Well, with just two weekends of recordings and performances left, at long last, the 2011-2012 season is FINALLY winding down.

I can’t thank our loyal and immensely talented clients enough for such a great season!

I’ve been saying for a while now that the Arts in the region appears to be bouncing back from the bad times of ’07 thru ’10, and here’s some good news to back it up, from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance:   http://articles.philly.com/2012-05-24/news/31839435_1_organizations-survey-cultural-groups

Kudos to everyone for almost literally lifting the Arts up by your own bootstraps and making so much exciting and enriching music happen all over the tri-state area.

It would take too long to list everyone that’s put up another great season, but in no particular order, here’s a few season highlights for us from 2011-2012:

Weston Sound & Video enters into a partnership with Specticast to produce full-length HD in-concert videos of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for national and international release.  Monthly radio Chamber Orchestra broadcasts on WRTI continue, and watch for a very exciting bit of news in the fall from NAXOS records and the Chamber Orchestra.

Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia’s new CD “Metamorphosis” featuring the premiere of three major works by Jennifer Higdon, Andrea Clearfield, and James Primosch.  The CD quickly became the #1 CD of the week on WQXR in NYC.  Read all about it here: http://www.mcchorus.org/wp/archives/1267  and here:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/articles/q2-album-week/2012/mar/23/mendelssohn-club-philadelphia-gets-vibrantly-vocal/

In April, Mendelssohn Club sponsored  yet another world premier; Andrea Clearfield’s “Tse Go La”.  Watch the  promotional video clips we produced here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAHOwzELzjA&feature=colike

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-NeQpvMUJw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Gko01Rc0iM&feature=relmfu

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9a_AJQ7Kh0w&feature=relmfu

In October 2011, the Bucks County Choral Society, directed by Tom Lloyd presented “A Program of Sacred Jazz for Chorus”   including two world-premiere works by Jay Fluellen: Of Journeys and Refuge  and Carl Maultsby’s Praise – A Sacred Jazz “Te Deum”.

Also this April with the Haverford Bryn Mawr Chorale,  Dr. Lloyd presented Kurt Weill’s  THE ETERNAL ROAD (Der Weg der Verheißung) The first performance of a Concert Version of the Biblical Drama.

The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra finishes its third season with an exciting 2 hr broadcast on WRTI, June 3rd at 5 p.m., with highlights from this past season and more.

In the world of opera, the Academy of Vocal Arts continues to mentor tomorrow’s stars, and mounts professional, world-class staged operas, concert opera, oratorios and competitions with HD Video and audio, while our favorite Baltimore ensemble – Baltimore Concert Opera –  has also just finished a triumphant 2012 season, closing out its third season with Puccini’s “Il Trittico”.

For World Music, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture – completes their first concert season at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, and are preparing another season in 2012-2013 of more Arabic and Middle-Eastern Classical Music.  You can see more videos here: http://www.youtube.com/user/AlBustanSeeds

So many more successful groups had a great year with recordings, performances and broadcasts;  Singing City, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church,  Chester Children’s Chorus,  Philadelphia Master Chorale, The Pennsylvania Youth Chorale, Longwood Gardens, and Woodmere Art Museum, to name just a few.

After the series finale for Kimmel Center Present’s Jazz UpClose and Keyboard Conversations – “Kimmel Center Presents” is finishing up the 2012 season with the all-day Pipe-Organ Marathon on the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall on June 9th.  You can hear excerpts from these performances throughout the summer and into the fall on Sunday afternoons (TBA) on WRTI, 90.1  FM.

Bravo to all!

Now, as if that wasn’t enough, and in case you thought we were taking it easy….the REAL fun begins on June 11th, when we depart for two weeks in Fayetteville Arkansas:  ARTOSPHERE 2012!   You can read all about it here for now:  http://www.artospherefestival.org/afo/ and once we’re on the road, we’re planning on blogging, posting pictures and info on Facebook and anything else we have time for, as we produce HD audio and video recordings of the Artosphere Festival Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Corrado Rovaris, and Chamber Music events, led by Curtis President/featured viola soloist Roberto Diaz.

Here’s a video from last year’s opening concert; wait till you see what happens THIS year!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=oZciIDZxLJo

So, all that said; thanks again to everyone for a great season.

It’s almost time to hit the road!

 

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A recent article/blog by composer Nico Muhly started me to think a little more about my own line of work: Recording live Classical, Jazz and World Music. More specifically, the recording of new compositions, usually commissioned by an orchestral, choral, operatic or theatrical group.

If you’re a composer of modern classical music, or if you play in an orchestra that presents world premieres of new music, take a moment and read this link before going any further here. It’s a good read and well worth your time:

http://nicomuhly.com/news/2011/i-want-to-get-specific/

My take on it:

I was just a little surprised at the state of affairs Muhly describes for getting one’s work recorded, even just for archival use. I see things a little differently on my side of the “virtual” studio glass. I was under the perhaps naive opinion that most new works do get recorded, at least for posterity, study & and future reference. (I guess that’s obvious for me, isn’t it? I’m only hired after permission/funds have been granted to record.) These days, only a hermit living in a cave for the last twenty-odd years would believe these recordings are done for profit or monetary gain. The music world has seen quite a few changes in the last two decades, and we all know that very few recordings turn any kind of profit. It’s now more of a promotional tool or cultural artifact than a profit generating device.

Long before I became a full time producer/engineer, I also worked as a musician and occasional composer for hire. Nothing very serious, or in a professional orchestra, but in some areas that my work could (and sometimes did) be used for commercial purposes. (This was back long before anything but cassettes and the nascent CD would start to change things forever…) To this day, I totally and completely understand the feeling of loss (and sometimes even outrage) when someone takes one’s work without permission. Believe me, I’m still not really over this whole “download for free” stuff that most under-30’s think is perfectly fine today. I doubt I ever will be, but it’s a fact of life these days, and I have made an uneasy truce with it.

