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Hun, two, testing: recording Verdi’s Attila

Italian audio contractor BH Audio gives an insight on the intricacies of microphone placement and post-production of the opera’s recording.

Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular operas are so well known it’s easy to forget that his initial fame was based on half a dozen earlier works, most of which are rarely heard today, such as Attila. Much of the credit for recent appreciation of Verdi’s early works must go to Riccardo Muti, who recently conducted a new production of the opera by Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera.

Audio contractor BH Audio of San Giuseppe (Ferrara) gives an insight on the intricacies of microphone placement and post-production of the opera’s recording. As well as eight DPA 4061 miniature omnidirectional units with Shure U4RD+UR1 body-pack transmitters for the principals, BH fielded an impressive array of mics, as the company’s Massimo Carli (the son of one of BH’s founders) explains:

“For the chorus, we hid six Sennheiser MKH 416PU48 on the proscenium, an MKH 40 P48 on either side upstage and another MKH 40 P48 on either side of the stage.”

Two Neumann KM 140 were used for applause and four others for off-stage effects. For the orchestra, DPA 4023 were used on the violins, while cellos, double basses and woodwinds all had Schoeps CCM5. Brass and percussion were all mic’d with Neumann KM 140 and 16 spare mics (including four of the soloists’ wireless systems) were strategically positioned on-stage and in the pit.
Massimo’s brother Andrea adds: “The biggest problem on projects of this type is camouflaging the microphones, particularly if the opera is being televised or a video being recorded, as microphones, cables and transmitters must be invisible, even in close-up shots.”
Some firms use art markers to hide mics and cables, but apart from colouring a flesh-coloured cable black when necessary, BH normally works in close collaboration with theatres’ make-up teams and wig masters, who apply make-up to the surgical tape attaching the cable and capsule to the artist’s skin.
Massimo continues: “Positioning depends on artists’ costumes and hair/wigs and our priority is to ensure they’re fitted in such a way as to avoid problems for the singers when they move or change costumes, as well as ensuring good sound pick-up. Omnidirectional capsules are a great help, as they can be applied in various positions, almost always obtaining good sound.”
Mic techs’ work is a precise job that requires considerable time, to avoid mics coming unstuck due to sweat or bumps. Through the years, BH has invented some devices to facilitate this work – one of which is a sort of custom ‘hair clip’ to hold the DPA capsules in place, developed following numerous experiments.
The BH team watched a complete rehearsal to decide on the ideal placement. In some cases, the choice was compulsory, due to hats worn, whereas other singers had their mics hidden in the centre of their hairline. Massimo adds: “For two performers, we placed them to one side at the top of the ear, as they sang very close together and looking towards one another, so they were fitted in such a way that their faces had a sort of ‘shield‘ effect, avoiding excessive sound spill.

Although this may seem rather far from the singers’ mouth, it must be remembered that opera singers are accustomed to singing without sound reinforcement, so have powerful voices, and we always use omnidirectional capsules. In the event of no suitable position being available on the artist’s head, one mic was fitted on the singer’s jacket.”
In the pit, BH uses non-reflective black stands with round bases such as DPA Flamingo active stands (tripods occupy too much space), positioned to avoid blocking musicians’ view of the conductor or being touched by instruments or chairs. The use of mics with separate capsules and preamps enables them to be kept as small as possible.
A redundant 88kHz/24-bit 48-track recording was made of the opera, via BH’s Cadac 24-input S Type console with 24+2 input extension, three Apogee AD16 for A-D conversion, a Tascam X-48 and four Alesis HD24XR on back-up.
Post production is under way at BH’s in-house facility, with a Pro Tools HD system, Focusrite Control 24 and Dynaudio Air6 5.1, Quested VS 2108 and Neumann KH 120A monitors. Regarding this lengthy process, Massimo explains: “We did 1,400 edits on a previous similar project – not due to musicians’ or singers’ mistakes, but because any unwanted noises picked up by the microphones (the pages of the sheet music being turned, etc) must be eliminated or attenuated one by one. Plus, we normally consign several masters – one for transmission, another for CD, etc, so this part of the work is just as meticulous and important as the actual recording.”