Music recording

How to Make a Professional Classical Music Recording in 10 Easy Lessons and 1 Difficult

I am currently producing my fourth classical music album. Even in the relatively short years that I have made them, the process has changed dramatically. First, we used to say we were making “a CD”, but now we call it “an album” because many consumers are getting music as digital downloads and don’t even own a CD player anymore. compact disk. “Album” covers both possibilities, even vinyl records that have become fashionable again.

Without trying to list exactly 10 lessons, I will try to explain in easy language several aspects of today’s recording scene.

Changes in music recording today, debunked

When I first used a commercial recording studio in the late 1990s, it happened to be the famous RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee. I was there to record my classical harp concerto with a symphony orchestra, using the same massive mixers and tape recorders with 15-inch-wide reels used by country music legends. At that time, however, large recorders used digital tapes rather than the old type of magnetic tape, but they still took up a lot of space and had to be kept in a “cold room” next to the recording booth and controlled remotely from the cabin because they emit a lot of heat.

A few years later I attended a friend’s session at one of the other big studios in Nashville and noticed that people had thrown their jackets over some of this multi-million dollar equipment, and the engineer recorded all the tracks in the session. on a computer. The computer screen had an image of a mixer, with virtual slider buttons that you could move up and down with a mouse. I was told they really didn’t know what to do with all the now obsolete physical gear, so he just stood there collecting dust and jackets.

Eventually this obsolete equipment was mostly sold at a discount to someone who could still use it, then to someone else, and finally it either reached the end of its useful life or was dismantled for parts. The same would happen over the next few years with a few more generations of older digital equipment until the top studios migrated to today’s latest software. Sound engineers still love the practical feel of a physical (but now digital) mixer, in combination with computer monitors. Older microphones, for their part, have not disappeared but have become even more prized for their realism in capturing sound. My third album was recorded in 2017 with a vintage (1969) stereo pair of German microphones which are now selling online for a whopping $7500.

What happens before a classic recording session?

A lot of preparation, sometimes comparable to planning a wedding, must be done before the recording session, especially for classical music. Of course, the music has to be composed first, which can take months. My new album will contain my new symphony which took me about two years to compose, with a conductor’s score of over 200 pages. Imagine writing a novel with thousands of notes instead of words, let alone writing it on 11-inch by 17-inch paper.

Someone has to play the music, once it’s composed, and in fact the idea to make a recording can come from the performers or from the ensemble themselves. They may be the ones who recruit or “task” the composer to write it so he can have something original to record. Or a composer might write music first and then go looking for an orchestra or chamber musicians to record it, which usually involves finding the money to pay them.

If it is a recording played by union musicians, they get a higher royalty (“recording rate”) than their normal performance rate. There are also special rules in a union session, such as a certain break time that musicians must have during the session. A small “trucking” fee must be paid to players of larger instruments, such as string basses and tubas, to “carry” these instruments to the session. It originated, I am told, in New York, when these players had to pay an extra ticket for a bus seat to carry their instrument on. Here in Nashville, the fee is always demanded, although they usually drive to the door in their own car with this instrument.

In the United States, union recording fees can run up to a hundred thousand dollars just to pay musicians for a full orchestra to play music from a classic album. That’s why you may notice more and more new classical recordings made by Eastern European orchestras, in particular, as their fees can be a fraction of that. Wherever it is recorded, an album requires a full budget to be planned in advance to pay not only the musicians but also the rental of the studio and the sound engineers and later the post-production costs. These days, record companies won’t risk advancing that money and then recouping it from album sales, because classic recordings rarely break even in sales. They must therefore be paid for in advance, usually through grants or private philanthropy, which must be requested or collected well in advance – and this can take months.

Cover of “The Sea Knows” composed by Michael Kurek. (Courtesy of Michael Kurek)

When and how is classical music recorded?

A classical orchestral recording often involves a public performance first, as musicians often learn and rehearse the music first, anyway, so might as well put it into their concert season. To save money on recording sessions in a rented studio, the orchestral concert itself is usually recorded live in its usual concert hall with an audience, as well as at the dress rehearsal the day before, without an audience. . The recording of the concert may have coughing or other disturbing noises from the audience, and so those places in the music, snippets from the “clean” dress rehearsal, can be edited with surgical precision to remove the coughing . Or if the musicians have made mistakes like playing wrong notes at the same place in the music, both during the dress and during the concert, there may be a third “scouting session” where they just replay those passages and correct them so that these corrections can be edited in.

Typically, there will be a main ‘middle pair’ of microphones placed above the conductor which picks up the natural mix of the hall from the full orchestra. Additional “spot mics” will be placed on certain instruments or sections of the orchestra so that these can be raised or lowered later. Even so, the ideal is to capture as much of the natural blend of the orchestra in the room as possible. This differs from some popular music, where parts may be recorded separately in isolation booths or even on different days and then mixed together later.

professional recording studio
A professional recording studio with a large side window to allow a view of the musicians below. (Timur Kulgarin/Shutterstock)

Not only are the best moments from multiple plays of the music seamlessly edited into a near-perfect performance (something like Photoshop in sound), but post-production engineers can use artificial digital “reverb” to make the recordings as if the musicians are playing in a large concert hall or even a haunting cathedral, perhaps, with some instruments sounding further away than others, for depth, and the sound can be shifted farther left or right right of the stereo field. Then the finished recording must have a CD booklet created and the album released for sale in both physical and digital versions, as books currently are.

These were, at least, the “10 easy lessons” in my title, so what is the “difficult”? I’m torn between answering that the most difficult are the years of learning to skillfully compose beautiful music, or the years of practice to perform it beautifully, or sometimes the most difficult of all, finding the funds for the to register !

American composer Michael Kurek is the composer and producer of Billboard’s classic #1 album, “The Sea Knows,” and a member of the Recording Academy’s Grammy Producers and Engineers Wing. He is professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. The most recent of his many composition awards was named “Tennessee State Laureate Composer” in March 2022 by the Tennessee State Legislature and Governor. For more information and music, visit Michaelkurek.com


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