For the last 24 years or so, I’ve made my living primarily as a recording engineer/producer, and have had the honor of recording traditional music as well as hundreds of new commissioned world (and local) premieres. I can’t speak for other recording engineers in this business, but my philosophy has always been (with the permission of the artists, orchestra/management, etc. of course) to provide the composer(s) with copies of their work. Heck, it’s just good business to say hello and introduce myself early in the process, trade contact info, and make sure the composer gets to hear their work (and mine!) The cost of a blank CD is nothing compared to the good will and camaraderie that goes with this sort of thing. (And, I have never, ever, put static noise or silence into a work every 20-30 seconds to render it unplayable, nor has anyone ever asked me to do so.  What is up with THAT? Seriously!?)

After reading Muhly’s take on the situation, I’d like to add my own .02 about getting a work recorded.

Firstly, one should be aware that there are in general three kinds of groups that perform commissioned works, and each have their own rules about recordings:

1. Professional (ie: unionized) Orchestras, Choral Groups and ensembles, performing in halls with professional (also union) staff.
2. Mixed professional and semi-professional ensembles with top-level musicians working without a contract per se, in non-union halls, churches and auditoriums.
3. Community or school-based, non-paid and/or non-auditioned groups, often with additional pickup or select professionals for day-hire.

In all cases, with all three groups, the best (and most respectful to the musicians) way to insure your work will be recorded is to specify everything ahead of time in the contract you sign with the parties commissioning your work.

You’ll find out right at the start what is allowed and what is not, what is affordable and what is out of the question. You may even find miscommunication within the group as things go along, but an early documented conversation with all parties is your best insurance should things get sticky.

For example, Group 1 – the professional orchestra (and its management up top) – may be recording their performances anyway, often in a negotiated contractual agreement with everyone (musicians, staff, etc,) and will likely be making an archival-use-only recording of the work. Copies will be limited, so it’s always best to check on this early; often a simple email to the engineer handling the work can get you right to the heart of the matter. You may have to pay for the raw media (blank CD, USB stick, etc.) and you’ll probably have to sign a release form, but you’ll know long before going into the situation what is and what isn’t going to happen. You may also have to wait for artistic approval from the music director and/or soloists for copies to be released. The better your working relationship with these folks, the better your chances for archival copies, at least.

Tip: Asking about a recording the day of the final dress rehearsal – or worse: after the concert is over – will likely get you nowhere fast. Plan ahead! I can tell you from experience; it’s one thing to make an authorized copy for you as it’s happening or immediately thereafter; it’s quite another to be fielding requests for copies of events that happened months ago. Most busy orchestra staffers – and their engineers – have their hands full with current projects and aren’t always caught up on back archives.

If there’s no budget for recording – and you’ve not put it in your contract – then chances are slim to none that a Group 1 type professional orchestra will allow you to even put up a portable two-track hand-held recorder under any circumstances. It’s simply not allowed, and one has to know this ahead of time. It’s only fair to the labor agreements with all parties involved, regardless of one’s views of the value of the recording. You just can’t do it that way. It’s a fact of life in today’s professional musical world.

Moving on to Group 2 – more is possible in this scenario if everything is handled properly. In a perfect world, again, the musicians must be informed ahead of time that one (or all) of the works on the program will be recorded; perhaps just the concert itself, or perhaps including the final dress rehearsal as well. Depending on the arrangement with the musicians, there may be an additional fee. We all know these things can end up as commercial recordings, broadcasts and even soundtracks. It is at this point that anyone not comfortable with the arrangement may opt out and turn down the booking. Once again, last-minute recordings foisted on the musicians are just not fair, and it’s up to the management (or whoever’s signed your contract) to make sure everyone on the stand is aware and ok with the fact that the performance is being recorded before they accept the gig.

I’ve occasionally faced upset or angry musicians who are surprised to see me setting up mic’s and stands before a concert or rehearsal. They clearly were never told there was a recording being made of their performance, or they missed the memo, and naturally many bristle (while some are thrilled) to find out a permanent record is about to made of their efforts. I’ve even seen votes taken right then and there to allow the recording to happen at all. (My batting average is about .500 on this one!)

I try to be understanding, and I have a few stock responses, including “Sorry, but I’m not the one you should be angry with.” Or, “Please discuss this with the person who contracted you”. It’s a difficult spot to be in, and I don’t like it, but let’s be honest; do they really think I’m there just to ruin their day? There’s a hundred other things I could be doing, but an irate few seem to think I’ve decided to arbitrarily lug all my gear there just to annoy them. When I’m hired to make a recording, I too assume my client has sorted everything out on their end as well.

For all three types of groups, it really does come down to planning ahead, and everyone should know ahead of time what’s going on. Again, it’s only fair to all (including ME.)

Why record anyway?

For the validity of making recordings, there are many reasons to do so beyond simple vanity. In addition to the historic value of a world premiere, (what do you think Beethoven or Mozart would have done with today’s technology when they premiered their works? Wouldn’t you like to have heard one?) everyone benefits artistically by having at least an archival recording made of the event: the people who commissioned the work, the orchestra themselves, the composer, the conductor, and on and on. I’m not talking cash money benefits of course; I don’t know any artist that at some point who doesn’t want to hear the results of their work captured for posterity or study – provided it’s not costing them future work or income.

Another fact of life with most performing arts groups is that ticket sales don’t cover the annual operating costs. Most groups depend on grants and gifts from a varied group of benefactors.

