Adventures In Audio
Bad Audio Diary BAD 10: Don't get your pans in a pickle

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Tuesday March 30, 2021
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Pan. Left, centre, right. Sounds easy doesn't it? But it's also surprisingly easy to get it wrong, as these two commercial releases clearly demonstrate.

My two examples here are of recent classical music releases. As you know, and I might be stating the obvious here but sometimes the obvious is worth stating, classical music is written mostly for acoustic instruments. Indeed, before Pierre Schaeffer, all music was acoustic (including the theremin and ondes Martenot because they were played through loudspeakers).

So classical music is created acoustically and recorded through microphones. Ideally, the recording will be in stereo where the positions of the instruments in the stereo image match the positions of the performers.

So how can this go wrong? Or firstly, how can this go right?

Getting it right is easy - use a pair of microphones in the coincident, near-coincident, ORTF, or spaced configurations. Position them by experience and experiment (important) so that they are in the best possible position to capture all of the performers the way they would naturally be heard, if sitting in the best seat in the concert hall. (The microphones will normally be closer than that, but that's another story for another day.)

A stereo pair however may sound a little dry. So ambience mics can be added at a distance. They won't affect the stereo image unless you do something crazy. Also, because microphones generally need to be closer than the human ear, there may be a loss of accuracy in the front-back perspective, so it is common to add accent (spot) microphones. Adding mics for the woodwinds of an orchestra is a typical example. Accent mics should be panned so that the instruments have the same position as in the stereo image created by the main stereo pair.

So there's nothing to go wrong then? Er, there's plenty to go wrong...

Prime example #1

This is a recent recording by Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih of the Cello Sonata No. 1 by Camille Saint‐Saëns. Take a quick listen...

What do you hear? OK, for a start, if this is a cello sonata accompanied by piano, why isn't the cello in the dead center of the stereo image?

Well, the question is whether this is a cello sonata with piano accompaniment or a sonata for cello and piano? Well, I've looked at copies of the score and the official title seems to be 1re Sonate (that's French), subtitled Violoncelle et Piano. So it's a sonata for two instruments where both are equally important.

So this is why, in this recording, the engineer and/or producer decided to place the cello slightly to the left, which is perhaps where cellist Steven Isserlis was sitting, and not main dead center. Good choice.

So imagine this in concert. There's a huge grand piano on stage. Imagine a Steinway Model D that is 2.74 meters (9 feet) long. Normally the soloist would go on the right where the case of the piano bends inward. That way everything fits nicely on the stage, the audience can see the pianist, and the soloist isn't way far out on the left which he or she would otherwise be so as not to obscure the pianist.

But classical music wasn't always conceived for the concert hall. Back in the 19th century, there was also the salon. In fact, the album this recording comes from is titled Music From Proust's Salons. The image, Hush!, or Hush! (The Concert), by James Tissot shows a salon performance where the violinist is way out in front and the pianist possibly fumbling a few tricky notes in the back.

Hush! James Tissot

So this might explain why Isserlis is on the left in this recording. It's a theory.

Now, what about getting an accurate recording of the salon in the artwork? Well, I would go back to the stereo pair, let's say near-coincident because that's always been a favorite of mine. I would position the stand somewhere around the gap between the guy in the hat and the woman with the greeny bits on her frock. Then while the performers are warming up (they have either rehearsed already or they are damned good sight-readers, which some are) I would listen in my control-room setup (location recordings always need a control room, preferably close to the recording area) then dash back to the mics to make adjustments. There would be a few stages of back-and-forth, and I would always take care to listen to the actual performers. With an assistant and comms, things would be a lot easier, though I'd still have to listen in the room for myself.

Now, listen to the recording again and ask yourself, does it sound like what I've described above? No, it doesn't.

My guess is that the engineer miked the instruments separately. The object of doing this is to have more control from the faders, and with a multitrack recording retain that control through to post-production. You can't change the position of the mics after the performers have gone home.

One problem with this is that when the performers are close together, both mics will pick up both instruments. This can cause phase issues, but I don't hear any in this recording.

What I do hear though is that the piano is monstrously wide in the stereo image. You'll get this if you place a stereo pair of mics close to the instrument.

So suppose you consider the long dimension of the piano and place your stereo pair of mics halfway, at right angles to the instrument. What you will hear in the stereo image is the high notes tending towards the left, and the low notes filling the whole of the stereo image. This is because the strings originate on the left and extend to the right, as the piano is placed on the concert platform. The high-note short strings are on the left, the low-note long strings extend all the way.

Now change this around so that your mics are above the pianist's head.

Now you'll find that mostly the low notes are on the left, and mostly the high notes are on the right. But because the strings cross over in the low range, this isn't consistent all the way across the instrument, and also the resonances and reflections from the case and lid have a way of making some notes appear further left than you'd think they should be, and some notes further right.

Steinway Model D

And you can hear this very clearly in this recording. The notes dance around the stereo image like pixies at the Midsummer Ball. Most distracting are the numerous occasions where some wayward high notes suddenly chime in from the far right. It almost reminds me of Ronnie Aldrich And His Two Pianos. And it shouldn't.

Oh well, that's just my opinion. But the performances are excellent and I'll take the crazy stereo image as a bit of fun.

Prime Example #2

Eagle-eared readers might guess that I've been listening to BBC Radio 3's Record Review because both of these recordings were featured in the episode of March 27, 2021.

Here's my second example by violist Hiyoli Togawa. It's from Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 from the album Songs Of Solitude. The viola has the same strings as the cello, just an octave higher, and has very little original repertoire, so it's a 'why not?' kind of thing.

First thing... This is what a viola sounds like when recorded under coronavirus lockdown. And remember that the viola is the archetypal instrument of this family; the violin, violoncello, and double bass (modeled after the violone) are merely variants. I'm guessing that it's a small room and small rooms are always difficult to record in. Often it's necessary to place the mic closer to the instrument than you'd want to so that you can exclude some of the small-room ambience that sounds even worse.

What I hear in this, as well as the rather intrusive breath noise at the start, is that the viola seems to be as wide as the room. The A string is way over on the right, and the C string well over to the left, the other strings in between.

If I had set out to make a recording like this, I'm not sure I'd know how to do it. If I could place a stereo mic directly above the instrument looking down, and very close-to, that might do it.

I would have to say that the pan in this recording is completely wrong. Utterly completely. There's no way a viola would be heard like this in real life, and I don't even hear it when I play mine (or scratch at it, as an independent listener might say) with my ears just inches from the strings.

But there might be more to this than meets the eye, or ear. Listen to this...

This is Togawa playing Perfect Time For A Spring Cleaning by John Powell, which is a piece specially composed for her under lockdown and is presented on the same album. As you can hear, it's multitracked. Not only is the playing extraordinary but the multitracking is brilliant too, which is difficult for classical performers because they are not generally used to it.

Here, because there are nine parts, all for viola, then panning is essential to separate the tracks to make musical sense. It isn't intended to sound like a concert performance and, for what it is, it works really well. (When nine violists assemble to play this piece live, I'll be in the front row.)

So I'm going to take a leap of imagination here and wonder what the Bach would sound like if each string of the viola was recorded separately, then mixed with pans.

I'd say it would sound rather like what we hear in this recording.

Well, that's just a thought. Taken as a whole album, which combines Bach and eleven contemporary composers, I don't mind this unusual panning. I'm not sure I'd want it every day, but now and then a different perspective can be expanding for the mind.

Summary

Well clearly we have pans that are literally all over the place, and technically that is bad audio. But, you know, I see these recordings as fun. And, heaven knows, until we get out of this damned Covid 19, we need all the fun we can get.

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