UWOW Recording Session

A Classical Musicians Guide to Studio Recording

At Guarneri Hall, some of our work includes creating recordings of rising artists and ensembles who demonstrate tremendous ability in live performance, but are relatively inexperienced in the commercial recording process. This piece is offered as an entry-level guide to professional classical music recording for aspiring classical musicians and for the curious.

A bit of knowledge of recording facilities and personnel informs an educated respect for the process and an optimized workflow in a recording session. Studio time is expensive! Knowing how to utilize the facility and its support staff promotes the best outcomes.

The Room

Silence: A recording room must be silent. A noise of any kind can easily ruin the most fabulous take of the day. Silence isn’t just a matter of keeping people away, silencing phones, or pulling drapes. ANY persistent noise from a mechanical heater, cooler, air handler, or electronic device can render an entire day’s work unusable. Creating an environment that is quiet enough for commercial recording is a labor- and capital-intensive engineering challenge that a professional studio will have met.

Guarneri Hall ready to record

Isolation: A professional recording studio includes separate rooms for musical performance and engineering. An isolated control room for the technicians helps to ensure that mechanical noises from the recording process or communication between control room staff don’t contaminate the recordings.

Acoustics: From an engineering standpoint, the easiest way to control audio quality is to work in a room that is acoustically “dead.” For that reason, broadcast studios are usually designed with sound-absorbing material on all exposed surfaces to minimize acoustic reflections. This non-reverberent type of room is at odds with the acoustic qualities of classical instruments, which are engineered to capitalize on the resonance of the rooms in which they are played. Recording acoustic instruments in “dry” rooms often leaves artists feeling expressively flat. Those recordings will sound sterile and brittle until they are enhanced with an electronic echo effect called reverb. Finding a quiet, resonant room that doesn’t have problematic reflections for the artists or engineers is a big challenge. Truly optimal classical music recording studios are rarely found. A frequent compromise is to record in performance spaces, which can be unwieldy for recording in other ways. An artist should select a space carefully but also be prepared to adapt to what’s available.

The Engineer

The key to success: A skilled recording engineer is the first critical point of success in a professional recording, after the artists themselves. 

Chris Willis

The job: An engineer manages microphones, recording devices, and software to create the audio files from a recording session. After the session, the engineer works with the producer to assemble the files into a cohesive performance. As simple as that sounds, achieving professional results from a recording session is enormously challenging and takes a lot of knowledge and experience.

A professional classical music recording engineer must apply a broad range of skills, including:

  • Highly developed listening ability
  • A general understanding of acoustics
  • An understanding of and passion for the music being recorded 
  • A complete familiarity with recording studio hardware, including patch boards, patch bays, mic stands, music stands, etc.
  • A deep understanding of the technical specifications of the different types of microphones and recording devices 
  • Digital file management skills (to make files identifiable and retrievable after the session)
  • A deep knowledge of and fluency with recording and editing in multiple sound-recording software options

Those engineers who can combine these skills with patience, high standards, tenacity, and an ability to work well with others are rare and highly sought after. 

The Producer

A guide: The producer’s job is to manage the artistic workflow during a session to extract the most vibrant and technically brilliant performances from the artists. A producer must monitor the complete session, maintain a list of places in the music for which edit choices are needed, and balance those needs against artist fatigue. The producer’s goal is to arrive at the end of the session with all the files needed to produce a final edit of a high artistic and technical standard.

Make or break: A producer can make or break a recording session. The result of failure to capture all of the material needed at a high enough level and/or pace artists properly through the session results in uneven final recordings.

Vintage RCA Ribbon mics

A strong producer will have:

  • A deep knowledge of and passion for the music being recorded
  • Highly developed listening skills
  • Knowledge and experience with the limits of the editing process
  • Well-developed interpersonal skills.
  • Strong organizational skills

Managing The Process

Live v. recorded-a big difference: From the artist’s perspective, recording for commercial release is very different from performing live in front of an audience. Where in live performance, an artist projects a compelling and technically secure rendition of the music one time, on demand, in a recording session, an artist must recreate a sense of spontaneity multiple times over a much longer period. Maintaining presence of mind, maximum expressivity, and technical accuracy for repeat takes over many hours requires a unique kind of stamina. Because they are only needed by a minority of working musicians, recording studio strategies aren’t normally taught in music schools.  