For many commissioned works, the parties paying the cold hard cash for the work often request a copy of the work, if only to preserve for posterity what their dollars have wrought. (Seems smart to me…) On the other side of the footlights, many performing groups must record works this year for grant submissions next year and beyond. It’s just simply good business sense to have a variety of recordings in their archives for the stylistically varied selections that are often required when applying for a grant. This is something that’s rarely brought out in the open by upper level orchestra management, mostly for competitive reasons (e.g.: orchestra A is competing with orchestras B and C for the same grant, which are all submitted in confidence to the same charitable organization that ultimately decides who gets the award.) In many cases, therefore, the musicians themselves don’t realize their income for seasons two or three years down the road can and often does depend on a good recording to include in a five or six-figure grant submission. Missed recording opportunities can easily turn into costly incomplete grant applications. This can make or break an entire season of performances for some lesser-endowed groups, and I’ve seen it happen first-hand. I’ve had an entire season of work lost when a struggling group didn’t get the grant they were counting on, and thus folded for the season.

We’ve all heard it, and let’s get it right out in the open now, if only for the sake of this discussion: orchestral recordings don’t make money anymore. Don’t believe me, check out what Klaus Heyman, the head of NAXOS, has to say about big ensemble recordings vs. smaller solo & duo recordings. Mr. Heyman has a fascinating and very honest opinion about how things work today. (Read it all the way through, esp for the sales numbers he talks about.)

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/2010/07/the_future_of_the_recording_in.html

Years ago, there were cash advances from the record companies, even for orchestral recordings. Many got paid right up front, when the album was released. It was often part of a major orchestra’s annual income. A quarter-million dollar investment on another Beethoven 5th recording could recoup its money within a few years, minimal risk. Its old news now: with the advent of digital recording, the CD, and now downloading, it all went away. But don’t feel bad; we’re not alone in our corner of this business. It’s happened all across the genres as well; not just classical, and unless your name is Bieber (Justin, that is) Gaga or Beyonce’, chances are you’re not making anything from your CDs other than promotional and archival use. (And neither of those is a bad thing!) Yes, downloads are doing well, but again, nothing to sustain the bottom line of any serious performing arts organization.

It’s a hard and bitter pill to swallow for recording musicians who remember firsthand the good old days; they’ve spent their entire lives and careers perfecting a craft that only a seemingly few now truly appreciate. The world has changed, and the methods of capture, storage and delivery have diminished the perceived value of the recordings, possibly forever. In that light, I’m still surprised here in 2011 when this reason – “monetary gain” – is hauled out as an excuse to ban a recording. Sorry, but it just doesn’t wash anymore. Aside from the necessary ethical correctness of alerting a hired musician about the recording of your performance, trust me, no one is making a profit from the sales of physical recordings.

But there is an upside. What it has done in many ways is returned the focus to live performance. That’s a big fundamental change that’s happened in the last 15-20 years. People can get the recording anywhere, often for free, but it’s the real thing – live, with no net, no fakery, no props and no gimmicks – that brings people back to the concert hall.

Think of it this way: a recording is similar to (but more honest than) a movie trailer. Like what you hear? Want to experience how it’s done LIVE?

As I mentioned earlier, I fully understand the feelings of being ripped off or manipulated when an unauthorized recording occurs. That’s wrong in any scenario. But what people would be wise to consider going forward in the digital, on-demand world is that everything important should be recorded, especially now, with today’s more advanced and affordable technology. As long as everyone is informed, fees paid, waived or negotiated; the recordings should be as indispensible as program notes or restrooms for intermission.

Control of distribution of recorded material is of course paramount. Archival means archival.  No YouTube uploads without permission, no iTunes sales without a contract, no cell phones, hidden 2-track Zoom recorders or what have you.   But honestly, and I say this with love and respect to every hostile musician who still thinks the presence of a microphone or recorder is going to take money out of their wallet:  when done properly, it can mean the very survival and health of  live music. Recordings are preserving your legacy, they are helping put butts in the seats in the very halls you play, thus creating more opportunities for you to continue to work and play such great music, in a live setting.

Unauthorized recordings aside, can we really afford NOT to record?

Some reflections on my trip to AES 139th in NYC today (October 31st) while it’s still fresh in my mind…

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get there, and I’m really glad I made the trip today to attend.  (More like a surgical strike: 2 hrs driving up, 5 hrs on-site and 2hrs driving back home.  Whew!)

The only glitch of the trip was the parking lot charging me $5 extra for my “oversized” Toyota Van.  (Welcome to NYC, etc?)  In owning this car for nearly ten years, I’ve NEVER had to pay more for parking.  Heck, all the SUV’s next to it in the lot were bigger.   Oh well, small price to pay for the convenience; three blocks away from Javits.

I was surprised to find AES wasn’t in the usual “Central” part of the Javits Center, but like everything else in the last decade or so, it’s been downsized a bit, especially since 9/11, but it’s clear the strong have survived.  It’s hardly the over-the-top, overblown industry show-off party that it used to be, but that’s fine by me.   It was nice to see the SERIOUS exhibitors there, no nonsense; this isn’t an expo for the faint of heart.  To be at AES these days, you really have to have good stuff, or a proven track record.  There were MANY big name companies that just didn’t show.  (No Mackie, No Soundcraft, No A&H, and so on….a very lean experience, to be sure.)

This did, however, streamline my take-no-prisoners browsing.  I had a short list of folks and booths I wanted to see and visit, just to get a handle on what’s new, and what’s on the horizon.

First stop was the AEA booth, and right in the middle of it all was dear, wonderful, amazing Wes Dooley.  The man never ceases to amaze me.  I barely (re)introduced myself and we were once again talking like old friends.  He has that knack with making people feel like they’re the most important people he’s talking to.  He was on a roll demo’ing his new Nuvo Stereo Ribbon Mic package, and I was a rapt student all over again. The man never ceases to amaze and educate me.  I always come away from a chat with him having learned something new.  This time was no exception.  I’m hoping to review one of his new products soon, but in the meantime, he’s got an open invitation to come East. I promised to hook him up with the best Crabcakes in the world, right on the MD coast.

