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Practical advice for an acoustic/classical/jazz noob
Old 17th May 2006
  #1
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ersheff's Avatar
 

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Talking Practical advice for an acoustic/classical/jazz noob

Hi, all.
So, I'm a music education student at UW-Whitewater. I also work in the university's audio labs and do some freelance recording, so I've been hit up to do some jobs on campus. Naturally, my background is mostly in recording the standard rock instruments, but I'm intrigued by the challenges and rewards of recording "proper" acoustic instruments (I'm a percussionist and bassist, BTW). So far I've done some recitals and audition CDs for folks, mostly strings or brass. Here are some concerns/issues I've noticed-
1) NOISE!!! Obviously these types of instruments and this type of music has an incredible dynamic range, so my recording levels are low in general. Once I've gotten levels up to where they need to be in the mixdown phase, I've got tons of noise. The rooms I've been recording in haven't been the quietest, but is the real need here for super quiet and sensitive (i.e. expensive) gear? I'm using a Firepod and an ibook (pretty low end, I know) with a decent assortment of mics. Is the noise floor of standard gear for this type of music just insanely low?
2) I don't know what you would call this problem. Perhaps "excessive detail"? I've noticed mostly with brass and stringed instruments that you get a lot of sound you don't necessarily want. For instance, on trombone the "blat" of the player's lips (these are very exceptional players, BTW) really comes through. On cellos and basses, you can really hear the hair "rasp" against the string. I've certainly experimented with mic positions/distances i.e. keeping brass players off axis and a decent distance from their mics. Any other advice? Even a Royer 121 will exhibit these issues. An AKG C414 sounded AWFUL on cellos. I attributed that to a bright frequency response and a "too fast" transient response. Am I in the ballpark here?
3) Might a super clean pre fed through the SPDIF of my Firepod help out? I guess that kind of ties into the first issue...
4) Any other general advice for recording string quartets or brass concertos or woodwind quintets or whatever with general, middle of the road university issue gear would be appreciated.
Thanks.
Old 17th May 2006
  #2
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pkautzsch's Avatar
 

Use a stereo setup as "main pair" and make the overall sound with this main pair. Anything else is optional.
Don't go too near the instruments. At least 3 ft away, rather more.
Get your levels right at the recording time, don't use compressor.
Use Hi-Quality SDCs like Schoeps/Neumann/DPA into a neutral pre (this doesn't necessarily need to be expensive, but it needs to be neutral. Many people use Mackie VLZ!!!) for neutral sound.
Use no more mics than are absolutely necessary.

Experiment and LISTEN.
And get your experience together.
Old 17th May 2006
  #3
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Jim vanBergen's Avatar
 

Could you mention the mics and preamps you are using, conversion, the formats, sample and bitrates at which you record & mix;these all have major impact on the sound- once you are line level, you have a great level of control. Let's look at the chain getting into the computer.

When I did my first classical recording job almost 20 years ago, I learned a LOT about how much room orchestral instruments need to sound correct. You need to be able to back away from a string or brass instrument, and again- this correlates directly to the mic, preamp, conversion, sample & bitrate.

