Mariya Soboleva: Microphones for a Sound Engineer are Like Brushes and Paints for an Artist
A sound engineer, Mariya Soboleva about features of a music band recording and microphones of Oktava
Mariya Soboleva is the leading sound engineer in Russia in the field of acoustic music, professor of All-Russian State University of Cinematography named after S. A. Gerasimov, Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Modern Art Institute (MAI), Chairman of the Guild of Sound Engineers of the Russian Musical Union.
She worked at the All-Union recording studio of the company “Melodiya,” in the studio of the State Museum of Music Culture named after M.I. Glinka, in the company “Russian Compact Disc.”
She was the chief sound engineer of the Pavel Slobodkin Moscow theater and concert center, The Head of the department of sound engineering of the Gnesins Russian Academy of Music, headed the department of sound engineering at the MAI.
She gives workshops for Russian and foreign students regularly. She is a winner of many professional competitions. As a sound engineer and sound producer, Soboleva recorded several hundred discs. Melodiya, Decca, Nimbus, and others collaborate with her. She has worked with Michel Legrand, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vyacheslav Artyomov, Leonid Desyatnikov, Aleksey Kozlov, Igor Butman, Tamara Gverdtsiteli, and other well-known performers and composers.
In 2019, Mosfilm experts, whose partner was the manufacturer of professional electroacoustics Oktava, held a series of author’s workshops in sound engineering. Mariya Soboleva's seminar “Using Studio Acoustics for Recording of a Musical Group” which was dedicated to working with space and recording of acoustic music was also held along with testing the company's microphones. The practical part of the seminar consisted of working with one of the most difficult bands for studio recording – the ensemble Madrigal. In an interview for Showmaster magazine, Russia's leading sound engineer Mariya Soboleva shared the mastery secrets.
Mariya Aleksandrovna, what features of the ensemble and its repertoire make the life of a sound engineer so difficult and interesting?
The ensemble consists of instruments of different classes: strings, wind and percussion. In addition, the ensemble includes vocalists. All instruments are non-standard, with unique timbres and acoustic characteristics, sometimes difficult to balance even in an acoustic space. For example, oud and baroque trombone. It is almost impossible to play the trombone quietly, and the oud – loudly. Viola da gamba, clarsach, cymbals (dulcimer), block flute, a whole set of percussion instruments. One may only admire the skill of musicians who can arrange and perform music on these instruments so that it sounds organic and balanced.
One of the difficulties of working with an ensemble is the balance between its instrumental and vocal parts. At concerts, the vocalists are standing behind the seated musicians. It is a bad placement for recording; the vocalists lose their intelligibility and plan. It is impossible to put them in front of sitting instrumentalists because they lose contact with each other. It is possible to set the microphones opposite one other in two semicircles in a studio. Thus, the microphones of each semicircle are set “back” to the other half, the interpenetration of signals into neighboring microphones decreases, the picture becomes more transparent.
Another problem is that the percussion instruments (daf, darbuka, and others) used in the arrangements of this unique ensemble are very nice on the stage but during recording, they complicate the work of the sound engineer significantly. The sound of the instruments gets into all the microphones of the ensemble is strongly reflected from the walls, and audible throughout the whole studio. It is necessary to use acoustic shields for the acoustic isolation of instruments.
All these features should be implemented in an acoustic studio where musicians play and sing at the same time. They should have contact with each other, understand well and hear what the other is doing because this is an ensemble of soloists, not an orchestra. There is no conductor, everyone has a unique part and is guided in the most complex score by ear.
The choice of microphones is largely based on the acoustic characteristics of the instruments. Why do strings, wind and percussion instruments, and vocals require a different approach to recording and different microphones?
There are instruments with fast and slow attacks, light and dark timbres, powerful or weak acoustic radiation, underlined and bright formant areas. Microphones are like instruments. There are microphones with a short response time to acoustic pressure (condenser), a longer one (dynamic), with a full even transmitted spectrum, with a roll-off or rise of some frequencies, with large and small membranes (which affects the sensitivity and spectrum at low frequencies), and so on.
One of the creative tasks of a sound engineer is to choose a microphone for each instrument so that, on the one hand, it will match the acoustic characteristics of the instrument itself, and on the other hand, harmonize with other instruments and microphones, show the best in the timbre and dynamics of its musical instrument.