After that, in no particular order, was the GRACE Booth; with their new m108 coming out early next year.  (Want one!)   A complete package with the venerable 802 pre’s and a built in digital interface and DAC-driven headphone amp.  I’m hoping to get an early production model of this for review as well.

I also stopped by the MAGIX (Sequoia/Samplitude) booth and met USA product rep Tim Dolbear.  So great to see him “representing” for my all-time favorite (and indispensable) audio editing/mastering software.  We’ve got a lot to catch up on, and I’m going to be in touch with him a lot going forward.  It’s time I upgraded the fleet as well…

I also managed to finally meet in person with Alex Kosiorek; runs the “unofficial” FB AES page; he’s also  manager of Central Sound at Arizona PBS and he’s the Owner, Senior Audio Engineer / Multimedia and Surround Specialist / Consultant at Verity Digital Mastering & recording.  So great to finally connect in person with someone who totally “Gets it”.

I saw Bob Katz and said hello; we met a long time ago, but after so much back and forth on Facebook, it was nice to connect again in person.  He was promoting the latest version of his book “Mastering Audio” – 3rd edition, and I felt it was finally time to get a copy of it – only if he’d sign it & pose for a selfie with me.  Deal!

Probably the best part of the visit was running into Steve Puntolillo and Kevin Przybylowski from Sonicraft A2DX Labs.   Steve nearly lost his voice from trying to talk over all the noise (yeah, it still gets way too loud at these things sometimes!) but it was one of those perfect moments to cap off my visit.   Steve, Kevin & co. have done some miraculous work with some of our tape transfer projects over the years, and I’m always glad to send people their way.   I never understand the DIY approach people take when it’s a one-off or a small batch of tapes, esp if they need baking and TLC.  Why waste time on this when these guys already have the process perfected?   My only beef with Steve is that he won’t let ME buy lunch once in a while, but what the heck….he’s got a perfect track record so far; every time I see him he buys me food!  Can’t beat that.  We all agree he’s got the best “Studio Pic” of his production suite.  Not only does it look good in the photo, it really DOES look that good in person.

One other interesting thing this time around was everyone once again asking for business cards.  This was a bit of a throwback for me; I thought everyone had migrated to swiping show badges, but lots of folks turned up their noses when I mentioned that.   Looks like it’s back to basics again; wish I had brought more with me!

I saw a lot of “Cameo” appearances by all the audio-world celebrities; Bob Clearmountain almost bumped into me with a water bottle on his way out of the exhibits,  and earlier in the afternoon Al Schmidt walked right past me, but I didn’t want to fawn all over him.  I saw Steve Remote and said “HI” – another FB peep I finally met in person, and George Peterson sat right near us during lunch.  Audio Royalty everywhere!

It was great to see all my favorite “peeps” once again this year.  I’m really happy to have made the trip up and back, reconnecting with the people I really wanted to see.

It will probably be another two years (at least) until I can get to one of these again, but thanks to all for a great time.  I’m humbled to be in such good company!

Joe Hannigan/Weston Sound AES NYC October 31, 2015

It was mid-summer, 1977, and I was in my second year working as House Sound Engineer at the Robin Hood Dell East, in Philadelphia. It was (and still is) an outdoor venue set on a hillside near the Schuylkill River, above the East River Drive in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

In those days, Monday nights were Jazz/R&B nights.  The artists of the day usually traveled by bus, bringing just the basics in terms of instruments and equipment. The sound business was still in its infancy in those days, but even so, touring acts often supplied a tech rider along with the booking contract. We had a lot of equipment in-house (pianos, organs, amps, drums, monitors, etc.) but when an artist needed something specific, we’d rent it out ahead of time.

We were used to headliners pulling up as late as 6 or 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show. No GPS or cell phones in those days, so it was often a waiting game, wondering/hoping/worrying if the headliner would make it in time.  (Gigs like these were where the term “The sound check is the first song” originated!)

That July, I had seen the tech rider for B.B. King’s upcoming show a few weeks ahead of time and it included a very specific request for Fender Amps for the band, and most specifically a “Twin Reverb” for B.B. Someone else handled the equipment rentals, and I was busy doing other things right up until the day of the gig.   At some point in the afternoon I stopped and asked: “Where’s the Fender Twin Reverb Amp for B.B.?”   I was shown a couple of very inadequate substitutions (including some Yamaha practice amps and other odd brands.). I said, “we’re in serious trouble if B.B. shows up and there’s no Fender Twin Reverb amp for him!”

After a lot of frantic phone calls to the local music shops – who either didn’t have one for rent or didn’t want the hassle late on a Monday afternoon – we were almost out of luck. Fortunately, I knew the guy in my own rock band (Tony Colella) played through one, and I called him as a last ditch, panic-mode request:   “Hey man, can you loan/rent us your amp for tonight’s show?   B.B. King needs one, and we’ll throw in a pair of tickets for you and a friend to come and see the show.”

Tony didn’t need much persuasion; he got in his car and brought the amp in around 5 p.m. and we were covered. We tested it and set levels to what we thought would be ideal.

Near show time, B.B.’s tour manager found me, and said: “Are you the sound guy?” I said I was, asked him about any special sound requirements, and he said: “Here’s all you need to know for the mix…”  Holding his hand high up in the air above his head, he said:  “B.B.’s voice is here”,  then he lowered his hand a little bit and said: “B.B.’s guitar is here”, and finally lowered his hand about chest height and said: “Everybody else is here!”   I smiled knowingly, and said: “You got it!”.

