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Women’s Audio Mission, an entirely female run recording studio and non-profit organization in San Francisco, know their way around the world of pro audio. While the gender make-up of WAM is a single note, their roster of clients is incredibly diverse – from local up and comers like The SHE’S, to the trio of Mongolian Master Musicians known as Nutgiin Ayalguu.
Rather than worrying about the industry’s veritable glass ceiling, Women’s Audio Mission (or WAM) is busy doing something about it – providing the tools necessary to level the industry playing field and working with some pretty heavy hitters along the way. Recently, WAM recorded the GRAMMY Award winning Kronos Quartet, tracking material for the live performance “Women’s Voices,” which premiered in San Francisco this past weekend.
WAM founder Terri Winston took some time between sessions to talk about the incredible arsenal of microphones she used on the Kronos session, including loaners from Telefunken and Manley, the differences in recording classical and indie rock, and how women can get more involved in pro audio.
Hi Terri, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about this recording session. Have you had many sessions similar to Kronos Quartet in that you were focusing largely on stringed instruments?
We’ve been lucky to have a lot of sessions with acoustic instruments and strings. Lately, WAM has been focusing a lot of our recording efforts on traditional folk music as part of our “Preserving Culture” project. This has given us the opportunity to record many different types and styles of stringed instruments like the saz or bağlama from Turkey, the morin khuur from Mongolia, the dan tranh from Vietnam, in addition to other pop sessions.
How was the Kronos Quartet session different from others like it?
The session with Kronos Quartet was unique in that they used these recordings as backing tracks in their [live] performance, which meant that they often wanted their tracks to sound different from a traditional quartet.
This was a dream session not only because the Kronos Quartet are incredible musicians but also because they really like to experiment with different sounds and we had the chance to try some really fun recording and mixing techniques. The composition we worked on is called “All Clear,” written by the Vietnamese composer and musician, Van-Anh Vo. It is about the Vietnam War, so we were trying to create different atmospheres from very disturbing to beautiful. It was really great to be a part of that because the tracks are so moving.
How did you end up partnering with Manley and Telefunken? Did they have particular microphones in their catalog that you knew would be a good fit?
definitely had particular microphones in mind for the session. I knew what microphones Kronos Quartet had used in the past and I wanted to be really confident that we had the best microphones for all of the different configurations we needed to cover. I had a lot of experience with the Manley Reference Cardioid and the Telefunken ELA M 251 and knew that those types of voicings would work great in a modern classical format. Manley has been a big supporter of WAM and we had some kind connections to Telefunken through SoundPure.com. Having access to these microphones really made the recordings spectacular. It’s so great when the people behind these amazing microphones are also truly wonderful.
Tell us a little bit more about mic’ing the session. What led to your specific choices?
We ended up using two microphones on each instrument so that we had a choice in timbre and also knew that we would need the extra tracks for different types of processing.
For instance, we knew that the quartet was going to have to simulate an orchestra on one track and we didn’t have a lot of time to do that many overdubs, so the multiple recording chains came in handy. We could pan and time shift instruments to appear in sections.
Another instance where this came in handy was when [Kronos Quartet’s] David Harrington wanted his violin to become distorted in different sections. He also liked to choose between the two mics for different movements. We ended up using Telefunken CU-29 Copperheads and AR-51s on the violins with Avedis MA-5 and Millennia HV-3R mic pres. Both mics were amazing for different reasons. The Copperheads smoothed out any harsh upper mids and brought out some heft in the body, while the AR-51s are great for bringing out the air.
We used the Manley Reference Gold and Telefunken ELA M 260 on the cello into an Avedis MA-5 and Millennia HV-3R mic pre. The Manley was so rich and detailed as expected. It’s such a sweet microphone. The big shock to me was how much low end the ELA M 260 had, especially for a small diaphragm condenser. It sounded great especially on the cello’s pizzicato parts and on a percussive part that was being used as a heartbeat.
We also used a Neumann U 87 and AKG C 414 on viola and Earthworks QTC 30s as a stereo pair for room mics. These are also really amazing microphones and another instance where the folks at Earthworks are just as awesome as their microphones.
What tips do you have when it comes to tracking contemporary classical material like this? How does it differ from the indie rock that our readers are so used to working with?
The biggest differences are that these sessions move a lot faster than most indie rock sessions. The musicians are so amazing and you have to be more conscious of the noise floor of your recording chains when recording classical music because there is a much wider dynamic range.
My advice is to be extremely well prepared and have done your research. Even though I was very familiar with Kronos Quartet’s music, I still listened to a bunch of Kronos Quartet records before the session, talked to some folks about how they had recorded them in the past, got in touch with their live sound person and gleaned as much information as I could before the session. We spent a full day before the session testing all of the microphones that we had with different mic pres to determine the best and quietist recording chains for each instrument. Kronos Quartet is so inspiring to work with that you really want to be on top of your game for them.
Speaking of tips for engineers, WAM runs Sound Channel, an online program of pro-audio training materials. Do any Sound Channel modules address the techniques you used during the Kronos Quartet’s session?
Thanks for mentioning that. Sound Channel has a huge amount of resources on microphones, mic pres, mic technique and a bunch of gear comparison listening examples so you can hear how different microphones sound on different instruments. It’s a great way to learn online and they are being used in college programs all over the country. You can access the training library at http://www.soundchannel.org.
It sounds like the “Women’s Voices” program was an amazing fit for an organization like WAM. Was it coincidental that Kronos Quartet came to an all-female recording studio for this material, or was it planned?
It was somewhat of a coincidence. We were tracking an album with the composer Van-Anh Vo in December. She had met with Kronos Quartet around the same time to discuss composing a piece for them. David Harrington stopped by one of the recording sessions with Van-Anh and we talked a bit about how we were approaching her recording and he liked how it sounded. Eventually that led to Kronos Quartet coming to WAM to record.
Anything else we should know about Women’s Audio Mission?
Any women interested in recording and music should join WAM! We connect over 850 women from all over the world. Membership gives you free access to our member meetings with guest lecturers, free studio tours and events, free magazines, free convention passes and discounts on gear and classes. It’s a great way to become a part of a growing recording community. You can join on our website: http://www.womensaudiomission.org/.
For more information about Women’s Audio Mission, visit www.womensaudiomission.org.
photo by Marsha Vdovin