Hope this helps,

Jim
Old 17th May 2006
  #4
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Firepod into ibook w/ Cubase LE or Logic Pro 7.1. No other doodads as of now. I'm very aware that the Firepod's pres aren't necessarily up to this task, but I'm trying to make do. I DO have access to some Mackie boards that I could use the pres from, but don't the line inputs on the Firepod NOT bypass the pres? I seem to rememer this being one of the unit's downfalls.
Mics usually include Neumann U87s, Royer 121, AKG C414, AT 4050, SM81s. Any time I close mic at all, I try to use the R121. I used the C414 it as a mic for a cello trio once at 4-5 feet away or so, and that's where I got a lot of that "rasp" sound.
Mics are never "close", per se. They're still usually a few feet away. Our recital hall is so boomy that I'm usually just trying to retain some presence on the instrument.
I usually record at 24/44.1. I accidentally did 16/44.1 once because I forgot to change the bitrate before I started.
Part of the problem has also been that the ventilation in our recital hall is old and noisy, so I tried to lean a little more on the closer mics. This problem has since been remedied as someone finally found the switch to turn the fan off. I will certainly depend on distance mics much more now.
The school doesn't have ANYTHING really in the way of pres. They have a dual-channel DBX tube comp/pre (don't remember exact model #, but it's a 2 rack-space unit), some Mackie boards, and a couple Blue Tubes (so noisy!). We're actually looking at getting some 8ch preamps w/ conversion soon, and I'm trying to get them to go with the Onyx 800R as it's close to our budget and probably cleaner yet richer than anything else we have. There are MOTU 828 mkII's I could borrow once in a while if I needed to use the ADAT in, but until we get that 8ch strip, there's no use for that.
Thanks for your help!
Old 17th May 2006
  #5
Gear nut
 

Long reply but I hope useful

Your observations and questions are good ones. You have gotten some good advice here so far so but I think the problems you are experiencing are more fundamental than whether you should use your firepod's s/pdif. I am primarily a classical music recordist and it really is a different animal from studio recording. What I outline below is one of the last exercises from the basic audio course I teach at my university. It's a set of stereo recording experiments. The important thing is to be systematic in your experimenting and learning and take careful notes as you go.

First, remember the task. In classical recording you are trying to capture the feeling of being at a specific place in a specific hall with instruments playing. That is you want the sound of the room with the instruments in it. You are capturing a single event. That is quite different from a studio recording where you are tracking multiple separate events then assembling them into a whole new entity--a thing that never actually exists in the real world. You have a tough task. Classical trombone and trumpet, especially when accompanied by piano, can be among the most difficult things to record for the very reasons you note. Placement is CRITICAL to the sound of the brasses and often you have to be much further away than you think to avoid all that articulation noise. Remember to mic the room, NOT the trumpet or trombone in this setting.

So, I am glad you got the blowers turned off. That's the first step. If you have a reasonably quiet hall to use that's really important. For every hall there are probably several good mic placements and techniques, and one best one for each kind of group your are recording. Your task is to find those out. Learn how to make a simple, stereo recording as well as you can before you ever worry about spot mics or anything else. Many of the greatest records you ever heard were made this way. Two mics. With the right placement. No spot mics. NO COMPRESSION.

I would prefer small diameter mics for this exercise (we use multi pattern Schoeps in my class) but in your case the 414's will be fine, because they are reasonably flat and have switchable patterns. As you go on you will use other mics, but start with these and learn them well. You can make some very fine recordings with these. You need to get some cooperative players, a student brass quintet, woodwind quintet or some other who will help you out in exchange for a couple of nice tracks. Pick several standard stereo techniques--I would try A-B stereo with the mics set to omni, ORTF with them set to cardiod, Blumlein (mics in figure of 8) and finally M-S. This last can be great for taming less than great halls btw. These techniques are described in lots of web sites and books. Try these for a start:

http://www.tape.com/Bartlett_Article...echniques.html

http://www.prosoundweb.com/studyhall...techniques.php

and check out the "Microphone University" at

http://www.dpamicrophones.com/

Find a nice starting point and have the groups play and LISTEN. REALLY LISTEN through the mics. Move them higher and lower, closer and farther, and note the differences. For the kind of hall at Whitewater (if I remember correctly, I have not been there in perhaps 15 years) i would start with say omnis in A-B maybe ten feet from the group and a full 10-12 feet above the stage. Space the mics at 44 cms apart then experiment. Closer in and farther out with them. Higher and lower. Then try the same mics only much wider, say two meters apart. Record your results. For these and other trials I try to get an average level when players are making a full sound of about -12 dbfs. If your big accent attacks are clipping, pull your levels down. Don't do it with compression when tracking.

Then repeat this with the ORTF set up. Mics to cardiod and somewhat further back. This set up has more "reach". As you use this one you may end up moving it quite far back in the hall as you experiment. You might try XY as well, but that seldom gives a very satsifactory stereo image in my experience in concert hall recording.

Blumlein (crossed fig 8's) is the least useful generally so skip this if time is a problem, but it does work in some halls and it might work in yours. M-S will take a little programming in your DAW, but it can work wonders. Try it with the mid mic set to cardiod first. Then try again with it set to omni (you will probably move closer in for this setting.) There is a really great article/tutorial on this here:

http://emusician.com/mag/emusic_front_center/


Your experiments need to be very systematic. Don't vary the musical selection or placement of the players take to take. Keep careful notes. Play it back for the performers and have them help you decide about advantages and disadvantages for each.

I know it sounds like a lot but keep in mind that pro engineers in an unfamiliar hall often take hours to place mics. Given that the hall and the performers are constant, its the biggest and most useful variable we have for creative recording.

When you evaluate, listen for tone, balance between direct sound and reverberation, and especially natural stereo image. Often when the reverberance/direct balance is right, the rest seems to fall into place.

Sorry for the didactic tone and length here. As you can see I love this topic. Other ensembles, orchestras, bands, jazz groups, all present new challenges and that is what keeps our jobs so interesting.
Old 18th May 2006
  #6
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Jim vanBergen's Avatar
 

What HE Said!

Yo, Dr. Bob- nice post! Cheers!
Old 18th May 2006
  #7
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ersheff's Avatar
 

Thread Starter
Agreed. Wow. Thanks a million!
Old 19th May 2006
  #8
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ajfarber's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by mopppish
Hi, all.
So, I'm a music education student at UW-Whitewater. I also work in the university's audio labs and do some freelance recording, so I've been hit up to do some jobs on campus. Naturally, my background is mostly in recording the standard rock instruments, but I'm intrigued by the challenges and rewards of recording "proper" acoustic instruments (I'm a percussionist and bassist, BTW). So far I've done some recitals and audition CDs for folks, mostly strings or brass. Here are some concerns/issues I've noticed-
1) NOISE!!! Obviously these types of instruments and this type of music has an incredible dynamic range, so my recording levels are low in general. Once I've gotten levels up to where they need to be in the mixdown phase, I've got tons of noise. The rooms I've been recording in haven't been the quietest, but is the real need here for super quiet and sensitive (i.e. expensive) gear? I'm using a Firepod and an ibook (pretty low end, I know) with a decent assortment of mics. Is the noise floor of standard gear for this type of music just insanely low?
2) I don't know what you would call this problem. Perhaps "excessive detail"? I've noticed mostly with brass and stringed instruments that you get a lot of sound you don't necessarily want. For instance, on trombone the "blat" of the player's lips (these are very exceptional players, BTW) really comes through. On cellos and basses, you can really hear the hair "rasp" against the string. I've certainly experimented with mic positions/distances i.e. keeping brass players off axis and a decent distance from their mics. Any other advice? Even a Royer 121 will exhibit these issues. An AKG C414 sounded AWFUL on cellos. I attributed that to a bright frequency response and a "too fast" transient response. Am I in the ballpark here?
3) Might a super clean pre fed through the SPDIF of my Firepod help out? I guess that kind of ties into the first issue...
4) Any other general advice for recording string quartets or brass concertos or woodwind quintets or whatever with general, middle of the road university issue gear would be appreciated.
Thanks.
OK. A "Firepod" you say. Not enough gain to use the Royer as a room mic, however it will do nicely on acoustic bass or brass instruments. The 414 is a bland mic but it can work on celli if you have one per stand. Don't worry about the harshness, that's what 414s sound like. EQ it later. You can use the 414s on omni as room mics in a decca tree type setup or try them as an M/S pair.

Good Luck.
Old 23rd May 2006
  #9
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sonare's Avatar
The last thread is interesting by the use of opposites-- a Royer --"acoustic bass or brass instruments"-- 2 instruments that are polar opposites for acoustic output.