During the seminar, the technology of acoustic recording, the issues of setting up the main pair of microphones and individual microphones were discussed in detail. For what purposes did you use Oktava, where you need microphones with a narrow, and where with a wide membrane? How does the direction characteristic of the microphone affect the result?
Oktava MK-319, the microphone that has long been trusted, was presented at the seminar. It has a wide membrane, good sensitivity, and natural timbre transmission. During the seminar, this microphone was moved several times to different instruments, in addition to other microphones in the Mosfilm Park. It was meant so that the participants of the seminar could compare the sound of Oktava with the microphones set at the instruments. If I am not mistaken, Oktava was used for viola da gamba, oud, and was used in a vocal group with the other microphones which have the same size of the membrane approximately. The recorded multitrack is available to all participants, all of them have the opportunity not only to listen to the sound of Oktava but also to compare it with foreign brothers.
What nuances of the musicians' location in the studio shall be taken into account?
This issue requires a separate long and interesting conversation. It is very difficult to tell everything in the format of an interview. In a few words, studio acoustics is also a musical instrument, perhaps even the most important for the sound, coloring and changing the main timbre, enriching the palette of colors. Therefore, it is extremely important for a sound engineer to understand the peculiarities of forming an acoustic field and be able to use the studio's acoustics to form spatial characteristics of the sound. The most important aspects are the location of the musician or band relative to the entire acoustic volume, and especially relative to the nearest reflective surfaces. After all, it is the first reflections that form the understanding of the shape and size of the room in perception.
Setting the main plan of microphones that forms the acoustic balance – the main sound plan in a given space, the distribution of plans in-depth in collective performance, uniform and balanced filling of the stereo base, volume, and timbre rich sound. The ability to use the strengths and weaknesses of the studio acoustics, if necessary, divide it and form additional volumes in it with the help of acoustic structures.
For example, the position that is too close to reflective walls may lead to a high level of first reflections from this surface, which, when combined with direct sound, will give a dense, close, and bright sound that will be difficult to decorate with a spatial cloud. On the contrary, not using the first reflections and placing the sound source at a distance from the reflecting walls may lead to an empty, liquid but close sound, since the first reflections will not link the direct sound to the studio reverberation.
Is there any difference in the microphones that are used for academic and jazz music and for recording songs in other genres? What is it?
A microphone is a sound engineer's musical instrument. Features of timbre transmission, sensitivity, directional pattern, usability – all this becomes a means for building a sound picture. Each sound engineer has his/her preferences, favorites among the equipment. The same microphones can be used in different genres of music for completely different purposes.
For example, ribbon microphones in jazz can be used as solo microphones for brass instruments, and in the orchestral recording, they can be used as general microphones for orchestra or orchestra groups. These positions would seem diametrically opposite. But in sound engineering, the use of various means is not determined entirely by the genre features of music.
In a broad sense, there are microphones (or processing devices) with the most linear characteristics, that is, transmitting the timbre of the instrument as truthfully as possible, and there are coloring, changing the timbre, warming, bright, etc. Therefore, in both academic and jazz music, sometimes you need a precise transmission, and sometimes you need individual paint. The sound engineer's skill is to understand, hear, make decisions, and be able to apply the features and even disadvantages of the equipment with the maximum gain for the sound.
How do you think, what is more important than equipment in a sound recording?
In sound recording, the most important thing is music. Equipment is just a means of transferring music from an acoustic picture to a phonographic one. A record will not be good without brilliant performance and smart sound engineering, even when using the most expensive and modern equipment. At the same time, with good performance and sound engineering, even the simplest equipment will allow you to make a wonderful record. However, if we are not talking about the one-sided attitude to this issue, then for a sound engineer, microphones are like brushes and paints for an artist. You can create with others, but the idea is fully realized only if there are opportunities for a fine selection of microphones and other equipment for the creative task.
The master tries to convey his/her idea to the listener using techniques known to him/her. Do you have any favorite techniques? For example, universal? Or those that give the result that you would exactly call your corporate style?
Each sound engineer has his/her little secrets or practices that allow him/her to influence the sound picture in ways that are well known, while generally observing the technology. The most important thing for me is to find an acoustic or spatial solution to the sound. The phonogram space is the first thing that the listener reacts to, even without realizing it. After all, when he starts listening, he expects the “eventful” if you can say so, side of the music: timbre, tempo, dynamics, and so on, but rarely pays much attention to such a part of the sound as space.
