Yesterday afternoon I completed three days of recording for a CD of music for solo bass trombone and piano, a project about which I have already shared some details in a previous post. While there is still much to be done to bring this project to fruition, I wanted to share a few reflections about this week’s experience. While I have been involved in ensemble recordings of various kinds, this was my first experience with recording as a soloist. Thus, while some aspects of this process were familiar, there were plenty of surprises, as well.
Things that were as I expected.
- There were delays. Lots of them. I was never naïve enough to expect that all would go exactly according to my “in a perfect world” plans. From delays in setting up to find just the right acoustics, to persistent difficulties with the piano tuning, to waiting for a small thunderstorm to pass, we often found that “hurry up and wait” can be a good motto for a recording project, as well as for the Army.
- Stacy Rodgers, my accompanist, played nearly flawlessly throughout, and always conducted himself with both friendliness and candor. I have worked with a number of
fine accompanists in my career, but few play as consistently and near-perfectly as does Stacy Rodgers, and few likewise bring so little “drama” into rehearsals, performances, or recording sessions. This consistency, along with his always kind demeanor, makes working with him a real treat.
- Hiring an engineer/producer that is a former professional bass trombonist brought a particularly helpful set of ears into the booth. Rich Mays of Sonare Recordings came highly recommended by my former colleague James Boldin. I trust James’s opinion completely, yet another factor in my hiring Rich is that he is a former professional bass trombonist, having played in the Nashville Symphony and other professional groups. There was therefore no “learning curve” for him to figure out what the bass trombone should sound like, and how to structure the acoustic environment in order to best capture that sound. Having listened to just a few of the still-unmastered takes I can tell that he knew how to make me sound my best, and I expect that to improve after the editing and mastering process.
- The Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts provided an exceptionally quiet area in which to record. One of the most important aspects of a good recording space is freedom from outside noise, an area in which the Ford Center excels. Aside from having to break for lunch early on the last day because of a brief thunderstorm, we never had to stop for more than a few seconds because of extraneous noises, as only the loudest exterior sounds can be heard inside. While the HVAC system was always on, it produced very little sound, and I have been assured that this can be easily removed in postproduction.
- There will be lots of editing done before the finished product is released. In order to capture approximately 80 minutes of music we recorded just over seven hours’ worth of audio in 168
separate takes. These will be spliced together so that each track forms a seamless whole, and then mastered for optimum sound quality. This illustrates the differences in standards between live performance and recording. In all of that seven hours of audio there are few errors that would not be easily overlooked in live performance, even by professional musicians. Recordings, however, must be perfect, or at least very nearly so, in order to merit commercial release.
Things that were NOT as I expected.
- My planned schedule was quickly discarded. In striving for the utmost efficiency, I formed a “plan of attack” for this project several days before recording began. Even though I expected
delays and “thought” that I had built enough extra time into the schedule to accommodate them, I quickly learned that this was not the case. After a very slow first day, we spent the next couple of days trying to “catch up.” Honestly, we almost made it, finishing recording only one hour later than I had hoped.
- We had a number of problems with the Steinway piano in the Ford Center. To the ears of a professional engineer/producer such as Rich Mays, there are very few “good” pianos in the world. Still, knowing of at least a couple of prior recording projects that had used the instrument in the Ford Center, I was sure that it would be just fine. Instead, we found that it was very bad at holding pitch, and thus had to be tuned and retuned five times; twice before recording started, and three times after we began. While I don’t think this has had a tremendous negative impact on the final product, it was a major source of the delays I have mentioned.
- The Ford Center staff was very accommodating of my need for extra time. When I first began discussing this project with the Ford Center they were quite clear that they wanted these recording sessions to be a “normal business hours” operation, ending by 5pm each day. Given the difficulties with the piano as well as other delays, it quickly became clear that this would not be feasible. Happily, technical director Matt Zerangue made arrangements for a member of his crew to stay after hours with us for a very reasonable fee. Had I known that extra time would be so affordable, I might have planned for it from the very beginning!
- While it is a lovely concert venue, the Ford Center acoustics proved less than ideal for recording. Those familiar with Oxford and Ole Miss know that the Ford Center is a beautiful concert venue, and having performed as a soloist there myself on a couple of occasions, I was satisfied that it would be good for a solo recording, also. However, within five minutes of first entering the building Rich determined that recording on the stage would not yield the best result. Instead, he had the crew use the parts of the orchestra shell in the hall to create what amounted to an extraordinarily high-ceilinged recording studio in the backstage area. Although the crew was skeptical that this idea would work, I thought it created a very fine acoustic environment for recording trombone, and certainly was much better than the drier sound on stage.