AKG414-- "The 414 is a bland mic but it can work on celli if you have one per stand." Depends on WHICH 414 we're discussing. And does bland means neutral? "One per stand" sounds like studio sound and thinking at work.

There is a reason that Decca tree was not mentioend by Dr Bob-- it is useful mainly for larger ensembles, and getting good results depends on really good mics and experience. Don't go there--- yet. And room mics can be added to any main setup, so I am not understanding ajfarber's comment in connection with a Decca tree.

Perhaps the best thing Dr Bob said was that in classical the room is an instrument also-- never forget that.

The best thing you could do is limit yourself to a stereo pair and get the best results from it. The Shure KSM 141 are good in that they are either omni or cardioid-- excellent for learning. Newer Oktava MC012 with multiple capsules are good budget mics. You might want to consider the Metric Halo ULN as you are a Mac user. About $1200 discounted. Superb micpre and A/D and will nicely accomodate outboard micpres as your budget expands. You will need additianl software for editing/burning as the Metric Halo software (console beta 22) is for record/playback only.

Rich
Old 23rd May 2006
  #10
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ersheff's Avatar
 

Thread Starter
As a follow up, I should let you all know what I'm doing with my last project. It was bass trombone and piano in our school's recital hall, in which as I've mentioned we only recently figured out how to kill the ventilation. This recording was done BEFORE this revelation, so room noise was still an issue. Because of this, I set up several mics in order to have options. Keep in mind this is not a super professional job by any means, but I'd certainly like to give the client the best product I can regardless. I figured I would rather feed a semi-close mic through Logic's Space Designer than have a noisy stereo source from the room.
I ended up doing a combination of the two. I salvaged the stereo room tracks the best I could in Soundsoap (source was 2 flying U87s) and ended up blending in a Royer 121 for tbone and AKG C414s from the piano the best I could through Space Designer.
The other problem is that our flying U87s don't seem to be optimally placed for the room/stage. Most recordings that come just from that source end up sounding hollow and excessively distant. We've gotten some decent results with larger ensembles, but this is also the hall that solo recitals are given in.
Old 23rd May 2006
  #11
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Thread Starter
Sorry if putting classical instruments through plug-ins is heresy.
Like I said, I didn't have the best sources. Now that the ventilation noise will be less of a problem, I'm excited to see what kind of results I can get from the room when the fall semester starts.
Dr. Bob- It sounds like you avoid compression for these types of recording (when I use it, it's very sparingly). What about at the mastering stage? Keep in mind that the best I have access to is Waveburner Pro... no analog...
Old 23rd May 2006
  #12
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sonare's Avatar
FWIW I use plugins and compression on everything-- a VERY mild 1.17-to-one. THe plugs are Algorithmix Orange linear phase EQ and Noisefree. (I tried Soundsoap back when I was looking and discovered their answer to strady-state LF muck was EQ!).

It sounds like the U87s might be useful as "room mics" to add a touch of bloom?

With classical the mastering is getting levels where they should be and cleaning up as much as possible, and I strongly urge you to read Bob Katz's "Mastering: the Art and the Science."

And when your clients say "my XXXX recital CD isn't as loud as my other CDs" tell them to compare it to a chamber music CD from one of the "big" companies-- EMI, Sony, DG, Decca, or Telarc.

BTW before I got Sequoia I used Waveburner-- a terrific app!

Rich
Old 23rd May 2006
  #13
Gear nut
 

Compression question reply to moppish

I do generally avoid compression when tracking classical music. The idea of this kind of recording to preserve as much as possible of the original acoustic signal. Naturally some decisions we make before hand have an effect on how faithfully that happens (the mic selection colors the sound of course) but mostly we are tryng to preserve the performance as accurately as we can in this kind of recording.