At show time (no sound check!), B.B. just walked out, picked up Lucille, and (I’ll never forget this) with one majestic sweep of his hand, spun all the dials from left to right, all the way up to “Full.”   I was blown away, and VERY concerned the amp wouldn’t survive the show…this was B.B. King wailing away at full volume!

The show went without a hitch, and if I recall correctly, my friend Tony got to meet B.B. backstage. I did ask B.B. about the amp afterwards, and it if sounded ok for him. He smiled at me and said: “Man, that amp was TALKIN’ to me!”

B.B. KING  & Lucille

B.B. KING & Lucille

(And thanks, Tony, wherever you are!  Get in touch if you read this.  😉

I’ve told this story to friends and colleagues before, but it’s worth repeating here…..

It was the summer of 1976, and I was working my first “Professional” live sound season, at the Robin Hood Dell East, an outdoor venue in East Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.  It seats around 5,000-7,000 people, with more on the lawn and back picnic areas.   To cut a long circuitous story short (another time, perhaps), I had been put in charge of purchasing, assembling & operating a fairly large four-way sound system, newly installed that spring, in time for the “Summer Festival Of Stars”, as it was called then.

In July and August, Monday nights were Jazz/R&B, Wednesdays were usually Gospel nights, and Fridays were usually “Cultural” nights….anything from Eastern European dancers, to Bagpipes, to Hispanic & Caribbean Nights,  to even an occasional night of marching bands, courtesy of the local PAL organization.   But I digress….

We’d already had a number of High School graduations as a breaking in period for the new sound system in June, so by the time we’d gotten to opening night, (Ray Charles!), we were ready.   I’ll leave the overly techie aspects out, but it was basically pretty good stuff for the time; a 16 Channel board with 2 monitor mixes, a bunch of new mics (mostly Shure SM 58s, 57s, RE 20s, and whatever else I could scrounge up from my available resources of the day…)

I don’t recall the opening act (if there even WAS one), but Ray and his band – along with the Raylettes, were the headliners.   Real or inflated, the attendance numbers were put at 10,000 people, about 5-6k in the seats, and the rest all over the place, up on the lawn, in side hills, and anywhere anyone could squeeze in.   As was the case in those days, with touring bands and the industry what it was, most acts (including Ray at the time) didn’t bring a lot of gear, leaving it mostly to the promoter to provide the basics, like grand piano, electric piano, bass amps, guitar amps, mics, stands, etc.  We had it all covered, with mics on everything, ready to go.  I had the normal complement of mics already set up on the drums, amps, singers, horns, etc.

We did as much line-checking as we could until the band was scheduled to arrive by bus; sometime around 6-ish.  By today’s standards, this was cutting it pretty close, but that’s how it was in those days; pull up to the venue between 5 and 6, do a sound check if there was time; otherwise – as the old saying goes – “The first song is the sound check.”

I was ready for that, but I didn’t expect what happened next, when Ray’s road manager walked onstage, came up to me and asked:  “Are you the sound engineer?”  Replying in the affirmative, I heard him say: “See all those mics? They come DOWN or Ray doesn’t do the show….”  I was stunned, and said: “look, they’re saying we’ve got about 10,000 people coming to see this show tonight, and there will be serious trouble if they can’t hear the music.”   He wasn’t budging, and said: “Young man, do what I tell you, or Ray will know it, and he will stop the show and call you out!  We want ONE mic on Ray’s voice at the piano, one mic IN the piano, one mic over on the Fender Rhodes Piano, and one last mic on the Raylettes, and that’s IT.”  He made it pretty clear this was non-negotiable.

I was totally shocked, and more than a little freaked out…..here we were, brand-new sound system at the ready (remember, I had pitched it, helped them purchase it, and installed it for my bosses at the time, in the City’s Rec. Department. What were they going to do when there’s not much more than Ray’s voice coming out of the speakers?)   I knew the quandary I was in, and at least told my stage & venue managers what was going on.  In the end, no one could or would intercede for fear of Ray & Co. doing a walk-out over sound system issues.   Better to have bad sound than a crowd upset over a no-show Ray Charles.

Well, as they say; the show must go on, and we (I) did what we could; I’d cheat the mic up on the Fender piano when Ray wasn’t on it, trying to get the band up a little bit; ditto for the Raylette’s mic, etc.  In the end, it really wasn’t as bad (at least for the expectations of the era) as I’d worried; sure the band wasn’t full or loud enough, but there was nothing I could do.   More than one person came up to me at the sound console to complain (I was out in the middle of the house; one of the improvements of that year was to put the console & lighting controllers out IN the house – a fairly modern idea at the time – so we could see/hear better during the performances.) I would explain to each what had happened, while pointing the lack of mics on the stage: that this was what RAY wanted.

I don’t think Ray ever knew this was being done on his behalf, and even if he did, I can certainly understand how they’d probably been burned by bad sound systems (and inexperienced engineers) over the years.  Live sound reinforcement was still having growing pains in the 70’s.  Being without sight certainly added to his legendary ability to hear everything around him; and bad sound probably drove him crazy in previous shows.   I suspect the only answer in those days was to just nip it in the bud, and turn off anything that wasn’t critical.   Sure, it was harder to hear the subtleties of the rest of the band, but that’s what they’d done for decades, long before mulit-mic, multi-channel huge sound systems became the norm for big shows.  And Ray was always a LIVE guy, no question.

That first show was probably also the worst, in terms of heart-stopping terror with a huge crowd all around me, and not being able to get them the sound they were expecting.   From then on, for the next three summers, I was treated like gold from (almost) everyone that came through; and was pretty much left to do the sound as I needed.   In hindsight, this was probably the only serious “glitch of the mission”,  for several seasons to come.   Oh sure, there were quite a few other great horror stories for another post, another time, but my first time out in professional setting, with Ray Charles, of all people, was certainly one of the most memorable!

