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shapenote singing
Old 4th February 2007
Here for the gear

Talking shapenote singing

Been mostly lurking for a few months, soaking up the collective wisdom here--thanks for all the helpful discussion. I am not a professional, but a fairly serious (if still aspiring) hobby recordist. I record many different types of music peformance situations and generally get pretty decent results for what my gear allows, but I'm hoping for some suggestions about recording a shapenote sing. I'm going to assume some will know what this is, but that many likely will not. While I find the history and tradition of this type of music pretty interesting, what's important really is the physical layout of singing, and what I want to achieve with the recording.

Shapenote (or Sacred Harp, after the most common tunebook used) singing is done a cappella in a "hollow square"--each of the four parts has one side of the square and the singers sit in several rows, facing the middle. There is no conductor, per se, but singers sign up to be leaders, and each is called in turn to stand in the middle and lead one song, mostly facing the tenor section, which is the melody-bearing part. Generally the strongest/best singers sit in the front row of each section, with weaker singers sitting in the rows further back. The particular singing I'm interested in recording is a state "convention" that will likely have 75-150 singers, total, and will last two days (I would only be making a single-disc "highlights" end product, most likely).

Some other factors that bear on this, in no particular order: The singers don't really see this as a "performance" and have little patience with anything that interrupts or interferes with the smooth running of the singing. I can't have anything standing in the middle of the square, or in any of the aisles at the corners, as that must be kept open for the leaders to enter/exit the middle. This isn't music for listening, primarily--if that makes any sense. It's meant to be participatory, so the notion of listening to it from a distance away from the singers is rather foreign to how they think about this. The consensus among singers is that the best sound is to be had while leading in the middle of the square. Many shapenote recordings suffer, IMO, from being either too distant (recorded from well outside the singing area, with individual parts rather hard to discern, and lacking the clarity of the strong singers in the front rows), or too poorly mixed due to location (some parts, near the mics, are very clear and quite loud, but other parts are barely heard--for example, witness the "missing" treble (soprano) part in the two shapenote tunes on the Cold Mountain soundtrack).

As funny as it seems, I think the recordings Alan Lomax got in the field in 1959 are still among some of the best I've heard. While some sections (meaning voice parts) are louder than others, one can still hear everything fairly clearly, and the character of some of the individual voices that can be heard adds much to the recording, IMO. The goal really should not be for a well-blended choral sound in which no individual voices can be discerned, in my thinking. While I don't want it to sound as though only 6 or 7 people are singing, some voices will naturally stand out, and that's fine, as that's the nature of the performance. It seems to have been difficult to replicate the success of those Lomax recordings in the years since.

So, what I'd like to try to do in recording the convention is to take the singers at their word and try to sonically capture the experience from the middle. Since I can't have a stand in the middle of the square, though, I'm going to have to try to rig something from above (did I mention I won't see what the room is like until the night before the singing?). Also, some leaders are very loud; some not, so I really don't want to have anything that would directly emphasize the leaders' own voices, so nothing that points directly down. Could I use 4 cards, one facing each section? Would I have phase issues? I'm envisioning two stereo T-bars at 90 degrees, both threaded onto a single something, thus giving me four mounts. Depending on what the ceiling is like, I might be able to clamp a light mic stand onto something (I have a few Bogen Superclamps), or I might try to run a large boom from behind the section using the fewest number of rows.

While I would welcome discussion of an "ideal" way to approach this kind of situation, I would also appreciate alternative suggestions about how I could use the equipment I have, if something makes more sense. I have a pair of MG200s and a pair of AT4050s. A few other mics, too, but nothing I'd want to admit to in public, and no way to provide phantom power to more than 4 mics. I have a modEdirol UA-5 that would connect via S/PDIF to a modMotu Ultralite. The Motu clock would be slaved to the UA-5 for synch, and each would provide two channels of pre. The Motu would then feed a M-AUdio Microtrack via S/PDIF (I only have a two-track recorder, so the mixing would be done on the fly, though I don't think it would be too difficult to do. I could also record to two different Microtracks (one taking the UA-5, the other the Ultralite, and mix them in post, but dealing with the drift is not something I like to do if it can be avoided). The tenors (the "front" of the ensemble, and what would be directly in front of the leader) and the altos (the opposite side of the square, behind the leader) would be in the middle of the image, while the trebles and the basses would be panned left and right, respectively, to match the experience of leading the group.

