How Does a Record Get Made? (Part 2)

This post is part two in a three-part series. In part 1, I discussed the initial arrangements for a recording session, with regard to defining a project, finding a record label, and sorting out funding. In this entry, I describe the location and personnel for the session. In part 3, I will go into some detail about what actually goes on in the recording studio.

Getting to Know You

Sitting across a coffee table in a village pub, producer Rachel Smith offers some thoughts about how to become a classical record producer today. The biggest obstacle, she says, is that “because nobody employs producers full-time anymore, it’s very difficult to get experience on the job, which is how I did it, and so it’s much harder to get into, in general.” As a freelance producer, Rachel doesn’t generally want for work. She is easygoing, has a very sharp ear, and gets on well with everyone at the sessions she produces, on top of which, she is a top-flight editor.

But on top of all her exceptional talent, Rachel also has the advantage of having come of age as a producer while working full-time for Chandos, one of Britain’s major classical labels. Her story is the story of the recording industry as a whole: the company decided that it was financially impossible to keep all of its roles in-house, and it eliminated a substantial portion of its staff. “It was a really big company,” Rachel said. “I think there were 45 of us at the biggest stage. [When they laid off most staff] there were about 36, and they got rid of 23 of us.”

Rachel recognizes that her history with Chandos served her well in her career as a freelance record producer. “I was very lucky because [Chandos] still had too much work for the one person that was left [on staff as a producer].” She remembered, “They decided they would keep the most senior person…and I was the next most senior, so they asked me whether I would carry on helping them, but on a freelance basis.”

Like all the other recordists who were made redundant by the major record labels in the 1980s and 90s, Rachel continued to get regular work as a producer and editor because of her musical skill, her prior connection to the record company, and the relationships she formed with musicians over the years. In fact, those relationships are paramount to the continued success of the post-industrial freelance recordists.

When I spoke to Ben and Annabel Connellan, they both affirmed the importance of relationships with musicians, not just for the sake of a smooth session, but also for maintaining a viable career. Like Rachel, Ben and Annabel both worked full-time for Chandos. Ben and Annabel both developed very strong attachments while at Chandos, and those continue to shape their work. “Friends for life,” as Annabel said, as Ben began to talk about pianist Howard Shelley, with whom they probably have a longer professional and personal relationship than with any other artist. (See my  discussion of their work with Howard here.)

But at the same time, Ben put his finger precisely on the importance of maintaining those relationships: “It’s very difficult to find clients, but once they work [with us] they seem to want to come back, which is great. That’s the bit that you’ve got to keep going, really, is the repeat custom. There’s no sense finding someone that only uses you once, because it’s a lot of effort to build that relationship up and then it not go anywhere.”

Time and again producers and engineers told me that they were hired for sessions because of their long-standing relationships with record labels and with musicians. Some musicians insist on a particular production team, or even hire them directly. Some recordists have long histories with particular labels. For instance, producer Andrew Keener was given his first opportunities to produce by Hyperion shortly after it was founded in 1980, and he has been making records for them ever since.

Sometimes, musicians are drawn to a particular producer’s style in the studio: some are more interventionist and demand lots of patches, while others insist on longer takes and fewer minute edits. But most collaborate with the musicians to understand how they prefer to work, and then do their best to accommodate (without losing focus on the ultimate goal of creating a clean record, of course). In the end, in a professional landscape full of very talented people, the bond between recordists and musicians was most important for the success of a session.

Recording Places

Henry Wood Hall

Many people I’ve spoken to are surprised to learn that there are very few recording studios, as such, in use in the British classical recording industry. In London, there is Henry Wood Hall, a disused church that was converted to a recording studio in the 1970s; and there is the famous Abbey Road Studios, which today hardly hosts any classical recording at all, aside from the occasional soundtrack session with the London Symphony.

So, lacking dedicated studios, recording sessions take place in a wide variety of spaces, which are chosen for their geographic convenience, acoustic properties, or the comfort of their facilities. Churches are common sites for chamber music and vocal ensemble recording sessions, because their resonance gives engineers the ability to create a natural ambience on a recording while still capturing a lot of direct sound with microphones close to the instruments or voices.

During my research I observed sessions at churches all over Britain, some in cities and some far out in the countryside. Neither setting is necessarily preferable: city noise can certainly get in the way of a clean recording, but so can local gardeners or animals. Ben and Annabel told me about a piano session that was ultimately canceled because a bird had taken up residence right outside the church sanctuary and they could hardly get a minute of silence without being interrupted by the singing bird.

Potton Hall

On the other hand, one of the first sessions I saw was at Potton Hall, the residential studio in rural Suffolk which was at the time run by producer Jeremy Hayes (and is now the domain of Rachel Smith). You would think that being out in the countryside would provide a nice, peaceful environment in which to work—and, on the whole, it does. In addition to the studio in a converted barn, Potton Hall has a residence and spa facilities for artists who record there. But the session in question was constantly interrupted by airplanes flying overhead, which (the producer explained to me) would make it impossible to cut in and out of different takes without the splice point being immediately evident. I also remember a slightly exasperated Jeremy throwing on his Crocs and running across the field to ask his neighbor to hold off mowing his lawn for the duration of the afternoon.

Finding a venue for an orchestral recording is a somewhat different endeavor, since there are far fewer appropriate places to record. Churches typically don’t work because they are too resonant for a large ensemble, so concert halls are standard. Many orchestral recordings today are done in concert (among other things, it’s cheaper than studio recording), but even dedicated studio sessions typically take place in concert halls. They’re familiar venues for orchestral musicians and they allow them to work in an acoustically comfortable space.

So now that we’ve arranged the session, what happens when everyone arrives at the studio? Stay tuned for part 3 next week!

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