When I am doing a simple two track on location and don't have good sound check opportunities I do employ some Apogee Soft Limit on my MiniMe. It's a conscious compromise that has saved many recordings from some nasty overs. Even when you do have good sound checks it's been my experience that most performers play their loudest passages at least 3 dB louder during the actual performance. Sopranos, brass players, and some pianists even more. So I compensate for that when I set levels.

Any compression in mastering is likewise minimal. Acoustic music is characterized by wide dynamic range and when possible I like to keep it all. Most of the time people are going to listen to it in fairly quiet surroundings so this approach works. Good classical recordings don't often work well in cars which is one reason radio stations compress their signals before broadcast.
Old 23rd May 2006
  #14
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compression of classical music

Of course one doesn't normally use a typical compressor for classical music. The main reason for this is IMHO the fact that classical music has a lot of variation and thus fixed settings can't be applied. This doesn't necessarily mean the full dynamic range of an orchestra is maintained on the CD. It can't, due to 96 dB (w/ dither it's actually only 90 dB!) CD dynamic range vs. about 120 dB orchestra dynamic range, plus some neighbours of the average listener. One has to get down to something like a 70 or 80 dB range. This is usually done by fader rides, so the engineer does the level adjustment by hand or by automation. This allows more subtle reactions to the music. Fixed attack and release times aren't good since this is what changes the sound most. Tape compression is, applied in a decent manner, better. I sometimes use Nuendo's "Magneto" plug-in in the 2-bus, since this gives a very tape-like dynamics reduction without that tape hiss.
As to other plug-ins: of course we use EQ if applicable (though not to change the sound as much as is done in pop - most of the time it's subtractive EQ only), and of course we sometimes add artificial reverb (even Freeverb sometimes!). If you don't hear it when it's there but hear when it's not there, then it's good. Old rule. It's not about reality, which just isn't there when listening to symphonies in your living room, but about plausibility and illusion.
Old 23rd May 2006
  #15
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sonare's Avatar
We should not forget that the average classical listener cannot cope with a wide dynamic range without clipping the peaks, and I would rather entrust gain reduction to GENTLE compression (1.17 is so slight you would likely not identify it without being told) or parallel compression. It is all in the threshold and knee.

Let's recall what Duke Ellington said (about something else but it applies nonetheless)-- "If it sounds good, it IS good."

Rich
Old 23rd May 2006
  #16
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ersheff's Avatar
 

Thread Starter
Quote:
Originally Posted by sonare
With classical the mastering is getting levels where they should be and cleaning up as much as possible, and I strongly urge you to read Bob Katz's "Mastering: the Art and the Science."
Conicidentally, that's the book I'm resting my laptop on in my lap as I type this. Don't worry- I read it once in a while, too.

Quote:
Originally Posted by sonare
BTW before I got Sequoia I used Waveburner-- a terrific app!
Did you use the new Waveburner that comes with Logic Pro 7 or the old OS9 Waveburner? I actually just sold my copy of the OS9 Waveburner on ebay as I wasn't running OS9 anymore and didn't have any more plug-ins to use with it.
Old 24th May 2006
  #17
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In an ideal situation one would hope to have the ability to record a group in a great sounding hall with no A/C noise, no trucks rolling by the building, no clicking radiators, and no standing waves.

This is more often not available to us as we need to assist in the creation of good product even if the budget does not allow for Orchestra Hall in Chicago. I have made some very nice recordings of chamber ensembles and solo piano in a nearby recital hall that has a horrendous sound, is no fun to play in, and has noisy air conditioning (not to mention the sound of other musicians practicing coming into the room at odd times.)

The trick? Post-production. All of that stuff that "purists" don't want to use, and engineers are sometimes forced to use. It is there for a reason (and can be both used and abused). If I can produce a recording of solo piano performing Mozart in this dog of a room, and convince the listener that they are hearing a recital in a nice chamber hall, then what is to be gained by being a purist? Clearly the gig would not have happened had I waited for some nonexistent ideal situation.

