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RE/P Files: Inside The First-Ever Commercial Quad Recording Sessions

The pitfalls and rewards, musical and otherwise, of recording in the world's largest echo chamber

By Robert Orban October 3, 2012

On the nights of February 16 and 17, 1971, the first commercial quad recording sessions ever were held In San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.

This monumental edifice to God ‘s glory and Episcopalian financial acumen is blessed with a fine pipe organ, a 90-foot ceiling, and a 7-second reverberation time. The latter, in particular, put some stringent limitations on both the recording technique and musical style involved.

The session was for side 2 of Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause’s new Warner Bros. album, Gandharva. Gandharva is a Sanskrit word, which, roughly translated, means “the celestial musicians.” Since these are not available through the A.F. of M. (contractual limitations being what they are), we imported the nearest counterfeits from Los Angeles: Gerry Mulligan, Ga il Laughton, Howard Roberts, and Bud Shank – old timers and all consummate professionals.

The music ranged from pure jazz to shades of Webern to more than a hint of Charles Ives. In most cases, the harmonic movement was very slow to avoid muddiness caused by reverberation.

The music was recorded on a 3M 16-track machine, through six Dolby A-301 units . We recorded a maximum of 12 tracks, leaving 3 open for possible overdubs, and using one for 60 Hz for a film sync track, as the session was being simultaneously filmed in 16mm color. A wild assortment of small mixers were used to handle the mikes, including a custom B-track Spectra-Sonics and assorted homebrew jobs.

Monitoring was through four Rectilinear Ill’s, driven by a pair of Harman-Kardon Citation 11 power amps. The speakers were located on the corners of a 9’ x 9’ square; it was necessary to get them as close as possible to the mixer to overcome the wretchedly “echoey” acoustics of the vestry that we had commandeered as our control room . The monitor system was fed by a custom 12 in to 4 out high level mixer which served to pan each of the mikes into roughly the same place in which they we re scheduled to go in the final mix.

The basic intent of the recording was to use the space in the Cathedral itself in a dramatic and musically effective way. The musicians would often stroll around the building, interacting with the acoustics as well as each other. This provided a special sort of problem for the recording engineer, because the highly reverberant acoustics of the Cathedral necessitated fairly close miking in order to obtain satisfactory presence.

Our final solution lay in the use of a number of pairs of mikes, spaced front to back in the Cathedral, as shown in Figure 1. These mikes were panned from the front to the rear speakers in the same spatial relationship as existed in the hall, with the rear pair of pure ambience mikes fully in the rear channels, and the front presence mikes fully in the front channels.

Figure 1, click to enlarge

This gave a somewhat exaggerated, but highly dramatic sense of space, with the entire Cathedral being compressed inside the quad listening field. This was not a classical recording, striving for maximum accuracy, but rather a pop recording exploring the possibilities of the space in a creative manner.

Condenser mikes were used throughout. This may have been a mistake, since we had substantial problems with noise from the ambience microphones due to the very low SPLs involved (imagine recording a flute with a microphone 100’ away from the instrument!). I suspect that the use of high-output dynamics for the ambience mikes would have helped the noise problem somewhat. In any event, we managed to keep the noise below the level of a typical stereo lP or reel-to-reel tape, let alone cassette!  The spectral content of the noise was closer to “1/f” (3 dB/oct low-pass) than gaussian, and this helped reduce its obviousness.

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