Some musicians (and engineers, too) may wonder: why record a classical music in a studio, as opposed to a concert hall? For the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, a DC-based chamber music group recording the first complete cycle of Haydn piano trios in America since 1971, the decision came down to two factors: (1) they wanted control of the sound environment, and (2) they wanted to preserve the intimate feeling of the material.
The scope of what the Mendelssohn Piano Trio set out to do is immense. Over the course of eight discs (totaling about nine hours of playing time), they would record nearly 40 of Haydn’s confirmed pieces, each of which consists of two or three movements each. Their collection so far has been met with critical acclaim. In a review of the fourth volume, released in July 2013 on Centaur Records, Audiophilia Magazine highlighted the “beautifully measured – warm, sonorous and lively” performances and described the recording as “very natural and spacious.”
We spent some time observing a recent recording session with the group at Airshow’s Takoma Park Studio A to find out more about how chief engineer Charlie Pilzer and the members of the trio achieved the results they wanted.
Control and Closeness in the Studio
The Mendelssohn Piano Trio, which consists of pianist Ya-Ting Chang, cellist Fiona Thompson, and violinist Peter Sirotin, decided over four years ago to record a full set of Joseph Haydn’s piano trios. “In early classical music such as Mozart or Haydn, the music was written for relatively small spaces,” says Peter. “When there is closeness in the studio, you can capture detail in the recording that is otherwise lost in bigger halls.”
Anticipating the challenging work ahead of them, they needed a high-quality piano that would be accessible over the course of the entire project. Since this instrument is integral to the music, they needed it to be well maintained and tunable, for a consistent sound throughout the recording process.
The trio also wanted to schedule sessions when they were most comfortable working, not forced to conform to the scheduling parameters of a concert hall (often involving off-hours late at night or early in the morning).
A well-isolated tracking room eliminates the risk of unpredictable ambient noises of a hall, which can ruin good takes, and well-tuned control room affords a pleasant, accurate experience when listening back. Budgets can play a role as well; renting out a hall can be quite costly when compared to booking studio time.
Charlie had mastered several of their previous recordings on Centaur Records, and was able to strategize the entire multi-year project with the group. The tracking room in Takoma Park contains a beautiful 1943 Steinway B grand that was carefully refurbished in 2006. Ya-Ting loved its playability and sound, and the group felt at home when sitting down to play in the tracking room. In November 2010, the group started recording the first of the eight discs of the Haydn piano trios at Airshow.
Keeping Detailed Notes
Flash-forward to May 2014, when the group had a week blocked out complete the last two CDs of the project. Since recording classical music can be an exercise in precision and detail, Charlie and the trio established good technical and organizational guidelines in order to make sure the final project captured the high caliber of the musicianship and of the material. From the first session, the musicians knew that achieving a desirable piano sound was paramount to the project. They also needed to be positioned within the studio space to be able to hear and play naturally. After some experimentation with microphones and room placement, a basic schematic was designed and utilized session after session.
The shared experiences of (and lessons learned from) over three and a half years of working together – not to mention keeping good notes –saved valuable time and energy when miking the room and the instruments. Here are some of the ways in which the musicians and Charlie worked together to make sure the session met everyone’s expectations.
Getting the Perfect Piano Sound
Over the course of the project, Charlie noted where exactly in the tracking room the Steinway sounded best for Ya-Ting’s playing, since that was at the core of the material. He diagrammed the room set-up in order to replicate the positioning of the piano for subsequent recording sessions.
The day before recording, piano tuner extraordinaire David Lamoreaux (who has been tuning throughout all phases of the project) came to do the initial tuning. He returned the morning of the first session to give it a few final tweaks, and was on call for all three days of recording, returning occasionally to do touch-ups in the afternoon. Temperature and humidity were constantly controlled during the session—to the extent that lights were left on overnight to minimize disturbances to the tuning.
Over the several years of sessions, Charlie developed simple miking techniques to capture three primary sound sources: the piano, the full ensemble, and the cello.
On the piano, two cardioid mics (Neumann KM 84’s) were set up in an ORTF stereo pair configuration. “Miking the piano like this gave us the intimate sound we were looking for along with crispness and clarity,” says Peter.
For overall room miking, Charlie chose an omni pair of mics. Two Neumann TLM 170’s were placed 7 feet high and 4 feet apart, per Charlie’s notes. “Since we weren’t in a really big hall, I wanted to use a recording technique that gives good separation and sense of spaciousness,” Charlie says. “We also needed to balance the sound of the strings against the piano, and these particular microphones allowed us that control.”
In order to be sure that some of the low end was picked up, an additional KM 84 was placed on the cello. “I wanted to fill out a little bottom of the cello so it wasn’t tangled up in the sound of the piano,” says Charlie.
A Shared Vision
Before coming into Airshow, the group had regularly rehearsed the pieces, and had recorded concerts of the material to take notes on how the material translated into a live setting. “On the surface, Haydn may be simple-sounding, but it’s actually very multi-layered and sophisticated,” says Peter. “The biggest challenge is that it’s supposed to sound natural and poised and organic, but it requires a large amount of control to execute it well. We needed to be sure we played in the studio in a way that sounded spontaneous and had the flow of a live performance. Otherwise, it would end up sounding stale.”
Once Charlie and the trio were comfortable with the sounds and with playing together in the studio, they worked their way through six piano trios (comprised of two to three movements each) totaling over an hour and a half of material in just three days.
Daily Goals, Breaks and Reality Checks
Given the difficulty of the pieces, the goals for each day of tracking were ambitious but realistic. To get through all of the material, two piano trios were tracked each day. The group began recording at 10:00 AM and worked for approximately three hours before breaking for lunch. All the takes for a specific movement were completed in the same day, and the trio always completed a movement before taking a break. After each take, they listened back, patched in short segments when possible, and then tried one more pass through the whole take.
In addition to engineering, Charlie acted as score reader, listening for incorrect notes and documenting places to listen back to later, all the while making sure that the group’s musical instincts were translated into the technical aims of the recording. “The real art of classical recording is to subtly shape the sound,” Charlie says. “When do you a pop record, you want things to ‘pop,’ obviously. In classical recording, you’re working with the color of the tones, the shape of the musical lines, the contrast between soft and loud, and mellow and harsh.” Citing three elements in a successful classical recording, he continued, “The end result should be compelling performances that express the artists’ interpretation of the composer’s intent – as much as that is possible.”
This case study of classical recording illustrates how a shared vision – both technically and aesthetically – and good organization—maximize precious time in the studio and allow the artists’ focus to remain on musicianship and performance.