In this case the problems were dealt with as follows:

problem: lovely Steinway D in a crummy sounding room

solution: microphones must be closer to the instrument than they would be if the room was nice. A pair of Lawson tube microphones on wide cardiod (their most flat setting) was placed about 1-2 feet away from the edge of the piano case. They had to be moved and anged until they began to reproduce the authentic sound of the instrument (rather dark, typical Steinway).

problem: the closeness of the microphones tends to make the mechanical action of the piano sound wrong.

solution: the lid must be removed entirely. this is actually a common technique used in solo piano recording and has been done at least since the 50s (that I am aware of). the lack of a bounce-back device allows the sound of the piano to be produced without extreme mechanical noise.

problem: The recording, although highly detailed, is way too dry for Mozart.

solution: Extensive listening and use of (i know i know, sacrilege) compression, limiting, equalization, and reverb to place the instrument in the proper soundfield for this music.

note: I doubt this would have been possible before the invention of convolution reverb and true room sampling. A sample of the Haydn Hall (or maybe it was the Mozartsall, not sure) was used. EQ was necessary to counter the proximity effect, but the hall sample then added much of the missing low register ambience (which the actual room had none of, terrible sound there). The effect of multi-layered dynamics processing also served to place the instrument at the proper distance from the listener.

The only people who heard the recordings after they were made (and it's out of my hands now) were classical musicians and they were convinced. I think it's a good idea to use the tools you have to their fullest potential (provided you know what this stuff is supposed to sound like, of course!)

JazzYoda
Old 24th May 2006
  #18
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Thread Starter
Thanks, JazzYoda. I like that approach of "hey, if you can fool them, who cares how you did it?". Sometimes that really is the only way to get by. And thanks for the piano miking tips in a sh*tty hall. I'm sure I'll have to use those.
Old 24th May 2006
  #19
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Jim vanBergen's Avatar
 

slightly OT...

Compression in classical recording is an interesting problem.

I recorded a gorgeous rendition of the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto last summer and have done several remixes of the event, sadly by request.

The favorite one, by far, has strong compression that is obvious to me, evidently, but guess what- the pianist and conductor think it sounds the best, and they have NO idea of the compression. But I have to say, it sounds great in the car!

Sigh...

The loudness thing today....

it just SUCKS.

sorry for the rant and the bandwidth.
Old 24th May 2006
  #20
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JazzYoda's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by mopppish
I like that approach of "hey, if you can fool them, who cares how you did it?"

If you read some of the stuff out there about Columbia 30th Street, those guys were doing plenty of "cheating", with incredible results!
Old 24th May 2006
  #21
Gear nut
 

Any port in a storm

As big a fan as I am of purist recording when it's possible, I have to agree that the technology of plugins and the rest is both amazing and essential. When ya gotta, ya gotta. . .I have made some lovely recordings both ways. Sometimes a bad hall does force one to pull out all the tricks. But the tricks work best when you start with the very best material you can gather.

Noise reduction, compression (multiband compression is really useful) and especially for classical recordings convolution reverb--all these are essential tools. Every one of them adds a layer of complication, though. So for a relative beginner, advice for which is where this thread began, I prefer to encourage careful practice in technique that is as pure as possible at first. I guess it's just a matter of personal pedagogy.

(I do heartily endorse the lid off the piano in some settings btw. But you usually can't get away with it when recording a live performance of course. It's interesting too how more "present" mic placements are much more acceptable to us now than they were a few years back in many musical contexts. Recordings have influenced our taste I suppose. . .and now even new concert halls are designed to sound much more detailed and present than in past decades.) Sorry for the ramble here.
Old 24th May 2006
  #22
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sonare's Avatar
I shall join the choir singoing out against LOUD CDs but in the end the client must be pleased if you want to hear from them again.

I have found it useful to respond to the car thing ("I have to keep turing it up and down!") by asking if they notice the same thing with "big label" CDs, especially the overall level. I also ask if they would try to read a great book in the car. The answers are obvious- important music should be given attention that it usually cannot safely have in the car.

Rich
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