Messiah in the Making: Part I

John D.S. Adams Recording Leave a Comment

Photo: Sian Richards

Tafelmusik MessiahTafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir under the musical direction of Ivars Taurins recently released a two CD set of Handel’s Messiah, in all its splendor, on their newly launched Tafelmusik Media label.

This post, Part 1 of 2, here at will describe the production process that I undertook from getting the call to delivering the final media.

Here I will cover the pre-production and recording process. The second will describe the post production editing, mixing and mastering. It’s a fascination and complex process… I hope you enjoy reading my rendition of the events. Please feel freeze to post comments if you like.

Tricia Baldwin, Managing Director of Tafemusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, contacted me in November 2011 to put together a team to record the complete Messiah live at Koerner Hall in Toronto. The first and somewhat important order of business was to find a Producer who was knowledgeable of the repertoire and the orchestra, who was available and whose fee fit the budget. Carl Talbot (Musicom Productions), who I most often work with on Tafelmusik projects was not available. I called Halifax based producer Jeff Reilly and with Maestro Taurins’ input arranged to have him produce the recording. I secured the 24 track recording system from Musicom Productions and hired Montreal based engineer, Jeremy Tusz to oversee the transport and installation of the recording system. I also hired Toronto engineer Andrew Mullin to assist me in the somewhat involved process of hanging the microphone array.

In consultation with Malcom Harris, the production manager at Koerner Hall, and Stephanie Miletic, the operations manager at Tafelmusik,a production schedule was put together that would allow us enough time to prepare the technical set-up and then sound check all the microphones. When taking into consideration the musicians under an AFof M contract, the choir under an Actra contract and the tech crew of Koerner Hall, there is a certain amount of coordination that needs to take place in order satisfy everyone’s requirements without incurring extra costs for the orchestra. Malcom Harris (who understands recording very well having done it for many years in the past) was extremely helpful is providing all of Koerner Hall’s resources to the project. His crew is extremely professional and he has some excellent equipment in house that we used to supplement our resources.

Having the personnel and technical resources in place, the next task was to fine tune the budget and get the green light from Tafelmusik management. Needless to say, recordings of this nature are not cheap to produce so cost estimates were made and negotiations ensued in order to fit the budget. Since I was coordinating the recording production, there were many fees and costs to take into consideration – from the recording equipment to the shipping of the final CD master.

I made a plan to meet Andrew and Jeremy at the loading dock early in the morning of day 1. Time was tight to get everything ready an in place for the sound check that afternoon (with subsequent performance that evening), so it was important to get in there with a clear plan of who does what. Andrew worked with one of the house crew to drop lines from the grid and rough in placements of all the microphones to be hung. Jeremy handles the recording rig and making sure we were getting signal. I hovered between the control room and the stage to ensure all the technical aspects we aligning so everything would be in place for the sound check that afternoon.

Here is the initial sketch of my my plan for the microphone array in Koerner Hall:

Microphone plot

Pyramix Native system
For all you audio geeks out there, we were recording to a Pyramix Native system employing a MADI interface and a stage box with Millennia Media microphone preamps / AD and an SSL alpha link.

We tied into the venues optical system to get the signal from the stage to the control room at the back of the hall. The Koerner Hall crew had never used the optical tie lines before so there was a little problem solving required to figure it all out. Our microphones consisted of DPA 4003, Schoeps MK2H, Neumann KM-184/TLM-170, Sennheizer MKH40 and others. All the suspended mic were stabilized by attaching fishing line to them and tying them off. The result was literally a web of fishing line, but to the audience the visual impact of the microphone array was minimal.

Here’s a picture of the array in place:

Microphone array

Koerner Hall is a joy to work in. The acoustic is fantastic and the facilities are world class. One feature that I took advantage of was their system of adjustable curtains. With a touch of a button you could very quickly change the reflectivity of the acoustic quite drastically. One thing I learned from my last recording experience in Koerner (recording the Sing along Messiah for DVD) was that once you get people in the seats, the acoustic changes quite drastically. Tafelmusik’s Messiah performances are very popular and full houses were expected every night so I planned to account for this. For the sound check I asked to have the acoustic curtain fully implemented to damped the acoustic in an attempt to recreate the liveliness of the hall with a full house. For the performance I would open up every curtain possible to create as much reflective energy in the acoustic as possible.

Here is a picture of the side curtains partially open:

Side curtains

In the afternoon our producer Jeff Reilly arrived, and met up with Ivars to discuss some artistic details then it was sound check time. Right away it was determined that the main mics were too close and the choral spot mics were not evenly picking up the choir. Immediately following the rehearsal Ivars, Jeff and I sat don and listened to some of the sound check which I recorded to discuss the sound. Ivars confirmed some of our observations and I figured out the mic positioning changes I need to make to achieve the sound we wanted. Andrew, the house crew and I fine tuned the mic positions. Microphone heights were adjusted, the fishing lines were tweaked and were were ready to roll. I was still a bit nervous about how the sound of the Koerner would change with a full house.

The Orchestra had four performances with one 3 hour “patch session” in the afternoon of day 4 to record any tricky spots for coverage. For a piece that’s almost 2 hours long, this is not a lot of time, so Jeff and Ivars needed to put their heads together to determine what spots needed the attention. These “sessions” were ultimately going to be the takes we had to choose from when it came time for editing.

Producer Jeff Reilly

On performance day 1, the house was sold out. As I suspected and even with the curtains fully open, the acoustic seemed dead. What was there was fantastic, but there just wasn’t a whole lot of decay to the sound of the room which for choir helps with the blend. Adding reverb in post was inevitable. During the performances, Jeff had his head in the score marking spots that could be improved upon and I was listening carefully for any noises that might be distracting to the listener and taking note of then. Ivars wanted CD copies of each nights performance immediately following the show so he could review them and make notes as to what he had to get coverage for. Before the next performance Ivars and Jeff would touch bases and then the concert would begin.

On day 4, the last day or recording we had scheduled a 3 hour patch session so we could pick up spots that were technically challenging and/or Ivars and Jeff wanted coverage on when it came time to editing. In advance of the patch session it was decided by Ivars and Tafelmusik management to record the patch session without the choir. I imagine economics played a roll in this decision but Ivars was confident that he could get everything he needed from the choir during the four live performances. Nonetheless, for a piece that is over two and a half hours in total length, 3 hours was not a lot of time so we needed to be very organized with our time. Given was we had in the can at that moment (the 4th and final performance was looked at as bonus material!) Ivars and Jeff carefully planned what required and scheduled the soloists and budgeted the time so we would have time to record everything we needed. Every minute beyond the 3 hours allotted for the patch session was very expensive. There were concerns that extra time was going to be necessary to get everything we needed but at the last minute Jeff decided that we were good… we had everything we needed.

Stay tuned for part 2 of “Messiah in the Making” where I will describe the post production process. Thanks for reading.

Curtain calls

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