I am on the Board of the Oak Ridge Civic Music Association, and have been honing my skills at making videos of the ORCMA events. 

Most of the concerts are given in the Oak Ridge High School Auditorium, which has not very great acoustics. The best seats to see and hear are in the balcony, so logically, I set up my camera in the balcony and tried it.

  • I learned that it is essential to use a lens with a power zoom; zooming manually is jerky and looks awful.
  • The microphones in the camera are woefully inadequate. 

I have been using micro 4/3 cameras, working my way through an Olympus OM MD-5, Panasonic GX-7, Olympus OM MD-1, and finally a Panasonic GX-8. I managed to get decent images, but the real problem is the sound. Music needs to sound wonderful. First I tried the external Olympus SEMA-1 Microphone set, a necessity because the OM-MD-5 does not have a microphone input without this. It still sounded awful. Next I got an Audio-Technica ATR6250 microphone, which is about $35. The fidelity of the music sounded better, but the mic picked up all sorts of audience noise and echoes from the sides of the auditorium.

So I decided to try a shotgun microphone, settling on a Røde Videomic Shotgun Microphone with Rycote Lyre Mount (Model: VIDEOMICR), which upped the price ante to $149. It cut the noise, but still sounded muffled, as if the music was in the next room. So again I upped the game to an Audio-Technica AT2022, which costs about $249.

AT2022

This microphone really sounds good, and the two crossed heads adjust to change the stereo stage (although I have never used them on their wide setting). You definitely need to use a shock mount with this mic, and there is no way to tell the charge state of the battery. I bought some 1.5V lithium rechargeable batteries from China (not the 1.35V NiMH ones) to use to solve the problem—I could recharge them before each use. However, the battery compartment on the AT2022 does not fully open, and the rechargeable battery did not fit properly. The edge of the AT2022 casing scrapes off the outside of the battery, causing it to not fit. Audio-Technica should fix this design. I used this mic to measure the response on my new speakers.

Then ORCMA held a concert in the Methodist Church, and I put the AT2022 right up close to the orchestra, and used a wire to my camera in the front row. I also used my new Panasonic GX-8 camera, which does great 4k videos. Voila! The musicians sounded just great. So the secret sauce is to get the microphone close to the musicians. But how to do this in the High School Auditorium balcony, where a several hundred-foot cable was out of the question?

The solution of course was to go wireless. But there are no reasonable stereo wireless systems. All of them are mono. So I had to buy two mono systems and a bunch of wires and adapters to separate and recombine the two channels. After some online research, I settled on the Røde's Filmmaker system (two of them at $395 each plus the cables and adaptors):

Rode Filmmaker

This is a digital system and has the frequency response and range to connect the full-fidelity signal from the stage to the balcony in the auditorium. Of course, I did not need the two lavaliere microphones, but that is the only way it is sold. 

Luckily, I set this all up in my living room before the concert to test it.  By default, each pair is set to run on channel 1, so I had to set one pair to channel 3. I also put an "R" label on this pair so I could identify the paired units, and keep track of which channel was the right channel. Røde's documentation is truly awful, and I had to search on their Web site to figure out how to do this.

However, there was no signal getting to the camera. I narrowed this down by trying it with one pair alone, which worked. Then at the mic end, I unplugged one channel, and the other channel worked, and vice versa. There was no issue with the receiver end. It turns out that the AT2022 uses a strange XLR connector. The usual XLR connector is for a mono microphone with a balanced signal pair and a ground. The AT2022 uses two channels and a ground. I was using a longer XLR cable and it shorted the signals out whenever both channels were used. Using the short cable that comes with the mic worked.

So, I recorded our children's concert with the mic on the stage (on the tripod behind the conductor), and the GX-* and the receivers in the balcony. It worked beautifully! Check out the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRxR-LxE1iQ&feature=youtu.be. Watch it in 4k. Have a listen!

The Oak Ridge Symphony

Notice the microphone on the floor behind the conductor.


The saga continues...

Each time I record, I think the results improve. After the last concert though, I was still not happy. It was challenging because the speakers were mic'ed and my mics pick up both the direct sound from the performers, and the reflected sound from the auditorium loudspeakers. Hearing the speakers clearly was also challenging for the audience during the performance.

So I broke down and purchased a pair of matched Shure KSM141 microphones ($870) together with two Audio-Technica AT8410a shock mounts ($59 each). The KSM141s are available separately for a lower price, but the set includes a padded carrying case, and importantly a dual mount that attaches both mics to a single stand in an ideal stereo configuration. In addition, I realized that mic position might also be an issue, so I purchased a Shure S15A ($174) 14-ft tall microphone stand.

Unlike my previous microphones, the KSM141s are not self-powered (with an internal battery). Instead I needed 48-v phantom power for them. Fortunately, I had already purchased a Tascam US-322 to use for speaker tests, and it supplies the needed preamplification and the phantom power via a USB port from my laptop. 

