Just for the record...

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A few years ago I appeared in a couple of films playing the piano - The Duchess and The Young Victoria. Thankfully, for everyone concerned, I didn’t have to act. All that was required of me was to turn up, don some fake sideburns that even Bradley Wiggins would be intimidated by, and play a bit of piano music.

record-light-web.jpgBesides playing, one of the things I got a chance to do was experience at very close quarters how actors deliver their lines on a film set. It was quite eye (and ear) opening. They spoke extremely quietly but with the utmost intention and intensity. I’m not sure why this came as a surprise to me. I guess I had in mind how an actor would project their lines in a theatre, so that the very back row could hear it. It didn’t really occur to me that this was not necessary on film (and that isn’t to say that when I think of an actor, I immediately conjure up an image of a dude in tights eloquently reciting Shakespeare).

During recent weeks I’ve been planning the next Prince Consort album for Linn and I’ve noticed a lot of musical parallels in differences between film and studio recording and theatre and live performance. So for my next few blog posts, I’ve decided to open the door on what goes on at a professional recording, besides eating biscuits and swearing.

In the second part of this blog mini-series, I’ll offer some suggestions on how to get the best out of a recording session… whether that be creating demo CDs for music college interviews and competition entries or making your gran’s Christmas mix-tape.

How does a commercial recording happen?

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There are quite a few people involved in the process, and not all are present at the sessions themselves. The engineer’s role is to take care of everything involving the sound quality. He deals with all the technical aspects of the recording; placing microphones in their optimum positions and making sure that the musicians stand the same distance from the microphones at all times. This ensures that the sound remains constant throughout the different takes. During the actual recording, the engineer remains in the sound booth and activates the recording equipment for each take, checking that the levels are all correct. They also operate a mixing desk that resembles the flight deck for a Boeing 747 - and I bet on some occasions they wish they had an ejector seat!

The producer’s task is to listen to each take as it comes and make sure that the performance quality is both musically and technically as perfect and convincing as it possibly can be. For vocal recordings in a foreign language there may also be a language coach on hand to correct any pronunciation issues. Pianist Susan Tomes describes this process brilliantly in A Performer and the Recording Process in her book, Beyond the Notes. She suggests that producers aim to eradicate transient defects from a performance; that is, those errors that are not repeated at the same place at the next attempt.

Tomes explains that ‘[producers] feel that if an artist is indeed capable of playing the music with insight and accuracy, then their mistakes are just transient mistakes…If they did happen on every occasion, it really would be a lie to produce a perfect version on disc!’

Really hearing yourself

Usually you begin by recording a complete take of a piece several times over. I tend to head over to the recording booth to have a listen after the very first take - unless I’ve made a right balls up of it - to check I’m not doing anything musically weird without realising. Recording can be a very ear-opening experience and you discover how much of the time it is easy to listen to your own playing wishfully, rather than realistically.

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The producer might mention a few general points between each of these takes, before you start working on and re-recording smaller sections that need special attention. This is where the role of the producer becomes vital. In one piece alone you can find yourself doing masses of takes of overlapping sections and it becomes impossible to remember what was good, bad or just indifferent on each one. And each time you repeat a section you are attempting to incorporate suggestions from the producer: ‘Al, more left hand in the last bar and can you make sure that you don’t place the last semi-quaver of bar 16 with Anna’s top C…and Al…your flies are undone by the way’. Our regular producer, the brilliant John Fraser, has some kind of cryptic symbol system that he marks on a score so that he knows which take was the best for whichever bar of music.

Recording can be just as scary

Besides a great pair of ears, the producer also has to exhibit a finely honed sense of tact and an awareness of a musician’s stamina (which can differ massively between voice types and instruments). Contrary to popular belief, I think a recording is just as nerve-racking as an actual live performance. In every take you are very aware that a microphone is picking up every little nuance, and that the take might ultimately end up on a CD which could be around for years…and reviewed. You are also aware that you only have a limited number of studio hours to get the required takes for the entire CD. To put this in perspective you usually end up with about 20 minutes of finished recorded material by the end of an eight-hour recording day.

It’s very easy during a recording to get stuck on one small bit, and be unable to get a good take in the can. If the producer were to kick off at this point and throw an epic tantrum, it would be massively detrimental to your confidence and just make the process even harder. So a good producer knows when to push you for more (and if he knows you well, like our man John Fraser, he can judge carefully how far to push you). But a good producer also knows when to sit back and allow things to happen in the artist’s own time.

At the end of the sessions you have to sit in the hall in complete silence, whilst the engineer records some ‘ambient noise’, to insert between the tracks. This is harder than it sounds, especially if you are recording an album with friends. Besides waiting for complete silence from the surrounding area - avoiding birds tweeting, dogs barking, planes flying overhead, police cars zooming past, stomachs rumbling (I’m guilty of this last one) - you have the urge to laugh within seconds of the ambient noise recording commencing. We’ve regularly had to record several takes of silence, after the delirium of finishing five days non-stop recording.

The final edit

The recordings are sent off along with the producer’s notes to an editor who splices, or joins together the various bits of the different takes. At this point, the recording turns into a performance that never actual took place, so you need to have a producer that you know and trust. One who knows what you are striving for, and who can piece together a performance that you would actually give live.

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The artists receive a first edit which is the full CD with the producer’s choice of takes all joined together, and you can make comments on what you do and don’t like. It is truly breathtaking what can be done in the editing studio. I remember once struggling with a chord stretch at the end of a piece and the engineer telling me that I could record the bottom two notes of the chord and then the top one separately and he, after a morning’s work, could insert the complete chord in the texture. I think I just spread the chord in the end, but it’s amazing to think that this level of editing can take place.

Next time I’ll offer some tips on how to make the most out of a recording session, but in the meantime, I have an idea for the guys at Linn to put in to the mixing pot for my next recording. I was wondering if we could start the takes in minus numbers. Perhaps start at minus 250, so that by the end of the sessions we’re only on about take 15? Great for the psyche…

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Very nice piece, Al. I have worked with singers as a producer and coach for thirty years or more. I totally agree with you about not making a dishonest recording by piecing together so many edits you produce a totally artificial recording, however note perfect it may be. There's a famous pianist I know whose producer makes him do just that. His recordings are awesome, but there's no telling whether he can play withnever a wrong note in the most demanding passagework in a regular performance setting

However, now that at the edit stage, post production is achieved by editing software, all kinds of filters are available which make the sound what you want to hear on your CD fully attractive. It's an interesting philosophical point. After all we often speak of making a CD rather than just recording a performance. I am very much against faking things, but I was so grateful for one of these filters a little while back. It was a live venue recording at the Royal Albert Hall (yes we were making a CD, and DVD as it happened). The excellent soprano soloist reached her sustained top note with all confidence, and it may have sounded acceptable in the hall. But on the recording it was definitely a tad flat. What do you do? Leave it? One of these little filters called auto tune came to the rescue. The fix took seconds, but the note was sweet, and we never told the soloist (how naughty of us!) No doubt she would have been devastated to hear an otherwise brilliant performance of a piece she has performed dozens of times ruined by a funny intonation. But the thing was, her feelings aside, we were making a CD, and it would have been horrid for the listener to hear that one unfortunate note again and again. I confess I am a bit of a purist, and don't like doing this, and have not done many times. But the key is the benefit must really be for the listener, not of course for a prima donna's reputation. Michael Lawson

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