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My First Symphony Recording -- Success!



Jul 19 2005, 05:15 AM

The third week of June was a most interesting period for me, as I was enjoying a rare opportunity to achieve one of my dreams: recording a symphony orchestra.

The opportunity arose because of a longtime client of mine, the general manager of a classical/fine arts radio station, who also happens to be the son of a famous American composer and a conductor as well.

In late May, he approached me about a recording session, mainly to be for his self-promotion. I was to make a video and sound recording of a local symphony orchestra, comprised of non-union volunteers, playing mostly public domain music.

The concert was to be a "retro pops" format, reliving some of the classic old television show themes and commercial jingles.

Wanting this badly enough, I worked out a very aggressive discount, as this would be MY resume as well, and I made sure that the client knew that I was willing to work with him because of a mutual benefit. We made a deal, and I was to record two rehearsal sessions and one concert.

I figured out how to fit three television cameras, an 8-channel recording system, laptop computer, three tripods, cables, 6 microphones, and a myriad of miscellaneous other items onto one handtruck. It must have weighed more than 140lbs. But I figured out how to back it up to the tailgate of my SUV, tip it and roll it up onto the back of the SUV cargo bay. Woohoo! Was I proud of myself for figuring that little challenge out!

The rehearsals went well. We had a few challenges, mainly the air conditioners were noisy. The bass drum player was afraid to be heard, the second French Horn player was flatting his notes... so on the second rehearsal, I got them to turn off the a/c for the first 56 minutes and got a pristine recording that I was able to be proud of.

With most recordings, there's only so much range between electronic noise and distortion. During silence or a very quiet passage, if one turns the volume control way up, hiss is heard. I found that with the equipment I use now, the noise floor is so low that during the quiet between songs, one can turn up the volume and hear clothing rustling and pages turning on the music stands, but no hiss. And the music sounded splendid--or as good as possible for that orchestra.

So I made it through two rehearsals. They went well.

And the next night was the concert, an outdoor affair put on by the city center. I arrived early, about 4pm for a 7:30 concert. Talked to the stage manager and then hauled my equipment over and started unpacking.

The client arrived an hour later and I assisted him with some of the setup of his stuff (projector and a small mixer/amplifier) and got it all connected to the speaker columns that the city provided.

I finished getting all my stuff setup, and made some final concessions with the conductor, ending up hoisting my micropone "tree" up another 2 feet, so that his line of vision to each orchestra member was not obstructed.

After setup, I fielded some advanced preparations for interviewing some people about the concert, for videotaping during intermission.

Then I waited for it to begin. And on time, it did. Got the cameras rolling and started the audio recording software on the laptop, which controlled the 8-channel audio interface, recording in glorious 24-bits at 96KHz sampling rate to the hard drive in the laptop.

The concert went smoothly, though I could tell that the conductor was sometimes a bit nervous and I could see in the closeups in my viewfinder as his lips moved silently trying to remember a song title or a composer's name in the brief pause before he stated them. But the performance was about as good as could be expected from an orchestra comprised of volunteers (even though the concertmaster and first violinist is a student at Juilliard) and had it's high points and its low points.

The second half of the concert was taking place in darkness. Although the bandshell had lighting, they were not as effective, nor were they consistent. The front of the orchestra was in total darkness, while the interior members were bathed in orange and blue light. The appearance in my LCD viewfinder had me concerned, but as it turned out in post production, the images looked okay on a regular CRT monitor.

I recorded the whole concert and an interview without incident. (Well, except for the interview--I was recording audio the whole time, but I realized 5 minutes into the interview, that my camera was on standby, not record!) I fixed that in post by making two cuts to the interview and arranging the sound-only portion in the middle and using rehearsal video footage instead, with their voices as narration. It worked out pretty nicely.

After the concert, I packed up systematically and managed to locate all cables and equipment in the dark. The client and his wife thanked me for doing the recording and we had a brief chat about the content of the promotional clip that was to be produced in addition to the DVD.

Three weeks have passed since the concert and I have produced two revisions of the DVD for evaluation purposes. The raw recordings generated over 300 gigabytes of sound and video data! A significant amount of time was involved with downsampling the audio to DVD format specification.

What I normally do is capture all the assets to the production workstation, then import them to the timeline and synch the audio tracks with the camera audio/video.

The project had six high fidelity sound tracks and six more lo-fi camera audio tracks, so there was a LOT of audio to work with. I synched most of the camera audio then unlinked it and discarded it once its usefulness was over.

After the gruntwork of synchronizing all those tracks, the next step was cutting big swaths of wasted "dead time" from the program. That bought about 10 minutes. Then came the A/B/C camera cuts. And finally the transitions (dissolves from one camera to the next, depending on music tempo) were added, and then titles.

As it turned out, we did have one other minor problem: I had recorded a stereo feed from their mixer, the intent being to have clean vocal tracks and MIDI piano tracks to mix in the project. As it turned out, there was something wrong with their mixer and they had changed out some equipment after I did my level check. The result was a weak and distorted feed to my equipment. I had not bothered to re-check the feed. So I ended up using the low fi camera A audio in snippets where vocals came in. And I got the slide presentation audio on CD from the client and dubbed that in later. As well as the slides of various logos, commercial products from the 1950s-70s that were shown on the projection screen during the concert. I integrated these items into the final video.

I finally got to write the first DVD last week, and watch it on the big screen. And boy, did it look and sound great!

In the early stages of the cuts-only portion of the editing, I put up some excerpts on my web site at the following tiny URLs:



They are unfinished, but one can hear the 5.1 channel audio and get a feel for the early stages of editing as well as the look and feel of the concert.

I'm very close to done, and I hope the client is very pleased and becomes a big proponent of mine. At the moment, I wait on his reaction, while I contemplate my proposal to record the Austin Organ at a cathedral in Hartford, CT this fall.


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