Setting up to Record at your School

Neumann Microphone

I read an article recently from a school who had recorded an album with one of our competitors.   The most striking thing was a comment from the teacher in charge of the day who said: “The sound engineer arrived at 10am and was ready about 20 minutes later”.   Now obviously I don’t know exactly what the deal was, but I do know from reading further down the article that the CDs were more expensive than ours so it certainly wasn’t a budget recording – at least not for the customer.

Just considering the statement about the setup from this other company makes me wonder whether this other company are actually taking the business seriously.   I’m not going to name names either of the school who wrote the article or the company they worked with, as that isn’t the point of my article today.

Quality, Quality & more Quality

Since setting up in the recording business back in 2004, our primary watchword has always been Quality. When you start a mobile recording company the first thing to do is invest in lots of recording gear.  It is at this point in your business that you are making the decision to either go down the ‘quality’ route or whether you just want spend as little as possible to get yourself something which could possibly be called a mobile recording studio.

We decided from the outset to over engineer everything and build a studio which would stand up to comparison with professional albums recorded in studios such as Abbey Road.   Of course it’s not just about the recording gear – you have to know how to use it too!  Lets look at two contrasting setups.

Option 1 – A Basic Stereo Recording

For around £200 you can buy yourself a 4 Channel Mic Pre-amp which will take 4 microphone inputs. You could then get yourself a windows laptop, 4 condenser microphones and probably still end up with change out of a £1000 investment.   A couple of mic stands and some XLR cables from Amazon might set you back around £50 and there are a number of freely available pieces of recording software.   At this point you could go out and claim you were a mobile recording engineer.

A set up like this would go in the back of the smallest of cars and could be carried from the car to the venue potentially in one, maybe two trips at the most.   Setting up would take about 15 minutes, assuming you also took time to secure the cables with tape.

Sound quality

Microphones record a single channel of mono.  So with the above setup you could have a stereo pair of microphones to capture a stereo image of your school / choir singing.  This leaves you with 1 channel available for soloists and one available for either the piano / a backing track.   To some extent this has the potential to be very slightly better than recording on your iPhone, but only just.  And it certainly isn’t the sort of thing you should expect someone to pay you for doing!  Even with the most outstanding post production studio (which is unlikely if you only have the above gear on location) there’s not much you can do with such a limited set up.

So, I hear you ask, how should a mobile recording be done?

Option 2 – The Recordings 4 Schools Rig

Firstly let’s be clear. This is not just about how much you spend on your recording gear.   There are without doubt many studios out there who have spent far more than we did.  The key is to ensure that the gear you buy is suitable for the job in hand.  That said, recording gear soon starts to add up.

For starters we have 4 Microphone Pre-Amps.   Linked together this means we can plug in 32 microphones or channels at any one time.   Running this we have a pair of MacBook Pros working in tandem connected via fibre or Thunderbolt depending on the distances involved.  At this point we have already spent in the region of £40,000 without buying any microphones!

For school recordings the centre piece of our set up is a Soundfield Microphone.  These are anything from £3000 upwards depending on which model you opt for and capture everything in 5.1 surround sound from a single microphone with 4 capsules.

And this is before you start thinking about specialist microphones to record different types of instruments, drum kits, brass, woodwind, strings etc.   I could go on, but I think you get the picture.   And this is all before you consider our Post Production Studio which is an entirely different set of kit which lives in our Bath Studio and is set up to master the audio once we get back from location.   That is an entirely different set of kit and computers.

Summary

A few weeks ago, I took a call from a sound engineer offering his services to Recordings 4 Schools as a ‘freelancer’.  We have never used contractors of any sort here and have no intention of doing so, but since he put the call in, I felt it was worthwhile understanding his offering.   And basically he was offering me Option 1 above.   For this he was going to charge me £150 or so a day plus travel expenses.

Obviously I said no, primarily because that sort of solution just isn’t good enough.  When I mentioned that we always take a Soundfield Mic to all our school recordings (as well as other options) his reply was ‘Why would you do that just for a school? Surely that’s a bit like driving a Ferrari to work every day’.

His analogy was not entirely without reasoning but it did make me smile.  I’m not sure a Soundfield microphone is that over the top, but maybe I’m looking at this from a different perspective.   As the owner of Recordings 4 Schools and a Director of the holding company 4 Part Music, I am making a commitment to our customers to do the best job we possibly can for a reasonable price.

The first part of this commitment is having the right kit for the job in hand.   School recordings can be anything from Primary Schools singing to Backing Tracks to professionally trained School Chamber Choirs who are entering competitions at the highest level.  We need to cover all bases hence operating with the best kit we can.

The second key element with recordings is, as stated above, knowing how to use the kit.  For this reason I am present at every single recording we undertake.  The company isn’t just me, but at the same time we are only a small company as there are 3 of us in all.    This is a deliberate plan.   Everything we do is about trying to be the best we can for our customers.My business motto has always been, you are only ever as good as your last job & I believe the only way you can truly do this is to take responsibility for every job which is done.


Jules Addison is a Director & Sound Engineer at 4 Part Music Ltd. Outside of his recording work he runs 3 Choirs in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire as well as being the Organist in Residence at St Thomas a Becket Church in Bath.

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