Relinquishing control: After a lifetime spent honing their performances, it is understandably difficult for a musician to cede artistic control to a producer. For this reason, some artists choose to self-produce, but that rarely works well, often taking much longer and producing an inferior result. It is impossible to remain objective when evaluating one’s own performance, and few artists have a deep enough understanding of the limitations of the editing process to know what they can and can’t hope to fix. The challenge is to find a producer that one feels one can trust and then to allow the producer to guide the session to a viable conclusion. This level of trust often takes time to build. For this reason, many recording artists stick closely with a single producer once they have identified one with whom they feel good. In general, either trust your producer or don’t use one!

Start early: Musicians work primarily at night; many are not morning people. The temptation to start sessions comfortably in the late morning is understandable, but in my experience, it is a mistake: probably 75%-85% of the most usable material from sessions at Guarneri Hall is captured before lunchtime. After lunch, energy levels tend to be lower, so afternoons are often more suitable for small repairs than for tackling large, energetic chunks of music.

Preparing to record: Before the start of a session, the engineer will set the room up based on the scheduled instrumentation. The engineer will select mics appropriate to each instrument and place them in locations based on the positioning of the artists. The feed from each mic will be run into a central control panel called a mixing board, which allows the engineer to adjust the gain on each microphone to achieve the most natural sounding mix. Typically, these adjustments are made while an artist or ensemble is warming up in the room. But the process can easily be stalled by noises from a chair, noise in the room from a faulty electronic element like a light or transformer, or an issue with a piano or another instrument. Once the artists are settled in and the engineer and producer agree on the mic placement and mix, the recording can begin.

From big to small: The general process most producers follow is first to record a complete movement several times, taking note of any chronic technical problems such as pitch, rhythm, ensemble, or rough sounds. By the time that is finished, the producer should develop a good sense of the context for the artist’s reading and what technical problems must be addressed through editing for a final recording. The most emotionally compelling run-through (rather than the most accurate one) will likely be chosen as the “master” take. The producer will then take the artist through re-recording short passages for repairs that can later be inserted as replacements in the master take. The goal is the best of both worlds: a highly inspired reading that is technically blemish-free.

One piece of music at a time: Some artists will want to play through a whole multiple-movement work before settling in to record the detailed repairs that will be needed to reach a suitable standard for release. In my experience, this is a mistake: it’s far better to focus on one movement at a time to be sure that the takes have continuity between them and that the artists remain focused on areas needing attention until all of the material needed for that movement is complete.

Stay fresh: The recording process is long and intense, making it easy to lose track of time. A strong producer will track flagging energy in the recording room and recommend breaks for water and food, and to clear the brain as necessary. Everyone is different, but for those new to recording, I always advise for more breaks than they think they need: takes recorded when artists are tired or unfocused tend to produce little usable for a final recording.

Fry Street Quartet post session with engineers

Post-production: When the recording session is finished, the producer will provide the engineer with a list of which takes to use in a “rough edit.” The producer and engineer may work on the rough edit before submitting it to the artists. From there, it is the artist’s responsibility to react to the rough edit with requests for changes to edit choices, changes to the mix, and further detailed technical repairs. This potentially endless process can test any artist’s ability to remain objective. But the looming question is, how much editing is too much? An over-edited recording can sound synthetic, sterile, and unreal, whereas an under-edited one might have obvious errors and audible edits. All concerned parties should cultivate a reasonable give and take in the process, respecting and listening to one another to arrive at a collaborative finished product. Everyone should have veto power over releasing anything deemed not to have reached an acceptable standard. Beyond that, artists will do well to accept a producer’s indication that the end of the process has been reached. 

The “morning after:” One bit of good news is that recordings usually sound better to artists and producers when they revisit them later. With the intensity of the process in the past and the heightened scrutiny of searching out and eliminating issues a distant memory, it is possible to enjoy the music and the performance again! And again, and again, and again…

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