Recording in Churches – the Advantages and Disadvantages
When musicians are looking for the most natural sound to record in (particularly for an acoustic instrument or group) then nothing can compare with the acoustics that a Church offers. It’s no accident that the Air Lyndhurst Studios in Hampstead are housed a converted Victorian Church.
The trouble is that not all Churches sound good…..and it isn’t always possible to judge how good the acoustics are until you are able to play the very combination of instruments that need to be recorded. Not only that, but you need to play these instruments in exactly the right position within the building. Oh, and it needs to be free from people wandering inside doing brass rubbings, passing traffic and overactive vergers mowing the graveyard! I remember a warden from All Saints’ Church in Leighton Buzzard saying that a record company regularly made classical recordings in the building. Each year the sound recording team would select exactly the same area and put some gaffer tape down to mark the spot where the performers were to stand.
Some Churches and Chapels are perfectly suited to unaccompanied choral music (such as the Merton College Chapel in Oxford), whereas others are particularly conducive to small chamber music groups (as in the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in Hampstead). Some larger Churches (like All Saints in Tooting) have an illustrious history in orchestral recordings – in fact, many of the London orchestras use the Henry Wood Hall (formerly the Trinity Church) as a rehearsal and recording venue.
So many Churches have a wonderful history as recording venues but the famous ones can be expensive to hire. So as an independent artist on a careful budget, the secret is to find a Church with excellent acoustical properties, one that isn’t too busy, near a main road or too expensive to hire. Look at one of the successful and regularly used Churches and ask yourself, what is it that makes this building sound so good? Look closely at the proportions and materials used and see if there are any other Churches which have similar properties. Perhaps even research the architects (if it’s a Victorian Church) and see if they built anything similar outside of the major cities. A good place to start is the Churches Conservation Trust website as this well deserving charity regularly hire out their disused buildings for concerts, recordings, art exhibitions and television productions, from as little as £25 per day. As all the Churches are not in regular use as places of worship, there is a good chance you can book a day when you’ll be completely undisturbed.
Another challenge is in having an effective ‘dry’ area so that you can play back your recording in a totally ‘dead’ acoustic. Headphones give off a misleading sound (as do most hi-fi speakers), so it’s important that you get the right mic placements and balance before commencing with the recording. Once you have done a take, burn it off onto a CD and listen to it on two or three different pieces of equipment (including the trusty car stereo!). Also, unless the reverberation inside the building is totally amazing, do be prepared to add a hint of artificial reverb in order to redress any small inadequacies inherent in the acoustics.
So, finding a quiet Church with an excellent sound that isn’t too noisy outside is a challenge, but one that could be hugely rewarding. After all, there is something magical about the pure vibrations of an acoustic instrument, bouncing off the wood, stone and stained glass of a historical building. It can be a sound charged with atmosphere and complexity. Many groups however, may conclude that a recording studio offers a far more controlled environment – and one that puts you in charge, right down to the very last detail.