Saturday morning quotes 5.45: Recording 2016
It’s been quite a while since we posted a short essay on recording the lute; in fact it was nearly six years ago, right around the time we initiated our series of weekly Saturday quotations. The post was not part of our regular Saturday series and readers continue to stumble across the essay as a summary of what is rather a multidimensional issue. Six years of performing live and recording have passed since the original post and we pause to consider those many dimensions. In the interim the entire field of making and distributing recordings has been turned on its head, and we revisit the topic with some additional insights and observations from a few different perspectives.
Since we 1) pride ourselves on having built our reputation as early music specialists from entirely outside of the conventional commercial mainstream world of early music, and 2) we work with a budget that frequently involves counting out pennies from our jar of loose change, we learned to record on a shoestring and have developed a working relationship with a handful of recording engineers, none of whom had previous experience with our particular sort of music.
Our first complete recording was engineered by Dean Baskerville, who at the time had just been honored for his work with pop singer Sheryl Crow, and he kindly sandwiched our project in between sessions with the band Everclear. Dean embraced the challenge of recording our music with enthusiasm and pragmatism. When Donna was carefully positioned in front of a very expensive microphone that Dean had chosen, her first words were “I’m probably the only singer in the world who has never dreamed of being a recording artist.” Dean successfully put her at ease and our very first test recording, a song chosen because of its range of lows and highs, turned out quite well.
We went on to record our first CD, Divine Amarillis in less than 10 hours time, including mixing, mastering and one single edit where we spliced a better complete second verse on one song. If you aren’t involved in recording, you might not understand—or care—that this is a bit minimalist. The end result was not exactly what we had hoped for but we had drained our meager finances by moving across the country and decided to just leave it the way it was.
A few years later (2009) the CD won an award for the best “classical” vocal recording on behalf of an organization called Just Plain Folks. We have no idea who entered the recording in their competition—in fact we kept deleting the notices telling us that we had won an award until they finally sent us a very direct personal message. What this experience told us was that our particular approach to music appealed to a very broad audience, and we have since taken it as a challenge to continue to reach that broad audience by categorizing and cataloguing our recordings of very transparent early music among many diverse non-early music genres. Judging by the number and diversity of people who contact us with kind words about our music, it has been a successful move.
We have since worked with a number of different engineers across the country and it has been a learning experience for us and for the engineers. The first thing we do when working with a new engineer is have them read an excellent article, “Recording the lute”, by John Taylor, published in the (UK) Lute News No. 62 (June 2002). Taylor has recorded some of our top lutenists and his observations translate as essential baseline information that every engineer should know before they even plug in a microphone. His first observation is that the lute “is impossible to play” and that playing the instrument is like constantly “walking on eggshells”. Taylor discusses optimal microphone placement and the different ways one can manage recording in a very resonant space. But the beauty of the instrument’s sound and the reinforcing synergy of the space can be completely undone if there is the least amount of background noise present.
Other perspectives from those involved in recording early music can often be quite applicable to the process of recording the lute, for instance Ralph Kirkpatrick’s detailed description of recording the clavichord. We can also learn from producers with experience in recording a broad range of early vocal and instrumental music. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood had this to say about recording a viol consort:
“Tempermental, fickle and bolshy, [viols] can simply refuse to come out and play. If the executor is tired or under strain, the viol like Fido will have the sixth sense to follow his master. The challenges for player and producer can therefore become compounded by ‘organic’ period instruments: the sound of a viol consort changes in minutes, the instruments affected by temperature, humidity and clammy or frozen hands. Early takes can be fresh and alive or under-nourished, even scratchy. There is no knowing how quickly the sound will settle and gel.”
– Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, “A question of balance”, Gramophone Early Music, Winter 1999/2000, pp. 48-49.
Anyone who has attempted to record the lute can draw an exact parallel from these words. The main difference is that the lute is even more difficult to manage because it’s even more lightly-built and the fingertips of both hands are involved in tone production at a microscopic level of detail. Freeman-Attwood also points out the differences between a live concert and the rigors of the recording process:
“Adrenalin flows in a live performance but often needs to be manufactured in a studio when the piece in question may already have been played six times in the past hour – without an audience – and still calls for a thrilling extra take at the crucial moment. Musicians can get tired, disillusioned, and plain difficult, like anyone else. Added to which studio nerve is quite different from the steel nerve a performer must wheel out for the exposed solo in a live broadcast. Here, it is all about setting the mind to do the job again and again: as if for the first time after it has gone wrong; then doing it again when someone questions the effectiveness of the articulation; not getting over-wrought when your best take is ruined by the Concorde; then yet again when the producer tells you it’s infinitesimally flat.”
– Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, p. 45.
In the Lute News article referenced above, John Taylor lays out for all to see the soiled linen of the world of lute recordings by pointing out that most recordings are spliced together from many takes, right down to individual notes if necessary. He estimates that the average lute recording has at least 200 edits, and that it is rumored that some recordings have up to 2000 edits.
Despite this very modern standard of manufactured perfection, we are committed to performing music that has genuine human emotional content. We are also committed to working with a minimum of technological interference, and our current recording projects are all completely live—meaning we perform each piece until it is right from start to finish. The resulting recording may not be absolutely perfect, but it is perfectly human.