As an aside, battery-powered devices for use in recording are scary because most of them do not have a battery meter, and you cannot risk running out of battery power, so you install new batteries out of an abundance of caution. The rechargeable batteries they sell in the USA are NiMH batteries, but they are just 1.35 v instead of the 1.5 v that an alkaline AA or AAA cell provides. This can ruin performance on devices designed for 1.35 v. But there is a solution. From China you can get polymer lithium-ion batteries that actually consist of a higher voltage lithium-ion battery and a dc-dc converter, so they always maintain a constant 1.5 v output! Alas, these do not quite fit into the AT-2022, but they work nicely in the RodeLink wireless system. So I recharge all the batteries before each performance, and I do not have to worry. 

Before the next concert, I needed a way of learning how to use these new devices and also the Steinberg CuBase LE software that will record digitally on my laptop. So I recorded a recording played over my hi-fi system.

Hi-Fi setup

Sharp eyes will notice that I have replaced my previous Pioneer SX-1980 receivers with a Sanders Sound preamp and Magtech amplifier. This image is a bit busy, so here is a closeup of the mics:

Shure 141

You can see the black dual-mic stand seated atop the new Shure many-sectioned stand, together with the AudioTechnica AT8410A shock mounts and the Shure KSM141 microphones. The mics connect to XLR cables. At the other end, the cables connect to the Tascan US-322 preamp, which in turn connects to the USB port of my laptop.

Tascam US-322 preamp and laptop

This setup was less than successful at the next concert. Using a laptop and a preamp was not a good idea for several reasons. First, everything had to be wired together, presenting a tripping hazard for the audience. Second, the laptop battery only lasted about 90 minutes when powering the preamp and providing phantom 48 V power to the mics. So the laptop also had to be plugged in, and the only available power was at the sides of the church. So, I looked for another solution, and stumbled upon the Zoom H6 recorder. On Black Friday I was able to purchase this for just under $300.

pb300013_zoomwithx-y.jpg

Zoom X-Y cardioids

Zoom H6 with MS mic

Zoom MS triplet

The H6 comes with two  excellent interchangeable microphones, and X-Y pair (left) and a mid-side (MS) Blumlein setup (right), and there are other available accessories. This remarkable device has 4 microphone inputs, and can record 6 tracks simultaneously in digital (up to 96 kHz and 24 bits). Zoom H6 while recording

Let me list the wonderful features of the Zoom H6 that I find useful:

  • It can run 6 hours on the AA lithium batteries that I recommend above. Again, using a rechargeable battery is critical, because you do not want to start a session using a battery with an unknown amount of charge. However, because these batteries maintain exactly 1.5 v output, the battery meter on the H6 will read 100% right up to the time the batteries' charge is gone. To calibrate the battery time, I recorded while providing 48 v phantom power to 2 Shure mics and the H6 mic until it ran out of juice, and this happened at about 6 hours. Therefore, I can start recording even an hour before a concert starts, and be assured that there will be plenty of power to last through the longest (normal) concert.
  • It can make a backup track recorded 12 dB lower just in case there are overloads.
  • It can start/stop based upon the sound input, and also, it can prerecord so as to not miss any sound, even if the records button was pressed a bit late. [I have not tried this yet.]
  • Although the SDXC card is formatted in FAT, it automatically starts a new file (seamlessly) when the 2 GB file size limit is reached.
    • However, you must invest in a really good (fast) SDXC card such as the Lexar 300 MB/s card. I tried a 94 MB/s Sony SDXC Card, and it caused many dropouts in the recording. It is a challenge to write 6 high-resolution digital tracks at once.
  • The color control panel is about as good as it can be, given the size of the H6, as shown above.

The only drawback of the Zoom H6 is that has no wireless (WiFi or Bluetooth) remote control capability.

I also have a few nits to pick about the documentation. It is totally unclear which way the H6 should be pointed (with respect to the audio source). There is no mention of this in the User's Manual. The MS mic actually consists of three separate cardioid microphones. Two of them point to the sides to gather the stereo signal (in/out of the page in the MS picture). But the third middle Mic could be pointing left, or up, or down. There are engraved "L" and "R" marks on that horizontal band in the above MS image, and the "L" is nearer to the viewer. Zoom support was also confused about this, and finally determined the the "M" mic points to the left in the picture, so that the H6 position is the same for either the MS or X-Y microphone. The MS configuration gives the unique ability to change the relative amount of stereo separation by combining different amounts of the  M and S signals. In the H6, you can combine them in the H6 to record a stereo signal, or you can keep them separate and combine them in the included Steinberg Wave Lab LE 9 software. Cubase AI Elements LE 8 is also included. Another Nit is how awful and frustrating it is to install and license the Steinberg software. 

So the real question is how does the Zoom H6 sound using its two included mics and with the Shure KSM141s. I made a separate page comparing orchestral, chamber, and percusson classical music selections. Vote on which one you prefer. 

 

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Recording the Symphony—a saga