I am starting this the day before I head to Manchester to rehearse and record with the Aurea Quartet so I can do a check-list as much for you as for myself.
- Scores printed and marked up (inc. possible take points)
- MU/BPI Session Agreements printed to be signed after recording
- Confirmed PRS registration of all works (not needed but will save time when time is short)
- Check click-track
- Back-up and clear space on phone for photos
- Confirm arrangements with performers and studio
That’s it I think. At this point it doesn’t seem like there is much to do but I know the next three days is going to be pretty intense.
If you haven’t already check out my previous blog posts in this series:
Arrived in Manchester and headed to Rosemary’s flat to rehearse. The Aurea Quartet had already been working on the pieces for most of the day before I arrived.
The piece I was most nervous about hearing was my Quartet No. 6 Ma because we hadn’t worked on any of it before. We had workshopped bits of Quartet No. 5 in December but 6 was totally new. It all went well though, some tweaks, a few problems (typical missed time signature changes despite loads of checking!) but nothing unusual for a rehearsal.
Was a pretty early start by my standards. Was staying with Abby (the cellist of the quartet) who lives about 90 mins away from the studio. So leaving her house at 8.30am… gah! Didn’t help I didn’t get much sleep because of being nervous about how the day would go. Nothing specific I could do anything about, just the general nebulous ‘what if…’ that can go through your head.
As a small tangent I read this earlier on I Care if You Listen which I found interesting – Staying Composed: When Everything Going Right May Still Feel Wrong.
I’d booked Airtight Studios with Seadna McPhail as the engineer for the two days and I was producing and running the session myself. A few years ago I thought I could do it all myself but I’ve increasingly come to understand the limits of the number of jobs I can do at once. Even though I CAN do something doesn’t mean I SHOULD do it while doing another job. This is the same with The Night With… and was the reason for the change. One concert I tried to do the live sound, run the box office and sort out all the concert logistics. In rehearsal it wasn’t going well but thankfully I realised and asked one of the other composers involved for a hand.
The way the session worked:
- Seadna setup the room and the mics
- We had a listen to check if we are happy
- Made some tweaks
- Checked again
- Started recording
With the above done we were about to start recording properly but there was an issue. Something about the way the room was setup and the distance between Julian (violin 1) and Abby (cello) created a weird standing wave. It meant that from where Julian was sitting Abby wasn’t holding a steady note to tune to but it was fine and stable for everyone else.
The easiest option was move where everyone was sitting and re-set the room. This caused another issue to appear – the cello being picked up on all the mics because the new setup meant the quartet were closer together. To combat this Seadna pretty much built Abby a small isolation booth with a blanket and a mic isolation shield. This reduced bleed substantially to a level I was happy with.
Fixing all of the problems meant that we’d just spent about 45 mins of the 3h session setting up and then moving things. If we only had one session I would have been getting very stressed but with four booked over two days I was pretty calm and glad we spent the time to fix it.
After all of that the first piece went pretty smoothly with no issues. The only problem was in my early morning state, I had forgotten to get biscuits for the break!
For those that are interested had a Bock U47 with a stereo pair of SM81s as room mics, Beyerdynamic MC740n on the violins, Blue Dragonfly on the viola and an Omni Oktava on the cello. My plan for mixing was always mainly use the close mics and add a nice reverb on but always good to have a room mic as well.
During the recording I was following the score, making notes on takes, making decisions on what to keep or throw away, asking to do another take, making comments to the musicians etc. Seadna ran Pro-tools and made sure everything was captured that needed to be.
The main list on the left is the take number, what bars that take comprises of and some notes on the take.
For speed I use:
- [blank] or X = bad or rehearsal take (though these sometimes make it into the final edit)
- ~ = ok take, something good
- √ = good take, viable choice
- √√ = probably the one
I try and make a few comments beside the take but often there isn’t time. I also try and build a suggested edit list while I’m going to be able to quickly build an edit either in the session or save time later in the process.
There’s also often some markings on the score itself but they are mainly to help give feedback to the musicians after the take.
After the initial issues at the start of the day everything else went really smoothly. We managed to finish recording the second piece with enough time to check the setup for the next day. Day 3 would be just one 20 min piece but that we knew would take a lot of work.
The previous evening, I had spent some time in the garden stitching together the rough edit of the first two pieces to make sure it all sounded ok and we had everything. Look at the view I had while doing it!
We had everything we needed and I was completely blown away by Quartet No. 6 (remember the one I was really nervous about?!) but there was an issue with the other one. For some reason there was a hum through the whole recording from Julian’s close mic. It wasn’t a total problem because you could only hear it in the quiet bits, which we had time to re-recording, and I also know the power of denoising software so I wasn’t worried.
The first thing I did was say how pleased I was with Quartet No. 6 and give the players a heads up about the noise issue. Then had a chat with Seadna about de-noising. He gave it a go and could get rid of it without an issue so no need to re-record anything!
Then onto recording. The first session of the day went well, and we finished the first movement in 2h30. It’s difficult because it was really slow, but we got there. Took an early lunch in preparation for the even harder second movement.
We all knew the second movement was going to be the hardest because of the speed and the syncopated nature of it (also a stupid notation decision on my part messed things up!) but the quartet worked hard and we got there, finishing the day an hour earlier than expected. I’d booked in 2x 3h sessions for this day and we managed to not need 1h30 of them. Its a sizable chunk of time but I would have rather had extra time we didn’t need than having to rush to squeeze everything in.
One thing I’ve learnt about producing sessions is it is a mix of psychology and musical decision making. You need to try and read the mood of the room to know when to ask for another take, know if the comment you are going to give is useful or just to say ‘that was good can you give me one more so I have an option’. Usually it’s best to let the musicians breath and make their own comments to eachother before adding your own. Often they cover what you are going to say anyway and then if they don’t you can add in your two cents.
Think of it like a rehearsal but with a magnifying glass. There’s no need to say ‘you didn’t play that bar’ because they know that but saying ‘there was a noise at bar 64 in that take’ is useful. It might be something that just happened by chance or something to do with the instrument that you only hear with a mic close by. Either way it is an explanation as to why the otherwise good take needs redone and maybe the player can change something so the noise doesn’t happen.
It can also be useful to know when to give up on going over one section that isn’t quite right, move onto something else or take a break and then come back to it. With recording you don’t need to do everything in a linear way because you can edit it all together at the end. Though linear is easier in post-production and try to be realistic on where you can edit. Sometimes you can get away with a really blunt edit, other times not. But you won’t know until you sit down to do it.
But we got there! Three pieces and 46 mins of music recorded in two days! Time for a post recording session pint.
On the way back to Glasgow my train from Manchester to Preston was cancelled. Got the below note from the ticket office. Felt a bit like getting a note from my parents to get out of PE!