However, the very sense of space takes him into the world of sounding music, helps him to perceive its language, and believe its images. This is the first sensation that enters the inner world of the listener even before the musical narrative spreads out, from the first pitches. Therefore, it is extremely important for me to find a spatial solution to the sound that will help listeners immerse themselves in the music, believe it, follow it and experience all its events.
And speaking of techniques, I usually think long about the location of musicians in the studio relative to its acoustic elements and the location of microphones relative to musicians, imagine what will be the timbre, plan, echo, how timbres will join in this field. Because the spatial solution of the sound begins with the location of the musicians in the studio, location features of microphones, characteristics of microphones, then it realized the intricacies of mixing and processing.
Can this be applied to the use of microphones from the modern line of Oktava?
Certainly, Oktava microphones are adequate in the professional work of a sound engineer and can be used in the construction of many sound pictures. After all, what is important for a sound engineer in a microphone in addition to the features of timbre transmission, dynamics, and sensitivity? Convenience and versatility. For example, the opportunity to change the directional pattern of the microphone. Many Oktava microphones have such a function.
This is a big advantage because it is often necessary to adjust the sound at the moment when the musicians are playing in the studio, and replacing the microphone is a waste of time stopping the entire process. A microphone with switchable patterns, such as the MK-220, saves a lot of time in this situation. Microphones with wide membranes are even at low frequencies and sensitive, so they can more fully transmit the acoustic field even at a considerable distance from the musicians.
Is it possible to record the entire palette of instruments on a single universal microphone?
There are probably no universal microphones. There are multi-functional, suitable for many things, and there are specific ones, for special tasks. The more multi-functional the microphone is, the more useful it is in a studio that deals with different genres and styles of music. A multi-function microphone can be used for the entire or almost the entire palette of instruments, especially if there is a task to achieve a single tonal balance.
For example, in an orchestral recording, people try to put identical microphones on certain types of instruments, so that there is no timbre diversity within the groups of the orchestra. As for small bands, jazz, and pop music, sound engineers try to diversify their characters – musical instruments – to highlight the features of each with an individual approach to microphones.
Mariya Aleksandrovna, have you worked with Oktava microphones before?
I have known Oktava microphones for a long time, about 20 years. And I met with these microphones in various conditions and projects. For example, I used MK-012 when I was the head of the department of sound engineering of the Gnesins Russian Academy of Music. Often the record was doing simultaneously in several halls, there were not enough microphones, there were very few expensive imported samples, and the main workhorses were just MK-012. Compact, comfortable, hardy, how many times they were dropped! Not bad! Even bent and scratched, they supported the learning process and allowed students to gain daily sound engineering experience on various compositions.
After some time, one of the students (Natalia Teplova) went to the annual AES convention and became the winner of the competition of student works of this prestigious world organization, where students of the most famous European universities participated in the competition, much better technically equipped than our students, then, in the early 2000s. Her prize-winning recording was made in the Chamber Hall of the living room of the Shuvalov house on... a pair of MK-012.
This victory then greatly strengthened and encouraged the entire teaching staff of the department, who were convinced that the school that we give to our students is internationally convertible, and even though we do not use a large number of expensive imported equipment, we have a shortage in many ways, we can win prestigious competitions.
Then there were many more victories, and our MK-012 was in the list of equipment in many prize-winning works. In 2006-2007, we had a very positive working experience with the Oktava plant. The manufacturer supplied us with almost the entire microphone line for the training process and asked us to write reviews about microphones. Then we saw all the variety of possibilities of the Tula plant: microphones with wide membranes, and tube microphones.
How to get to the workshop?
Workshops at Mosfilm are a stunningly interesting and popular initiative of my friends and colleagues, Mosfilm sound engineers Andrey Levin, Anatoly Ryasov, and Sergey Kruglov. These workshops allow professionals of different areas of sound engineering to meet, share unique experiences, and allow gaining knowledge, not in a long university format but quickly and in-depth in direct communication with the speaker.
Each workshop in this series is an event, and each speaker is an amazing professional who is ready to share all the secrets of the experience and answer all the questions. I want to devote my next workshop to the complexities of bringing together large groups, to walk with the audience from the recorded multitrack to the finished product. I hope it will be interesting!