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A guide to recording classical music

February 15, 2009

This post is a guide to recording classical music written for a small group of musicians.  It is based on how I recorded my album Labyrinth at Olympic Studios, London, with the Locrian Ensemble during 2002 and 2005.

This is not a post about sound engineering though it does touch on sound engineering issues.  It is more concerned with how a composer with a low  or medium budget should project manage recording an album at a top studio.  Two thirds of the album was recorded over two days in October 2002 and there was a further short session in July 2005.  The recording engineers were Wayne Wilkins  for the sessions in 2002 and Adam Brown for the 2005 session.  Some of the tracks were then mastered by Marco Migliari at Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire, in a session that lasted one day.

Members of the Locrian Ensemble playing on the album are:

  • Justine Pearson, ‘cello and leader
  • Rita Manning, violin
  • David Lee, French Horn
  • Nicholas Bucknall, clarinet
  • Anna Noakes, flute
  • Patricia Moyihan, flute
  • Catherine Rockhill, piano

details of who played on what track are on the back insert. 

Labyrinth track list:

  1. Thetis 1:07
  2. Divine 2:24
  3. Fast Train 3:30
  4. Busy Street 3:22
  5. Murano Mists 3:59
  6. Labyrinth 3:18
  7. Mysterious Sign 2:40
  8. Serenity 2:24
  9. Summer Afternoon 3:13
  10. Athena 5:12
  11. Spanish Steps 2:24
  12. Zebedee 3:22
  13. Three Graces 2:50
  14. Helios Dawn 2:24
  15. Thetis (piano solo) 1:08

Total Duration: 46:30

Labyrinth album cover

Labyrinth album cover

 

 Before the session

Preparation is the key to a successful recording session.  Most of the work takes place before the session and if everything is prepared properly the session itself should be the easy bit.  The first thing you have to do is write the music.  This might seem an obvious thing to say, but it is worth stressing that the recording studio is not the place to start writing. It is not the place to write at all unless you have the budget of  a major recording company.  I assume you don’t, which means that you are going into the studio to record what you have already written.  Of course, you may have to tweak, but remember that time spent tweaking is time spent not recording and you are paying a lot of money to record.  So have all the music as polished as possible before you go into the studio.  With good organisation it is possible to achieve a lot in a limited amount of time.  Labyrinth was recorded in four three-hour sessions.

The budget

You will have to think carefully about your budget.  Make sure that you include all your costs and look at areas where you might be able to reduce costs.  Things you may have to budget for are:

  • musician’s time in the studio
  • musician’s travelling expenses
  • hire of the studio
  • sound engineer’s time and travelling expenses
  • extras at the studio such as tapes, cds, telephone calls, extra equipment such as tube pre-amps, food, bottles of water
  • your own travelling expenses
  • your own accommodation
  • a mastering session at a later date

Leaving aside the mastering session, where it is much easier to find a low-budget method, this is a comprehensive list of the expenses involved in recording at a top studio. There are more costs involved than first meet the eye so it is a good idea to be prepared.  Some of these costs will not materialise.  For example, you may not have to pay the travelling expenses of the sound engineer and the musicians if you negotiate with them.  You can cut down on extras such as extra equipment by not using any and this is a viable option at a state of the art studio.  Studios can charge well over the odds for extras like cds, so be aware of this and allow for these extra charges.  It is a good idea to work out the total cost of the project and then allow a bit more.

Choosing musicians and a studio

Having completed the music, before you can fill in the details of your budget, the next step is to engage the musicians and find a studio.  I recommend not playing in the session yourself even if you are a good performer.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Organising and overseeing the session is enough work in itself.  To try to play as well is too much, both from a mental focus point of view and from a practical point of view.  The choice of musicians is crucial.  If the musicians are not up to scratch you will have wasted a lot of money, time and effort and will have a very demoralising experience.  It is best to engage musicians who have a track record of successful recordings and are also used to playing together.  They should be used to performing in a studio where they may have to wear headphones, follow a click track and even play enclosed by partitions.  Do not approach engaging musicians for a recording session in a casual manner.  Do not use someone because they are a mate or a mate of a mate.  Use seasoned professionals only. I recommend approaching an established ensemble and then leaving the details of the personnel to the leader.  Not only will this ensure your get good people playing in your session but it will save you a lot of work as trying to engage the musicians individually can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience. 

