Ever wondered what goes into preparing the live orchestral recordings that have become a staple of the classical music industry? How is the sound captured? What happens if someone drops their bow? Where is the “recording booth”? How long is the entire process? We also have a long list of questions, so our curiosity brought us in conversation with Dawn Cattapan, Vice President & General Manager of the TSO. With her many years of experience at the TSO, including assisting with several live recordings, and her invaluable expertise on every aspect of orchestral operations—she is the perfect source to answer all your burning questions! Joining Noteworthy for a special Q&A session, Cattapan brings insight into how the TSO prepares for both obvious and hidden obstacles to deliver a live recording of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella for one of the world’s most celebrated labels, Harmonia Mundi.
NW: What aspect of the planning process for a live recording did you find most unique to recording Pulcinella in particular?
DC: Logistically, one of the things about this Pulcinella recording is that there is a libretto for this piece. A couple of years ago when we recorded Massenet’s Thaïs, we used the screens above the orchestra to project the libretto for audiences. We found there was a bit of a challenge with the humming of the projector that the recording mics would pick up, so we ended up building a little box for the projector to try and contain the sound. This was not ideal for this upcoming recording, so we spoke with our recording engineers, and with the help of our program book team, we found a way to display the libretto on a two-page spread, which would help minimise page flipping during the performance.
NW: What do you find most interesting about how the backstage area is transformed for a recording?
DC: There are two things to highlight: one which audiences can’t see and one that they can. In the lower levels of Roy Thomson Hall, there is a small room called the Green Room, which we use for all kinds of different purposes. What the audience doesn’t see is that this Green Room becomes “Recording Central” during the week. Roy Thomson Hall does have a dedicated recording booth, but that booth is better for remote broadcasts. It's not a very big space, and certainly, it couldn't fit all the equipment that we bring in for the commercial recording. So the Green Room becomes a place where you walk in, and there are multiple speakers, multiple computers, and focused workspaces. It becomes a whole different kind of room than it is the rest of the year.
The second change that audiences can actually see is the canopy in the hall’s auditorium. The canopy is the big circle at the top of the stage that kind of looks like a UFO. This structure can actually move up and down, depending on what the acoustics of a piece call for, but there’s usually a pretty standard orchestra setting. But the way this canopy was built is that there are specific places where you can hang mics. Your mic layout has to be very carefully planned to work within the settings of the canopy, the settings of the auditorium, and the needs of the piece. It's all very carefully and purposefully thought-out, and if you look up at the canopy when you sit in the hall, you'll see a lot of that thought process, and you can actually see where the wires go. Of course, all wires lead back to the Green Room!
NW: How are mistakes, and human error, accommodated during a live recording?
DC: Music in a live concert is ephemeral: when a musician plays the notes, it goes into the hall, and you move on. If a player makes a mistake, they're probably beating themselves up for it. But the audience — if they've noticed at all — they've probably moved on because they're hearing the next notes and the next sound. When you record a CD, those moments live forever. We manage human error in a live recording by recording two concerts, and both concerts are then edited together to make a flawless recording. Anything else that we don't catch or we can't catch, we accommodate in the patch session, which is the other way that we manage potential mistakes.
NW: What is a patch session?
DC: A patch session is when we aren't sure if the edits are going to be enough, and by that, I mean we have done two takes of the concert, but there still may be some moments where there are other noise interference, mistakes, or some sort of super exposed moment. We do another augmented recording of the concert again, and this is an opportunity for us to clean up as much as we can for the recording and effectively put a “patch” on it? When we’re in a patch session, we're not necessarily playing the piece straight through, and we're not even necessarily playing full movements. It might be just a couple of bars. Often it'll be the very beginning of a movement where the audience might be clapping.
My personal favourite example of a patch session is when we did the Messiah with Sir Andrew Davis a few years ago. It's really traditional in the Messiah to have the audience stand during the “Hallelujah” chorus but, of course, when the audience stands, all the chairs in the audience make noise—you don't want that on a live recording! We made sure that in the patch session, we could record the “Hallelujah” chorus so that we weren't capturing the noisy chairs.
NW: How long does it take to mix the recording?
DC: The mixing process usually takes about three to four months from start to finish. We’re really fortunate that our producer has worked with our Music Director many times before, in Luxembourg and on other recordings, so he has a really good sense of what Gustavo is looking for, what he wants to hear, and because of that, it definitely saves a little bit of time in the editing process.
Three to four months is about what it took for Turangalîla and, besides the mixing process, there’s also an approval process. Our musicians get to listen to the recording and give their input about some of the mixing. Of course, the soloists get a listen as well, so by the time we get to the final product, we have a version that everybody is really happy with.
NW: Any tips for how audience members can contribute to a relaxed and successful recording event?
DC: Being part of a recording is such a unique experience because your energy is what the orchestra feeds off of–which sounds like they’re vampires! But the energy of the audience and that excitement is what goes into the recording, by being there and by being excited, the audience is contributing. At the same time, we really need the audience to be as quiet as humanly possible so that we can have the best chance of capturing what we need for a live recording.