Classical Music Production

Hi everyone, it is a pleasure to be a part of this event. I am a recording engineer who has worked in many styles of music, but with a particular focus on classical. I am interested in any specific recordings you feel are 'overproduced' and why.

Illusion or Reality in Classical Recording

Recording engineers discover quickly in their studio work that what a microphone 'hears' is quite different from what is captured by our own hearing system. As a result we often must use more than two microphones to realize a classical performance in an audio recording -- even when our goal is to recreate a realistic soundscape of the original performance. This quickly bring us into a subjective territory which, of course, is where the artistic aspects of recording engineering reside. 

Orchestral recordings can use 10-20+ microphones to capture all the necessary elements of the ensemble and blend them into a cohesive, musical image through level balancing, time delay and frequency manipulation (EQ and filtering). Chamber music might require 4-6+. Even solo piano recordings I have done required four microphones. Still, despite all those microphones, in most cases my goal is to recreate the experience of an audience member seated in the hall's optimal location. Our sophisticated hearing mechanism that only *begins* at the ears does so much to refine and interpret the sound being heard. Microphones can capture sound and convert it to electrical signals (not entirely unlike our ears do) but the refinement is left to the recording engineer. We can 'mix' a live performance with our ears, balancing to favor certain instruments when their role is more important. Doing so through a pair of loudspeakers, however, is much more difficult, and thus requires the careful skill of the recording engineer to manage microphones placed in front of, within, and often in the hall during a performance to replicate at least what *their* brain interprets as the correct balance. 

Although not a 'classical' composition, orchestral recordings I like to use as examples with my students to illustrate this point are two very different versions of John Williams' title track to the Star Wars films. In the original soundtrack the production has a much more in-your-face pop-style production. A later recording appears on an album called The Hollywood Sound where the approach is to give soundtrack recordings a more 'classical' treatment in the recording technique. 

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
https://itun.es/us/A7kGx?i=394309346 (Apple Music) 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG5OsfOuEy0 (YouTube) 

The Hollywood Sound - London Symphony Orchestra & John Williams (1997)
https://itun.es/us/V4kTu?i=347385544 (Apple Music)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSthLmvh6Fk (YouTube) 

Is there a right or wrong here? How should the producer decide on the correct approach?

-SM (Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University)

  • I have very fond memories of the Decca recordings of Wagner and Richard Strauss from the 1970's (such as Birgit Nielsen in Richard Strauss's Salome) in which a high degree of over-production seemed present creating a sort of hyper-realism which was nothing like you could get in the theatre. I especially remember a percussion instrument (triangle I think) which had an improbably over dominant presence in Salome. By contrast the live recordings of Reginal Goodall's Ring Cycle with ENO had an expansiveness and breadth in the orchestral detail which felt natural but which you knew was nothing like the often confused aural image that Wagner can generate in the theatre.

    from Brixton, London, UK
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  • Robert, that is an interesting point about the Decca recording. I'm not 100% sure what technique was used by the engineers on that recording, but I have experienced the effect of close proximity to percussion instruments -- like triangle -- without spot mics through some acoustical anomaly opening a trajectory right to a main stereo pair of microphones (or possibly a Decca Tree in this recording). If that is recognized during balancing/mic positioning it can be relatively easy to fix by adjusting the main mics -- if not, it is REALLY hard to get rid of in mixing/editing without damaging the rest of the spectrum, although modern tools like Izotope RX give us unprecedented flexibility. I'm making a note to check out the recordings you cited. Thanks :-)

    from Baltimore, MD, USA
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