Dealing with classically trained musicians
Compared with folk or popular musicians, players raised in the classical tradition tend to be less comfortable creating their own lines or improvising parts on the hoof. Although this needn’t at all stand in the way of getting good results, I’ve seen numerous sessions falter simply because they failed to acknowledge the fact that classical players usually give of their best when they’ve prepared, practiced, and (preferably) memorized their parts in advance. So if you’re not a classical musician yourself, let me offer a few tips for avoiding this pitfall.
When you’ve already got a part in mind, do your level best to provide it in sheet-music form. If you’re not confident with musical notation yourself, then ask the musicians to notate the part themselves, either before or during the session. (Don’t rely on them bringing the necessary pencils and manuscript paper to the studio, though, because they often don’t, in my experience! Loose-leaf paper is better than bound pads, because it makes it easier for people to avoid page turns mid-take.) Most players can transcribe a recorded guide part by ear, but screenshots of a MIDI part within a software DAW’s piano-roll editor will usually make that process significantly quicker. If your computer sequencer can generate rough-and-ready notated parts from MIDI data semi-automatically, that can speed things up even more, but make sure you check that the part’s within your target instrument’s pitch-range; that you choose an appropriate clef for the stave; and that you’ve tidied up (or quantized) the source MIDI data’s timing and removed note overlaps as much as possible without actually changing the part’s fundamental rhythms, because this will make the printout clearer to read. While the player’s writing out their part, take the opportunity to discuss the phrasing, rhythmic stresses, and overall volume contour of the required performance with them, asking them to make whatever markings they need on the page to remind themselves of any decisions. It also improves communications during overdubbing if you write bar numbers in at the start of each line—so much so that I always insist on it myself.
If the onus of creating the part falls primarily on the performer, then leave ample time to develop and rehearse it before you actually need to record. Some classical performers get very self-conscious feeling their way around their own instrument looking for ideas, so this is one situation where looping a section of the backing mix and leaving the musician alone with it for a few minutes can really pay off. But while you’re fetching the coffee, do keep an ear open for moments that seem to work particularly well, and compliment those spots to steer the player in the right direction. Getting the musician to note down any particularly juicy bits is also worthwhile, because once you have a handful of these you can often build most of the final part out of them like a jigsaw, after which it becomes much easier to think of smaller sections to fill remaining gaps.
Where inspiration’s proving thin on the ground, suggest that the player notates a few of the arrangement’s other main lines, which can help on two counts: Firstly there may be aspects of those that can be repackaged into the current part; and, secondly, it may highlight gaps in a competing line which will suggest where your new part should be most active. Writing down the constituent notes of underlying chords is useful for some players too, because it indicates the most obvious resting points for a line, harmonically speaking. You may even find it’s instructive for the talent to trundle through a few highlights of their concert repertoire for you, so you can trawl them for evocative-sounding ornaments or specialized performance techniques that are unlikely to spring up naturally during improvisation.
Whatever part you come up with, though, don’t let the performer record it cold straight after writing it. Leave them to get used to it on their own while you dust the valances for a few minutes, and only start going for takes when it sounds like they’re really inhabiting the part emotionally. One thing classical performers are very good at is practicing a part, so they’ll typically improve their performance much more quickly this way (or in a rehearsal situation) than they will just by racking up loads of takes.
Excerpt from Recording Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author
Mike Senior is a professional engineer who has worked with Wet Wet Wet, The Charlatans, Reef, Therapy, and Nigel Kennedy. He specialises in adapting the techniques of top producers for those working on a budget, writing regularly for Sound On Sound magazine’s ‘Mix Rescue’, ‘Session Notes’, and ‘Mix Review’ columns. He is also the author of the best-selling Focal Press book Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio.