Alana feat. Christian Frentzen - Mama | Sphere Sessions

The loss of a loved one is incredibly difficult to come to terms with, yet it's something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives as human beings. The power of music is that it can sometimes help us process or even overcome these tragic moments. For singer Alana, who lost her mother to cancer, it took 18 years until she could finally write a song about losing her. Here's her emotional, one-take performance of the song 'Mama', captured with Sphere L22s in our Sphere Sessions series:

Please make sure to listen on high-quality studio monitors or headphones to hear all the details. 

The Sonic Vision

Setup

For her Sphere Sessions performance, Alana is joined by pianist Christian Frentzen performing on a 1920s grand piano. Townsend Labs' product expert and producer/engineer Julian David recorded the duo at Tresorfabrik recording studio in Germany. From the beginning, the session was conceived as a single camera, continuous one-take recording of the song. 'Mama' is a challenging song for Alana in many ways, so the idea was to capture the performance in their purest, most emotional way.

Recording a singer accompanied by a grand piano at the same time and in one room can be difficult. There's a risk that too much bleed (or crosstalk) between the instruments causes real headaches. Most often, the problem is excessive piano bleed in the vocal mic. Initially, Alana was facing towards the open (lid) side of the piano. She has great microphone technique, meaning that she will move in and out of the mic to balance her sound and dynamics. But it quickly became clear that even with the most behaved cardioid pattern there was still too much bleed. So for the final few takes, Alana was standing next to the piano behind a single Sphere L22 microphone, facing the same direction as Christian. That way, the microphone's pick-up pattern can be set to figure-8, which offers even deeper nulls at 90 degrees than the cardioid.

Julian set up a spaced pair of L22 microphones to capture the piano. These microphones were positioned quite close to the strings just to make sure that the vocal bleed wouldn't become an issue. This total of three L22 microphones was augmented by an AEA R88 ribbon microphone picking up some ambience and room tone.

Tech Notes

  • Vocals: single L22 microphone set to the LD-47K model from the Sphere Core collection
  • Piano: spaced pair of L22 microphones inside the grand piano
  • Room Mic: AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone
  • Preamps: api 512c (vocals) and Focusrite ISA 428 (piano)
  • Conversion: DirectOut Andiamo
  • Recorded at 24 Bit / 96 kHz in Pro Tools
  • Reverb and some light compression added

Recording with analog preamps

Sphere requires a pair of gain-matched preamps to achieve best results. From a workflow perspective, using a stereo preamp or audio interface with digitally controlled preamps is the fastest and easiest way to go. On an analog preamp with continuous gain controls, matching the two channels manually would be very cumbersome. But does that mean you can't use your beloved vintage preamps? Absolutely not! The Sphere L22 features a built-in calibration on the mic itself. That switch simply outputs the front capsule on both outputs when engaged. All you need to do then is to get your continuous gain controls on the preamps in the right ballpark. As soon as signal hits the mic the plug-in automatically detects calibration mode and prompts a dialog that allows offsetting any mismatch in gain with a single click of a button.

For this session, Julian used a pair of api 512c preamps for the vocal and two channels of a Focusrite ISA 428 for the piano. Once safe levels for a clean recording well below clipping had been established, Julian went through the simple calibration routine, which is just a matter of 30 seconds or less. In fact, calibration can also still be done after the last pass of the recording if time is really of the essence.

Utilizing Off-Axis Correction

Off-Axis Correction (OAC) is a unique feature of our patented Sphere technology. It allows for two things: firstly, more ideal polar patterns that don't change as much over frequency as they do for conventional condenser microphones. Secondly, it allows decoupling the tonality of mic model from its polar pattern. As a consequence, Julian selected the omni pattern of the LD-47K model for its on-axis sound, but then changed the polar pattern to figure-8. That way, he was able to get the vocal sound that compliments Alana's voice but with the freedom to choose the polar pattern with the least bleed.

Learn more about the frequency dependent response of microphones in this tech talk by Chris Townsend.

About the Artists

Alana Alexander (vocals)

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York this soul songstress and daughter of a Bishop, began her musical education in her father’s church surrounded by a very talented and musical family. Alana exhibits a unique sound resulting from her exposure to musical influences such as gospel, soul, latin, jazz, and calypso. She has performed with world-renowned artists and in iconic venues like Carnegie Hall. Alana has lived and performed in Germany for several years but is now back home in New York City.

Alana's mother died of cancer 19 years ago. Her passing was and still is very difficult to come to grips with for Alana. Her parents Pastored a church in the Bronx for many years, and her mom taught her how to sing and play piano. She was the epicenter of her family and her best friend. The song 'Mama' was written by Alana and Nico Gomez. Nico inspired and encouraged Alana to keep working on the song because maybe it was something she needed to do in order to help her grieve and process.

Hear more from Alana here.

Christian Frentzen (piano)

Christian Frentzen is a keyboardist, pianist, and audio engineer living and working in Cologne, Germany. He has performed as a sideman of artists such as Marla Glen, Julia Neigel, Stefanie Heinzmann, and Rüdiger Baldauf. He also is currently working on releasing the debut album of his jazz quartet. Apart from his work as a keyboardist, he also produces bands and has been sampling vintage keyboard instruments under his 'CFrentzen' moniker.

Find out more about Christian here.


Visit our downloads page to get the free Sphere plug-in as well as pre-recorded tracks, including vocals and piano Explore the different mic models and find out, which of them you like the best.


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