In my previous post, I raised this topic as a question - What do young artists and ensembles need to know about recording? - since I was scheduled to give a talk on that subject to a young chamber group. Having now given that talk, I return with some answers, which I will present over my next several posts.
One of the first decisions that must be made before recording can begin is where to record. There are many considerations that come into play when choosing a recording venue. These include:
Noise issues (both internal and external)
Degree of control
Ideally, you want a space with some reverberation - i.e., a nice "tail" to the sound but with little or no echo. How much will depend on the size of the group to be recorded and the types of instruments. The right amount of reverberation will give a nice "bloom" to the sound. Too much will make things sound "swimmy." Of course, one cannot always record in a space with the ideal amount of reverberation, so it is sometimes necessary to add more electronically later. One thing to remember is that reverb is like salt: you can always add more later, but you can't subtract what's already in the stew.
A good recording space must be well insulated from outside noise (e.g., planes, trains, and automobiles) as well as sounds within the building or recording space itself (e.g., creaky floors, knocking pipes). For stories of noise problems one can encounter during recording sessions, read my post titled Things that go chirp in the night.
Of course, the best space in the world is useless if it is only available alternate Tuesdays in months that end in "y". There are many small concert halls around town I would love to record in, but they are just too hard to schedule.
Degree of control may be an issue in places which are not regularly used for recording. You may find a janitor who cannot read your "Recording in Progress, do NOT enter" sign barging in because the sign is in the wrong language (for her). If the building is used for other purposes, e.g., as a church or school, you may find other such conflicts. The heating system may make noise and you don't have access to turn it off, etc.
Depending on your resources, you may need a venue with microphones, mixing board, etc. on the premises. This can severely limit your recording choices, however. Even if you don't need the venue to supply everything, however, it's nice not to have to schlep all the equipment to a session yourself.
There are venues that are ideal in just about every respect, but these can come at a high price (often because they are required to keep a minimum staff on hand for all recordings and performances). So that must be factored into the decision as well.
Different types of recording venues include:
The other variable is whether the venue comes with its own "Control Room."
A commercial studio will come with equipment, control room, etc. but the sound will usually be dead, which is not the most conducive to great music making. (Mitch Miller once said playing in a dead room is like making love to a rubber doll.) While it is always possible to add ambiance later, it is usually better to have SOMETHING to add it to rather than starting from a completely dead sound.
A room can vary from something small and relatively unreverberant to a large room with high vaulted ceilings and plenty of reverberation (such as the room in which we made our first recording with the Vermeer Quartet). The WFMT performance studio is what I would call a typical recording "room" and it comes with a control room attached, with a mixing board and top-of-the-line monitoring speakers for playbacks. It's no surprise that we do most of our recording there - most things that don't require a larger space: i.e., solo piano (WFMT has an excellent Steinway Concert Grand) and small chamber music.
A small concert hall - i.e., less than 1000 seats - can be an excellent place to record just about anything short of large orchestra pieces. Some come with their own control rooms, others you have to bring all your own equipment to, including playback speakers. One I particularly like is Bennett-Gordon Hall at Ravinia, where we made both of our opera recordings (both of which feature relatively small orchestral forces): Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium and Robert Kurka's The Good Soldier Schweik, both with the Chicago Opera Theater.
A large hall is, of course, a "full" concert hall such as Orchestra Hall or the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. These, of course, come with their own control rooms and are great places to record if you have the cash.
The other type of venue that can be very useful for recording are churches, since they tend to come with excellent acoustics. But you do have to be careful about outside (and sometimes even inside) noise, since these are not usually built to be insulated from outside sounds. So you may be able to record only at night, for example. And, of course, you will have to bring all your own equipment since churches are not typically in the recording business.
Sometimes you get the best of all worlds, however. Our recent trip to London to record Rachel Barton Pine with the Royal Philharmonic (Beethoven Violin Concerto with the world premiere recording of the violin concerto by Beethoven contemporary Franz Clement) took place in Air Lyndhurst Studios, built by Beatles producer George Martin. Not only did we have the advantage of state of the art facilities - microphones, mixing board, playback speakers, etc. - and on-site engineering staff, but the space in which the orchestra recorded was originally a high-ceilinged church which was converted to the purpose of recording.
Musicians: If you have thoughts on where the best spaces to record are (or are NOT), please post them in the comments.