I am presently in the throes of producing my fourth classical music album. Even over the relatively short span of years that I’ve been making them, the process has changed dramatically. First of all, we used to say we were making “a CD,” but now we call it “an album” because so many consumers obtain music as a digital download and no longer even own a compact disc player. “Album” covers both possibilities, or even vinyl records now back in fashion.
Without attempting to list exactly 10 lessons, I will try to explain in easy language several aspects of today’s recording scene.
Changes in Recording Music Today, Demystified
When I first used a commercial recording studio in the late 1990s, it happened to be the famous RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee. I was there recording my classical harp concerto with a symphony orchestra, using the same massive mixing boards and tape recorders with 15-inch-wide reels used by the country music legends. By then, though, the big recorders were using digital tape rather than the old kind of magnetic tape, but they still took up a lot of space and had to be kept in a “cold room” off to the side of the recording booth and controlled remotely from the booth because they put out so much heat.
A few years later, I dropped in on a friend’s session at one of the other big Nashville studios and noticed that people had thrown their jackets over some of this multimillion-dollar kind of equipment, and the engineer was recording all the tracks of the session on a computer. The computer screen had a picture of a mixing board, with virtual sliding knobs that you could move up and down with a mouse. I was told they really didn’t know what to do with all the now-obsolete physical equipment, so it sat there gathering dust, and jackets.
Eventually, this obsolete equipment was mostly sold off at a discount to someone who could still use it and then to another, and eventually it reached the end of its useful life or was dismantled for parts. The same would happen in succeeding years with a few more generations of early digital equipment until the top studios had migrated to today’s latest software. Audio engineers still do like the hands-on feel of a physical (but now digital) mixing board, in combination with computer screens. Older microphones, for their part, did not go away but became even more prized for their realism in capturing sound. My third album was recorded in 2017 with a vintage (1969) stereo pair of German microphones that now sell online for a whopping $7,500.
What Happens Before a Classical Recording Session?
A great deal of preparation, sometimes comparable to planning a wedding, must be done before the recording session, especially for classical music. Of course, the music must first be composed, which can take months. My new album will have on it my new symphony that took me around two years to compose, with a conductor’s score of over 200 pages. Imagine writing a novel with thousands of notes instead of words, not to mention writing it on 11- by 17-inch paper.
Someone must play the music, once it is composed, and in fact the idea of making a recording may come from the performers or ensemble themselves. They may be the ones who recruit or “commission” the composer to write it so they can have something original to record. Or a composer may first write music and then go out looking for an orchestra or chamber musicians to record it, and that typically involves finding the money to pay them.
If it is a recording played by union musicians, they get a higher fee (“recording rate”) than their normal performance rate. There are also special rules in a union session, like a certain amount of break time the musicians must be given during the session. A small “cartage” fee must be paid to players of larger instruments, like the string basses and tubas, to “cart” those instruments to the session. This originated, I am told, in New York, when those players had to pay for an extra ticket for a bus seat on which to transport their instrument. Here in Nashville, the fee is still required, though they usually drive up to the door in their own car with that instrument.
In the United States, union recording fees can amount to a cost of a hundred thousand dollars just to pay the musicians of a full orchestra to play the music for a classical album. That is why you may increasingly notice new classical recordings being made by Eastern European orchestras, in particular, because their fees can be a fraction of that. Wherever it may be recorded, an album requires a full budget to be planned in advance to pay not only the musicians but also the studio rental and recording engineers and later post-production fees. Nowadays, record companies will not risk advancing this money and then recouping it from album sales, because classical recordings rarely even come close to breaking even through sales. So they must be paid in advance, typically through grants or private philanthropy, which must be applied for or raised far in advance—and that can take months.
When and How Is Classical Music Recorded?
A classical orchestra recording often entails a public performance first, since the musicians often learn and rehearse the music first, anyway, so they might as well put it on their season of concerts. To save money on recording sessions in a rented studio, the orchestral concert itself is typically recorded live in its regular concert hall with an audience, and also at the dress rehearsal the day before, without an audience. The concert recording may have coughing or other disruptive noises from the audience, and so those spots in the music, excerpted from the “clean” dress rehearsal, can be edited in with surgical precision to remove the coughs. Or if the musicians made mistakes like playing wrong notes in the same spot in the music, both at the dress and in the concert, there can be a third “spotting session” where they play only those passages again and get them right so that those corrections can be edited in.
Typically, there will be a main “center pair” of microphones placed over the conductor that capture the room’s natural mixture of the full orchestra. Additional “spot mics” will be placed on certain instruments or sections of the orchestra so that those can be turned up or down later. Even so, the ideal is to capture the natural blend of the orchestra in the room as much as possible. This differs from some popular music, where the parts might be separately recorded in isolation booths or even on different days, and then mixed together later.
Not only are the best moments from multiple playings of the music edited seamlessly together into a near perfect performance (something like Photoshop in sound), the post-production engineers can use artificial, digital “reverb” to make the recordings sound as if the musicians are playing in a great concert hall or even a haunting cathedral, perhaps, with some instruments sounding more distant than others, for depth, and the sound can be moved further to the left or right of the stereo field. Then, the finished recording must have a CD booklet created and the album marketed for sale in both physical and digital versions, even as books now are.
These have been, at least, the “10 easy lessons” in my title, so what is the “hard” one? I’m torn between answering that the hard one is the years of learning to skillfully compose beautiful music, or the years of practicing to perform it beautifully, or sometimes hardest of all, finding the funds to record it!
American composer Michael Kurek is the composer and producer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album, “The Sea Knows,” and a member of the Grammy Producers and Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy. He is Professor Emeritus of Composition at Vanderbilt University. The most recent of his many awards for composition was being named in March, 2022 “Composer Laureate of the State of Tennessee” by the Tennessee State Legislature and governor. For more information and music, visit Michaelkurek.com