Sunday, September 6, 2015

Newbie in the Studio: Top 10 Observations of the Recording Process

This month, I am featuring two blog posts that I wrote back in 2006-2007, long before I began My very first blog post dates from Oct. 21, 2006; I was invited by Cedille Records president James Ginsburg to write an entry for his column on the (now defunct) website. I had just experienced my very first recording session. It was with the Biava Quartet; they were recording my second string quartet for Cedille Records. When re-reading the blog post below, I get a kick reading how exuberant I was to be in those recording sessions!  I remember feeling like a kid in a candy store. Honestly, I still feel get a bit of that feeling whenever I step into a recording session. I've added commentary on my earlier thoughts in brackets.

On October 9th and 10th, Jim Ginsburg invited the Biava Quartet and I out to the WFMT studio to record my String Quartet No. 2: Demons and Angels.  This piece is being included on an upcoming CD for Cedille Records. The CD, entitled Composers in the Loft, features five composers who have had works performed on Fredda Hyman’s Music in the Loft chamber series. I have previously had a few works recorded professionally, but I’ve never been able to be present in such a session. For the Biava too (comprised of violinists Austin Hartman and Hyunsu Ko, violist Mary Persin, and cellist Jacob Braun), this professional recording session was a first. Jim asked me to write a blog entry about the recording experience, which I decided to do as a top ten list of my observations. Here they are, in no particular order:

Cedille Records' CD, containing the
Biava Quartet's recording sessions for my
String Quartet No. 2: Demons and Angels
1. Time gobblers. The spots that ate up the most recording time all involved transparent or exposed textures in my music. Unisons, octaves, pizzicati (when two or more people had to perform them simultaneously) all gobbled up seconds. Which increased to minutes. Will this change how I compose in the future? Nope, but I’ll surely look at exposed spots with a new appreciation for the work performers have to pour into these places to make the music shine. [In retrospect, I can say that I did start composing differently after these recording sessions – I was a lot more careful about exposed unisons, octaves, and pizzicati.]

2. Two peas in a pod. Jim Ginsburg and Bill Maylone worked together like a well-oiled machine – easy to tell these two have been doing recording sessions for a long, long time (seeing such expertise at work makes any newbie feel like you’re in good hands). And they also gave my ears a real challenge. What do I mean by this? Read on…

3. Teaching your old ears new tricks, or at least how to listen like a CD producer/engineer. In a live performance, I’m concerned about hearing the big picture – long lines, overall shaping of phrases, etc. But in a recording session, the focus is on vertical listening. Did everyone’s downbeat line up? How’s the tuning in beat 2? Whose bow hit the music stand? Who is breathing loudly? And so on. Stuff I would never even pay attention to in a live performance, since the piece is unfolding linearly, suddenly became ultra-important. Which leads to…

4. The balancing act. The main issue with recording a piece is finding the balance between the work’s overall musical shape and the moment-by-moment accuracy. A process emerged: the Biava would record each movement in a single take. Then they’d join us in the recording booth, and everyone dissected the take while listening to the playback. These full takes helped give Jim and Bill a chance to hear how the Biava shaped the material (in addition, Jim had meticulously studied the entire score beforehand). Then the nitty-gritty work began – the Biava would record each movement in short blocks, sometimes 5-10 times each, before moving onto the next block.  I have to admit to feeling dazed by the end of the process, and I think the Biava shared a bit of the same feeling – we knew everything got recorded, but how will Jim and Bill sift through the assortment of the magical moments and perfect tunings to fit all the short blocks into a cohesive movement with the same mood as what you get in a single take? From what I experienced in the recording booth, as well as from the quality of Cedille’s catalog, Jim and Bill are experts solving this dilemma in a most artistic manner. They’ll find that balance. 
The Biava Quartet

5. The awe-inspiring endurance of 20-somethings. The Biava played each day for about 4 hours total, going over two and a half hours before a lunch break, and without a single request to sit down and rest. By the way, everyone but Jacob stood for the entire recording session – they’re more comfortable performing this way, and it certainly works well for their sound. I’d like to think I had this much energy when I was 25.

6. Who’s the pickiest of them all? No matter how much I thought I, or one of the recording team, was being picky about a pitch or passage, the Biava would step up their self-criticism when something wasn’t to their liking. Didn’t matter how many times they’ve already played a passage, or how tired they might be getting. Austin, Hyunsu, Mary, and Jacob were very, very demanding on themselves. Which definitely made them hungry for…

7. Lunch! Stopping to reload everyone’s energy in the WFMT cafeteria was a must, particularly when the cafeteria stocks tasty double chocolate chip cookies (true on the first day, but not the second).

8. Coffee! Not everyone drank the stuff, but Austin found a machine in the cafeteria which supplied something better than I thought should be coming out of a machine.

9. What a composer can do in the recording booth? At first, I felt a bit useless in the booth – the Biava was exerting tons of energy in the studio, Jim and Bill were busy with the recording machines and taking notes, and all I had to do was listen, score and notepad in hand. It didn’t take long to figure out that’s exactly the best way to be useful for all of us. It certainly helped when I developed some shorthand scribbles to take note of spots that worked well or needed to be touched up. Which leads me to my final item…

10.  Enjoying the moment. Every now and then, I’d take a mental step out of the session and appreciate what was going on – all these people are here because they believe in what I wrote. Pretty amazing. But better not to enjoy the moment for too long, else I’d not be doing the heavy duty listening to keep up with Jim, Bill, and the Biava!

Now that the session is over, Jim and Bill go to work on all those hours of tape. The Biava and I will eagerly await getting CDs in the mail for us all to proof, and which will be a testament to the amazing sessions we had in early October. My most heartfelt thanks go to Jim, Bill, Austin, Hyunsu, Mary, Jacob, for all of their work to bring the piece alive, and of course to Fredda Hyman, for without her series to bring us all together, we never would have all found each other.