The Henry Wood Hall in Borough, south London is a large but not otherwise particularly distinctive grey Victorian church, it was undoubtedly grand in its day but has absorbed a lot of soot since then. When you walk through three sets of doors into the main hall this notion is completely reversed, the scale and grandeur of the place is surprising, easily big enough for a full orchestra and the tiered staging suggests that that is what it’s used to record. Today however Mike Valentine and his team were using it to capture the sound of a string octet in a variety of ways.
Mike and his wife Françoise are Chasing the Dragon, which in many ways is a hobby taken to the nth degree. Mike’s passion is for making the best sounding recordings he possibly can and serving them up on the full gamut of formats. He made his mark with direct to disc vinyl recordings but has since expanded into offering reel to reel tape, binaural CDs and hi-res downloads.
Chasing Dragon also specialise in making recordings with different microphone types and arrangements so that enthusiasts can contrast and compare the sound of each. This is what Mike was doing with his team at Henry Wood Hall and the Locrian Ensemble, it explains the array of devices in the middle of the musicians’ semicircle. On the central stand is a spaced pair of AKG C12 valve mics separated by a Jecklin Disc, next to these is a spaced pair of DPA 4006A transistor mics – the smaller black ones.
There are two more AKG C12s arranged as a Blumlein pair, with one almost touching the other, below these. The Neumann binaural head lower down is dedicated to making headphone recordings and was sporting appropriate PPE for the occasion. All of these were connected with Nordost and Vovox mic cable to the various recorders, connections between the latter were made with Zensati balanced interconnects. Mike makes an effort to use the best cables because “it doesn’t sound worse”.
The performance was captured in three formats, PCM and DSD digital as well as half inch analogue tape at 30 IPS. The tape machine is a Studer A820 being operated by Petronel Butuc of the Audiophile Clinic who’s about as serious a tape head as you’ll find on these shores. Matt Satori was in charge of the digital recording with a Nagra 6 and two Tascam DA-3000s, one for DSD and the other for 24/192 PCM, the Nagra also running at 24/192.
The Locrian Ensemble lead by Jack Liebeck played Mendelssohn’s Octet in E Flat Major, OP.20 over several takes all of which sounded superb, but not apparently up to the Ensemble’s standards. The hall’s scale and character is such that there is no echo and extremely natural reverb, you can feel as much just walking into the place but with eight contemporary string instruments in full flight it sounded significantly better.
For the mic comparisons the Ensemble played a ‘champagne piece’ called Two Guitars, a Russian folk song arranged for octet with plenty of vivacity. This is presented in all the forms recorded and makes for plenty of contrast, you can hear why Mike prefers the valve mics but the precision of the DPAs also works well. The biggest difference is between the spaced pair and Blumlien arrangements, the latter offering a far more intimate version of events.
The digital download is now available from Chasing the Dragon in 24/192 WAV files (the DSD release date has yet to be confirmed), vinyl enthusiasts (like myself) will have to wait a few months because of the backlog at pressing plants but a double album should be available by the summer. The vinyl will have some features that are singular to the format inasmuch as there will be 33.3rpm and 45rpm versions of the music cut at regular and half speed. The comparative pieces will be the same as the digital version, eg comprehensive in range and variety.
I’ve had a chance to hear the download and have to say that I’m impressed with the sound, it’s surprisingly close to the original despite the difference in room sizes, I’m going to have a lot of fun trying it with different equipment. In the meantime if you want to hear a really well recorded string ensemble playing some inspiring music Mike’s latest creation is highly recommended.
Chasing the Dragon have made an interesting video explaining how they made the recording here.