Goodbye, Dear Friend (My EIDE 160 Gigabyte, Western Digital Caviar Hard drive.)

I can’t remember exactly how long I’ve had you; but it has to be almost ten years ago now, back when I started buying “larger” (at the time) hard drives in 2002-2003.  The label says you were born in Malaysia.

You’ve been thrown around at countless live recordings; in and out of briefcases, cars, planes, vans, even dropped on the ground a few times.   More than once, you’ve been accidentally left out in a cold (below freezing) garage overnight, as well as the heat of summer.

You’ve powered up again and again without a glitch or a worry; you’ve spun your platters millions (billions?) of times capturing and retrieving data for me without fail.

Not unlike the Voyager spacecraft, you’ve worked longer than I ever thought you would; far exceeding the mere $100 or so that I paid for you.  You were a remarkable investment then, and still are.

You made it through this past season without a complaint, holding precious data right through the summer, finally copying out the last few projects from the spring of 2012.  Little did I know it would your last data transfer…

And then suddenly, one cool, clear crisp day in September, you were gone….just a quiet little gasp of a spin during power up, and then…nothing.  No more data, no more gigs; just stillness and quiet; a blank icon in my computer’s display.

So goodbye, dear 160 Gig WD EIDE hard drive; you owe me nothing, you’ve served me well; you even picked the best time to fail; right here at home.   I’ll find a good home for your now-dormant boot sector info and physical remains at my local recycling center.

We’ve had a good run together, you and I.  I hope your replacement works half as well as you did!

Image

(Note: I originally posted this on my website in 2004.   A few folks have asked about it since then, so with a few tweaks and updates for 2012,  here again is my take on why we record with more than just two microphones.)

Recording Classical Music: Microphones and Multi-tracks

Some would say the only true way to record classical music is just one pair of microphones. It’s a great idea, and at first glance, it makes perfect sense: use two high quality microphones, (preferably omni capsules) spaced the same distance apart as the human ears, find the best seat in the house, and voila –  A perfect stereo recording!

Well, yes and no.  It’s not quite that simple. Keep an open mind, and read on…..

Unlike the experimental nature of some jazz, rock and pop recordings, classical music requires a different approach. It is not an overdubbed, highly processed sound like some other genres. Any experienced engineer who works in any of these styles will tell you the “Classical” approach is different right at the start of the process in that musicians will always prefer to get it right in the first place: onstage, as an ensemble. Be it a concert or recording session, the performance is not some producer’s computer-sequenced dream or built from the ground up with a drum-machine click track. Frankly, the conductor/music director should have as much or more control of the sound than anyone else in the entire process. Very often, it is incumbent on the recording engineer and producer NOT to ruin a perfectly good performance with overproduction or any heavy handed processing.

More than any other listening experience, classical music still reigns supreme in that it is a highly focused, detailed experience for its audience, whether heard live or on a recording. The classical audience comes to expect perfection, as well as a quiet, calm comfortable listening environment. It is that very environment (and performance discipline) that dictates this different approach than all other music recordings.

Today, the line continues to blur between the various approaches to recording all genres of music, including classical. As the tools get better, those who use them acquire greater skills in editing and mastering, while still allowing unwavering faithfulness to the original performance. (To those whom more has been given….) Nevertheless, the days of getting it all in perfect one take, as commendable as it might be, are dwindling (even Toscanini and Ormandy edited their recordings) and it’s now become quite acceptable for even classical musicians to build the perfect work of art, with all the mistakes removed; the performance as flawless as the score. Granted, miraculous, error-free performances still happen all the time in classical music, but it is ever more desirable to create the perfect masterpiece with these new tools, well within the discipline of classical music.

But that’s getting a little bit away from the topic here: Single-point stereo microphone recording of classical music, or multiple microphone/track use.

It has always been a long-held ideal to find the perfect “sweet” spot in the audience, in order to best experience and/or record a live performance. This makes perfect sense, just as it applies to watching a movie in a theater. Find the middle of the middle section, about one-third of the way back in the audience, near the center aisle. (Hint: All big budget movies are mixed this way, in the same spot, in mini-theater/studio control rooms out in Hollywood.)

In a perfect world, and a perfect acoustic space, this would work perfectly.

But just as with movies, operas, and plays, there is another sensory input coming into play during a live concert, and it is missing when just listening to a recording after-the-fact. It’s the visual impact that glosses over (and forgives) so many imperfections going on around the listener in a hall, church or even home listening space.

Here’s a way to understand some of the strength of the visual’s impact: Turn on your favorite Cable Channel (PBS, Palladia, Bravo, etc.)  broadcast of a good music performance on your television. Record it on your DVR, and watch it – enjoy it all as it plays out. (No tricks here – just enjoy.) Now, take that same recording and turn off the picture, plug in headphones or play just the audio on your hi-fi system. (Even better: play it elsewhere from you television-viewing environment. If your home theater or viewing area is like mine, it’s a completely different space and experience than my “audio” listening area. Perhaps you even have a “music room” per se.)

When you play just the audio from the DVR or DVD, you’ll probably be shocked at what you thought was a great recording. Without going into a whole sidebar on the bad things that happen to good audio in television broadcasting, cable distribution, etc., what you’ll probably notice is a less than perfect stereo image, compressed (and sometimes hissy or lumpy) audio, and even occasional distortion on the peaks. Why, you may ask, didn’t you notice that when it was on TV!?!?

The answer, of course, is that the visual component is so strong, it lessens the impact of the audio. The viewer simply doesn’t notice all the imperfections, at least at first. Of course, many audio professionals and musicians are trained to sort through this distraction anyway, but the perception remains, and this partially explains why sound-for-TV has been allowed to be so bad for so long. A great-looking television show overcomes a badly recorded audio production anytime. (When was the last time you heard someone complain about the sound quality of the CNN feed from the middle of a hostage crisis or helicopter rescue?) Next time you watch TV, close your eyes for a while, and notice what you’re really hearing.

