Arthur the Kunstkopf

I was in my second year of undergrad university when my teacher Hugh Orr asked me if I’d like to participate in a recording session for CBC Radio. The plan was to record music for recorder trio using the Kunstkopf (artificial head) recording technique, which was cutting-edge technology at the time. Also known as ‘dummy head recording,’ and very simplistically described here, the sound is captured with microphones placed in the ears of a plastic head. The result is a surround-sound effect for the listener – you hear the performance as though you were sitting amongst the performers. Headphones are useful for optimum effect, but not mandatory.

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John Reeves, the producer in charge, was a groundbreaker in recording technology at the CBC and was the first to bring the Kunstkopf technique from Germany to North America. The other players were Hugh and Susan Prior (now Carduelis), and we recorded the session in the soundproofed basement studio at Hugh’s home. The dummy head – Arthur, I think he was called – was propped on a mic stand and placed right amongst us, like a mute fourth member of a quartet. It was a bit odd, playing for a plastic human head stuck on a pole two feet away, but strange things happen in the recording world…Here’s a shot from a different session, to give you an idea.

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John Reeves had been experimenting with various chamber music groupings and it was pretty great that he wanted to include some pre-Baroque fantasias. I think we played John Jenkins and Orlando Gibbons. It’s wonderful music, especially the Gibbons: cerebral but not overly so, and with supple imitative lines. A bit like a pleasant conversation with friends, about something more than the weather (but not politics or religion). I had such a great time playing that session, and it was fun to hear the intriguing results on the radio broadcast sometime later. As is often the case, I wish now that I’d been more aware of the technology and of John Reeves’s work than I was at the time, but it was a real privilege to have had that experience. Thanks to Hugh Orr for this, and so much else.

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