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Piping hot for Album #100!

Priory Records, a SoundField microphone and the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral organ: fugue'ing'ell

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral was the setting for the recently recorded final installment –the 100th edition, in fact – of Priory Records’ highly successful Great European Organs series. The album features works by British composers Elgar, Bridge, Walton, Percy Whitlock and Herbert Howells played by David Poulter on the Cathedral’s Henry Willis & Sons organ. Regarded as one of the finest organs in Europe it was constructed between 1923 to 1926; it’s the largest pipe organ in the UK (it contains 10,268 pipes) and it’s set in an exceptional acoustic with a reverb time of some eight seconds. For Neil Collier producer, engineer and director of Priory Records, the perfect setting to record the last and number 100, in the label’s Great European Organs series.

Recording took place over three days in August 2015 using a SoundField SPS 422 microphone, and Sound Devices 722 2-Channel High-Resolution Portable Recorder, running at 44.1kHz and 24 bits. Monitoring was on Sennheiser HD 650 headphones or BBC LS3 5A loudspeakers. Collier has previously recorded the Cathedral’s organ, the pipes of which are spread around several areas of the building.

He explains the approach for the sessions: “Deciding where to put the SoundField single source point microphone, all be it one with four separate mics, and finding the sweet spot, was obviously critical. I want to put the listener in the best seat in the house. The intention was to get as close as possible to the level of the organ’s pipes. But because of the huge acoustic if you put the mic too far back you will just get a mush and if you get it too close you will loose the acoustic. So I was balancing the instrument with the acoustic.”

A steel hydraulic telescopic tripod was used to position the SoundField mic with placement in the Crossing underneath the tower, raised to a height of around 16m. The SPS 422 consists of the microphone and a signal processor, producing two distinct sets of audio signals (A-Format and B-Format). The sound processor can be either dedicated hardware, or a computer running software.

Collier explains the advantages of using the SoundField for the recording. “It is a clever device because it has four closely-spaced microphone capsules arranged in a tetrahedron. Each can be set to a different response pattern and can point in four different directions. At Liverpool I had each one set to cardioid. So looking towards the main organ the front two mics picked that up. The other two at the back pointed to the rear of the building, thus we captured an all round sound. The beauty of the mic is that you can tilt it, record upside down, at any angle you want, depending on the source and then afterwards you can adjust how much sound you want to come from each individual microphone. And of course it can be taken a stage further because you can actually use it in surround sound format.”

Having worked for 35 years since forming Priory Records what are some of Collier’s golden rules for recording? “One of the most important things is to make sure that the organist feels calm and relaxed. I like to motivate and think it is something that I am good at. And thinking very hard about what sort of sound you want to produce. What are the acoustics of the building like. Is it a dry building, has it got a huge acoustic? But apart from that I think it really is about putting your personality on the recording and making the performer feel comfortable. Selling and marketing is then of course critical to success.”

Editing and mastering for the CD was done with Paul Crichton, engineering on his SADiE system. Crichton has worked with Collier on many albums. He explains: “The entire editing process, creation and verification of a Master CD and download files takes about 20 hours, though this is very flexible, dependent on how many versions I need to produce before the performer is satisfied. I usually apply a small amount of Cedar noise reduction to reduce some of the wind and background noise. I use Izotope RX5 Advanced to reduce or eliminate unwanted extraneous noises. Final monitoring is done using Quad ESL63 electrostatic speakers with Gradient sub woofers, driven by a modified Vellemann valve amplifier of my own construction.”

Other cathedral organs featured in the series include King’s College Cambridge, Durham, Westminster Abbey, Bordeaux, Ely and Milan.

What’s next for Collier,now the series is complete? “Well Notre Dame is an organ that I have always wanted to record so maybe that would be a good place to begin a new series. We will see.”

Pictures: Top: Works by Elgar, Bridge and Walton are on the recording made at the cathedral. Second: Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral contains the biggest pipe organ in the UK. Last: Neil Collier.