Recording Radio Rewrite

A few weeks ago a former student of mine asked for advice about recording.  Her quintet was heading into a professional recording studio for the first time and they were wondering what to expect. My first response was: “Expect to get tired and frustrated!”  Upon reflection, I was a little taken aback that my first reaction to that question was such a negative one. I have to admit that I get more nervous heading into the recording studio than I almost ever do for a live performance anymore…and I was thinking about that quite a bit when Alarm Will Sound got together recently in New York to record Steve Reich’s new piece Radio Rewrite.

Alarm Will Sound now has over a half-dozen commercial recordings out, not to mention a long list of tracks available on Soundcloud, Spotify, and YouTube.  In fact, my first studio recording experience was AWS’s first album Tehillim and the Desert Music, which we recorded twelve years ago around the time that AWS was just being formed. Digital technologies have made the technical side of recording easier since then, but to me recording is still one of the most challenging parts of being a musician. It’s a process that can be overwhelmingly stressful and frustrating, mostly because it results in a permanent record (pun intended) of exactly how you sounded at one specific time. If you’re having a bad day, that will be reflected in the sound, and forever linked with your memory of that music.  We all have cringeworthy moments immortalized somewhere that we’d rather not hear again (I always feel kind of sorry for this organist around the holidays when this video makes the rounds).

It’s one thing to learn a  piece for performance: hitting all of the notes with great style and interpretation in the moment. It’s something else completely to maintain that energy and focus throughout multiple takes.  In that sense, recording is an artistic and endurance challenge for all the musicians involved.  On top of that, there are the interpersonal dynamics… I’ve been involved in sessions in the past where a sort of “shame spiral” takes effect when fatigue begins to set in; as small mistakes here and there start to derail take after take, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the mental and physical focus necessary to play complex music.  Add into that every musician’s anxiety about wanting this lasting object to reflect their best playing and you can end up with a really challenging situation for everyone involved.

At the end of the day, though, both of those challenges – the musical and the personal – can be minimized by having a plan in place to be prepared for them  So here’s a more positive spin for performers on preparing for recordings.

1. Be prepared: learn your part thoroughly, know the whole piece, and be in shape.

2. Perform the piece multiple times before you record, if possible; there’s a reason why orchestras usually schedule recording sessions at the end of concert tours. This made a big difference for us on this session; we had performed Radio Rewrite for the fifth time just a day before arriving in NYC.

3. Have good ears in the booth; invest in a producer whose ears you trust and then trust her to make the call on whether or not you need yet another take of that tricky section. As the amazing producer Judy Sherman said during our recent session, “The art of recording is making mistakes in different places.”  It’s not going to be 100% perfect all the time, but if you’re well prepared and focused, you can get the the material you need to craft a great record.

I think I can safely speak for my colleagues in AWS that the recording of Radio Rewrite went about as smoothly as we could have possibly hoped. We even finished a whole two minutes early!  I still think recording is hard work, but recording with these guys is still a blast:

Our thanks go out to the excellent staff at Avatar Studios, not to mention the one and only Steve Reich for inviting us to record this piece.  We’ll let you know as soon as the disc is ready to drop!  In the meantime, please enjoy this picture taken during a session break of Steve Reich eating a snack.

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