Recording engineer and producer Michael Bishop began his career at Cleveland Recording Company and Suma Recording Studio in Ohio, before moving on as chief recording engineer for the famed classical-orientated Telarc International Corporation. Over the last 20 years, he has received ten Grammy Awards, including six for Best Engineered Recording and two consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Surround Album. In 2015 he received the Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Classical.
Your recording of Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem; Symphony No. 4; The Lark Ascending won the 2015 Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Classical. Where did you record?
This was recorded with Robert Spano, who is the music director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the Woodruff Performing Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia. It was three pieces by Vaughan Williams, with distinctly different setups for each of them. The main piece, "Dona Nobis Pacem," involves a 200-voice chorus — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — set up against a full orchestra, with full percussion. I don't know offhand how many musicians were in the orchestra at the time. I think that it would be somewhere around 90 musicians, and about 200 plus in the chorus. That is one set up. The second work was Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4, and that's just the orchestra — about 90 to 95 people — with no chorus. The last piece, "The Lark Ascending," features solo violin up front, with the concertmaster from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, David Coucheron, as well as a small orchestra in the range of 50 or 60 musicians.
Was that all one concert, or did you do it as three separate sessions?
One of the great things about working with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is that it's one of the very few orchestras in the United States that still does standard AFM [American Federation of Musicians] recording sessions, typically for recording, with no audience. That was done this way for this project as well. We work in standard AFM timing, where we'll have three or four hour sessions, with built-in breaks. We're going by the studio recording rules of the AFM for these sort of sessions, so typically a three-hour session allows two hours of working within that three-hour segment. The rest of it is break time, split up throughout the session. This way we can really work with the artists on everything they want to achieve in the performance under the best possible conditions. We're basically using the performance space as an extremely large recording studio. In this case we set up in the music library, converted over for our use as a control room. We've brought in full acoustic treatment for the room, and we monitored in 5.1 with an ATC SCM150 5.1 monitoring system. It's a good, large monitoring system that can represent the orchestra in its full size and grandeur. The conductor can come in and hear it the way that he just heard it onstage. It makes it very easy for us to work on the performances and the sound.
You're credited as the recording engineer. Do you do everything yourself?
I do all the planning of setup, mic placement, engineering, and mixing. There is an assistant engineer, whose job it is to get the equipment there and help set up microphones. It isn't like a typical studio, where an assistant engineer is doing a lot of things with the main engineer at the board. In this case, the assistant engineer was Ian Dobie — he transported the gear to the location, assisted in connecting things together, and ran the Sonoma DSD computer recording system.
What was the total number of microphones used for this album?
Well, given the size of the orchestra and the chorus, it's a surprisingly small number of microphones, which is why every microphone plays such an important role in this type of a session. On the largest piece, "Dona Nobis Pacem," that was 18 microphones for the whole thing; and that includes microphones specifically used for the surround recording versus the stereo recording. I'm making both at the same time.
Can you describe the difference between the mic setup for the surround sound and the ones set up for the stereo release?
Sure. The thing that's common between both of them is the Sanken CO-100K [omnidirectional condenser microphones] across the front of the orchestra, where the main part of the soundscape is captured. That's what I build upon, what I'm getting across those five front microphones. In the middle, there's a left- center-right setup with the 100Ks, and then two flanking microphones. That's where my main concentration of setup...