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Unsung Heroes of the Industry

Don’t miss this piece in last Sunday’s LA Times about recording engineers for classical music.  As the author, Constance Meyer, says, popular music engineers and producers are often famous in their own right, but most people can’t name a single classical music engineer or producer.   “Yet just as in rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop, the engineer for such music — who is often, though not always, the producer as well — is the person who makes or breaks an audio performance.”  Meyer goes on to profile Max Wilcox, Da-Hong Seetoo, Fred Vogler, and Armin Steiner, and to describe a bit of how the recording process works.

There’s even a modicum of disagreement.  Steiner talks about recording the Bach violin sonatas and partitas in 1956, and recals that Szigeti would record a small section “10 or 15 times or more. So they had all these bits and pieces. There were at least 100 reels of 1/4 -inch tape. I spent three or four months editing those for him.”

Wilcox, on the other hand, says “While you can eliminate mechanical imperfections, you can’t make someone an artist by making 400 splices. . . You can’t give a violinist a more beautiful tone or a better conception of the music or a better idea of the tempo. You can make it sound mechanically and technically solid, but all the things that make ‘music’ can’t be fabricated.”

These statments aren’t necessarily at odds, but do seem to indicate two different approaches to the process.  In fact, the cut and splice method requires a great deal of consistency, especially of tempo, in the source recordings.  Providing modular pieces that fit together into a coherent whole is its own kind of artistry, as is making those pieces fit in the studio.  Personally, I lean toward that strategy, but aiming for the consistency of long, uninterrupted takes has value too.

Comments

Comment from Lisa Hirsch
Time: December 6, 2007, 1:15 pm

Annie Fischer’s Beethoven piano sonata cycle was also assembled from multiple small takes. My own preference, at least in theory, is for long, uninterrupted takes. I also like live recordings a lot, unsurprisingly.

Comment from Tom Myron
Time: December 6, 2007, 1:27 pm

The ability to capture long takes & the ability to assemble a performance from many small pieces are the two big strengths of recording and in music you always play from strength. I work with two fantastic engineers, Steve Drown in ME & Warren Amerman in MA. They’ve built beautiful recordings in whichever way the situation has demanded. In terms of the end result it makes no audible difference which method was used.

Comment from Sparky P.
Time: December 6, 2007, 8:20 pm

Certainly that’s how Glenn Gould thrived. String together the best possible takes, add just the right amount of artificial echo to mask the splices, and voila, no one will ever be the wiser. (The Beatles’ “She Loves You”, Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and The Supremes’ “Reflections” could have used some of that magic.)

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: December 7, 2007, 1:58 pm

“In terms of the end result it makes no audible difference which method was used.”

But Tom, do you ever keep the “mistakes” on your final masters? I think we naturally gravitate towards and respond to these so-called “mistakes” as listeners. That’s one reason we love bootlegs so much. Or live performances!

And aren’t performers always adjusting anyway in performance in terms of pitch, tempo, how they are blending with other musicians, etc, etc. What’s cool is that “mistakes” in a recording session are (for me – as a composer who also works a lot with the studio) just another component to the compositional process. It’s kind of wonderful that the medium can then preserve these surprises.

Comment from Tom Myron
Time: December 7, 2007, 2:27 pm

But Tom, do you ever keep the “mistakes” on your final masters?

Chris, I think I get what you’re saying. By putting the word mistakes in quotes I take you to mean something like “unanticipated results that sound good & are appropriate to the context” as opposed to errors. I’m open to (and will go to bat for) whatever result brings across intent most strongly.

I could be way off here, but I get the feeling that the things that bring you into a studio and the things that bring me into a studio are pretty different. If I’m in a studio it means there are third parties, deadlines & other peoples money involved (and I wouldn’t have it any other way!) A studio is not principally a vehicle of expression for me.

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: December 7, 2007, 2:51 pm

Tom,

Good point re: “third parties” and other people’s money.

And by mistakes I meant exactly what you said…but I also meant just flat out wrong notes, missed cues, broken guitar strings etc, etc. That shit is all over recordings in any genre out there. It’s reality.

Strangely enough, my performing a lot this past year (with my trio of laptop, trumpet and guitar) has only deepened my love of mistakes. In the recording studio, there is this weird attitude that we (you or I) can fix anything in the editing or mixing stage. But live is where you let it all hang out…and sometimes a three way train wreck can sound cooler than a “perfect” performance…

I guess I’m wondering if my attitude toward mistakes has any sort of parallel in the world of “classical” or commercial (TV and film) recordings. “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”

Comment from Tom Myron
Time: December 7, 2007, 3:30 pm

“Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”

Gottcha. When it’s up to me me, if it works, it’s in and, that being the case, it’s not really an error anymore. I don’t ascribe hidden intention or anything else to it. I guess I just change its category- “the event formerly known as ‘A Mistake'”.

Comment from Jan Derrer
Time: April 14, 2008, 4:42 pm

“…popular music engineers and producers are often famous in their own right, but most people can’t name a single classical music engineer or producer”.

Well, Armin Steiner is the exception to the rule. He has a little bit of fame in the world of pop music, too. He had a recording studio in his bedroom in Los Angeles in the sixties where he recorded The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and many other pop artists.