Bravo!: the 1998 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD

"There, that's where you should put the microphone—5" from the end of my bow."

Holding his bow up at an angle, world-famous violinist Pinchas Zukerman was helping me set up my mikes to record the final concert from the 1998 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where he was to lead an ensemble in a performance of the Mozart G-Minor Piano Quartet. Pinchas Zukerman has been recording for 30 years, so I'd asked him if there was a mike position he'd recommend. He has found that the best position for a microphone to capture the sound of his violin is always the same: "If it works, why change it?" He prefers a Coles Ribbon.

This year's Festival, however, brought me face-to-ear with an acoustic rendered newly uncooperative by noise from the air-conditioning system for the Museum of Fine Arts, of which St. Francis Auditorium is a part. The AC couldn't be turned off, the leasing arrangements for the museum's exhibitions of paintings mandating 24-hour climate control. My preferred purist, distant microphone technique, which I had used on Stereophile's three previous recordings of the Festival (footnote 1), would thus pick up too much of the AC's rumble'n'roar. Instead, I augmented a distant pair of microphones with individual mikes on each of the instruments. I was going to mix the eight channels down to two after the performances had been assembled, and try to minimize the noise in the mixdown with subtle use of appropriate filtering.

The main pair of microphones for the Mozart quartet and Elgar quintet were B&K omnidirectionals, spaced 27" apart and angled away from each other. This array captures a terrific sense of the ensemble's "bloom," but the downside is that the stereo image is not particularly well defined. In addition, while the omni mikes have an extended low-frequency response, this readily picked up the low-frequency noise from the climate-control system pumps, which were mounted behind the stage. In the mixdown, I used the versatile rdp-1 digital preamplifier/equalizer from Z-Systems to filter out some of this noise, but it couldn't all be removed without affecting the tonal qualities of the piano and cello.

The main pair of microphones also picked up sound from the high-volume air-conditioning fans, mounted just outside the side door to the stage. This noise was too high in frequency to be filtered electronically, but the layers of heavy tape Wes Phillips applied to the door seals eliminated almost all of it. Unfortunately, fire regulations prevented us from applying this treatment during the concerts themselves; therefore, while the concert performances were captured on tape, all the performances on this CD were recorded after the audience had left.

For Marc Neikrug's Pueblo Children's Songs, much of whose music resides in the silences between the notes, the omnis used as a main pair still picked up too much intrusive noise. I therefore substituted a pair of directional cardioid mikes, about 10' away from and looking down at the stage. These were angled at 115 degrees and had their capsules spaced by 7", the traditional ORTF configuration. This gives a well-defined stereo image, with good rejection of low-frequency noise. While the cardioids lack the bloom of the omni mikes, this would not be an issue with the intimate nature of the Songs, and freed up the natural-sounding omnis to use for Heidi Grant Murphy's voice.

Footnote 1: Festival (STPH007-2) features orchestral works by Copland, Milhaud, and Kohjiba; Serenade (STPH009-2) chamber works by Mozart, Brahms, and Dvorák; Encore (STPH011-2), works for piano and string quartet by Brahms and Mendelssohn. All can be ordered from the Recordings page on this website.