Reflections from the Recording Studio

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I spent all day Easter Saturday with groups of singers in a small recording studio. This was part of a hymn project I’ve been helping a midlands-based church community with for a few months. Hitherto my involvement has been with the full choir, working on vocal techniques and choral craft; this was the first time I’d actually been in the studio with them.

Most of my previous recording experience has been as a singer (or occasionally in a consultant’s role as arranger), so I’m finding it interesting to reflect on how the role of conductor and coach plays out in this context. My previous recording experience has also been with full musical textures and relatively long arcs of musical time, whereas the weekend’s procedure was working with individual sections (or in some cases, half a section at a time), and taking the music in 8- or 16-bar units.

The first thing that struck me was the sharing of responsibility for listening. As conductor or coach, one usually has the primary responsibility for monitoring the success of the singers’ efforts, but here the buck stopped not with me but with the ears in the control room. Thus, the experience was great feedback on my own perceptions.

This really came into its own on takes following an intervention. If my ears were particularly focused on the vowel we had just adjusted, I may or may not notice other details that went astray. I found this part of the process both relaxing and reassuring: it took the pressure off me as the final arbiter of progress, with a helpful reality-check on my ears (which, it turns out, are generally quite reliable).

This aspect of the process also pointed up the difference in the roles of the respective listeners. The feedback from the control room tells you what’s wrong with the take; the coach’s job is to convert that into an instruction that will correct it.

Which in turn draws attention to the way recording brings a somewhat different approach to attention to detail than rehearsal for live performance. A performance needs to generate a sense of occasion – the detail matters, but only in service to that wider aim. So, if you have to choose (and, ultimately, you always have to choose at some point), you aim for compelling rather than perfect. A recording, by contrast, needs to bear repeated listening. Imperfections that you might hardly notice in performance, and would certainly forget quickly, become increasingly irritating on successive hearings.

The procedure of taking only one part at a time and the music in very small chunks was designed to maximise attention to detail. A pared-down texture gives you a lot more opportunity to hear the detail, and it is possible to achieve a much higher level of concentrated precision in a single couplet attempted several times than you would with longer spans of musical time.

And, interestingly, the studio context inveigles people into a level of patience with this nitty-gritty work that you wouldn’t get in a regular rehearsal. For sure, brains still do flag after a while – random errors and greying skin tone tell you that everyone needs a change of scene and something to eat – but still we continued usefully for much longer than you’d ever do that kind of detailed work without a change of activity in normal rehearsal.

As a result, my impression is that all the performers grew in skill and stamina over the course of the day. It’s rather like doing an exam: there’s nothing else to do, so you just get on with it, and the repeated exercise of specific skills with focused feedback make you better at it in the process. The recording process is simultaneously cruel (you don’t get away with mistakes) and kind (you can always do it again).

And I got the benefit of this stamina work as much as anyone – I was in there all day, with three different groups of singers. I’m used to 6-hour coaching and workshop days, but I’m also used to them involving a lot more variety – which I build in on purpose because most of the people I do long days with are accustomed to 2- or 3-hour rehearsals and need help with the pacing. My brain was a lot more wrung-out than usual by the end of this one.

One thing I’m pleased about, though, is that I didn’t run into stamina difficulties with conducting technique. Twenty years ago I would have been physically as well as mentally tired after a day like that, but it turns out the thought and care I have put into shedding extraneous tension in my conducting gestures has paid off. I often joke that one of the little ironies of singing is that just at the point your voice is brilliantly warmed-up, your brain is about finished. If my conducting technique can likewise outlast my mental capacities, that strikes me as about as much physical stamina as I need.

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