Now let’s take the same concept and plug it into a “live” concert experience, where there are usually no HD video cameras or glossy post-editing. Even without that: YOU – the listener – are seated at a concert, let’s say the best seat in the house. All around you, there are still distractions, both visually and acoustically, some you may or may not notice…. The hall may be brand new or wonderfully ancient; magnificent to look at, or maybe in disrepair, plaster chipped and falling on the seat next to you. If it’s a big event, the audience may be in formal wear, or in attire appropriate for on the weather outside…. umbrellas, trench coats, even hats, scarves, boots, etc. You also have a program booklet to read, and a cell phone to turn off. Distractions are everywhere!

Once things have settled down and the audience is seated and relatively quiet, you’ll find many other distractions lurking along the way: If it’s an old church on a steam heating system, the pipes may be banging long like some old ghost is trapped in the basement. If it’s got a conventional heater or air-conditioning system in place, there may be a constant hum or whine that’s on even before you arrive. The light dimmers may buzz, as well. Very often, the noise is so constant that it sinks into the background, unconsciously accepted by the audience because it’s been there the whole time. (In many halls where we record in regularly, we’ve “sampled” these kinds of background sounds/interference and have them on file, ready to be digitally removed – “dialed-out” – of the final mixes.)

What many recording engineers know setting up ahead of time is that there can often be a bombardment of unacceptable sound going on (even during a performance) that the audience otherwise misses at the time, due to so many visual cues and other distractions. There are coughing and sneezing audience members, food wrappers, chairs creaking, and the afore-mentioned steam pipes to endure; the day-to-day distractions are legion. It is a very noisy world in which we live.

But, thanks to all of our sensory input (including whether we’re too hot, too cold, or just-right in our seats), many things get glossed over as we settle down into an otherwise enjoyable concert performance. They are all around us, but in most cases we unconsciously push them aside to let the music get into our brains. It’s selective input, and it simply shows how subjectively we humans process so many things at once.

A well placed, single-source stereo pair of omni-directional microphones knows no such selective/human filtering.

They are deadly accurate, and will record EXACTLY what they are “hearing,” warts and all. Aside from a closed session with no audience present this (less-than?) “perfect world” listening environment can have no other distractions or sonic input, other than what is coming from the stage area – along with any reverberant sound around the microphones in the hall.

Now, considering how direct sound drops off in intensity the further one goes from the source, it is entirely possible that a throat-lozenge wrapper ten feet away from these microphones can sound as loud (or even louder) than the triple-piano (ppp) solo violin or woodwind passage arriving at the same point in time from the stage thirty feet away. Certainly, the listener in the hall can grudgingly discern (or unconsciously ignore) the difference, but the recording has now captured it all: ambient sounds as well as the music from the stage, due to the microphones’ unwavering and brutal accuracy. Very often, the relative amplitude levels of desirable vs. undesirable sounds are now skewed way out of proportion, discerned and alleviated only by our visual cues.

One can see the violinist or tenor soloist, while the wrapper noises are invisible and therefore not necessarily “heard.” Our eyes give us some input, while the ears add to the rest of the experience. Live, it’s one thing; recorded, it’s quite another. If you don’t believe this is true, imagine if they only sold the first few rows of any given concert because anyone who couldn’t get a seat up front wouldn’t be interested in attending. Of course, we know this isn’t so, as long as folks can see something, they are often happy enough. The audio component completes the experience, with the brain having the final say on what is necessary and important. The rest gets filtered out as non-essential.

Ambient Sound levels all around the listener increase proportionally to the distance from the stage, but visuals often overcome the distraction.

Like the DVR/DVD experiment, this type of recording – 2 omni microphones in the audience – will have a dramatically different impact after-the-fact, in an audio-only listening test. With no visuals now to distract the engineer and producer, the candy-wrapper, the coughing patron, and the enthusiastic clappers suddenly loom quite large on the sonic landscape now, getting your attention as much as the music. Remember that in most cases, they are closer to the microphones than the music itself, and lopsided levels are the result.

Out at the microphone location, someone merely applauding at the end of a string quartet or vocal/piano duet sounds like a thunderclap compared to the actual music, but again, our senses accommodate for this in person. Not so with microphones and electronics with ruler flat response. Overall levels must be set to accommodate this dramatic disparity in sound levels, (often ten to twenty or more decibels apart) if only to avoid saturating the signal chain in the recording during the loudest passages (that usually being the applause, not the music!)

Thus very often the gain structure for optimal signal to noise ratio is seriously skewed, favoring the near-field applause vs. the more distant on-stage music. When the applause is edited (and subsequently brought down) the music must be brought up for optimum playback level….along with the noise floor, and any other gremlins in the room or the electrical/signal path that have crept in during the recording process. To address this problem any other way would require artificial gain processing like compression and/or limiting – totally unacceptable in Classical/Audiophile music recording.

To add one more log to the fire: Binaural, single-point recordings can only be truly experienced with headphones

Think about this one for a minute: If the microphones have already captured the best seat in the house with all the natural reverberation, ambience, room noise, (and coincident mouth-breathers and sneezers all around), then the only possible way to accurately put this sound into your brain is to generate the sound as close to, or literally next to your eardrums. Short of a cochlear implant, for accuracy’s sake, there can be no other acoustic distractions now. (The microphone placement has already done that for you!) The speakers in your listening environment, in essence, are now almost doubling the distance from your ears to where the microphones picked up the sound.

