On recording my new album with Virginia Read

Nothing awkward about working with this passionate recording engineer to create the colourful sound worlds on my new album.

For any recording artist, one of the most exciting moments of the process of making an album is the moment when you're presented with a cardboard box full of freshly baked CDs. Yes, yes, yes, I know the future (present?) is digital downloads, but the feeling of finality when you receive an hard copy simply cannot be replicated! When I walked away from the ABC Centre in Ultimo with 25 copies of The Good, the Bad and the Awkward I found myself taking a moment to consider all the people who were so vital to its production. One of the most important people in this process is the recording engineer. I have had the great pleasure and privilege of working on this album with ABC Classics engineer Virginia Read, and spoke to her about her thoughts on the recording process.

Sally: You've had quite a few years' experience working in the classical music recording industry, with a great variety of artists both here and abroad. What would you say are the most important qualities for a recording engineer who specialises in classical music, as opposed to those working in other genres?

Virginia: The most important skill an engineer needs to have to record classical music is a good knowledge of the music itself. It’s really important to go to concerts and hear how music is performed and how it sounds in concert venues. When going to set up the microphones, an engineer needs to have a good idea in their head as to how the piece of music should sound. They need to have a good understanding of how instruments produce their sound, the conditions performers need to be able to play well, and what the intentions of the composer were when they wrote the music in the first place.

Much about making a successful recording is about setting the right conditions so the musicians feel comfortable and can play their best, and really concentrate on their performance. It is really easy to make a great sounding recording when the musicians are playing well. Recording music is as much an art as a science. As the brushstrokes of a painter compliment and amplify the subject and drama of a painting, the techniques of the recording engineer should set the stage for a compelling performance.

All good musicians have their own style of playing, their own voice when interpreting the music. It is important for the engineer to identify these characteristics and decide on a microphone setup and balance that will not only do justice to the performance, but enhance and expand on it. A successful recording will draw the listener in and transport them to the most amazing concert hall for the most thrilling or intense performance.

Sally: My album The Good, the Bad and the Awkward required you to mix an unusual combination of instruments together on several tracks. It also required you to create a variety of different piano "sounds" that are specific to the various genres (classical, contemporary, minimalist, pop). How do you go about making such an album a seamless listening experience, while being faithful to each individual genre?

Virginia: While this particular recording was being planned it became clear that I was going to need to come up with a couple of different styles of recording to properly present the meaning of each composition. This is quite unusual. Generally the principle is to find a single style for a CD. I was really excited about the prospect. Generally all this thinking and work has to be transparent to the performers and listeners. It was great fun for it to be a feature of the project. We divided the list of compositions into three groups: Classical, Contemporary and Crazy. (My labels... Sorry Sally!)

At the recording session we started with the classical compositions. These acted as a kind of template for the sound. Many of these pieces are very famous and have been heard many times. The sound world in which they exist is well established, and to do justice to the dynamic and emotional range a fairly distant perspective is needed. In this case, recording music is as much about recording the sound in the hall as the sound of the instrument itself. For the soft passages to be really soft, the loud ones to really fill the hall, and the different colours of the instrument to bloom, the microphones can’t be too close.

Once I had the sound of these pieces, I was able to determine the sound for the contemporary and minimalist pieces. Because the order of the pieces moves quite often between styles I wanted to make sure that the contrast wasn’t too jarring, or the listener’s attention would be drawn away from the music and towards trying to work out why the sound had changed. I wanted to keep the sense that it was the same piano in the same room, but that as a listener, you had moved closer to the piano to better hear these more intimate compositions.

Since the style of these pieces are different, the style of recording needs to be different in order that all pieces can be heard in the best light. Then, of course, when we got to the pieces with toy piano, melodica, and harpsichord, it was a joy to throw out the rule book and record these instruments in a way so that when they were all blended with the piano they created a slightly insane, colourful and refreshing sound! The function of these pieces on the CD is to herald a new set of characters. The personality had to be strong and amusing.

Everything was miked closely and brightly. The way I recorded the harpsichord is completely different to how I would record it for a Baroque or Classical CD. I had the mics right in its guts, so we could hear all the crunch and jangle of the instrument. We had a lot of fun layering up all these sounds. I really hope that this comes across on the CD.

Sally: During the recording process, I found myself feeling incredibly thankful that you were as passionate about the project as I was. How does the engineer's emotional investment in the work tend to manifest itself in the final product? Would an average listener be able to detect a difference if the engineer was not all that interested in the music?

Virginia: My answer to this is that I surely hope so! I really love recording music. It is so much fun going from the initial ideas for a CD to the finished product. In many ways, the recording is just one step in this chain, but probably the most physically and emotionally exhausting one. This is the point where the musicians are laying it on the line. I can’t help but getting very involved with the process.

I want my recordings to sound as great as possible, and to do that I’ll do whatever it takes to help the musicians perform to their best. I’m too close to the process to really know how much of this comes across to the listener, but I do believe that it does. I’m sure that all the little subtleties of performance and sound, when added together, make for a much more enjoyable listening experience than if I’d stayed detached. Where is the satisfaction in that? I generally feel shattered after a day’s recording, and I hope that it’s been worth it.

Sally: Finally, any advice for people thinking about going into the classical recording business? Virginia: Love the music. Go to as many concerts as you can and listen as widely as possible. Classical music is such a broad term, encompassing so many different styles and techniques and personalities, so it’s useful to be as familiar with as many as possible. Listen to lots of CDs, too. Try to be able to picture the dimensions of the hall and the techniques used by the engineers. There’s nothing like trying to emulate your favourite recording. A music degree is a very good grounding. Spending a few years being immersed in music making will get you a very long way down the track.

Throughout the history of music recording, and from whatever genre, the most successful engineers have tended to be very passionate about the music-making process. The more you can understand what it is to be on the other side of the microphones, the better your recordings will be.

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On recording my new album with Virginia Read
Sally Whitwell
Sally Whitwell is a Sydney-based pianist, composer and conductor with eclectic tastes. Her debut album Mad Rush was an ARIA Award-winning sensation; now she takes us through the process of recording the much-anticipated follow-up. Follow Sally’s new album as it comes together piece by piece, from concept to shelf.
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