Teacher Hub

How to... Record your choir

Written by William Thompson15/08/23

While the sale of CDs used to be an option for raising some extra department funds, streaming – Spotify, Apple Music etc - has reduced the potential market for these projects.  However, parents and grandparents will probably still have a CD player at home or in the car, so maybe there is still mileage is selling CDs of your school choir or ensemble, and pestering family members to buy a copy!

Whether or not you are trying to raise funds for your next euphonium, or for a set of ukuleles, many teachers like to have an audio record of particularly successful performances or groups. And with the advent of relatively inexpensive recording equipment, it has become easier to do this in-house, rather than having to employ an external recording company.

How you approach this will depend a lot on the type of equipment you have available. If you are planning on making sellable copies, you’ll also have to consider editing the final takes, and also making sure you have applied for relevant copyright licences. Initially however, let’s just consider how you might capture the best possible sound.

Take Two?

The first thing to say is that you should probably record multiple takes of the same piece or pieces, and then pick the best version. Obviously this is not possible if you are capturing a live performance at, say, your annual concert. Otherwise, always plan to have time to make several attempts at each piece. Unless you are particularly experienced in audio editing, you won’t be able to do what I did when I was recording choirs and ensembles for CD production: blending the best bits of each take together to make as perfect a version as possible. We could, of course, have a debate on the ethical justification for creating something artificially ‘perfect’; however, even those groups judged to able to perform at the highest level do this – when I had the privilege of singing as part of King’s College Choir, our recording sessions were filled with multiple, sectional takes, which the EMI engineers pieced together afterwards.

The art of noise

Sometimes you only become aware of external noises when you require silence at the beginning and end of a recording take. That’s when you notice the drone of the central heating pump that runs continuously, or the squeaky doors in the corridor outside. It’s therefore useful to check out the location for your recording well in advance, to avoid some of these things. And recording after school when there are fewer people around is probably also a good idea.

Echo… echo…

It is easier for a choir to sing in a location where there is some natural reverberation, and in general it will make a more pleasing recording. Yes, you can add reverb afterwards artificially, depending on the equipment you are using, but it never really sounds the same – and it doesn’t help the choir, who will sing more easily in a forgiving environment, rather than in a very dry acoustic.

3, 2, 1… go

So, how to start? Well it does depend a little on the equipment you have available (see below) but in essence the approach is the same.

  1. Make sure everyone is prepared – standing with feet slightly apart, instructed to be careful not to make noisy page turns, asked to avoid rustling or making other sounds
  2. Remind them of the importance of having absolute silence before, and after, the recording. Usually around 5 seconds at each end should be enough
  3. Practise a few false starts, just to make sure the choir has the pitch clearly in their heads – even if they are being accompanied
  4. Then, record a complete take. Even if there are some obvious errors (to you), it’s worth completing the take to build some confidence in the choir. If you restart several times without completing a take, it can be a little unnerving for the performers
  5. Check the recording (on headphones only – even if the choir want to hear themselves. It’s probably better that you reserve that until either the end of the session, or ideally when you’ve decided on the best take!)

In advance of the first take, you’ll have had to set up your equipment, so here are some pointers, depending on what equipment you are using:

  • Handheld digital recorder – yes, these can make remarkably good recordings, in spite of being relatively inexpensive. However, always better to mount the recorder on a microphone stand rather than just setting it on a table or chair – thus avoiding the possibility of low frequency vibrations being picked up.
  • Computer with interface – a laptop computer, running appropriate music software and used in conjunction with an audio interface, will be an excellent way to create editable recordings. You will, of course, then need to connect microphones to the interface in order to capture sound.

The choice of microphones will make a big difference to the quality of your sound recording. While most handheld recorders come equipped with a pair of good quality condenser microphone capsules, if you are recording using an interface and computer you will need microphones best suited to the task in hand.  These will invariably be condenser microphones, and as a minimum you will need to use two of exactly the same make and model: in fact, several manufacturers supply microphones in pairs for this sort of activity - called ‘matched’ pairs - including PreSonus, Rode and Samson.

Either use a pair of good quality microphone stands, with rubber feet, or a stereo bar, that allows you to attach two microphones, close together, on one stand. Then angle the microphones at 90 degrees towards each other, one pointing towards the left and the other towards the right, in an inverted V shape when viewed from above.

This will replicate the way our ears hear from two different directions, thus creating a stereo recording.

Some final suggestions:

  • Make sure you do a short recording and then listen to it, before committing to record everything. You might decide you need to change the position of the microphones to get a better balance
  • You may also discover things like the pedal noise from a piano being picked up – in this case try to block that sound by either changing the direction the piano faces, or placing the piano on an absorbent material like a carpet. Worst case – change the piano!
  • If you have any soloists as part of a choral recording, place them in the centre of the choir, at the front, if at all possible. Alternatively, if you are using an audio interface with more than 2 inputs, you could place a third microphone in front of them, and then balance the recording afterwards when you mix it down

There are so many variables that it’s impossible to cover all eventualities in a general article like this, so please feel free to contact us if you need any more specific advice, or if you are unsure what equipment you need to purchase.

Happy recording!