There are certain things in life that one doesn’t truly expect to experience first hand – the Loch Ness Monster, alien abduction and Social Security certainly come to mind, but one might also consider the frightening specter of being exposed to hours and hours of live bagpipe music – and liking it. That last scenario being easily the most strange, threatening and (one would think) as unlikely as having a pleasant and rational dialogue with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But y’know, life doesn’t always go as you might think.
A little over a month ago we were asked whether or not we’d ever recorded bagpipes. After a few light chuckles and some good natured ribbing were exchanged, we found out that the writer, Riley Kane, of Space 150 was very serious about bringing a professional bagpiper into our Minneapolis recording studio. We were asked to capture a few different tracks for a website called, whatsupyourkilt.com, that he and Space 150 were working on for their client, Spacelab.
According to Riley, “The main idea for this is that spacelab is an incubator R&D group that tests stuff out and measures the results. We’re all about creating engaging entertainment content, and in this case wanted to do something surrounding St. Patrick’s Day. (Irish people wear kilts, too.)”
So, we got to work doing some research on how best to record this very awkward instrument. Turns out discussing this task with fellow recording engineers only created an avenue for them to work out their potential Tonight Show routines. The following exchanges actually took place –
Question: What’s the best way to record a bagpipe?
Answer 1: From about 2 miles away.
Answer 2: Stand bagpiper in street. Close studio door. Lock studio door.
Yup, they’re loud. It turns out that you only need a small cluster of these beasties to approximate the rafter shaking volume that the windmilling Pete Townshend and The Who used to generate during their halcyon days. Though I’d offer that any “Bagpiper’s Live In Cincinnati” concert would’ve gotten a little less hype and only the piper’s themselves might’ve been at risk from any stampede.
Anyway, despite all the potential problems we were foreseeing with this recording, the process ended up being far more pleasant than we could have imagined because the piper was Mike Breidenbach, the Director of Piping at Macalester College. When Mike showed up to do his thing we got a blistering crash course in mic placement for the pipes. Everything sounded clean and smooth as long as we didn’t use any condenser mics or try to mic the instrument too closely. Oddly enough, the above engineer jokes have an air of truth to them, as a bagpipe’s sound evens out nicely as the distance from it increases.
(though we’d suggest 2 meters instead of 2 miles.)
Once we found the true sweet-spot in the room, Mike ran down a couple of nice pieces which we could loop for the site, then he was out the door. Strike one more thing from the list of experiences we thought we’d never get to enjoy in our lifetimes.