- Hiring an engineer/producer that is a former professional bass trombonist, while mostly helpful, also introduced some minor difficulties. As I mentioned, part of the reason that I hired Rich Mays is that he knew how a bass trombone should sound, but this also means that he brought with him certain opinions about style, interpretation, etc. that were in conflict with my own. His ideas were certainly worth trying, and I even ended up choosing “his way” in most cases where there were differences (after all, he was the one listening objectively to my playing). Still, I had not anticipated those differences occurring as frequently as they did.
Things for which I am particularly thankful.
I am thankful for the opportunity to undertake a project like this at all. Recording a CD is an extraordinarily expensive process, costing over $10,000 to bring to completion. My superiors at the University of Mississippi were clear even before hiring me that recording a solo CD would be an important part of my application for promotion and tenure in a few years, and, through a College of Liberal Arts Summer Research Grant, they also provided the lion’s share of the funding needed to make it happen. While I will need to come up with some money to complete the final stages of the project, without this grant it would never have taken place at all.
- The Ford Center staff was extremely helpful, as was our piano technician and several of my students. Again, the staff at the Ford Center were very accommodating of our seeming eccentricities and the various delays that took place. One member of the tech crew, Whitley O’Neal, stayed with us during the late nights without complaint, even when we went well beyond our intended stopping time. Our piano technician, Monica Hern, was “at our beck and call” for the majority of the time, making several trips out to the hall on very little notice in order to make adjustments. My students James Hopkins, Kyle Hickey, and D.J. Fitzgerald provided needed assistance for Rich, taking notes on what was played on each take and in some cases “how it went.” Diane Wang, a member of our music faculty (and Stacy’s wife), turned pages for us on several pieces and offered useful comments and encouragement while she was there.
- I experienced very little physical discomfort of any kind, despite the long working hours. I have never been very good at suffering quietly when I am ill, and even on this blog I have mentioned the various difficulties I sometimes experience with my back, neck, and jaw. I am very thankful that I experienced almost no pain of any kind in spite of holding up a very heavy bass trombone for several hours each day, and in fact only took two doses of Aleve during the duration of recording.
- The engineer/producer for the project is a fellow Christian. Although some of his opinions are of a more “high church” variety than my own, Rich Mays shares my Christian faith, and even my Calvinistic interpretation of that faith. Between meals and the drive to and from the airport we had plenty of time to talk, and it was nice to have something to talk about other than the recording project. Besides, I always enjoy intelligent conversation about the things of God.
- My wife and son have been very patient with me as I have prepared for this recording. I have spent many hours over the past few weeks practicing and preparing for this recording, including quite a few late nights working. I am hoping to make it up to them with some great family time during the rest of the summer.
What I have learned, and what I will do differently next time.
- I have learned that I can physically handle a project of this magnitude. Having become “prematurely decrepit,” as I sometimes jokingly describe myself, I have sometimes worried that a solo recording project might require more stamina than I have in my neck and back (and, by extension, arms). Again, I was very pleased to discover that I not only “handled it,” but did so with relatively little discomfort. I am thankful for the quality of care I received from physical therapists and others several years ago when my problems began; while I have never gotten back to “100%,” I am doing much better than when my spinal difficulties started, and the exercises I learned then remain helpful as I continue to seek to maintain and build strength and stamina.
I have learned that I can effectively switch from a “doubling” approach to practice and playing to focusing on a particular instrument. In many ways, the particular “niche” that I have created for myself as both player and teacher is that of a multi-instrument “doubler,” playing alto, tenor, and bass trombones, and euphonium on a regular basis. Moreover, I have found the large-bore tenor trombone to be the “starting point” from which I can most effectively “branch out” to both larger and smaller instruments. In preparation for this project, though, I put away all of the instruments except for the bass trombone in early June, and found that I had no difficulty with that shift in focus. It remains to be seen, however, how long it will take to get my playing on the other instruments back “up to snuff” now that I am reestablishing my regular rotation.