To put it another way, listening with speakers (instead of headphones) you’re potentially listening beyond the pickup pattern of the microphones, effectively increasing the distance from the actual performance: It’s a case of stage-through-space-to-microphones, then back out through more space to your ears via your living room speakers. Very often, the result is a more distant, less-detailed listening experience; almost listless, because it’s now been pushed through two sets of listening environments. Remember, there are no longer any visual imagines to fill in the blanks, and therefore, you now have one less sensory input at this point in the overall emotional experience. It’s twice the airspace, twice the room ambience, and no visuals to distract you.

What to do, then? What IS accuracy in classical recording?

The concept of recording in surround sound (5.1 and others) very smartly addresses many of these issues and more, but for now, we’ll stay with a stereo, 2-point recorded image.

For decades, we (as well as all of our contemporaries in the recording business) have recorded with a slightly modified version of this same “Best-seat-in-the-house” 2-microphone concept, (and of course the 3-microphone Decca-Tree technique) straight to analog tape or DAT, often simply due to budget limitations or the type of music at hand. Multi-track recording was simply not necessary, even overkill in some instances, and almost always beyond the budget of most orchestras and ensembles. Aside from the need for an occasional solo mic, this method still works amazingly well. While it can sometimes put the microphones dangerously close to (or in) the audience, it retains all the dynamics and interaction of the small (and not-so small) ensembles. Archival recordings done this way are usually quite good, suprisingly, even with just two microphones.

An omni-directional stereo coincident microphone pair is still the main component of our live recordings. But when required, it’s a missed opportunity to not expand the process further with spot mics, sectional, sub-group (and choral) mics, and even ambient mics out in the house – often dedicated to the rear, or ‘surround” component of 5.1 mixes, or just for natural reverberation and applause mics. Modern electronics, preamps and balanced cables with lower noise floors, with unlimited additional “virtual” digital tracks in the recording process all add up to more flexibility, and zero sonic tradeoffs. With today’s hi-resolution digital recording technology, affordability, and downright amazing editing capabilities, the choices for creating a good, solid, and exciting classical recording continue to expand, with multiple microphone techniques once shunned and abhorred by audiophiles and purists.

One final argument for using just two microphones – time delays between overly distant microphones – is now moot; a thing of the past. With digital editing, a simple timeline adjustment of the track(s) in question can restore perfect time-alignment & phase coherency, and is one less issue to contend with for the ideal combination of performance space via microphone pickup. A simple impulse recording prior to the session or concert creates excellent alignment templates to eliminate all time-delays arising from multiple microphone use.

Multiple microphones and tracking can indeed be tricky and downright wrong in some classical recordings, but when used for the right reasons, it is not only desirable but essential for creating the REAL “best seat in the house” recordings that will stand the test of time, long after today’s “modern” expectations come and go. Without a doubt: in the wrong hands, too many microphones or improper use can wreck havoc on an already balanced performance that the conductor and musicians have created. But in our experience, judicious microphone selection, placement and blend all combine to create a more desirable, detailed and natural listening experience for the serious music lover/audiophile.

Mixing and editing between takes or performances is now seamless in the digital domain, allowing the classical music world unprecedented results. These combined processes retain all of the purity and integrity of the classical genre, while at the same time granting it the flexibility and power of its modern music cousins.

In conclusion, single-point stereo ambient mic placement, while once a great idea that still has merit, only hints at what is now possible for a complete and satisfying Classical Music listening experience.

Joe Hannigan, Producer
©2004-2012, Weston Sound & Video

“METAMORPHOSIS” from Mendelssohn Club Chorus.

I’m so pleased and happy to be part of the new CD release from Mendelssohn Club, entitled: “Metamorphosis.” It’s just been made “Album of the Week” for the last week of March 2012 on WQXR in NYC, and you can read their wonderful review here:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/articles/q2-album-week/2012/mar/23/mendelssohn-club-philadelphia-gets-vibrantly-vocal/

It is available now from the Mendelssohn Club directly, and has been released officially by INNOVA records (for download and physical copies) as of late February, 2012.   http://www.innova.mu/albums/mendelssohn-club-philadelphia/higdon-clearfield-primosch-metamorphosis

This recording marks the culmination of years of effort and includes compositions by three of the best new composers in music today: Jennifer Higdon, Andrea Clearfield, and James Primosch.

You can read all about the works themselves in this press release from Mendelssohn Club on their website:

http://www.mcchorus.org/wp/archives/1267

We recorded these works on three separate occasions over the last four years, in three very different venues: Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Girard College Chapel. It was no mean feat recording a full 150-voice choir, soloists and a chamber orchestra in each venue and getting them to sound even remotely homogenous. Fortuantely, with today’s modern multiple mic’ing techniques and very powerful multitrack recording/mixing/mastering software (Sequoia), we were able to capture the best of each performance and bring them all to life, without sounding too different from one venue to another. (Having the same engineer/producer, microphones and expertise for all three doesn’t hurt either!)

Final editing took place in the summer of 2011 at my studio – Weston Sound, in Greenville Delaware. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Artistic Director and conductor Alan Harler, along with with each of the composers separately, to make final edits and adjustments for their works. Fortunately, we’d recorded both the rehearsals as well as the performances of these works so we had lots of options for editing. (Always a wise choice in any serious recording!) Even so, the CD represents 99% from the concert performances, with just a note here or small adjustment there that needed to be borrowed from the rehearsals. Thanks to the superb musicianship of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the soloists, and the choir themselves, we were able to create a world-class recording that faithfully captures each composer’s unique vision.

In late August the completed master went off to innova records for liner notes, artwork and replication, and the CD is now available directly from the Mendelssohn Club office (www.MCChorus.org). or downloads through innova records: http://www.innova.mu/albums/mendelssohn-club-philadelphia/higdon-clearfield-primosch-metamorphosis

Congratulations to everyone involved, I am honored and thrilled to have been part of making this wonderful new CD with you!