The Challenges of Making a Recording: PART 2: Professional Recording Sessions
The second part of an interview with Richie Hawley about prescreening submissions and his own experiences with being part of big budget classical music CD production.
By Richie Hawley. Interviewed by LeTriel White.
LeTriel White: Mr. Hawley, what is the longest, most grueling recording session that you have experienced and why was it grueling?
Richie Hawley: I think that every one of the 63 CD’s that I recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops were equally grueling. The common factor that that made them all challenging was the countdown clock that kept ticking away the very limited recording time. And of course union recording schedules, scrutinizing conductors and producers together making a perfect storm of stress and pressure. I don't know what it costs to produce a a full orchestra recording, but one could be sure that it was hundreds of dollars for each minute. While the clock ticked away the final moments of the session, there was always some tricky passage that had to be perfected, as the engineers sometimes did not yet have a “good take in the can.” As a principal woodwind player in a recording session, I felt like I knew what it is like to be a quarter back or wide receiver in the final moments of a championship game with the score tied and the clock paused with seconds to go. Literally, it was like a sporting event towards the end with the clock counting down.
We made a recording of Respighi’s “La Boutique Fantastique” that has a clarinet solo that is really treacherous at high speeds, it sounds easy, but is actually somewhat terrifying. Towards the end of the session it was discovered that the engineers never had a clean take as the result of front of ensemble issues. We had, something like a minute and 30 seconds of recording time left! The producer comes over the mic at the end of the break and says “Okay, we’ve got a minute and 19 seconds of recording time left.” “We still don’t have a clean version of rehearsal number 59-61” And this is one of those passages on the clarinet where it’s all perfect or it’s just a jumble of hot mess. We got it “in the can” with seconds to spare. Literally, there were mere seconds left on a giant digital clock facing the orchestra with a countdown like in a basketball game.
Richie Hawley: They tell you this last minute recording need while you are looking at the clock and thinking to yourself “I’ve got to get this. Oh, my God.” And one cannot think about the possibility of making a mistake. The music director is there, all of your colleagues are there, the management is there. Certainly no one is going to die if you screw up, but one thing is for sure; no one will forget it if you mess it up. You realize that being nervous is not even an option. I was so stressed out that I had this transcending realization I simply could not be nervous. Expressive singing through the clarinet with flawless technique was the only option at the moment.
LeTriel White: So, with recording, like the recordings that you’re talking about right now and how stressful they are, do you know how it works as far as them splicing and editing? I mean, do they really just cut and paste all over the place?
Richie Hawley: There is a real format that they most engineers use, which is awesome and I have adopted it for how I do my own project recordings.
The format is clean and simple: Run through a movement of the piece. Then go back and listen to it and decide what you need to change or do differently. Do a second run through and usually that second run through is the golden one that is solid and more expressive than the first. That is most likely going to be the one you use for the base layer, the foundation of your recording.
One needs to have good set of ears in the recording booth, perhaps an engineer or friend or teacher. This person is someone that has been assigned with producing and or editing the recording. It’s often times the producer that says, “All right. That second take was so much better, but we need this section redone and also this section…” etc. Lets start again.
It’s not about piecing together a performance of little excerpts, but using a few repair passages to transform a good performance to a great performance. In professional recordings it is about patching together only as is necessary. Gluing fixes onto the best take. You patch your fixes into that one solid take. Keeping a great musical flow with connecting expression is essential. Basically, it’s taking a single fantastic performance and fixing the blemishes.
LeTriel White: What are some etiquette rules that one should always follow when recording with other musicians? I would imagine that there is lots that people don’t think about until its too late.
Richie Hawley: Every recording must be approached as if it were a performance. As a reed player, you need to sort your reeds out ahead of time and you must be warmed up and ready to go when the clock starts ticking. Part of being ready to start is that you need to know at what pitch you’re going to be at after your instrument has been warmed up for a while. You don’t want your instrument to be so warm that it is at 443 when the starting pitch at the downbeat is at 440.
Let me explain that: You would be doing a disservice to your colleagues if you came into a recording session after warming up for an hour necessitating that you must pull out at the joints of your clarinet. The instrument’s going to be sky high sharp after that hour straight of warmup. Pulling out on all of the joints on the clarinet will cause your pitch to go wild through every register. Throat tones are going to be flat; low notes, flat; and some things would be still be tune. But pulling out that much right before you start your performances is going to produce a lot of fresh and unpredictable intonation issues that were not present in rehearsals.
For every performance/recording/audition I recommend doing a serious warm-up and then take a break. Rest your mind, let your instrument cool down to 440. This allows your clarinet to return back to a lower pitch without pulling out everywhere. Having a stable center of pitch is a great start for making any recording.
The other part of approaching this as a performances is walking on stage with a mindset focused on being expressive for an invisible audience.
The other obvious etiquette to follow is not to make extraneous noises. Unfortunately it’s really easy as a clarinet player; we’ve always got so much junk on our stands. One rapid page turn can bring a pile of reeds, barrels and clarinet dongles falling to the floor in a session halting clatter.
LeTriel White: That could definitely ruin a take, I’m sure, and people would be rather annoyed.
Richie Hawley: Oh, everyone gets really mad, turning around with dirty looks to see who dropped everything. And of course it’s the clarinet player! So, I try to keep that stuff on my stand to a minimum for any session.
My clarinet section in Cincinnati was notorious for always dropping stuff in concerts. I would drop my reed box – a big, heavy reed box-- a lot. There was always stuff flying out of the clarinet row in Cincinnati Symphony. Someone should have just put carpet underneath the clarinet section, or at least a safety net around each stand.
LeTriel White: Do you have any last thoughts to share on the recording process?
Richie Hawley: No matter how big or small your recording project may be, always treat it like a performance for a live audience.