As long as this wouldn't introduce phasing problems, I would think the 4 overhead cards would be the best way to get the feeling of the group from the middle, but maybe not . . .

Apologies for the extremely long-winded post, and I appreciate your patience--thanks!

Old 4th February 2007
Lives for gear
pkautzsch's Avatar

4 cardioids can make sense. There is, however, the risk of emphasizing some of the good singers even more than they naturally are.
I could also imagine turning the 4 mic setup by 45°, so they face precisely *between* the groups. You'd then get two 90° near-coincident stereo pairs for tenors and altos, and each of the pairs would pick up sopranos and bassos a bit.
Old 4th February 2007
Gear Addict
Kubilay's Avatar

Disclaimer: I'm really not qualified to comment on this - I recorded a choir once, and that was about ten years ago and under ideal circumstances - that's why I deleted my initial reply. But I love the sound of shapenote singing, and I've been thinking about this post a good bit! I had two off-the-cuff ideas:

1. Hang an omni from the ceiling in the center, augmented a little by a pair of room mics somewhere in the room, just to add some room and dimension. Your recording would be mostly mono, but you'd get a very full sound and zero phasing problems. Since the balance in the choir constantly shifts, you could hang a couple or three omnis in slightly different spots, and for each song pick the one that has the best blend when you go through the recordings.

2. Two figure-8's in a Blumlein configuration hanging in the center. While it wouldn't give you the traditional Blumlein effect, I imagine this would allow you to 'point the mics at all four sides' with minimal phasing issues. You'd probably have to rig a setup so you can hang the mics in the configuration in a reliable manner - I suppose there are 'Blumlein bars' of some sort around? Or you rent one of those stereo Royers and just hang that.

Does this make any sense? Like I said, these were really more brainstorms.

I agree on the quality of the Lomax shapenote recordings - are there any photos around to see where he put the mics?

Cool project!
Old 4th February 2007
Gear Addict
Kubilay's Avatar

PS: If the ceiling isn't very high, it may be a good idea to put one of those little Auralex barriers between the mic and the ceiling...
Old 12th February 2007
Here for the gear

Thanks for the suggestions. I've been giving them some serious thought, as well as a few other ideas, too. I'm going to comment about a few of the things mentioned here.

I like the idea of the 4 cards pointed at the aisles (basically this would be a DIN or NOS type of arrangement, pointing at the tenors for one pair and the altos directly across the square for the other). This would be good as it would allow for some stereo imaging of the tenor and alto sections which would be pretty minimal with my first suggestion of one card at each section. I'm concerned a bit, though, that this is going to make balancing the four sections a little bit trickier than my first method. I failed to mention that the tenor section is usually by far the largest of the four sections--it's the melody-bearing part, and is populated by both men and women (in octaves, of course; mixed sections are fairly common for the altos and trebles, too, though the number of men in each of those is usually fairly small; I've yet to see a woman in the bass section). At any rate, I anticipate many more tenors than any other part, so I'd like to have some balance control. While I could simply reduce the forward pair that's pointing at the tenors, it would also reduce the volume of the trebles and basses, or at least the halves of those sections nearest the tenors. If I need to increase or decrease the trebles or basses it's going to get even more complicated I think. If I were doing a 4-track recording and could listen carefully after the fact it might be more feasible, but since it's direct to 2-track in this case, with monitoring having to be done in the room, I'm afraid it won't give me enough control. With one card at each section, control of the balance is very simple and could be largely done visually by checking the meters, I would think.

I've just recently added the AT4050s to my arsenal, so I've only run Blumlein once. While the technique worked very well for that project, here I'm not so sure it would be ideal. If I understand the polar pattern correctly (see attached Word document), placing the Blumlein pair in the middle of the square with the positive sides facing the tenors would do the following: The tenors would be correctly imaged L-R, as would the halves of the trebles and basses nearest the tenors. However, the altos would have a reverse L-R configuration, which by itself would not be a big deal. But the halves of the trebles and basses nearest the altos would also be reversed. So, I would be getting trebles and basses in both channels, which would tend to dilute the "naturalness" of the imaging I'm wanting to achieve. If I'm understanding the technique correctly. Also, I'm not sure about the effects of the reverse polarity in the areas that overlap, like say the middle of the bass and treble sections (this would be at and around 90 and 270 degrees). I would be getting simultaneous positive and negative signals of the same music, and of the same singers, for much of the middle of the bass and treble sections. Would this introduce some phasing/cancellation problems, or is it not something I need to worry about? Is Blumlein really possible for a 360 music situation? Maybe if the signals from the back half were completely different from what's going on in front?