You will have to negotiate a contract with the musicians which covers not only the fee for the session but possibly travel expenses as well.  With a little skill in negotiating you should be able to get a good deal, especially if you are using a top studio as musicians will want to play in sessions at major studios.  If you are a member of the Musicians Union you can use an MU session musicians standard contract .  Note that what you intend to do with the music can affect how much you have to pay the musicians, with a contract for a commercial release being less expensive that say, a deal that gives you full media rights.  All the musicians involved should sign a contract and this is best done after the session, when you can list  exactly what tracks have been recorded.  The contracts should be prepared before hand.  The musicians should have their PAMRA number, if they have one.   If they don’t have a PAMRA number they can use their Musician’s Union number.  So bring the contracts with you on the day.  If you do not get the musicians to sign a contract you are sowing the seed of problems later on.  Do not take a casual attitude to this.

The choice of a studio is another major decision.  There are many factors that come into this such as location, size of studio, availablity, recording equipment and of course, cost.  I recommend using a major studio such as Olympic Studios, London, or Real World Studios, Box, Wiltshire.  You are probably thinking that these studios are too expensive.  Remember that the cost of the studio is only one part of the cost of the session.  Top studios can represent very good value for money.  If you go for a cheaper option once the recording is over you will have a long time to regret it if you have made the wrong decision.  It is worth negotiating with a studio on the price as they might have down time available at a cheaper rate.  At Olympic Stuidos while recording Labyrinth I was given a free upgrade from Studio 2 to Studio 1, which had a better board and Pro-Tools as standard.  in Studio 1 Pro-Tools was an extra and incurred a charge, which I thought was rather odd.  It is also worth evaluating what the studio’s attitude to you as a customer is.  Do they sound as if they want to be helpful?  One of the main reasons I chose the record Labyrinth at Olympic Studios is that I found the staff to be very friendly and helpful.

The studio may ask you if you want to use one of their sound engineers or bring your own sound engineer.  The sound engineer is an extra cost over and above hiring studio time.  So why not  avoid this cost by taking along a mate who knows how to use Pro-tools?  Don’t even start to think about it – use one of the sound engineers recommended by the studio.  They will be top people familiar with the studio and the equipment and they will be crucial to the success of the whole project.  Recording is like a house of cards – if one bit collapses the whole thing collapses.  Do not take risks.  If you are using a piano ask the studio to tune it before the session.  This may or may not be an extra charge; it was not an extra charge at Olympic Studios.  You should also discuss with the studio any extras you might want e.g. tube pre-amps, as there may be an extra cost for these and they might have to be booked in advance. 

Once you have agreed on dates with the studio they will send you a contract which you must sign and send back before the session.  Once you have signed the contract you are committed to paying for the studio time, even if you don’t use it, so take this seriously unless you enjoy being sued by a large multi-national corporation. The studio contract will specify the date and times of the sessions, the cost of studio hire, the sound engineer’s fee (if you agreed this) and may also ask you what extras you are willing to pay for, e.g. tapes, cds, bottles of water.   It is worth contracting the studio for a full day; the sound engineer will also be contracted for a full day and this will give you some time to edit what you have recorded after the musicians have left.  Sound engineers seem to be quite happy to put in long hours so you may get a good few hours to work on the material you have recorded.  You may technically be due for an extra charge for additional studio hours if you work very late, but there is a good chance that the studio will not charge you for extra time used late at night.

The setup

Once you have decided on a studio you will have discuss the setup with them.  A diagram faxed or posted to the studio can be very helpful if you have a clear idea of what you want the setup to be.  You should have some idea of what you want to achieve in terms of sound and what setup to use to get the desired result.  In the case of Labyrinth I wanted to achieve a dry small room sound.   The recording was made in studio 1 at Olympic Studios which is very large – large enough to hold a symphony orchestra.  They were able to create a small room effect by putting down carpets, using partitions to create an enclosed area and lowering ceiling baffles.  This created a small space and the result was a dry sound, i.e. very little reverberation.  The musicians wore one-sided headphones throughout the session and a click track was used for every track. For the final session the musicians were separated by partitions to minimise bleedover (the sound one one instrument appearing on another instrument’s track).  The disadvantage of using partitions is that the musicians can’t see each other, but experienced musicians seem to be able to cope with this all right.  From left to right the musicians were arranged: violin, cello, flute, horn, with the piano centrally placed behind the other instrumentalists. 

