Gal recording- Day two. Better dead than red?

Day two of the Gál recording project is done, as is our recording of the Violin Concerto.

I still find it hard to believe that a work of this stature has sat almost un-played (there were no performances at all between the premiere in 1932 and 2004!!!!!) and  completely unrecorded for so long. I’m sure we all want our contributions to be impressive as individuals and as a group, but the important thing is to have created a recording the gives listeners a chance to get to know the piece. Of course you want the listener to say “great performance,” but it’s even better (and more important!) if they say that and “great piece!”

We started the morning session today by recording the Arioso, a truly sublime and original movement that in some ways is the most musically elusive. Simon and I had chatted quite a bit about the phrasing and shaping of the opening (none of the live recordings we had heard of the 3 performances since 1932 were successful here), mostly using question marks and “maybe if we try” or “could he intend.”   After all that inquiry, it gelled remarkably quickly. Maybe it just needed that extra bit of figuring out, or just a great orchestra. 

After the break, we had about 75 minutes or so to do any last patches. I try to listen to everything I possibly can on the breaks (something I learned the value of watching my mentors at the CSO in their Telarc sessions. I’m not sure Erich Kunzel ever wasted a second of listening time in all his years there. The man must have had a bladder of steel. I bet he would have peed into a coffee cup in front of everyone before he’d give up 2 minutes of listening time), but if you’ve recorded for 80 minutes, you can’t listen to everything on a 20 minute break. Fortunately, after the second session yesterday we had time to listen to much more. The experience was instructive. 

There were maybe two places where we just wanted to clean things up one notch more if we could (one dissonace was definitely not out of tune, but we thought that if it was perfectly in tune, the whole passage would sound a lot more open and less congested), but a larger problem loomed. In the two big tuttis in the first movement there were several details that were coming across fine to my perch on the podium, but were blurring together in the recording. Simon and I talked about it and agreed it was worth trying to make a couple of changes to note lengths and see if it was better. Indeed, it was, but it also meant that all our patches from the previous day were stylistically incompatible with the new version. It is a huge leap of faith to say that we can redo something at the 11th hour, as recording nerves increase in inverse proportion to the time remaining in the session. It could have easily been the moment for everyone to tighten up and start missing thing, but wasn’t. Within a couple of minutes everyone had forgotten the clock and the pressure and was playing naturally.

Of course, anything you can do in a recording session to increase confidence and relax nerves is a good thing. Simon does one thing in particular that I think works very well- he records every minute of the session from beginning to end. There is, in fact, no red light on stage (there’s not even a clock! Can any of my American friends and colleagues imagine making a CD with no clock onstage?). I’m sure the  red light was invented because tape was expensive- multi-track tape even more so.

However, with modern direct to hard-disc recording, why bother with a tradition that seems to only increase pressure on the musicians. Never mind that sometimes a magic moment will happen during time that is officially rehearsal- what a pity if that wasn’t captured. I worked with one producer many years ago who probably came from the era of razor blade editing who insisted on 10 full seconds of dead silence before a note could be played. Did nobody tell him that the last thing the 2nd horn player needs before the downbeat of Beethoven 4 is 10 full seconds of absolute silence, right after they’ve been told for the 5th time that the note is starting sharp? Think of the wasted time when patching a bar that may only last 3 seconds to wait 10 before starting, then to wait 10 more after! One creaky chair 3 seconds before a take and it’s “sorry, we had a noise- I’ll need that again”

With modern digital editing, a noise that isn’t happening simultaneously with the music can be eliminated. You sure don’t need a long silence before commencing.

It also helps everyone a bit not to hear things like “okay everyone, this is the Introduction to the first movement of Beethoven 1, take six hundred and seventy four.”

What do you think? I have a few engineer and producer friends and many, many accomplished studio players, recording artists and orchestra musicians with vast recording experience who read this. Do you like the red light? Does it sharpen your focus, or does it just slow things down and tighten nerves up? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Gal recording- Day two. Better dead than red?”

  1. Simon Fox

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, the red light, the “take seven two three”, or in Germany “Band läuft!” (“Tape’s running!”) that often get announced at recordings before anyone’s allowed to play. I do indeed avoid all these because I sense that they would divert attention (= energy) away from where it’s needed – in the musical performance – and instead towards “me”. And I’d suggest the same applies to all unnecessary comments from the box, or opinions, etc.

    On the other hand I find there’s huge potential in those precious 5 seconds before a take begins, and I’ll sometimes ‘inject’ a word in there, just to focus the next take so it doesn’t become “just another take” but a useful ingredient for the edit plan. Even something quite silly like “OK, this is the Christmas version now” can add a sparkle to the performance – certainly more than “take four hundred and twenty two” ever could.

    But in the end for me it’s all about that edit plan. What’s still needed now to make the disc, or these 5 bars, come alive? (or, let’s face it, sometimes “what’s still needed to make this acceptable?!”) – and whatever it takes to get the necessary building blocks for putting together a wonderful recording, whether using red lights or no red lights, saying something or saying nothing or standing on your head, surely that’s the guide. No room here for the producer (or the conductor for that matter) to be full of personal principles, opinions, traditions, etc…. there’s a wonderful opportunity for inspired creativity to burst forth and be stored, remarkably, as digits, before being unleashed upon the world, where it may further inspire. So we apply ourselves to this process such that that creativity is enabled to the max. What a great way to spend 3 days?!

  2. Kenneth Woods


    Thanks for the comment. I hope everyone with an interest in recording reads this. This emphasis on “what works” and on the end product is what it is all about. It is so important for everyone involved to be flexible and not to just cling to a habitual approach that they’re comfortable with but that may not be what is needed in this hall on this day.


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