51, the cool pianist makes his entry...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

Going back to what I said earlier, whatever sounds best is best. But imagine yourself with a head a meter wide bending over the strings of the piano...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

That's what the mics hear. Oh, watch for the amazing moving mic stand at 0:59.15

At 1:01 we get a view from the control room window...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

What's interesting here is the loudspeaker. Even in the heyday of soffit-mounted main monitors, the BBC always had the speakers out in the room. No-one has soffit-mounted speakers in their home so it's a bit of a wonder how it ever did get to be a trend in the studio. The BBC don't do trends. (One could easily say the same about near-field monitors. Moving on...)

At 1:04 we seem to have prematurely moved onto editing. That's a SADiE DAW by the way, although I doubt the BBC ever calls it a DAW.

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

At 1:11 we can note the absence of near-field monitors, as I suspected earlier...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

Glossing over the kazoo chorus, we find some ancient musical instruments at 1:15...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

As an engineer, one will from time to time be confronted with a new type of instrument. So how do you approach recording it? Well in my experience, wind instruments that are long and pointy tend to be very directional from the bell end. So if you put the mic right in front of the bell, and the player moves even just an inch or two during performance, then the mic will pick up significant changes in sound. Here we can see that the mics are just off-axis and it is likely that the performers have been told not to play directly into the mics. Although look here...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

There is a lot of sound that radiates from the mouthpiece or reed and the full length of a woodwind instrument, and this is a clear case for the merits of raising the mic up and pointing it down.

At 1:27 we have a tuba player with his headphones half-on and half-off...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

No he isn't trying to look cool. When playing an acoustic instrument it is important to be able to hear your instrument acoustically. Hearing it through the headphones isn't quite the same thing. And if you are one player in a violin section, you have to be able to hear your own instrument, which with sectional miking is impossible through the headphones alone. Single-sided headphones are available that avoid the slovenly/casual look.

1:41. This is clearly a sign that rap and hip hop are on the way out...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

At 2:52 we have a gargling chorus of the kind that was very popular in the late 1600's. Apparently. Look at the mic cables - one red, one green...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

Now some would say that when you use a red and a green cable for stereo signals, then the left channel should be red, and the right channel green. Like the port and starboard lights on a ship. But if the cables were white and red, then according to another well-established audio convention, white would be left and red would be right. And what if there's a yellow cable? Well that's either a video cable or it's wired phase-inverted. All hope of useful color conventions should probably be abandoned now.

By the way, take note of how the cables are looped at the top of the stand, to take the weight off the connectors. (And why no individual close mics for the kazoos or garglers? The string band and ukuleles had them.)

In summary, this is an excellent piece of work and I like it a lot. It isn't too late to donate to Red Nose Day. If you like the video too, why not make a contribution (I've sent my fiver). Or to your favorite local charity if you're not in the UK.

Here's Sara on the cello again. Hmm, I might just get my own cello from out of the loft. I used to be able to play it a bit...

Scene from Sara Mohr-Pietsch's Comic Canon

By David Mellor Tuesday April 16, 2013