Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Recording Tips

In June, the Helton-Thomas Duo recorded the first CD devoted entirely to original works written for saxophone and cello:

Edison Denisov – Sonata (1994)
Libby Larsen – Bid Call (2002)
Augusta Read Thomas – Lake Reflecting Stars with Moonrise (2008)
Dorothy Chang – Walk on Water (2004)
Mark Engebretson – Four Short Songs: a certain sadness (1991)
Jonathan Elliott – Field Music: Ash (2005)

The recording sessions were held in Steinbrenner Hall on the campus of the University of Florida.  This is a large, exceptionally quiet hall that proved acoustically ideal for our purposes.  The recording was done by Candlewood Digital (www.candlewooddigital.com) of  New Fairfield, Connecticut.  Wayne Hileman was the producer, and Richard Price engineered the disc.

Recording is an extremely demanding exercise.  It bears little resemblance to performing. We recorded for four days, five-and-a-half hours to seven-and-a-half  hours per day. While recording, the senses are heightened and the pressure is on to perform everything perfectly, over and over again. A concert performance lasts maybe 90 minutes and everything flies by once. Performers don’t get tired, and the excitement and energy brought to the event by the audience is revitalizing.  But in the recording studio there is no applause.  Every “take” is under the microscope.  Should we re-do that section because the nuance of one note was not exactly right?  Do the performers have the chops to play that lick 10 more times?  Is there time?

This is the second solo disc I have recorded with world-class producers and recording engineers.  (The first was recorded in Prague in 2004 and released in 2010.)  Here are a few tips on making a great recording:

Hire the best producer and engineer you can afford.  In this day of super-available technology, some musicians want to save money and record themselves.  While this may be fun, exciting, and a lot of hard work, it won’t result in the best product.  Professional recording companies bring with them amazing equipment—most notably, microphones worth thousands of dollars each that can make a huge difference in the sound of your recording.  Perhaps more importantly, they bring a couple of additional sets of experienced ears to the recording studio.  They can hear if something is not exactly in tune or exactly together.  They make sure all your articulations are consistent, the balance is right, and the music is performed as it is written.  They hold you to a higher standard.  It’s like having 25 hours of private lessons in one week!  Working with talented producers can be a tremendous opportunity for growth as a performer.

Be prepared. Know your music cold.  It is best to have performed the music many, many times before entering the recording studio. In order to make the best use of your time in the studio, you need to be able to play the pieces over and over again, consistently.

Get in shape.  This is something we don’t think about much, but recording sessions are long and grueling.  They take more chops and much more physical and mental energy than we routinely put into our art.  Practice, yes, but also make sure you are in top physical condition.   This will pay off at the end of every day of recording.

Be patient.  Keep your sense of humor. A good producer will help you to feel comfortable in the studio.  You will get a good take, eventually.  If you are relaxed and enjoying your music, you will get a good result.

Plan to use two or three reeds for one CD.  Your reeds will die.  They will get waterlogged.  They will crack.  This much playing is tough on reeds.

Plan for the effects of travel.  If you travel to a recording studio, give yourself time to get over jet lag.  Make sure to keep your reeds in a humidity-controlled environment; you really don’t want to get to the studio and have no working reeds.

Take care of yourself.  Sleep well; watch what you eat and drink.  You need to be at your best for several days.

Wear warm socks.  You won’t wear shoes while recording!

Music for Saxophone and Cello with Jonathan Helton, saxophone and Steven Thomas, cello, will be released in early 2012 on the Centaur label.