Binaural Recording- An interview with Nicholas Prout of Chesky Records

Nicholas Prout is the recording engineer for Chesky Records. Over the years Nicholas has developed the skills of capturing musical performances using binaural recording techniques. Binaural recording is a method of recording sound that uses two microphones, arranged with the intent to create a life-like sound sensation for the listener when played back over headphones.

Nicholas Prout - Recording Engineer for Chesky Records.
Nicholas Prout of Chesky Recordings

As featured throughout the Chesky Records Binaural+ series, this recording technique provides the listener with an intimate playback of the musical performance.  Subtle head movements of the singers, improved instrument separation, realistic dynamics and room characteristics all contribute to placing the listener in the middle of the performance.

I was lucky enough to talk with Nicholas about his equipment and techniques for capturing great binaural recordings. His dedication to the technique and craftsmanship shine through in his incredible recordings; please make sure to check them out.

When asked what you do for a living, how do you reply?

I say that I’m a recording engineer.  If pressed I say that I work for Chesky Records and my job is to make the records.  I record the performances, edit together the best version of the piece of music from all available takes, then master it and prepare it for whatever format is needed.  Usually a CD master, a 96kHz 24 bit master, and a 192kHz 24 bit master.

When did you become interested in binaural recording, and what bought it about?

I read an article about recording with a dummy head in the late 70s.  I was intrigued so I recorded a folk singer using two Neumann U67s with a roll of paper towels between them.  I don’t know if the result was strictly binaural, but it sounded pretty good to me.

What is your common set-up when recording in binaural?

For all of the Chesky projects we use a B&K dummy head.  From the dedicated B&K preamp we use Crystal microphone cable to go directly into an MSB Technologies Platinum Studio A to D converter, out of the A to D via Crystal AES/EBU cable to a Sonic Studio model 303 DSP I/O processor.  The 303 is made by Metric Halo and we use the recording software included to record the audio at 192kHz 24 bit on a Mac Book Pro.  I use Ultimate Ears in ear monitors on the recording sessions.

Post production is done using the SoundBlade editing and mastering system on a Mac Pro computer.  We use the Mytek Brooklyn D to A converter and monitor with Joseph Audio RM7 si speakers with a Storm III sub woofer.  I use Abyss headphones and the UEs through an Oppo HA-1 headphone amp.

From your experience, what are they keys to achieving the most natural sounding binaural recordings?

With binaural recording you are recording the whole room so the distance the players are from the mic is critical.  Some instruments need to be close to the mic for a present sound and some can be further away to take advantage of the acoustics of the space.   I spend a lot of time physically moving the players around to get the best result.  There are no pan pots so you have to go out into the room and move the player’s chair.

When recording live music performances, what techniques/rules/distances do you follow in terms of instrument positioning in relation to the dummy head?

Not only do you have to think about how present you want each sound to be but also where in the stereo field it will appear.  This can’t be changed in post production so the positioning and balance have to be right on the session. There are no rules other than what the music demands.  The church we use as a recording space has a rug on the floor so I usually put 3/4 inch plywood under bass, drums and acoustic guitars.  We also have a PA system set up in the room and I will sometimes add a touch of it to a singer or instrumentalist to give them a little extra ambience.  Sometimes the send to the PA is routed through a digital delay line to give a little pre delay to the sound.  A good example of his is the vocal sound on “Little Crimes” by Melissa Menago Chesky JD384.

Recordiing session from "Made in Brooklyn" by John McEuen.
Recording session from “Made in Brooklyn” by John McEuen.

What room/environment characteristics are you taking into account when positioning your dummy head for recording?

Usually we consider how best to set up the musicians and then determine where to put the microphone to capture the performance.  If the musicians are comfortable and have good sight lines to the other players you will get the best results.

Do you have any favourite binaural recordings you think best demonstrates the binaural recording technique? Are there any particular musical styles you think are better suited for binaural recording? What styles do you find are less suited?

Macy Gray “Stripped” (Cheksy JD389), and “Made in Brooklyn” by John McEuen (Chesky JD388) are out now and both are good examples of the Chesky Binaural approach.  In general I think mostly acoustic music works best in binaural.  Since everybody is on the same microphone the quietest sound sets the balance.  In other words, if you can’t hear the singer you are playing too loud.  Loud electric music can work if there is no singer.

Where do you see binaural recording evolving over the next 5-10 years?

More real sounding and better translation to speakers.

What recording assumptions/techniques have you changed over the course of your recording career?

The nature of the business is constant change.  When I started I was doing mostly multi track recordings but I also did live to two track, so what I do hasn’t changed that much but how I do it has.

Do you have any exciting projects in the works?

We have two more projects that will come out in 2017, one by Livingston Taylor, and a piano and bass duo by Shelly Berg and David Finck.

Have you been approached for and/or do you have any interest in 3D sound reproduction for upcoming virtual reality (VR) technologies?

Haven’t been approached but the field is fascinating.

–Interview End–

Macy Gray – Annabelle Lyric Video

The opening track of the Chesky Record “Macy Gray – Stripped” album. Make sure to listen with headphones.

Behind the Sound: John McEuen’s In Brooklyn

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