Live Sound Recording


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!

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(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!

Well, first off, Happy New Year 2012 to everyone, and if you’re reading this, that means we both made it out of 2011 intact.

I’m also happy to report that as I write this (at about 5 a.m. in the wee first hours of 2012), both halves of the DSO concert are being uploaded to the WRTI server, in time for the 2 p.m. broadcast today. If you’re in the Delaware Valley area, near any of the dozen or so WRTI translator stations, you can pick up the broadcast on your FM radio; 90.1 in Phila., 107.1 in Wilmington, DE, and many other similar stations around the area.

If you do go online to hear it (at WRTI.ORG), just know that it’s still being sent out in lowly mono. (ugh! I’m trying to get them to change that, but it’s going to take time, and more listeners need to let them know it’s important.)

The concert & recording went off without a hitch (well, one air-cannon in the second half went off a bit too soon, surprising everyone with a shower of confetti), and the orchestra was in fine shape throughout. Maestro David Amado really gave a sterling performance, but not only that; he’s downright funny in his onstage chats with the audience between works. I really enjoyed his easygoing, subtle jokes. It’s no wonder he’s so successful; the man really knows his audience, and they loved him in return.

The audience’s participation (during the intermission segment as you’ll hear) was a hoot, literally. All those noisemakers, a little bubbly, and some mischievous horn players, and well, you have to hear it to understand.

The concert ended at 9:45 or so, and the crew at the Grand helped me get out and on my way back to home base in just under an hour. I started file transfers almost as soon as I got in the door (stopping only to hug & kiss my wife & pet the dogs!). With a brief stop to ring in the new year at Midnight – again with my lovely, understanding and wonderful wife – I was back to mixing & editing, working from the same template as Thursday’s dress rehearsal.

Fortunately, there were only a few (minor) blips and bobbles to clean up, but I had plenty of good alternate takes from the Thursday dress, and editing was minimal; we could have almost aired everything exactly as they played; DSO is a great group of very talented musicians.

I’ll have more to report on the tech side of things, but for now, it’s all done (say Hallelujah, somebody!) and I’m off to bed.

Hope you get to hear this one, it was really a lot of fun pulling it all together, and this is my last late-night burn the candle at both ends gig for (hopefully) a long time!   I’ll have pictures to share as well; just don’t want to tie up my internet connection while the broadcast is still uploading.  I’m a bit supersitious about that sort of thing.  😉

Cheers!

Well, all good news to report so far.   Yesterday’s setup and final dress rehearsal recording went perfectly.   The crew at the Grand are total pro’s – Steve Manocchio and his assistant Stacey, specifically – and got me and my gear loaded into the theater via the backstage lift in short order, giving us about 2.5 hrs to get mics set and a good spot for my “control room”.    We worked quickly and without a hitch; everything I needed, they got for me, and couldn’t have been more helpful.  I can’t tell you how much something like this helps, right off the bat; we’re in, we’re set up, and things are cooking!

In all, we’re using 23 mics/line feeds for this recording.  (2 mics on the audience for ambience, applause & new year noise-makers, 2 mics on a stereo bar as the main pair for the orchestra, spot mics on all principal players, an M/S ribbon configuration on the winds, 3 on the percussion, as well as piano, celeste and harp.    Last but not least, we’ve got a hand-held mic feed from the house PA, where Maestro Amado will announce various pieces, as well as introduce the orchestra and various segments throughout the performance.

I did a last minute mic placement check onstage around 7:15 and got to say hello to a lot of the musicians, many I know well from their work in and around the area.   I was happy to see concertmaster Luigi Mazzochi on the stand; I’d almost forgotten he was with DSO!   Next I had a brief chat with Music Director David Amado, and we discussed the order of the works he’d be taking in rehearsal, and how we’d compare notes after the real performance.   Another positive sign was how prepared the orchestra was; having been alerted that we planned to record everything “just in case”.   In my experience, this gives everyone a little breathing room; they give a little extra at the dress rehearsal, knowing it’s being recorded, and also lets them kick it out a little bit more at the performance; they can concentrate on their art, and not worry about little mistakes here or there.

