Life of an Editor: Recording

Today’s post is 0% about classical piano literature, but recording is pretty central to my job and some of the other publishing I work on. Since I’ve made seven trips to the recording studio in the last three weeks, this seems like a good time to talk about it.

Hal Leonard led the sheet music industry in packaging recordings with books starting in the 1960s. Now, at the time of writing, we have a library of thousands of unique tracks that correspond to different musical theatre songs, art songs, opera arias, arrangements of Christmas carols, concertos and instrumental repertoire, and more. If you pick up a Hal Leonard publication that touts “Online Audio” or includes CDs, those accompaniment tracks were often recorded by one of several Hal Leonard staff members, including me, or by outside pianists who have contributed thousands of tracks over the years (Philadelphia-based Laura Ward is probably the most prolific virtual classical vocal accompanist).

The intention behind these packages is to give singers and instrumentalists something with which to practice, or to potentially perform for an audition or some other setting. For the piano accompaniments, some of the music is very difficult to play, so we think there’s value in being able to hear the piano part in isolation and to be able to practice with it without requiring a professional pianist. When it comes to “free tempo” sections, ritards, and fermatas, we can only approximate the timing a singer or player might take. But the goal is to make the tracks as useful as possible, and faithful representations of the music. Recording accompaniments purely as piano solos, without imagining the voice or instrument line, is useless. It must function as an accompaniment.

Before a trip to the studio, there’s always a lot of prep work, some of which happens as early as the initial concept meeting for a publication. The number of new tracks to record affects the production budget of a book, so it’s an important consideration. For example, in the upcoming Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology (SMTA) Vol. 7, we wanted to include “Let It Go” from Frozen the Musical. So we asked ourselves: Did we previously record it? The answer was yes; I recorded the movie version of the song for a project last year. But then there were the follow-up questions: Is it in the same key as the version we’re using? Is the form the same? Is the content of the piano accompaniment the same as what we’re printing? Unfortunately, the new version of “Let It Go” from Frozen the Musical was both in a different key and had some differences in the piano part. Thus, I had to let the cold not bother me a second time.

The next stage of prep involves examining music pages to see if there are any challenges for recording: the voice or instrument starting right away without any piano intro, long pauses, dialogue elements or vamps, free/ad lib sections, etc. We work out all of these potential issues, editing the music as necessary.

Then there’s a meeting where we decide who’s playing what. We had several hundred tracks to record recently, some recorded by me and others by a local pianist who has done fine work for us. We spent many hours practicing on our own, trying to master dozens of songs.

So a recording day goes like this. The pianist and the producer go to a studio in downtown Milwaukee in the morning. Both of us bring large folders of the music. Each song is numbered on the music pages and also referenced on a spreadsheet that we mark up to track our overall progress. Our engineer at the studio has the pianist play some loud moments to calibrate sound and check microphone placement, and then we get started. The producer sits in the booth with the engineer, following the proofs of the music until the pianist makes a mistake or otherwise has to stop (maybe to lay out the next few pages in a longer song). The producer chooses a good place to resume, usually backtracking a couple measures, and marks an edit point on the music. Some songs are easy enough to get through on the first try, in a “clean take,” but often it takes longer. The hardest songs might be tediously segmented in short chunks, and it may take a few minutes just to get past one tricky section. I think my worst session for a song on this project ended up with thirteen or fourteen edits, and I got up from the piano feeling pretty horrible.

When I’m playing a song with technical landmines, sometimes I think of it as a videogame where I’m repeatedly trying to conquer one obstacle, and keep returning to a checkpoint for each new take. Sometimes the engineer will let the take roll and I try a few times to nail the spot, then move on if I get it. Later this will all be stitched together during the editing process until it sounds like a continuous, seamless whole. So if you’re ever amazed at how we roll through these tough musical theatre numbers and nail every technical hurdle, let it be known that we’re not perfect! The studio magic covers up our numerous failed attempts.

Recording has a very different vibe from live performance, and it’s made me appreciate the classical pianists who have somehow been able to leave authentic representations of their art in recordings. The combination of frustration, perfectionism, and the feeling of urgency about this being the one version of a piece of music can sometimes lead to all sorts of neuroses and mental blocks in the studio. Exhaustion can set in when you’ve been playing the piano, heavily, most of the day.

The editing process is less physically demanding but still mentally taxing. I spend hours with the engineer, calling out edit points as he rolls each take, and occasionally listening back to the whole song to make sure the form is right. Some songs have the same texture and motives throughout and are easy to mess up. After all the edits are done, we must listen to everything in a “listening proof” to make sure everything is correct.

The final step is organizing all the finished audio files and submitting them for CDs or adding them to Hal Leonard’s MyLibrary service, where they are hopefully used and enjoyed by singers everywhere.

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