Notes from the Shore

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Recording Session: Handbells

0611131914[1]I’m not sure where I came up with the idea that I wanted to use handbells on this project. I think I may have been browsing Youtube, watching a video and then clicking the associated links to see where it takes me. I know the idea has been in the works for some time. I originally was going to use computer samples, but just wasn’t happy with what was available. The recordings didn’t capture what I was hearing in my head. Oh, I know, we went to a church service somewhere that had a handbell choir, and I was struck by the amazing sound they produced.

Once I moved to Virginia, I learned that handbell choirs are in abundance here. I can think of at least four churches right here in Suffolk that have ensembles. I contacted several of the directors and found one that was willing to work with me. He provided me some basic direction about arranging for a handbell choir. I’ve also looked at some professional handbell music for sale on line, and my writing really isn’t strictly typical.

I sent my music off to the director, Al, and he made some notations for his choir and they did some practicing. Then, finally, we had our recording session last Tuesday night and I got the hear it!


0611131914b[1]We met at his church at 5:30 to set up. It’s a very old church right on the Main Street of Suffolk. As a result, we didn’t want to record in the main Sanctuary. I was a little disappointed because this was a fantastic space with a two-story vaulted ceiling, but the traffic noise made it untenable. At Al’s suggestion we set up in their fellowship hall. Having been in a number of fellowship halls that bore very strong resemblance to cafeterias I was concerned. However, if you look at photos, you can see that I had nothing to worry about. Their fellowship hall was also vaulted and two stories, although smaller in footprint. Also, the ceiling was acoustically treated, and in all it was a nice, live, but not too live, space to do this recording.

We set the bells up in an “L” shape, with the treble bells along the long leg and the bass bells along the short leg. I did a lot of research leading up to this session about the best way to record handbells. Given how difficult getting a good recording of handbells appears to be, there were a lot of contradictory opinions about the best way to go about it. The major issue is that if the microphone is too close, you get too much bang from the clapper compared to the ring from the bell, and the movement of the bell itself creates a “Doppler effect” at the mic. Al demonstrated this for me, showing me that if the movement of the bell is abrupt and large enough, that Doppler effect is audible to the naked ear, too. If the mic is too far away, there is too much room tone and the bells sound “distant” and “airy.”


0611131915[1]I found several people advocating an unusual recording technique that seemed to work well – they placed the microphones above and behind the ringers. This captures the ringing of the bells and mostly avoids the nasty side effects. I decided to give this unconventional method a shot for my first ever handbell recording.

Regular readers will remember I have three mics at my disposal. I placed the Apex 215 ribbon mic behind the basses, and V69 behind the middle bells. I decided to place the Avantone pencil condenser in front of the high bells. I did this for a few reasons, not least of which was the length of my mic cables. If I had too, I could have strung multiple cables together to get it to reach, but with the lower clapper noise of the treble bells compared to the ringing tone, and the more directional nature of the higher frequencies, I decided that in front was where I wanted them.


0611131915a[1]Once the ringers arrived, they set up and began a little rehearsing before we recorded anything. I took this opportunity to check the balances on the mics. I dropped the two mics behind the ringers a few inches, as I was plenty high but starting to pick up some clapper noise, and a quick adjustment took care of that. I also messed with the levels of the mics to make sure I had enough signal. I’m starting to look forward to when I can afford a new interface that I can hook to a laptop – maybe something with quieter pre-amps. I’m beginning to think that this Zoom unit is the source of my location recording noise.

Anyway, we went to recording the song. We started with the end. Why we did this will become clear when I publish the song later this summer. Suffice it to say that the last three notes of the bells take place after a long A Capella section and are very rubato in feel. I directed those three notes myself, and we took a number of takes to get all the bells ringing simultaneously.

0611131914a[1]Then we went back to the beginning and ran the whole piece three times through. First I gave some feedback to the choir, reminding them if they got confused or out of time, to remember that I could compensate for no note, but wrong notes would ruin the entire section of the take. Then I gave the director some guidance on tempo (compared to where they had been rehearsing it) and dynamics. There were two places where I had specific sections of bells play more strongly to emphasize their lines, which naturally varied the dynamics nicely. As the director ran the choir during the takes, I sat with the music and marked off measures as as I was satisfied with the recording.

By the time we had run three complete takes I had only a few unmarked measures. We isolated those measures and recorded just them and had everything done in a little under an hour. Lastly, I had each of the ringers ring their bells one at a time, chromatically, a short and a long tone. Occasionally, as I was listening, certain notes were not ringing out as strongly as I would like – generally nestled in among a bunch of other notes. I’m hoping to use the singles as needed to fill in any gaps.

In closing, I would like to publicly thank Al Reese and the ringers of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Handbell Choir. Some of the ringers actually thanked me for asking them to contribute to my music, when in fact they were doing me a huge favor! I guess I can see how asking them was an act of respect for their talent, but I know that I was blessed many times over.

Now, I have to edit the handbell performance and then record a men’s chorus. Anyone know where I can find one that works cheap?

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