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 blog 9/25/06

Many Ways to Skin a Recording
by Jim Ginsburg on Mon, 09/25/2006 - 2:13am.

Recording is the process of transcribing a performance for posterity. The "performance" can be a single live production or an "idealized" performance -- the edited composite of many play-throughs. In my experience, the approaches to recording fall into four categories:

1. Recording "sessions"
2. Composite of live performances
3. Live performance(s) plus "patch" session(s)
4. Single live performance

Most of the recordings I have produced for Cedille Records are the product of recording sessions. Many of these have been "studio" recordings, most made in the performance studio of radio station WFMT. We have also conducted "session" recordings in spaces generally used for live performance such as Ravinia's Bennett-Gordon Hall and Orchestra Hall in Chicago. When necessary, we have gone "on location" for recording sessions; for example, our solo organ recordings with David Schrader required us to travel wherever the instruments he chose happened to be located (including Duluth, Minnesota, where the outside temperature was 10-below-zero Fahrenheit, and the church's heating system made so much noise we had to shut it down during recording!).

Recording sessions are used to try to create an idealized performance: to get all the notes "right" -- even in long, complex pieces which could never come off so perfectly in a single performance. When recording solo or chamber music, where sessions are usually not "on the clock," the musician(s) have time to go over passages as many times as they need to get them exactly the way they desire. Longer movements are usually broken into smaller sections to make "covering" them more manageable; and even within these sections, short "trouble spots" may be zeroed in on.

While this approach tends to achieve near-perfection of intonation, phrasing, ensemble, etc., it runs the risk of losing the spontaneity, excitement, and musical continuity one experiences in a live performance. We try to overcome this risk in various ways. Whenever possible, we try to schedule recording sessions soon after the artist(s) have performed the repertory in concert. In the sessions, after recording a piece or movement in sections, we will often ask the musicians for what my producing colleague Judy Sherman calls a "Take A" (takes are usually denoted by number) -- i.e., a complete run of the entire movement. We usually begin recording a piece with a complete take or two, but the one (or ones) at the end usually benefit greatly from all the effort the musicians have just put in working the piece through sectionally. Many soloists, on the other hand, prefer to do multiple complete takes of each piece/movement, and then turn to "patching" the few spots that aren't adequately covered in the complete takes.

When working with larger ensembles such as orchestras, recording sessions tend to be "on the clock" -- i.e., with a set amount of time to record. "Overtime" is sometimes possible, though usually prohibitively expensive, and often the musicians' tight schedules don't even allow for it. As you can imagine, the atmosphere in such sessions is far more pressurized than that of solo and small chamber sessions, where musicians have virtually unlimited time to re-take passages, listen to "playbacks" of their performances, etc. While orchestra sessions do not always allow a producer to "cover" musical material as much as he would ideally like, the high intensity atmosphere of such sessions often generates the same kind of musical excitement one gets in a "live" concert performance in front of an audience.
Another way to try to achieve a technically ideal recording while preserving the benefits of live performance is to record several concert performances in the same venue and edit together a composite of those concerts. This is how we made our recording of Easley Blackwood's Fifth Symphony. The piece was one of the Chicago Symphony's centennial commissions and was scheduled for six different performances in Orchestra Hall, with James DePreist conducting. So we recorded all six concerts as the "material" from which our recording was made. Because the orchestra went on a short tour between concerts four and five, Prof. Blackwood had time to make a few small adjustments in the score (e.g., changing a percussion passage from hard sticks or brushes to soft) that we were able to incorporate into the final recording.

Each piece on our recordings with the Grant Park Orchestra has been the product of two live performances with "patch" recording sessions immediately following one or both of the concerts. Because recording time in patch sessions is limited, it is the producer's job, in consultation with the conductor and any soloists or composers involved, to perform a kind of musical triage: He needs to decide on the spot -- i.e., in the time it takes the audience to clear out of the hall before recording can begin again -- which parts of a piece are sufficiently covered from the concert performances, which absolutely need to be played again in the "patch," and which would benefit from additional playing if time allows. Because of the short playing and preparation time involved, patch sessions can be even more of a pressure-cooker than other "on the clock" recording situations.

Of course, many of the recordings available today -- especially "historical" recordings -- are transcriptions of single live performances, with all the musical excitement, mistakes, and extraneous noises they entail. While almost all of the recordings on Cedille are "fully produced," our catalog does include a few examples where we felt the benefits of live performance easily outweighed whatever imperfections those recordings might contain. I will discuss these, including one of our new releases for October, in an upcoming post.