BRINGING THE GREAT CONCERT HALLS TO CLASSICAL MUSIC FANS

Cadu Byington has been on tour and is ready to sleep in his own bed again. He is not playing in an indie rock band or the DJ for a famous rapper; Byington is the sound engineer/music producer whom Jakob Handel tagged to work with him to capture performances by classical and contemporary artists at some of the most famous and historic venues in Germany and Switzerland. Handel Classic Audio wanted to enable classical music fans to hear these famous ensembles in their home venues to pay tribute to the composer, artists, and the acoustics of these iconic acoustical structures. Jakob Handel (Grammy nominee, Latin Grammy award-winner, and German Echo Klassik award-winner) has the credentials that attract the elite of the international recording industry. Handel’s work with Sony / BMG record labels, Universal, EMI and several independent labels has empowered him to gain access to many historic venues for recording purposes. For his latest passion project, he wanted to gain access to some of his favorite venues in Germany and Switzerland, and he wanted Cadu Byington as the expert he trusted on this project in a very hands on manner. Jakob Handel explains the decision for this choice declaring, “Cadu is a very talented producer; over the past few years he has come to dominate all aspects of a production. He is also a great musician, a feature that I think is the most important for a music producer. One must think musically more than technically, and know how to convert this musicality with the available technical resources; this is the secret weapon to becoming a successful producer.” The recordings would require them to quickly access the personality and intricacies of each venue and tailor the recording process uniquely and efficiently to each performance. With a full understanding of the challenges and demands of this opportunity, Byington welcomed the chance to test his abilities and deliver a product up to the standards of the Handel Classic Music name. Handel and Byington had been associated since 1999 but this was a major undertaking on which the two would work together. To fully appreciate these recordings, one must understand the approach that was taken to attain them. At a time when recording software has made everyone feel that they are a true recording engineer, a glimpse into the process that Byington and Handel undertook gives evidence to true mastery of the recording process at its best.

For this undertaking, the recording process was different from both a studio setting and conventional live scenarios. Handel Classic Music wanted to record at three different venues; Rosengarten in Germany, KKL in Lucerne, and Tonhalle in Zurich. The acoustic identity of these locations as well as the ensembles famous for residing there are so lauded and respected in the classical music industry that Handel Classic Audio wanted to bring the experience of hearing them to the world. Music fans have spent so many decades listening to music produced in studios that they may have forgotten (or even not be aware of) the fact that many of the historic concert halls were designed by architects to create the optimal acoustic environment to deliver a moving musical experience. Today’s modern effects are based on the acoustic benefits of these historic musical venues. Modern concert sound systems are so ubiquitous that many audiences have never attended a performance without them. Handel Classic Music wanted to deliver a more purist experience. Byington states, “The approach is totally different. In a concert hall, we want to have the sound in its purest forms, without the interferences of PA systems, and with everyone playing at the same time, like a real concert. The halls were designed to “mix” the sound “’n the hall’. In a studio, you don’t usually have all these acoustical qualities, and you have to add artificial effects to emulate the hall sound. Besides, there are few studios that have room to fit a large orchestra.”  While operating a large sound system requires one skill set, recording a performance while delivering the unique qualities of an individual location is a completely different talent.

Mannheimer Rosengarten in Mannheim, Germany has hosted concerts by contemporary artist like Sting, Simply Red, and many others but, it is mainly home for the classic orchestras and operas for which it was designed. Cadu and Handel traveled there to record the opera Der Prinz vom Homborg by German composer Hans Werner Henze. This Art Noveau structure was built between 1900 and 1903. As a traditional concert hall, Rosengarten has beautiful natural acoustic qualities. These characteristics can be overwhelming or beneficial depending on the abilities of the engineer in charge of assessing them. Byington explains, “When you enter a new hall, you have to sit and listen for all its qualities. Listen carefully to the rehearsal, and “learn” the hall. If you have a profound knowledge of your gear, you will know what to do in order to have the sound. The halls have dampeners and baffles, but in much bigger proportions. Based on the style of the repertoire, you’ll base your approach on more or less reverb, more or less microphones. This means that the venue characteristics as well as the piece of music and style need to be factored in when making the choice of microphones and placement.”

KKL concert hall in Lucerne, Switzerland is both aesthetically and acoustically stunning. This world famous venue is home for the Lucerne Summer Festival. Cadu travelled there to record the performance of Turkish pianist Fazil Say who played Ravel’s Piano Conceto in G. For this recording, Byington needed to take a delicate approach which took advantage of the tremendous natural attributes created in Jean Nouvel’s impressive design. Byington describes, “We did a light set up with 12 microphones, using a main mic technique known as the Decca Tree. The Decca Tree consists of three identical microphones positioned in a triangular shape above the stage. It takes this name because of the DECCA RECORDS engineers who made it popular as a nice way to get the overall sound of the orchestra while at the same time having a nice stereo image. In addition to the Decca Tree, we used other spot mics placed close to sections (like strings, woodwinds, brass) and a pair for the piano solo. The hall has such a wonderful sound that using too many mics can result in eliminating the characteristics for which it is known and loved.”

The final recording took place in The Tonhalle in Zurick, thought by many to possess the best acoustics in Switzerland. Cadu was recording a production which partnered American rapper Saul Williams and composer Thomas Kessler. A mix of rap lyrics with classical music. This truly unique and modern pairing required an engineer with both traditional and modern sensibilities. It was further proof that Byington was the perfect choice for Handel on this project. For a number of reasons, the mobile approach was well suited for this situation as Cadu relates, “It is very difficult for a traditional orchestra to go to a studio nowadays. It is very expensive to have an orchestra inside the studio just for a recording, that’s why we record live and on location. For the recording in the Tonhalle, we did three days of recording. We had singers, and a full orchestra with a lot of percussion, which required a setup of around thirty microphones. The approach was very similar to KKL Lucerne, but we captured the audio with much more detail, closer positioning, and more mics. The piece was an orchestral arrangement for some Saul Williams texts ‘said the shotgun to the head’.”

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  The experience was quite demanding of Byington, Handel, and everyone involved. A myriad of microphones was required to cover any possible situation. The recording crew also needed to travel as lightly as they could, assess each venue quickly and accurately, and set up as efficiently as possible. While recording in a studio allows for multiple takes and splicing of takes, this recording project meant that each recording had to be perfect as there would be no multiple takes or overdubs. Although everyone spoke the universal language of music, the technical aspects of recording and the different locations often necessitated the musicians and engineers to communicate verbally in a language that was not their native tongue. It called for everyone involved to conduct themselves with the highest level of professionalism. Byington feels that he grew in his abilities as well as his appreciation for the musicians whose performances he recorded. He notes, “I learned a new standard in my profession, the standards of Europe for classical music is the reference for the rest of the world.” The recordings themselves pay tribute to the honorable history of the venues, the talented musicians who performed the pieces, and the mastery that Cadu Byington used to deliver them to the world.

 

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