I quickly set levels throughout the tuneup and first few pieces, but otherwise we were well on our way.   All tracks were captured flawlessly on my JoeCo “Blackbox” 24 track hard disc recording system, with an SD chip (stereo) backup, and just for redundancy, a CD copy as well.   I had a nice cozy setup backstage, in the connecting space between the Grand and the “Baby Grand” theater right next door.  Sweet!

My 'control room' - backstage at the Grand

By 10 p.m., we were done and quickly struck just the mics, leaving everything else in place for Saturday. (Fortunately, nothing else going on in the theater means everything stays set up and in place for Saturday’s performance.)

Today (Friday), as planned, I transferred all tracks from the rehearsal into my main Sequoia workstation and began working on the overall mix.   Happily, everything came through as planned; I don’t expect to change much at all during the re-set on Saturday.   The orchestra really played well, in top form, even for a dress rehearsal, and I’m more than happy with what we’ve captured.   The strings are solid and lush, and the percussion (esp the huge bass drum) really spice up the sound.  I’m glad I used so many mics!  Lots of control over such nuannced performances.

I’m rendering a temp stereo mix of both halves of the rehearsal as I type this, and will have these ready for “dropping in” bits or pieces here or there, as needed.

Overall, I’m feeling pretty excited about everything at this point, although the big, challenging moments are still to come… We all know things can change quite a bit betwee I’m holding my breath just a little bit longer, until we’ve got it all in the can, sometime around 9:30-10 p.m. tomorrow night – December 31st.

Once again, stay tuned; I’ll have more to share soon!

Well, things are moving along nicely on the project, and excitment is buildng.   As mentioned before, the mid-show interview with Music Director/Conductor David Amado is completed, save for some editing based on what happens at the concert itselft.

On Tuesday, the script I wrote for the voice-over was approved by DSO, and sent to Jack Moore to read on Wednesday.   Jack (ever the pro!) turned it right around and did a great read, with a few extra touches that really make the production shine (and my job a little easier).    I’ve since tweaked it a bit and put it on the timeline in my editing software (Samplitude/Sequioa) for the broadcast template.

So now, we’ve got all the talking we need for the broadcast: a beginning, a middle and an end. We just need some music!  😉

This afternoon, I’ll be leaving with all my recording gear and heading over to the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, for a 4:30 load in.   The plan is to be set up and ready for a 7:30 start of tonight’s final dress rehearsal.   Then the REAL work begins. We’ll be using most of the available 24 tracks to capture the entire orchestra, the audience, and whatever else needs to be recorded.

The goal for today is to capture everything and bring it back here for a preliminary mix – for backup and possible repairs, depending on how everything goes at the concert itself.  (I’ll spend most of Friday, Dec. 30th working on this. )  This also helps for the final mix in that we’ll have overall levels set, tracks and effects assigned, etc.   The more time we can save on the back end, the better.

So that’s the latest from here.   If I have internet access, I’ll update again from the rehearsal tonight.

Thanks for following along!

I’m excited to announce we’re recording the Delaware Symphony Orchestra LIVE at their New Year’s Eve Gala this Saturday, December 31st at the Wilmington Grand at 7:30 p.m. and turning it around overnight for a 2 p.m. broadcast on WRTI on NEW YEAR’S DAY, January 1st.  (The countdown begins when the music stops around 10 p.m.  That’s roughly 16 hrs to get it completed and on the air.  No pressure!)

I hope you’ll follow along with me here as I update our pre-production progress, recording the dress rehearsal, and then the concert itself at 7:30 on New Year’s Eve.  The VO script is now written for the broadcast, (hosted by WRTI’s Jack Moore) and Music Director/Conductor David Amadao has already sat down for an intermission interview at WRTI’s studios.   (That’s already “In the can” and ready to go for the middle of the broadcast.)

You can read more about the concert here:  http://www.delawaresymphony.org/specials.htm

I’ll be checking in again soon with more updates during the week, so stay tuned for what happens next….

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