Recording An Hour for Piano
This post is the fourth in (what I hope will become) a long series of posts telling the stories behind my albums. An archive of all posts in the series can be found here: The Stories of Irritable Hedgehog.
My wife once asked me, as I was gearing up for a recent recording session, if I was anxious about the process. After all, if you mess up, you get a chance to go back and try it again. I though for a moment and responded that a mistake in a live performance, while annoying, is fleeting and can be forgiven. In a recording session, you have to be able to execute every note perfectly within a few takes; if you can’t do that, your imperfections become enshrined.
Intellectually, I knew this as I warmed up for my first recording session, but nothing could prepare me for that new type of performance anxiety.
As it turns out, An Hour for Piano was a wonderful piece for my first proper recording. For one, the piece really isn’t that difficult from a technical standpoint, so missed notes/musicality issues were relatively few. Second, the piece is kinda long, which allowed me to settle in to the process.
My approach for this recording, which we continued to use for a few years, was to do two complete takes of the piece and then go back and get takes of a few shorter sections. The thinking was that this would help with continuity, where one of those takes would be the basis for our editing. The unforeseen (at least by me) benefit was that this allowed me to relax and stop worrying so much. It took about 15-20 minutes into the first run to get those initial jitters out, but once they were gone, it was mostly smooth sailing.
I just now dug through my email archives to see what the editing process looked like for this album, and I don’t think we’ve done anything like it since. Dave and I scheduled a time to get together and listen to the takes on his nice speakers to determine edits. I’m glad we did this on the first album, because I didn’t realize how much grey area there is with editing. Obvious mistakes like wrong notes are easy, but then there are rests that are slightly too short, and phrases that don’t round off nicely, and notes that jump out of the texture. Near as I can recall, we erred on the side of fewer edits and greater continuity, but those decisions are still some of the hardest to make, even with ten albums under my belt.
When it came to the actual editing, we left it to our engineer, Bob Beck, and his vast experience. I sat in on the sessions (again, something we haven’t done much since), and walked him through each specific spot that Dave and I had identified. After all that toiling, the end result was wonderful. We took the first 15 minutes or so from the second big take and the remaining 45 minutes from the first, edited a few more spots et voilà, we had a beautiful rendition of the work.
I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings about this point in the process with subsequent albums—I am more adept at hearing all the things I don’t like and wondering if I made too many or too few edits—but this first time was wonderful. Until now, I had only heard live recordings of recitals, which were mediocre at best both in terms of performance and sound quality. Now, with a few edits and some exquisite production, I sounded like a professional pianist. It was an incredibly validating moment.
Getting the Final Audio
Then came some steps that I knew even less about, and I became immensely grateful that Dave had plenty of studio experience from his years with the Colorblind James Experience. I mostly just sat in the room with Dave and Bob and said that things sounded great. It was kind of like an eye test where you can’t tell if 6 or 7 is the better choice. (My ears have become better since.)
We had to make decisions I wouldn’t have thought of, such as, what sort of perspective do we want for the recording? Mics and their placement had already been decided, but I had no idea what ratio of close/medium/room mics would be best. Then there were EQ adjustments to be debated, as well as different approaches to noise reduction. I may have contributed something during this time, but mostly I just learned how important it is to have a good producer.
After the decisions were made and the final audio was delivered, I was blown away. I thought the recording sounded good after editing, but this process took it to an entirely new level. Here was a small team of pros working to make this recording, and by extension my performance, sound as good as it possibly could, and that’s an amazing feeling.
Oh, and of course there’s that little bit about hitting exactly one hour. After so much practice, I was really concerned that the editing would skew the final timing one way or the other. I shouldn’t have been worried. I ended up reaching the end of the piece about six seconds early (meaning my tempo averaged 59.324 instead of the prescribed 59.225), allowing for a slight ritardando and fermata as I had wanted and hitting 1:00:00 exactly. We did it. We had the first recording of An Hour for Piano that was exactly one hour long, and we couldn’t wait to share it with the world.