An indigenous acoustic duo tracking with chamber orchestra musicians in rural NT? Audio engineer Tim Webb knew this was no ordinary gig.
Story: Preshan John
Hailing from the tiny town of Marlinja, Northern Territory, indigenous father/daughter duo, Rayella, has regularly performed its distinctive, haunting flavour of acoustic music in the region for the past three years. Last year the pair, Ray and Eleanor Dixon, jammed with a select picking of Opera Australia chamber orchestra members at the Desert Harmony Festival. Its success birthed the concept for a more formal recording collaboration.
With funding secured, orchestral arrangements written and recording sessions scheduled, Opera Australia flew the six orchestra members from Melbourne to Tennant Creek for a four-day stint with Rayella. Kicking off on a Monday, the two groups rehearsed together until the ‘official’ recording date of Thursday, giving audio engineer Tim Webb plenty of time to fill his hard drives with backup material. “We only had the orchestra for four days so we had to track as much as we could,” he said. “If I could get a great performance, I wanted to capture it.”
For Tim Webb, the whole prospect was slightly daunting. Though home-grown music blossoms in this region of NT, there’s not much by way of professional, well-equipped studios worthy of a chamber orchestra. Determined to pull off a top notch recording regardless, Webb worked with engineer Jeff McLaughlin (aka Dr Fluoride) to track the musicians in a primary school hall owned by Barkly Regional Arts. McLaughlin knows the lay of the land, having worked at Barkly’s Winanjjikari Music Centre for 10 years. He supplied the core recording system — an Apogee Ensemble and API lunchbox loaded with JLM preamps. Webb provided some mics, Opera Australia sent a bunch of DPA clip-ons up with the orchestra, and Barkly Regional Arts also loaned some gear. The sessions were assisted by James Winwood, who also wore the production manager hat.
Most live engineers would agree DPA mics on classical instruments are a hard-to-beat combination, but in the studio, Webb says he preferred the airier sound of an MS configuration (made up of a Rode NT2 and Audio-Technica AT2021), plus a spaced pair of 2m-high Audio-Technica AT2020s, 2.5m apart. The mics pointed at the six-piece group arranged in a semi-circle on a slightly raised stage facing Ray and Eleanor, who sat in the mics’ nulls.
All tracking was done live. That posed some challenges in tackling monitoring and controlling spill. “I made a conscious decision to not use headphones,” says Webb. “We just wanted everyone to feel comfortable. We had three wedges — one in front of both Ray and Eleanor. The orchestra was having a little trouble timing to the guitar, so I put another under the MS pair. That meant we ended up with a bit of guitar and vocal spill in the orchestra recordings, and if you listen very carefully there’s ambient spill like birds in the background. Notwithstanding the actual chamber orchestra sounds have come through how we wanted. It’s bush recording, and we were trying to get a high quality product in a less-than-ideal situation.”
The acoustic guitar was miked with a Neumann TLM102 shielded with a Kaotica Eyeball for isolation. Both Ray and Eleanor sang into Rode NT1s for vocals, most of which were for guides.
Webb: “Ray and Eleanor have a distinctive, accomplished sound. They sing really nice harmonies, which I don’t often hear from other bands in this region, so having the strings was very complimentary. There were a couple of moments tracking when Ray became very emotionally moved by the music and had to stop and have a drink of water. Those were beautiful moments, seeing the success of the collaboration first-hand.”
Barkly Regional Arts’ involvement in this project is a fine example of a well-executed, government-sponsored program that breeds promising, home-grown talent.
Tim Webb: “This kind of project wouldn’t have happened without the Barkly Regional Arts. They’ve been in the Barkly region working with artists for a long time, and more recently supporting the development of musicians with the Winanjjikari Music Centre, and offering training and employment opportunities for local Aboriginal musicians. They oversaw this entire project, from sourcing funding through the NT government, to administering and organising the live events. Their work is what makes special projects like these possible.”
In all, six of Rayella’s original songs were recorded during the Opera Australia group visit, most of which were tracked as single takes. Mixing is underway and will be completed mostly in-house.
After an intense week rehearsing and recording, both Rayella and the Opera Australia members performed at a live celebration event on the Friday evening, put on by Barkly Regional Arts to celebrate the state’s Territory Day — which was followed by fireworks and general NT frivolity… beer, crocs, etc.
To coincide with the EP release, and to continue the relationship between Barkly Regional Arts, Rayella, and Opera Australia, the duo will be performing at Wick Studios in Brunswick, Melbourne from 7pm on Saturday, November 19th.
About Tim Webb
Tim Webb has been a Tennant Creek local for over 10 years, with most of his time spent teaching music to school children. Audio engineering is another arrow in his quiver, and his portable recording setup, WindUp Studio, has seen many clients recorded in unconventional spaces — lounge rooms, community halls, live gigs. Besides NT, Webb has operated in NSW and Victoria.