Friday, December 26, 2014

A Composer’s Prep Work For Recording Sessions

In the recording booth with Cedille Records' producer
James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone.
The key to an efficient, successful recording session is preparation. The musicians rehearse the piece prior to the session, the producer pores over the musical score, and the engineer ensures that there are enough microphones, stands, cables, and computer equipment. Composers aren’t always present at recording sessions, but if they are, they should prepare as well. Here’s what I recommend:

• Schedule a few rehearsals (or, better yet, one or two performances) with the musicians in the weeks or months leading up to the session. These rehearsals are best in person, but can be handled remotely if need be. The musicians can record themselves and email the composer audio files, or even a Skype rehearsal session will work if the musicians are using a good external microphone (using a computer’s built-in microphone isn’t a good idea as it tends to distort the audio).

• Know exactly what you want for every detail of the piece before the recording session begins. Do all of your experimentation of the piece’s details with the performers during the rehearsals. Should a string passage be played with extreme sul ponticello? Or is it better with tremolo instead? Attempting to use the recording session to make decisions that easily could have been made beforehand squanders valuable time and the performer’s energy. If you waffle between choices during a session, you will come across as unprepared and unaware of how much time, effort, and money go into a session.

Study your score carefully. This sounds obvious, but it is easy to think that since you wrote it, you will remember all of the piece’s salient details. As performers are quickly laying down take after take, you might discover that you’re really not sure what tempo you want the performers to play, how much of a diminuendo is needed to get into a new section, or if one of the performers is playing the correct pitches. If it takes you several run-throughs of a section to realize that the musicians are playing something not to your liking, then – again – you’ve just squandered time and energy, since everyone will have to re-start the process over of laying down fresh takes (it is ideal to have multiple takes of each passage to choose from rather than just one good take).

The TV in front of us shows the stage where the Avalon Quartet
is recording my String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations
• Check in advance if the engineer will have an extra pair of headphones for you to listen in on the session. If he/she doesn’t, bring your own. Find out from the engineer what types of headphones are recommended, as well as if you need to bring an adapter to plug in your pair.

• Bring a music score, notepad, and pencils/pens, and learn the shorthand that producers use. Ask the producer or engineer to show you how they take notes during the session so you can quickly record each track number, starting and stopping measures, and any comments you have on each track. Occasionally confirm that you are on the same track number as the producer and engineer. For comments, I note particularly good takes as well as problem spots, along with a quick note on the nature of the problem (for instance, “tuning” or “alignment”). I also mark these problem spots on the music score. For instance, I write “-2” above a measure in which there was an issue in take 2. If the performers fix the problem on take 3, I mark “+3” above that same spot. Honestly, a composer might never need to refer back to these take sheets, but these can be very handy when you’re reviewing a master copy of the piece and hear a problem in a spot that you know got fixed in another take.

Listen vertically as well as horizontally. We typically listen in performances for the long lines and overall shape of phrases; in other words, we are listening “horizontally.” While that’s still important in a reading session, you also need to catch how things line up vertically. Did everyone start together, or did an instrument speak late? How was the tuning of each note in each chord? Did someone’s bow inadvertently tap a music stand, or was there a loud page turn? I find “vertical” listening to be the most challenging skill to master, but essential for getting the cleanest takes for the final recording.

Be supportive throughout the session. Let the performers know when you find something especially beautiful; help them to shape moments that aren’t quite there yet. Your job is to be an additional set of ears to help bring out their best performance of your piece.

At the end of the session, show your appreciation. Thank your performers, producer, and engineer. I personally like handing out chocolates to everyone, but you can get creative with this – thank you notes, homemade cookies, even a round of beverages at a nearby pub – whatever feels appropriate.

I try to attend every recording session that I can to help guide the performers and shape the piece, as well as to work on my own listening skills. If a session has gone well, everyone is tired but happy with the day’s work. The proof is in the final product when the CD is commercially released.

With the Avalon Quartet post-recording session