- After not being entirely sure of how best to prepare, I found that my preparation for this project in the practice room was sufficient. I maintain a fairly intense regimen of fundamental playing exercises, so, unlike my worries regarding my back, I was never concerned that I would lack the “chops” to undertake a solo recording project. Still, I knew that in the two weeks leading up to the recording sessions I would need to increase my practice time even beyond the normal amount to ensure that I would be able to keep playing and recording for several hours each day. At the end of three days, I was mentally exhausted but had very little “chop” fatigue. I was thus pleased to find that my physical preparations for recording were adequate.
Next time, I will make a more informed choice of a recording space and piano. I have already mentioned the difficulties that we had with the acoustics and the piano in the Ford Center. If, God willing, I have the opportunity to record again in the future, I might consider additional venues that lack those problems, including some away from Oxford. Then again, if the Ford Center board would consider putting the piano on a more regular maintenance schedule those difficulties would likely vanish, and the recording space we created at the Ford Center, though unorthodox, was actually quite good.
- Next time, I will schedule at least one more day for recording, should funds permit that. I allowed only three days for recording, because I did not have funds available for more than that. While we were able to get all of the material recorded in that time, we had to work exceptionally hard to do so—particularly on the second day—and the various delays that occurred were made more worrisome by the continual ticking of the clock. An extra day would have made things much easier.
- Next time, I will be more comfortable with the entire thing (I hope). This was my first recording project as a soloist, and my inexperience led to at least a bit of anxiety on my part. As is true with many things in life, I expect that “the second time around” will be easier in that regard.
What has to happen before this CD is made available for purchase?
First, I will step away from this material for a bit. I will confess to having listened to a few tracks today just to “satisfy my curiosity,” but I fully intend to walk away from this material for a week or two (or three). This will provide a needed “mental break” and also allow me to approach the material with “fresh ears” when I come back to it. Besides, Rich has several editing projects “in the queue” ahead of mine, so there is no good reason for me to rush.
- Second, I will need to listen to all seven hours’ worth of audio and decide which takes we will be using for each section of each piece of music. There are a few portions of this music that I “laid down” in one take with no “re-dos,” but for the most part I have several choices for every passage of music on the recording. I will need to listen to all of this, and decide which portions to take from which takes, and where the splices will need to occur. Rich will make the final decisions on that, but he prefers (wisely, I think) that the one making the recording make the first “pass” through the material.
- Third, Rich Mays will perform needed editing and mastering. Good engineers can splice just about anywhere, so Rich will be able to take all of the “bits and pieces” of raw material that I have and combine them into (nearly) flawless complete tracks. In the mastering phase, he will apply various enhancements to make the sound quality the best that it can possibly be. I anticipate that he will send me files with several choices of sound qualities from which to choose.
- Fourth, I will submit the finished product to a record label for consideration. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have already discussed this project with a record label, and while they are
interested they are noncommittal until they hear the final result. This not only makes “good business sense” for them, but honestly it will look better on my promotion and tenure application that I had to submit this album for consideration rather than having it be a “done deal” before recording even takes place. While I do hope that there will be no problems with acceptance of the project with this label, if they reject it I will have to “shop around” a bit.
- Fifth, mechanical licenses, liner notes, artwork, and duplication. My original grant was enough to get me all the way to this point, but these last steps will require a small additional infusion of money from my own pocket (or perhaps from anonymous, wealthy donors reading this blog…anyone?) Before we can release the CD commercially I have to purchase what is called a “mechanical license” for each of the works on the recording (except the one that I arranged myself). Essentially this is a fee paid to the copyright holder of each work in order to obtain permission to distribute recordings of that work. Happily, this is mediated through the Harry Fox Agency for practically all publishers operating in the US, so there will be no need to “track down” various copyright holders. Next, I will write liner notes, artwork will be created (by someone other than me), and the CD covers and the discs themselves will need to be made. After that, we should be ready to release the CD to the public through the usual venues (including download-only venues such as iTunes).
As you can see, it was a lengthy process to get to this week, then a week of grueling but satisfying recording sessions, and there is still quite a bit to do before the project is completed. Although I hope to get to a CD release as soon as possible, realistically I do not expect to see it happen before the first of next year. If it is sooner than that, great! If later, that’s fine, as well. In any case, this has been a challenging but enjoyable undertaking, and I am looking forward to seeing the final result.
But first…a break—from the recording project, from intense practicing (though not all practicing), and from blogging. Look for the next new post on Friday, August 30.