A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Monday, 6 April 2015

How to survive recordings

I'm gearing up to write something much more profound in the near future. Readers may have noticed it's been a while, and a lot has been going on that I will want to address on here one way or another. However today I've decided to touch on something purely practical.

As well as singing, I own and operate a mobile recording setup which I use to record audio and video demos for other classical performers. I've been doing a fairly steady trade in this for a while now and would like to share some thoughts, as it's becoming an increasingly important part of singers' career management.

Recordings are no longer just a vanity project. They're becoming a pretty standard part of many application processes these days. It cuts cost for the institutions, because they don't have to arrange a venue or stewards, and also they often won't need to get all adjudicators to be free on the same day, but rather they can listen to submitted recordings at will and make shortlists that they can then discuss. It's an understandable consideration from their point of view, but it instantly makes the playing field unfair. While many of these places will say that a recording made in a practice room with a Zoom-type recorder will be fine (some even go so far as to say they prefer these), the harsh truth is that a well-engineered recording in a good venue will instantly sound better, and the subconscious impact of this is something no panel will be immune to. And that's before we even touch on editing, whereby you can record a piece multiple times and 'stitch together' something that shows the listener the best of what you can do. More on that later.

The unfairness of recordings as a screening method mostly stems from the cost. To put things bluntly - the more you can spend, the better the result will be. If you can't afford a proper recording session, you are at a disadvantage. A fully professional recording of 3 pieces can run you as much as (or even more than) £1000*. Now take into account that as a young singer you are hopefully improving at a rapid pace, that super-expensive recording will be out of date (as far as your singing chops are concerned) within 6 months. Plus if you apply to something with set pieces you'll most likely have to record again specifically for that.

For everyone who now feels doomed to fail because they can't afford the star treatment, breathe and relax. No one can. Also there is the law of diminishing returns to take into account. Stepping up from practice room to church/concert hall, from upright piano to concert grand, from Zoom to proper studio microphones/preamps/AD-converters, are big steps that will instantly transform what you hear. Editing, processing, extra microphones, better and better gear, professional recording studio spaces, all make a difference, but it won't be as staggering as the steps I mentioned earlier. So here is Jan's list of priorities when you're spending money, designed to help you only spend it on things that matter. The further down the list we go, the less impact these things will have, though if you can afford them, do go for it!

1) The pianist and rehearsal time - if you aren't a good ensemble, there's no point. If you aren't consistent in your tempi and dynamics, then editing will be a pain for the engineer, which means he'll charge you for more time.

2) The piano - uprights and baby grands need a lot of help in post-production in order to make them sound good and form any kind of musical support for your voice to float upon and shine. This will also end up costing you for the engineer's time, or you'll just end up with a plonky honky-tonk sound.

3) The space - small rooms are horrible. They can be salvaged by close-mic'ing and reverb, but it'll never sound the same as a proper hall. If you can't manage a concert hall, at least find a church with a good piano. High ceilings, non-square shapes, varied wall textures are guidelines to consider without getting into a protracted discussion about acoustics (diminishing returns, remember?). If in doubt, go big or go home. A big but boomy acoustic can be dealt with through clever microphone placement, a small room can only be smothered in processing.

4) The gear - Zooms are fine if used well. I started out using Zooms, but have been reinvesting all my earnings into better equipment, because it makes a huge difference to me as an engineer. The sound you get from a portable recorder will be ok for most people and if that's all you've got, go for it. Just learn how to use your recorder, experiment with placements, listen back to test recordings before you start laying down your demo. It'll be fine. A pro setup will be much, much better. It'll have depth, no hiss in the background, it'll sound spacier, richer, crisper, it'll have more dynamic range... And in the hands of an engineer it'll require less processing. When I used Zooms I felt compelled to tinker with the sound to make it sound better. Now I have better gear, I spend less time tinkering, and end up charging for less time, while getting infinitely better results.

5) Someone who knows how to use the gear - Even if you're not going to do much editing and post-production, having an engineer for the recording session is a worthwhile investment. Most often points 4 and 5 go hand in hand, because engineers bring with them some good equipment. Having them there means that the only thing you're thinking about is the music and your performance. They deal with the technical stuff that is otherwise a distraction. Their job is to make you sound as good on the recording as you do in real life. If they're musicians as well, they can be an invaluable extra pair of ears to give you feedback and suggest what needs going over again, and what doesn't even if you were unsure about it.

