It’s 10:00 on a Tuesday morning in London, and a recording session is already in full swing at All Saints Church in East Finchley. Graham Johnson, seated at the piano in the sanctuary, talks with the soprano Christine Schäfer about the song they are recording, suggesting that the text conveys a certain “emotional masochism.” Schäfer’s eyes light up as the music and her interpretation suddenly click into place, and off they go on another take of Brahms’s “Wenn du nur zuweilen lächelst.”
In the control room (really, a Sunday school room that has been temporarily converted for the purpose), producer Mark Brown and engineer Jules Millard are discussing the sound of the piano and voice. They are doing the balancing act (pun intended) that production teams always do at the beginning of a session, trying to achieve a good balance and blend on the recording while ensuring that the musicians are happy in the studio. Jules has just talked Christine out of shifting her position: she wanted to rotate to her right a little bit so that she could see Graham better, but she was dissuaded of the idea when Jules informed her that the corresponding move of microphones would mean that the piano ended up panned to the left.
After the first take of “Wenn du nur,” though, Christine expressed some displeasure with how her voice appeared on the recording. Not quite finding the right word, she described it as “sharp,” but Mark suggested that perhaps she meant that it was too “close.” Jules move the microphones back a bit and everyone was happy. Mark said that the new sound was more “airy” and “kinder on her voice,” while Jules thought that the music had more “space around it.” Graham and Christine agreed that it sounded lovely; this was the last time that Christine would be in the control room during the three-day session devoted to 31 songs of Brahms. (During the next song, Mark invited her to listen back in the control room, but she declined: “I’m not a bit listener.”)
There are a lot of variations and contingencies in the course of any given recording session, but they tend to share a general shape. The engineers always arrive at the venue first in order to load in their equipment and set up the recording rig before the performers show up. The set-up can be quite time-consuming, too: at a session in Zurich, engineers Simon Eadon and Will Brown drove from their base in southwest England, crossing into mainland Europe on the train, passing a customs check for their substantial gear, and ultimately arriving in Zurich a day and a half before the session began. It took the better part of a day to set up all the microphones on the stage, set up the control room (upstairs and down the hall, a few minutes walk from the stage), and make sure that everything was working.
Once the equipment is set up and the musicians and producer have arrived, they can begin recording. But they can’t just dive right in and start laying down tracks; they have to calibrate the microphones and the mix. Unlike in pop recording, it is common for classical engineers to mix down to stereo during a session. This means that in addition to establishing the individual levels of different microphones, the recordists must get the overall balance as they and the performers want it, because they can’t adjust it later. They can (and do) add effects like ambience after the session; but they can’t do much to draw out a faint bassoon or back off an over-eager trumpet. (There are various reasons why the classical engineers I met work this way, which I will discuss in a later post.)
The “testing” phase of the session might have the performers rehearsing at their own pace for a little while, while the producer and engineer listen in and make sure things are sounding ok. It might also include the producer asking the performers to play specific bits of the music, particularly bits with extreme dynamics, so that they can check the levels of instruments and the overall ambience of the recording.
Even though engineers have microphone techniques that they prefer, they will invariably make adjustments, both on the mixing board and in the live room. Both sorts of adjustments are necessary to get the preferred “picture” of the sound: you might increase or decrease the relative volume of an instrument on the mixing board, but only by moving the microphone in front of the instrument can you also adjust how much ambient sound it picks up. So for instance, if that trumpet is over-eager and it is sounding very dry compared to other instruments in the recording, the engineer will probably want to move the microphone away from the player so that it can capture more reverberation in the room. If it is still too loud even once the ambience blends better, then he will probably nudge the fader down a bit in the control room.
Once the mix has been set for the recording—and this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the recording space, the temperament of the musicians, and the working relationship between performers and recordists—it is time to properly start recording. The recording process can take any number of shapes depending on the preferences of the producer and musicians. Sometimes they will work in small segments and let the producer (or a hired editor) assemble the recording afterwards; other times, they will capture long stretches of music.
Long takes can still be chopped up and stitched back together during the editing phase, but many musicians are not comfortable playing only short stretches. However, sometimes short bits are dictated by circumstance, as this story from producer Chris Hazell indicates:
I remember one occasion years ago where the pianist, who shall be nameless, did some concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Great! We went down to record it, put the red light on, he just fell apart. He could barely put one note in front of the other. And we were there, we were booked, we’ve got to do it. So I had to nurse him through. And this was in the old analog days as well, so editing was rather more problematic. Ten zillion edits and the review came out, ‘Oh, wonderfully continuous, flowing performances.’ I thought, ‘Yeah.’ But there I’d done my job. I knew he could play it, it’s just unfortunate that circumstances were that he just got the jitters about it.
In cases of “live” recordings (another very fascinating and bizarre category of recording that I’ll discuss in later posts), the goals of the preliminary sessions can be quite different. Often, recordists will use the pre-concert rehearsal to get the levels right and capture some material that can be used for editing. But on many occasions, the musicians will want to get as much of the material on tape as possible before the concert—which takes the pressure off them to get the concert perfect, but (at least in my experience) might also mean that the concert ends up being quite substandard and unusable for the record.
Finally, the recording session often produces some great performances, but also some fascinating collaborations. Producers understand that part of their job is to draw the best performance possible out of musicians, and even though they never want to interfere with a musician’s interpretation of a work, they often shape a performance by making musical suggestions. The might ask (never command) a musician whether they want to play at a different dynamic. (Musicians without much studio experience are almost always reluctant to play very softly.) They might engage the performer in a discussion of the piece’s meaning, helping to elicit a clear articulation of the performer’s vision for the performance. And often, they serve as a sounding board, letting musicians test out ideas in the safety of the studio.
There is so much more to say about a recording session, and, of course, I will continue to do so as I write more on this blog. But in general, the recording session is fundamentally collaborative: everyone has their own responsibilities, but they all depend on each other for support and constructive feedback. Producers contribute to the musicking; musicians give feedback about the mix; engineers discuss musical choices. At least in the best sessions, they are all artists working together.