By Sarah Freiberg | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Your chamber group is about to go into the recording studio, which is a big commitment—and not just monetarily. You might be in a duo, trio, or quartet; you may have been together for a long time or very briefly. But any small ensemble that wants or needs to make a recording faces the same challenges upon entering the studio. These tips from pros can help you do so most effectively, efficiently, and without too much drama.
Here are 6 tips for an efficient, harmonious classical ensemble recording experience:
- Record in Rehearsals
- Accommodate the Space
- Trust Your Collaborators
- Be Supportive
- Embrace Imperfection
What you do before you record is paramount. You have precious little time in the recording studio—don’t waste it rehearsing. You should know your own parts inside and out and have spent lots of time practicing together. Elizabeth Field, violinist and co-director of the Vivaldi Project, suggests “lots of slow practice in your rehearsals. And perform the repertoire as much as you can, in a variety of places and circumstances.” It doesn’t matter if you play for a family member in your living room or outside to passersby. You want to challenge yourselves to be able to concentrate in any situation.
After performances, discuss what worked and what didn’t. But don’t argue about it. Cellist Phoebe Carrai’s advice is to “rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Followed by wine, of course!” I think this is excellent advice—practice as hard as you can but don’t forget to unwind and relax afterward. Create a positive bond with your group so that you can enter the studio as a chamber ensemble, not individuals trying to be heard separately.
2. Record in Rehearsals
Rely on an objective “listener.” David Tayler, co-director of Voices of Music, which produces music videos, offers this advice: “During the rehearsal period, it’s helpful both to take a few snaps of what things are looking like and also record some of the audio.” What you record on is not nearly as important as listening to what you record. Your phone or tablet will do the job just fine. You are not listening for great sound but for the basics. Says Taylor, “Crucially during this review process, check your tuning and ensemble and make fixing any issues part of the rehearsal and preparation process. In post-production, tuning and ensemble are 95 percent of the edits. It’s much better to fix these things in rehearsal than in post or in a patch session. This will also allow you to have longer takes.”
3. Accommodate the Space
Finding an acoustic space will be one of your major challenges. Are you going to be in a dry recording studio? An echoing church? Preferably somewhere in between. Ideally you can rehearse in advance of the recording. But, if not, try to find a similar-sounding place and get comfortable with it. Depending on the recording setup, you may be able to play as you are used to doing, but you may also be further apart from each other. This depends on microphone placement.
My cello duo, Tutti Bassi, recently recorded in a chapel where our harpsichordist was placed behind us on a higher level, and we couldn’t see him at all. The sound of the chapel was wonderful, but it was not a soundproof recording studio—and we were almost derailed by lawnmowers! Anything can happen, even in the most soundproof of places. I remember hearing that a lute player’s recording was almost destroyed by the sound of one buzzing fly. In preparation, try playing back-to-back or in the far corners of your rehearsal space and still try to be as together as possible.
4. Trust Your Collaborators
Once you step into the recording studio, you are handing the process over to the professionals. Field says, “I think the truly essential ingredient is an engineer/producer with whom the group is totally comfortable, and that collaboration needs to be positive and supportive.” You may have a separate recording engineer from your producer, or it may be one and the same person. Either way, you are relying on their expertise, experience, and ears. You need to trust them and let them do their jobs. During the setup process, they may allow you to put on headphones, listen to the sound they have created, and provide your input, but in the end, it is their call.
5. Be Supportive
You’ve made it to the studio—make sure to leave your baggage at the door. This is not the place or time for bickering. Concentrate on doing your best no matter how easy or hard your part is. If someone else has a really difficult lick and they nail it, you don’t want to have ruined their perfect take because you weren’t paying attention. Keeping your focus is key. Relax between takes, but concentrate like crazy when recording. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss something—it can get fixed by the recording wizards.
6. Embrace Imperfection
Roy Whelden of the Galax Quartet and American Baroque offers this observation: “I’ve noticed that the recordings that I’ve listened to repeatedly are those that might have ‘flaws’—they may not be ‘pristine.’ What I find more interesting than the flawless and the pristine is a deep understanding of the music. It’s not always easy to achieve, but that is what really speaks to me.”
You want your recording to show your group’s personality and not sound soulless. Long ago, I made a trio recording where I had to play quite high, and in the first take, I was slightly out of tune. Later, we went back to fix that measure, and I nailed it. But when we chose the final take, we went with the first one because it sounded so natural and musical, despite the questionable intonation.
Good luck in your next recording. I hope these tips help make it a great one!