6) Time - recording is knackering. Give yourself time to rest between pieces, and ideally between takes. Microphones have a way of picking up tiredness in the voice that audiences, coaches and panels rarely do. It must be something in the way we listen to recordings and what we've come to expect of them from what we get in commercial CDs. Also, if you can, plan your recordings well in advance of your deadlines, in case you get ill or aren't on form. That way if you have to cancel, or only get 2 good pieces rather than the 3 you need because you tire yourself out, you have time to give it another go. Bluntness time again - in one session (1.5-2h) you can get a maximum of 3 pieces done, I've had people try for more and bin the extra ones, and even out of those 3 more than half the time you'll hear which one was recorded third. The more time you have, the more you can rest. Calmness is key when recording.

7) Editing - if you've not skimped on the above, editing can be considered a luxury. It is a worthwhile luxury, don't get me wrong! Just bear in mind that if you did try to save money on the wrong things, then post-production will be a necessity rather than a bonus. If you've got all the right building blocks in place though, you can decide how little or much editing you'd like to do and run the recording session accordingly, saving the engineer's time and your own money.

The editing jigsaw

Now, whether or not we agree with editing has for the most part become redundant - everyone does it, and when done well, no one can tell. Taking the high road, while morally superior for some, equates to shooting yourself in the foot in terms of competition. Unless you're submitting a clearly unedited video recording no one will know or care. There is all sorts of magic that can be done, including substituting a single key note. Just try to be as consistent as you can in tempi. A metronome can be invaluable in this.

Here are some approaches to the recording session that will impact the way a piece is edited:

1) Recording whole takes in the hope of getting a keeper. Always try to get at least 2 down of each piece, in case something does need a bit of help, otherwise you'll be stuck with what you lay down. The pros are that if you're the kind of person who isn't precious about every little thing (or you're a super-consistent performer), whole takes save you time and money. Having 2 or 3 means you can splice the best sections of each, or even just pick the best 'top note' if you feel like it. You have options if necessary, but you're ideally going for an honest product. The con is that you will have to pace yourself throughout the piece, as in an audition, making sure you'll have enough steam to get through. It's honest, but not very exciting when in a recorded context.

2) Recording in sections. This ensures you sing each section fresh-voiced and with full engagement and energy. You just have to be careful to bear in mind the overarching musical story, but it means you can really go for those dynamics, diction, and even slightly vocally dubious effects that can be very exciting, because you can rest up in between sections. My favourite workflow based on this approach is to record a full performance, then go back and work through the piece, stopping when something can be done better and going back to get it as good as it can be, all the time taking breather-breaks.

3) Recording and listening. This takes time, but is how it's done in professional studios. Lay down the track, listen to it, make notes of what could be better, re-record offending sections or even the whole thing again, listen back, rinse and repeat until everyone is happy. It's time-consuming and expensive, but you have constant control over what you're recording and what will make it into the final product.

I try to involve my clients in the editing process insofar as I send them draft versions and ask for feedback, making sure I get the sound they want and they're happy with my choices from various takes. You know, customer satisfaction and contact is the key to repeat business ;) It does slow things down though, so when you're booking recordings and you want to have input in how they're edited, leave some time for it, otherwise you may have to trust the engineer if you want to have any hope of making the deadline ;)

I've been talking about audio all this time. Video either simplifies things because you need a 'perfect' unedited take, or it complicates things if you want to edit - you'll need at least 2 cameras to be able to switch between angles at edit points, and even then there's no guarantee it will be possible to do it subtly enough to not be noticed. Go for perfection if you can, which means really nail your prep (rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal!). Or be prepared to spend money...

* I do NOT charge that much ;) I'm a singer who also engineers recordings. I do it for some extra cash, yes, although as I've said, I'm still reinvesting all I earn until I have exactly the gear I want. But I also do it because I love voices, I love the challenge of it, and I love helping get the best out of people, both in terms of vocal sound, but also performance and interpretation. The microphone often has a debilitating effect on performers, but once you get over that (which I try to help with by creating a calm atmosphere) it gives wonderful creative possibilities that you don't always have when performing to an audience. Increasingly I try to coax singers to take advantage of this. And as a singer myself, I know we're all working to a budget, trying to get the best we can for what little we earn, even if in an ideal world we'd like to record a studio demo every 6 months just so they are in line with our technical progress... So with all that in mind I'm definitely not out to break anyone's bank.

1 comment:

  1. Great tips! Being prepared is key and like you said, rehearsal is very important. Thanks so much for sharing.