Preparing for the session

So you have written the music, engaged the musicians, hired the studio, what next?  Unless you are on a very generous budget it is unlikely that you will be able to have a full rehearsal before the recording.  Musicians will quite rightly expect to be paid extra for this.  So you may find yourself in the position of not having heard the music performed before the recording session. There are a few things you can do to minimise the risk.  Copy out the parts and send them to the musicians before the session.  Most musicians will not go into the studio unprepared if they have the chance to do a little preparation, even if it is playing through their parts.  I would say that most professional musicians will do this preparation.  One tip about prepaaring parts is to make sure that there are no page turns as it is impossible to turn a page silently.  With a little planning this is achievable.  Well-placed rehearsal numbers can be very useful.  Carefully proof-read the parts before you send them off.

At this stage it is crucial that you make a plan.  You will already have given some thought about the amount of music that you can record in the session.  There is nothing wrong with preparing too much – it is much worse to prepare too little.  Imagine having half and hour of a session with nothing to do:  time you are paying for but achieving nothing!  Every session must include a break for the musicians so include this in your plan. While the musicians are having their cups of tea or coffee you, however, will not be idle: you can review tracks already recorded and assess how your plan is going.  The sound engineer may not take breaks, but you should invite them to have a break too. 

Making a session plan

My plan for the first three sessions of Labyrinth is below, exactly as I took it into the studio.

There are some alternative versions of tracks in the plan.  These involve simple changes in scoring, e.g. the cello plays pizzicato instead of arco.  As the music was originally intended for use as production music 60s and 30s versions of each track are planned for.  These could have edited out later, but it is often best to write separate 60s and 30s versions of  tracks.  Apart from anything else this is a very interesting composition exercise as you have to make a condensed version of the piece, or distill the essence of the piece, in 30s or 60s.  Quite a challenge.  The plan should include more than can be recorded and also make a useful checklist: when you have recorded a track tick it off so that you know exactly what you have recorded.  There is one tracked we recorded which is not on the plan.  This is a version of  Thetis for piano solo, which is just the piano part without the instrumental accompaniment.

Barry Mitchell Recording, Olympic Studios, Locrian Ensemble, 24 & 25 October, 2002.

SESSION 1, Thurs 24 0ct 2-5pm

 

All session 1 scored for flute, violin, cello, horn.

 

Zebedee (must do)

With the repeat at the end and then a coda.

Ignore pencilled repeats in the middle.

 

Zebedee 30s edit scored separately

 

Zebedee 60s edit, with pencilled repeats at the end and then end at bar 24 (34 bars total)

 

Zebedee alt.1 (must do)      

Ignore pencilled repeats in the middle.

With repeat at the end, then coda.

cello arco

no extra edits

 

Zebedee alt.2 (must do)

Binary form repeat pattern: AABB +coda

cello pizz

no extra edits

 

Note: combine Pogo, Pogo alt.1 & Pogo Alt.2 into one continuous track

 

Fast Train(must do)

with repeats

 

Fast Train 60s edit  Rehearsal fig. A bars 31-76

Fast Train 30s edit scored separately

 

Busy Street (must do)

with the repeat

 

Busy Street 30s edit scored separately

Busy Street 60s edit scored separately

 

Thetis (must do)

 

Thetis 60s edit bars

Thetis 30s edit bars

 

Fast Train alt.1 (if time)

cello arco

 

Fast Train alt.1 60s edit rehearsal fig.A bars 31-76

Fast Train alt.2 30s edit scored separately

 

Busy Street alt.(if time)

different horn part, edits as above (only horn part different)

 

Busy Street alt. 60s edit

Busy Street alt. 30s edit

 

 

SESSION 2 Fri 25 0ct 10.00-1.00

 

Sessions 2& 3, all scored for piano, flute, violin, horn, cello.

 

Athena (must do)

 

Athena 60s edit 1, bars 1-24

 

Athena 60s edit 2 bars 32-55 (do if time)

 

Athena 30s edit bars 44-55

 

Spanish Steps (must do)

 

Spanish Steps 60s edit, 47-84 beat 1, or 1-38 beat 1

Spanish Steps 30s edit, bars 28-46 or 74-end

 

Three Graces (must do)

 

Three Graces 30s edit scored separately

Three Graces 60s edit bars 13-44 in score A , with alternative half bar ending

 

Divine (must do)

 

Divine 60s edit scored separately

Divine 30s edit scored separately

 

If any spare time, start on the next session’s pieces.

