Time in the Studio

I spent two evenings earlier this week recording background music for television, so my thoughts have turned to the wonderful and sometimes unpredictable world of the studio. On Monday, several of us from the Toronto Consort spent a couple of hours playing our way through some 16th-century dance tunes to accompany the on-screen political machinations in the next season of The Borgias; the following night I went in to improvise on my Norwegian flutes some music for a wedding party scene in the upcoming series on The Vikings.

Toronto Consort played a substantial amount of the music for The Tudors and some for The Borgias, and it’s always been a great pleasure to be involved in these shows. As you can gather from their quality, these Irish-Canadian co-productions are managed at the highest professional level at every step of the way, so nothing falls between the cracks in the creative, administrative or recording processes. The people involved are great, everything is beautifully organized, there are grapes, vegetables and hummous if you get hungry…and it’s the closest I’m ever going to get to Jeremy Irons.

If you like, check here for a taste of the Tudors:

Not all such recording gigs are so incident-free. One of my most vivid recording session memories concerns the two-foot-square riser I had to stand on during the session for Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto with Tafelmusik. In the months prior to the recording dates the producer Wolf Ericson, a celebrated gentleman with a long and impressive history of early music recording dating back to the Philips-Seon days, had apparently been expressing his concern that ‘the second flute is very small.’

There was some understandable confusion over this in the orchestra offices. Both Marion Verbruggen and I were going to use alto recorders, both of those recorders would be the same size, so what exactly was the problem? Turns out that Mr. Ericson remembered a significant height difference between Marion and I – she’s perhaps 5’10, I’m 5’3 on a tall day – and he wanted to use only a single microphone on the pair of us. Better for the blend, better for the balance. The enterprising solution his team came up with was to build a small riser, which made me as tall as Marion and placed me at the same distance from the mic. It was mostly very entertaining, viewing the world from a dizzying height for a couple of hours! The only drawback was that Marion and I had planned to turn away from the mic for the ‘echo’ sections of the slow movement, and this proved a greater challenge while standing in restricted square footage. Fortunately for me, the riser had a kickrail that warned me of any impending fall.

That Brandenburg recording was originally released on Sony, and is now available again through Tafelmusik Media:


In the case of remote recording sessions made in a location other than a studio, any musician you talk to will likely have a story or two about The Session From Hell. Recording sessions are usually long, stressful, arduous after a while, and they can be expensive; remote recording is often chosen because renting the recording space isn’t as expensive as renting a studio. But because recording dates are usually booked months in advance, you can’t be sure that the weather will cooperate when the day arrives, and if the heavens open in torrential rain or a thunderstorm, that’s noise you can’t avoid. If the power fails, bad weather or not, you’re probably not doing any more recording. If you’re recording in the summer during a heat wave, you know that the sound of air conditioning is not a musical one. In this situation, I can offer only two bits of advice: drink water throughout the session, and dress appropriately or be prepared to take off your clothing. Heat stroke sucks.

Mother Nature sometimes takes a more mischevious approach with the incessant cawing of a crow, sparrows singing on the roof, or a cicada buzzing rapturously but invisibly from the nearest tree. (You’d buzz rapturously too if you were awake and outside for the first time in seventeen years.) In these situations all you can do is ask a friend to come over and run interference by throwing rocks to drive the birds away, over and over again. In the case of the cicada, I’m sorry, there’s no remedy. All is not lost, though, because your engineer probably has a magical program that can isolate and identify a particular sound frequency and then remove it during the editing process. Before they invented that, you had birds on your recording, or you had no recording. I like the sound of faint birdsong in the background, but not everyone shares this feeling.

Human interference is another story. I remember showing up for a Consort recording session at a western Toronto church to see a crew of four City workers and a small backhoe about ten yards away from the church’s front door. That was noisy, and the ground vibrated from the digging. On another occasion, the sewer had backed up and an even larger crew from the City was busily ripping a hole in the pavement with a jackhammer (well, half of them dug, the other half watched). The noise was unbelievable. A colleague at an Ensemble Polaris session once had the unenviable task of calling the City to broker a deal for the tree-pruning/shredding crew to move to a different block. Recording work can also grind to a halt because of leaf- and snow-blowers and lawnmowers, or the unsympathetic neighbours who operate them. But such is life – they want to mow their lawn and very likely have a good reason for why it has to be NOW. And the world shouldn’t have to stop for a recording session. If you want that much control, you rent a studio, where the problems of unwanted sound are easily resolved, most of the time.

On rare occasions in the Glenn Gould Studio, which is a fantastic space for both recording and performing, you can hear a very faint humming in the ambient sound. It’s so faint it’s hardly audible to the ear, but a microphone can certainly pick it up. Among the sound engineers working there, who can find ways to get around the sound, the question prevails: is it Glenn Gould, humming from the other side?