Interesting job coming up

rob aylestone

I got a call today I said yes to without even discussing money. A modern extremely well known composer, in his 70s now who writes serious music for choirs, piano and orchestras. A secret sort of event - like a masterclass with Q&As from an invite only guest list. I've sorted the Steinway specified and there will be three microphones only. His voice and a piano, that's it. His mic for the audience because he is quietly spoken. A few speakers on sticks and that is that! I could do it with a small mixer and small H6 recorder. However, looking around the store, I think that I might have to take the Midas M32 - the X32s being out in venues at the moment. Totally over the top, but maybe it will create a good impression? I've actually recorded loads of this guys music over the years but never met him.

Do you know I got the job? He is a friend of my old Head Mistress - I left school in 1975, and I recognised her voice on the phone - she would be about the same age as the composer, and apparently my name came up and she said "I used to teach him" - a quick google and job sorted! I remember the school report "such a shame he has given up playing the cello....". Maybe I'm forgiven.
I had a really great day. The composer was a fella called John Rutter, who impressed me by his knowledge of music technology - frankly not what I expected at all, and we had conversations about Decca Trees and other recording techniques. He's in his 70s now and told me that the Decca Tree, the old technique I have only just tired myself, was actually a mistake and sort of a happy accident discovered by the Decca engineers and the EMI engineers, the main competition at the time, did not like it all, but probably simply from the 'company' perspective.

The paperwork was that he needed a clip on microphone so the choir (about 180 people) could hear him. I assumed, wrongly, that this was for the talking between the music. Very wrong. He would sing the solo parts and encourage and bring in the sections - so needed to get over 180 people singing with gusto. I gave him his mic pack and he opened it and turned it on - he knew Sennheiser packs, clearly. Then he said, Oh Good, I like DPAs. He even clipped it on in exactly the right place. he even introduced me to some new acoustic terms. 'Lift'- as in the sound of a space that is not cathedral like, but has a nice acoustic that lifts it from being dead. I know exactly what he means a new term for me to use to describe sound!

The audience had all paid for the masterclass, and got really great value for the ticket cost. I've been recording choirs for a long time and they've been various levels from enthusiastic beginner to professionals and they all had the music. For those unused to choirs - there are multiple parts. Sopranos, Altos, Tenors and Basses - then the accompanist on the piano, and perhaps some solo lines. SATB can be written on 4 stave lines, with words under, or as the girls on one line, with their notes underneath each other, and the same with the men, and sometimes you might have each section have two lines one above the other, with the high basses and the low basses, so the fellas with the lowest range, do the very low notes and those who cross into tenor range do the top note. The other groups all split where necessary.

The music us usually broken into sections with letter names.

What happened today was that he would ask them to turn to page 12. He would point out maybe a tricky bit at letter F and everyone would start and he would sing in, with me making sure they could hear his line for them to copy. Usually one go of just the trick section, then back to the start. everyone sight reading their part, first time, no rehearsal. Brilliant. He'd stop them if things went astray and fix things. I learned quite a few tricks I'll use in my more poppy/rocky recordings, like this trick.

With words that have to fit the rhythm of the music its so easy for everything to become a mess when there are lots of quick notes, and the most important is always the start of the first note. He pointed out that the vital bit is consonants and vowels. Consonants do NOT have a pitch, so if you have to sing the punchy work strong, that then lasts a bit, you need to get the 'str'sound over as quickly as possible and concentrate on the 'long' sound. He then demonstrated that if that 'rong' part of the word is held, you need to gradually open your mouth as you sing it - so you are almost starting the 'long' as more an 'ah' sound that you open your mouth wider once you start it, turning it into more an 'oh' sound. That sounds odd in text on a screen, but you can do a powerful 'strong'with the quick 'st'and the change in vowel sound. If you ever get a singer in the studio with words like this that don't cut through the mix, it's worth having a think. It's tricky to learn but the first attempt with the choir was sort of normal, but once they mastered the open mouth and short consonant the difference in the music in context was so different. This mouth opening trick also stops singer going flat on these held notes. The change in mouth opening and shape keeping the tuning precise. amazing, and I really want to try it.

For me who was working just one microphone in the main was that I needed 30dB dialled in on the Sennheiser radio pack to cope with his range of volume from speaking to singing loudly. It's a good job I can read music, because I needed to work really hard on this one fader. I had to read the music, which with often just four bars to a page, turned pretty swiftly, and pick out the solo lines he would be singing, and then which bits he would shout encouragement.

This one microphone fader had me working so hard. A huge difference to what I normally do. I got paid to do a really interesting days work, got fed and watered and learned some really useful stuff I can transfer to other projects.

Kit wise, a Sennheiser pack and receiver, two powered 12"speakers on sticks, an old Soundcraft LX-7 analogue mixer and that was that. The Soundcraft I used because it had really nice preamps and was silent - no hiss. The BBC turned up and they had a Sony lav mic and pack and dangled it on my loudspeakers to pick up what he was saying during one song. I just listened to it on TV and it sounded OK - I guess mixed in with the camera audio, it worked fine.
A valuable insight into choirs, Rob.
The trickiest thing about sightreading for me, was trying to count 10 bars or so, of the other parts, while my part was silent, when I can't see their parts.
That was in a guitar orchestra.
I'd have taken back up equipment for everything, fearing disaster.