 

SESSION 3 Fri 25, 2-5pm

 

Serenity (must do)

 

Serenity 60s edit scored separately

Serenity 30s edit separately, parts no score

 

Summer Afternoon (must do)

 

Summer Afternoon 60s edit bars 4-54, violin and cello silent in first bar 4

Summer Afternoon 30s edit 38-62, A, F not FF

 

Mysterious sign (do if time)

 

Fast Train alt.2 (do if time)

with cello playing first note of each bar only and piano playing the bass line & some melody

 

Fast Train alt.2 60s edit bars 31-76

Fast Train alt.2 30s edit bars scored separately

 

Athena alt.1 (if time – low priority)

cello pizz until bar 57, otherwise exactly the same

 

Athena alt.1 60s edit

bars 1-24

 

Athena alt.1 30s edit

no need to record – exactly the same as before

 

On the day of the recording

Finally the day of the recording arrives.  You must get to the studio early.  The musicians probably won’t arrive until near the beginning of the session, but you must be early.  This is vital.  The sound engineer may be there early and if so, you can discuss the set up with him or her.  The piano tuner may be there working and he might have some useful points to make.  The studio should have set up any partitions etc,and the engineer will look after the technical aspects of the setup.  When the musicians arrive you should have the setup ready or very nearly ready.  So when the musicians arrive, you plunge into recording as soon as possible.  No – this is tempting but it is not the best way to do things.  First, don’t forget to welcome everyone to the session and to thank them for taking part .  Try to create a good atmosphere, i.e. relaxed and friendly.  No one is going to play well if they are uptight and the session should be enjoyable.  And don’t forget, the studio is set up, the sound engineer is there, the musicians are all there – the hard bit is over  and you are 80% there.  The rest should be plain sailing.  Not that you should relax of course.  Let the musicians settle in and make themselves comfortable.  Don’t rush them- this will just make you look like an amateur.  They will have to tune up, put headphones on, settle down, get used to the situation.  Allow time for all this.  Appear relaxed about all this even if you are keen to start recording.  One of the keys to successful use of studio time is always to use it constructively.  If the musicians are settling down why not discuss the set up with the sound engineer, or make sure that everyone has the right parts?  Or give your plan a last minute checkup?  Or make sure that all the musicians have a bottle of water.  Keep busy!

Eventually you will be ready for a run through of the first piece.  At this stage the engineer will have to set the recording levels and the mix.  For classical music the mix should remain the same throughout the session as classical music is self-balancing.  Constantly tinkering with the mix will waste time and distract from the main focus which should be on recording a good performances.  Record everything, as you never know what will come in useful later on.  Once everyone has settled in the process of recording should be straightforward.  Play through each piece, listen to the take and record again if necessary.  I recommend listening to every take twice.  There is a tendency to want to get on with recording, but a recording session is as much about listening as playing so do not be afraid to listen to a take twice or even more. If one particular passage is causing problems it may be best to record a drop-in , i.e. to record only the section that is causing the problem.  But it is much preferable to get a good take of a track played in its entirety.  And if the pieces are short, it will not take too long to record a whole take. 

A model for recording a track is:

  • intial run-through (recorded)
  • take 1: if this is good listen to twice, fix any problems by recording drop-ins
  • take 2: a back up, if this is good listen to twice and record drop-ins as necessary

This will give three recordings of the track and some extra material to be used as drop-ins. 

You may  have to cope with the temptations of perfectionism.  Try to stick to your plan and not spend more time on a piece than you have indicated on the plan.  If a take is very good but not perfect it is best to move on.  Ask the sound engineer about his opinion of the take if in doubt.  If he thinks it is acceptable – and he is likely to be objective –  then that should be all right for you.  Your aim is to record an album – not make a perfect recording of two or three tracks.  Don’t be too attached to your own opinion.  At the end of the session there may be time left over.  It is worth going back and recording again some earlier tracks.  Everyone will be relaxed and this may be the best take of all.  But what if it starts going wrong?  What if you start falling behind?  The most important thing is not to panic.  Try to think through any problems and come up with practical solutions.  If you are on a low budget there is very little margin for error, so it can be stressful when it starts to go wrong. 

Whatever the problems, do not be tempted to over run the session.  You have contracted the musicians for a certain period of time and you should stick to that.  Thank everyone at the end of the session and congratulate them on a job well done.

You should take away from the session a back up of everthing recorded on tape or CD Rom and an audio reference CD.  The tracks will need to be mastered before the final audio CD can be produced.  The studio will keep a back up of the session in their archives.  There is a charge for requesting a copy of the back up.

The end result

The title track Labyrinth is used in this video.

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