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Orchestre National de Lille: Europe’s first orchestra to go fully digital
The renowned Lille National Orchestra (ONL) under conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus has become Europe’s first orchestra to go fully digital. With a recent investment in a Sennheiser and Neumann microphone set-up, the orchestra now boasts a fully digital signal chain from sound pick-up to recording. Their mobile studio comprises a total of 33 digital Neumann microphones, 24 digital Sennheiser microphones, all on active stands and booms, and six DMI-8 interfaces. Also included in the studio are a 6-channel Sennheiser wireless system and a full Neumann monitoring set-up. Managing Director François Bou, who feels people have become overly concerned with the visual aspects of performance, sees the new system capturing the ears of his audiences, taking them on a deeper, immersive journey into the richness and variety of the music.
“For us, the fully digital mobile studio is like a new instrument in the orchestra. It allows completely new aesthetics in our work,” explains François Bou. “We are playing classical music but this does not mean that we are an orchestra of yesteryear. Deeply rooted in both classical and contemporary music, the ONL rather is a high-tech orchestra that moves with the times and is present with its audiences in their specific environments and media.”
An example in case are the ONL’s successful “ciné-concerts” – film showings with live orchestra music – and the “concerts flash”; held between 12.30 to 13.15 these concerts attract (amongst others) Lille’s city workers during their lunch hours. “The concerts flash are enjoying an unprecedented success – for the last lunchtime chamber music concert, we welcomed more than 1,000 guests.”
Future ventures include a musical cooperation with a major video game company and an educational TV programme for children and families, “Piccolo Saxo”, which is scheduled to start in April. “Our mobile studio will be a great asset in both recordings. There will be broadcasts on the France 3 regional channel, and also live streams of ONL concerts on digital platforms – this will increase the presence and reputation of the orchestra still further, and take their music to new audiences.”
An exceptional venue for an exceptional orchestra
The orchestra’s home is “Le Nouveau Siècle” in Lille, a venue that was fully renovated and re-opened in 2013 and boasts a residual noise floor of an incredible 20 dB(A) only. The place is famed for its exceptional acoustics, and is a haven of creativity and creation. It therefore comes as little surprise that the venue is often rented to other ensembles and orchestras – and its attractiveness will further increase with the new mixing and recording possibilities.
Stéphane Evrard, Technical Manager of the ONL, and his sound team are enthused by the new microphones: “Since we have the digital mics, we have had ensembles coming out of the Nouveau Siècle saying how thrilled they were and that they had never heard themselves in such a way.”
Frédéric Blanc-Garin, who works as a freelance sound engineer in Stéphane Evrard’s team, adds: “You really forget that there are microphones in between you and the orchestra. If I am asked to compare analogue with digital microphones I would say that using an analogue microphone is very much like using a magnifying glass. The instrument you look at gets bigger but at the edges, the image is slightly blurred, slightly out of focus. Digital microphones, on the other hand, take the whole audience closer to the orchestra.
“I’m currently touring with a band and also use digital microphones with them, and after the shows, people have come up to me and said, ‘Wow that was magic! It really felt as if I could touch the instruments, there was nothing in between me and the band!”
Besides recordings, the studio equipment is used for amplified or partly amplified concerts such as the cine-concerts and outdoor concerts, and is also a valuable creative tool for resident composers at work. “At the mixing desk, a composer can immediately try out how the music will sound, try its spatiality, even record a tape and see how individual elements should ideally be recreated,” says François Bou.
François Bou sees yet another important aspect: “With the digital microphones – and our digital Neumann monitoring loudspeakers ‑ the source is completely pure and unadulterated, and our musicians use the recorded sound to evaluate, control and perfect their playing. The studio has become an important tool in rehearsing, too.” The monitoring set-up consists of five Neumann KH 310 D three-way speakers and a KH 810 studio subwoofer.
Frédéric Blanc-Garin explains the various mixes achieved with the digital equipment: “For each task, we have the right mic set-up at hand. For any large event, for example the 40th anniversary outdoor concert planned in Lille’s Grand Stade Pierre Mauroy stadium in July 2015, we will make use of our full complement of digital microphones. If we work with a French radio station, we have a much smaller set-up with their favourite mics in place – we use several TLM 103s in this case. If none of these mixes ‘apply’, then there’s the basic mix we do for our system for the hearing impaired, with an efficient stereo pair set-up.”
“We even have our own Sennheiser wireless microphone system, a 2000 Series system, which we mainly use for producing our educational material. When we are miking solo vocalists, we rent a Sennheiser Digital 9000 system to ensure the utmost in sound quality.”
The strings are picked up by four Sennheiser MKH 8090 wide cardioids, digitised by the attached MZD 8000 converters, and by four Neumann KMD 143 wide cardioids, which are also used for the bass section of the orchestra (again four models). The woodwinds are covered by a total of five cardioid MKH 8040 stereo sets, i.e. matched pairs. The brass is miked by four Neumann D-01 double-diaphragm mics and a Neumann KM 185 D stereo set (hyper-cardioid), while the horns are picked up by two MKH 8090. The percussion section boasts two Neumann KM 185 D stereo sets, four Neumann KMD 143 and a Sennheiser MKH 8020 stereo set (omni). The harp is picked up by a Neumann KMD 145 (cardioid), the celesta by two Sennheiser MKH 8090s. Soloists will be picked up by two MKH 8090s, and an MKH 8040 stereo set, while choirs are miked by three large-diaphragm TLM 103 D (cardioid). Further Neumann mics in use are two KMD 131s (omni), a KM 184 D (cardioid), and a KMD 120 (figure-of-eight).
Summing up, François Bou says, “The digital studio is a powerful tool for the orchestra, which also opens up new and powerful means of distribution. The sound is just amazing in its purity and directness, and workflow-wise, we can keep everything in the digital realm, from instrument pick-up to mastering.”