The recording process can be a mysterious one for many musicians. Our goal is to help you understand how it works, what to expect, and ultimately how to prepare for your first recording session. Even if you decide not to use us for your recording project, we hope that the information on this page will be useful as you plan and prepare for your session.
In general, classical recording strives to accurately capture the sound of the instrument(s) as they exist in real life, in a real acoustic space, without colouration or additional processing. This is achieved by recording in a hall, church or cathedral instead of a studio; using stereo techniques and omni-directional microphones meticulously placed to accurately capture the frequency response of the instrument and the perfect balance of instrument and natural reverb; recording with ultra high-end equipment that adds no colouration to the sound. The goal is that your recording sounds so true to life that the listener feels as if they are sitting in one of the seats in the hall, experiencing your recording as an audience member at a live performance.
In recording popular music, the priorities are quite different. Recording is normally done in a comparatively small room, using closely placed directional microphones to capture the direct sound coming from the instrument, with minimal sense of space. In post-production, the engineer uses digital processing to create artifical reverb, "panning" to create the illusion of a stereo image, and EQ and often compression to alter both the frequency response and dynamic range of the instrument. This kind of approach is essential for recording contemporary musicians, but often yields less than flattering results for classical instruments and especially classical voice.
Both approaches are legitimate, and work well for the practical requirements and aesthetic expectations of their respective applications: classical instruments and classical voice for the former, and pop/rock/contemporary groups for the latter. Problems arise, however, when engineers attempt to apply these methods of recording across genres. It's possible to record a six-piece heavy metal band in a cathedral with only a pair of omni-directional microphones. It's just going to sound pretty terrible. In the same way, it's possible to record a string quartet in a studio with an array of closely placed directional microphones, each individually panned, mixed, and covered in artificial reverb - but the end result will be equally as unconvincing.
For the best possible recorded result, it is important for musicians to have a basic understanding of these recording approaches, and seek out engineers or studios that cater to their particular genre. At Perth Recording, we work exclusively with classical recording techniques, as do the vast majority of the world's great classical labels. While location recording presents a unique set of challenges not found in a controlled studio environment, we believe that capturing the sound of a great performance space is worth the extra effort.
The goal of a recording session is to capture on "tape" a musically compelling and note-perfect performance. Because we as human beings have a propensity for making mistakes, this "perfect performance" is normally in fragments scattered over dozens of takes, which are then digitally assembled into a seamless performance in post-production.
There are generally two people present at a recording session, an engineer and a producer. The engineer is responsible for the equipment and the sound, while the producer is responsible for running the session and making sure that every phrase has been played musically and without error. We are happy to fulfil both roles, or you are free to bring your own producer to the session provided they have appropriate experience.
In a typical session, the artist will run through a movement in its entirety, and then go back to systematically work through it in smaller sections (sometimes down to a single phrase or bar). This affords the performer the opportunity to give each individual phrase his undivded attention, imbuing it with as much musical intent as possible. It also allows the producer to isolate problem spots and difficult passages, making sure that every note has been played perfectly at least once.
This process continues until all of the repertoire for the project has been recorded. Three 4-hour recording sesssions are standard for a commercial length CD, meaning a well-prepared performer should expect to complete around 20 minutes of music per session.
After the session, the artist needs to choose which takes will be used to assemble the "perfect performance." The client will be given all raw session material on a set of CDs or .wav files. He will then listen through the raw material, and mark the scores indicating the takes to be used for each bar of the finished product. This "edit list" will then be used to splice together a first draft of the CD. The artist will listen through the first draft CD in its entirety, and make any changes he deems necessary. Decisions will be made by the artist with regard to track order, spacing between movements and works, etc. Finally, two Master CDs will be given to the artist to be sent off for manufacture.
1) Be able to play the most difficult passages 3 times in a row without error.
If you struggle with a passage in the practice room, the pressure and long hours of a recording session will amplify its difficulty. There is a limited amount of time in a session; if an artist is unable to play a passage without error after 5-10 takes, we have to accept the best one and move on.
2) Be able to start confidently from any point in the score.
The bulk of time in a recording session is spent working on small sections and individual phrases (sometimes even individual measures), so the ability to start from anywhere in the piece is an essential skill. Practise by picking a spot in the middle of the movement and try to begin playing confidently and convincingly, keeping in mind your dymanics, timbre, and that phrase's role in the overall musical structure of the movement. The goal is to have that isolated phrase sound exactly as it does when played in a run-through of the whole movement. Keep working in this way at home until you feel comfortable starting from just about any place in the score.
3) Know exactly how you want to shape each phrase, being aware of and consistent with your tempo, dynamic, and timbre choices.
As recording is done in small sections by taking individual phrases out of the context of the whole, it is essential that the artist know exactly what he wants to do with each phrase and does this consistently in each take. Tempo, dynamic, and colour inconsistencies among different takes of the same passage can make otherwise seamless edits very obvious to the listener.
4) Eliminate extraneous noise.
Our brains are very good at identifying noises that are not important, and tuning them out. Unfortunately, the same is not true of microphones. Does your chair squeak as you shift your weight? Does your breathing become audible during intense passages? Do your shoes make noise if you shift your feet while playing?
While these small noises may seem trivial (and are not usually problematic in a live concert situation), they can ruin an otherwise perfect take, making it unusable. As you practise in preparation for your session, try to become aware of such noises, and eliminate them if at all possible.
Aside from your playing, the venue in which you choose to record will have the biggest impact on the quality of the finished product. We recommend consulting with us before booking your session, as we are happy to recommend venues that we've had success with in the past.
Some general guidelines to keep in mind when considering a space for recording:
1) It must be quiet.
It seems straightforward enough, but microphones do not hear the same way that we do. Low-end rumble from a poorly isolated machine room, or HVAC blowers for the air conditioning system might appear to be very quiet and inconspicuous to the ear, but can result in noise so severe on the recording that the finished product is significantly compromised. It is very important when booking a venue to ensure that they are willing to completely turn off all blowers, HVAC systems, and any other machinery that may result in noise leaking into the performance space for the duration of the recording session.
The venue's proximity to a major roadway can also result in unacceptable noise levels: noise from a bus, truck or motorcyle can ruin an otherwise perfect take. For this reason, many engineers prefer to record late in the evening or even at night when there is less traffic noise to contend with.
2) The venue will affect your sound.
Just as in a live concert, where the audience hears your instrument interacting with the hall, so too will your finished recording be a combination of your sound and the space. When choosing a venue for recording, you should consider how that space will impact the sound of your CD.
Generally speaking, the larger the space and the more hard surfaces (ie stone walls, tile flooring, wooden pews) the brighter and more reveberant the recording. The smaller the space and the more soft surfaces (ie baffles on the walls, carpeting, cushioned seats) the darker and less reveberant the recording. Thus, if you want a very reveberant, clear and bright recording, you should not use a small church with carpeting, cushioned pews, and banners hanging on the walls. If you prefer a drier sound without a lot of reverb, recording in a large stone cathedral is probably not the best choice for your project. We're happy to make suggestions for a performance space that aligns with your aesthetic preferences.
Our equipment has been carefully chosen with one goal - transparency. Our aim is to faithfully reproduce the detail and nuance of your performance with uncoloured timbral accuracy, allowing us to provide our clients with the purest recorded sound possible.