I won't be able to see the room until the night before, so I don't even know if suspending anything above the square is going to be possible. This might all be in vain, but it is interesting to think about, IMO, and might come in handy in the future.

Oh--not sure about Lomax pictures. I've seen some of him with gear in the field, but only in books, and none of it was for a shapenote recording, IIRC. It may be out there, though.

Thanks again!
Attached Files
File Type: doc Blumlein polar pattern.doc (32.0 KB, 165 views)
Old 13th February 2007
Lives for gear
pkautzsch's Avatar


you've observed correctly both that the "4 cardioids pointing to aisles" technique will give you very little control over the balance except for mic positioning (which you won't have time to fine-tune as I understand your post), and that Blumlein will do strange things to sound sources outside the 90° angles in front of and behind the system. Everything on the sides will be f*cked up as far as localisation is concerned. It can even (when summing to mono on grandma's kitchen radio) be completely lost. NEVER use Blumlein when the musicians are standing in a circle.

Surround would be cool.
Old 13th February 2007
Lives for gear

If there is one thing I wouldn't do, it is placing microphones inside the group. When I've recorded shapenote singing, I've used a "standard" choral setup. ie a stereo array/pair outside the group overhead looking in.

Remember, the sound of this style of singing is not heard from inside the group- everybody is facing in. Therefore, the sound in the room is not a direct sound- and judging by some of the individual sounds created, this is probably a good thing. It is not a standard choir.

If you do go inside the group, keep the mics directional. If you go blumlein, your image of the back lobes will be reversed and out of phase. It doesn't have to be a problem, but it certainly can be (listen to the Wailin' Jennies example on the Royer website for an example of how good a blumlein recording can sound when everybody is gathered around the mic- front and back. The reason why this works, though, is there is nobody on the 90/270 degree sides which present a major phase issue as one side is in phase and the other is out)

In the end, though, I'd keep it simple- an ORTF pair overhead looking into the ensemble capturing the whole group's sound.

Old 14th February 2007
Here for the gear

Thanks again for the advice, everyone. Good to know that my instincts aren't totally off, here, at least with regards the potential problem with Blumlein in the round.

I guess I would, well, maybe not disagree, but again present an alternate opinion about how shapenote music is meant to be heard. I know my earlier posts were very long-winded, so maybe this got lost in all of that, but I would argue that's it's really not meant to be heard from outside the square, and that direct sound is heard from the inside. It's certainly not music for "listening"--participation is much more a part of the aesthetic than "performing" for non-singers, if that makes any sense, so recreating a listening position from outside the square is already a step removed from the experience. Generally the seats closest to the center of the square are most desirable, and if you can hold your weight well enough to sit in the front bench, that's the ideal spot. So, from a singer's perspective, the center is where you want to be, to hear the direct sound coming at you from all directions (including the other people in your own section next to you and behind you), and especially hearing the strongest singers coming at you most loudly. As I mentioned, there really does seem to be consensus that the very best sound is to be had while you're leading, and that's the experience I would like to be able to capture. The sheer impact of all that sound coming directly at you along with the considerable room reflection can be quite something if it's a good singing. Recording from outside the square is certainly doable, but I would argue that that contributes to some of the distant quality I don't particularly like in many shapenote recordings--it's too far removed from the singing experience, IMO. And the individual character, shall we say of some of the singers is part of what makes the experience--each singing sounds different based on the collection of individual voices assembled. About the last thing I want is a well-blended choral sound with no individuality. And I'll mention the two tunes on the Cold Mountain soundtrack again as a relatively easy-to-find example of this somewhat distant quality, to the point where you can't hear the treble part at all.

I should point out, too, that there isn't really a goal for what would happen with this recording, other than my personal use at home and in the classroom (I'm really a musicologist by day). If anything "commercial" would happen, which is unlikely, it would only be aimed at other shapenote singers, not at listeners of classical choral music. A surround recording would be pretty cool, but I doubt it would be useful for most singers. I can and have recorded singings as though it were a traditional choir, but I guess I wanted to try something a little more innovative that would make sense to the singers.

Thanks again!
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