The way of the Classical-CD
Every CD production begins with an idea. "How would it be if ...? Shouldn't we try our hand at ...? Look what I've found!" Every new idea comes with an instant label: "no chance" (the money factor), "lunatic fringe" (but there might be something to it), and "go for it" (a must do). Then the research begins. Which compositions might make for a good match and an interesting program? We turn music dictionaries and work catalogues inside out and upside down and may begin to wish that composers of earlier centuries had known that today's CD would have a maximum playing time of about seventy minutes.
The first CD was the size of an LP and could store away ten to twelve hours of music. Herbert von Karajan was once asked to name what he considered to be the ideal playing time. He answered that the new disc generation should eliminate the need for us to get up and turn the record while listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. That would have been seventy-four minutes, by the way, in his interpretation. The newest CD generation, the DVD, again allows for ten to twelve hours of playing time. But have we now reached the ideal? Stay tuned for further developments.
Composers of our century have sometimes clocked their works to playing time, but in our changing times what is modern today may be gone tomorrow. For example, Castelnuovo-Tedesco geared his 24 Caprichos de Goya op. 195 to the LP maximum of thirty-three minutes, dividing his guitar masterpiece into four self-contained units of some twenty minutes each for four LP sides. Today this is too much for one CD and pretty slim pickings for two. What to do? Include another work on the recording to fill in the time? We chose the more rigorous course and have let this magnificent guitar work stand alone on two CDs of about forty-four minutes each ( MDG 305 0725-2).
Musical quality is of course the most important factor - but not the only one - in our decisions for or against a particular recording prospect. How many times has it been recorded before? Does it or our new recording of it have anything to add to the repertoire? Do we really need the zillionth recording of that bestselling da-da-da-daa symphony?
We also take a close look at the parts and the score. Not every new discovery is a neglected masterpiece, but our Catalogue certainly shows that there is more to musical excellence than just the standard concert fare.
We work closely together with the musicians in making our repertoire decisions. In fact, some of them have developed into musical archeologists in their quest for the musical unknown. The repertoire of our Exclusive Artists presents to you the buried treasures that they have unearthed in their busy and careful excavations and investigations in old libraries and collections. Do you happen to know where actually to find the music library of the Empress of Austria? Rio de Janeiro!
When a new work is discovered, it is usually anything but ready-to-play. A score with all the parts will have to be prepared, not least of all so that the Tonmeister can keep track of all the parts during the recording session. Recording a wind sextet with the first clarinet part and nothing else would be like one-handed juggling with six raw eggs. In other words, don't try it.
The choice of a proper recording space and the matching of instrumentation and room acoustics are also an important factors for us. Some music just needs its space to create the listening impression of big sound in a large hall. Recordings from the French romantic organ literature form one example here (Track No. 7: Widor, Toccata). The overwhelming size (120 meters long) of the Gothic cathedral of St. Ouen in Rouen .) not only supplies the original performance setting of Widor's music but also the original Aristide Cavaillé Coll organ for which he composed many of his organ symphonies.
Chamber music calls for the utmost clarity and sound precision; the acoustics should be crisp but not too dry (Track No. 10: Schulhoff). We seek out blue-blooded secular space such as the Fürstliche Reitbahn in Arolsen or the Oranienburg Festival Hall in Nordkirchen as well as church sacred space (Track No. 6: Handel) to bring out the finest nuances of sound.
Symphonic works require nothing less than an outstanding concert hall on the order of the Stadthalle in Wuppertal (Track No. 20: Reicha)
On our "on location" recordings acoustic factors not only enter into the sound picture but also form part of the interpretation. Even things like how long a musician should wait before coming in again after a General Pause are very much dependent on the room acoustics.
In contrast, classical music recorded in the studio is "canned," set in unreal space: an unsatisfactory solution shortchanging the musicians and the listeners. The music is cold and distant and lacks genuineness and spontaneous verve.
In our recordings we aim at reproducing the room acoustics or atmosphere so as to make the musicians feel at home and to include the listener in the unfolding musical process.
Natural acoustics may make for beautiful listening, but the producer who would capture them has to be willing to put up with his share of difficulties. An aged radiator may begin auditioning for a percussion part, baroque window panes are no match for postmodern traffic noise, and then some tourists come knocking at the door, "Oh, sorry, we thought this was a concert." The night hours are often the best time for a little background peace and quiet and inspired performances from our musicians in the foreground - and from a certain nightingale who once set out to outdo the flute melodies in Bach's solo sonata.
Since we go "on the road" to make our recordings, we have what we need ready and packed for the next production: carefully selected Microphones, state-of-the-art analog-digital Sound Transducers, digital Recording Devices, Amplifiers, Listening Monitors, and Headphones along with supports, electric cables, a couple of hours of tape, a well-sharpened pencil, a tuning fork, and scores.
All these technological gadgets are set up in an adjoining room not sharing in the acoustics of the recording space but linked to it by talkback so that we Tonmeister may focus on controlling the quality of the recording and communicate with the musicians.
After the musicians have been assigned their proper places in the recording space, the microphones are set up so as to establish a perfect balance between direct sound and room ambiance.
All the corrections in fine matters of sound are made with microphones. MDG does not use sound filters or artificial resonance, and it goes without saying that dynamic limiters are taboo. Instead we rely on a carefully selected assortment of professional capacitor microphones representing different sound qualities. Sound differences do not exist only between the different Microphone Types but also between microphones developed by the top Manufacturers in the field (Bruel & Kjaer, Neumann, Schoeps, Sennheiser), and choosing between these differences is what makes the trademark "MDG microphone sound focus" possible in the first place.
After a general warm-up, the instruments are tuned, the chairs are put in their proper places, the last scores are numbered ("Where did my pencil go?"), and the first recording session begins with a trial run-through, usually of the whole of the first movement. The musicians then have the opportunity to listen to the recording, and they do so with great anticipation, "Here it is, the sneak preview of our new CD!" The Tonmeister is interested first and foremost in sound-engineering fine points such as balance (the relation of the individual parts to each other and to the overall room ambiance). It is his task to determine whether a certain instrument is really too close or too distant in the sound picture or whether the instrumentalist may have performed too loudly or too softly, perhaps because the ensemble as a whole has not yet accustomed itself to the acoustics of the recording space. Or maybe there is an octave in the Concerto Grand Piano that is not yet in perfect tune. In this case a piano tuner (who also serves as a page tuner when required) is standing by to make the necessary adjustments.
The Tonmeister then takes time to listen to the spontaneous judgments of the musicians. "My instrument sounds brilliant but dull, do you know what I mean?...It's close up but distant too...I'm happy with my part, but you're all too loud." And these seeming contradictions do indeed coexist. Audio Impressions are not that easy to describe and by no means uniform, even among ensemble members who have been working together for years! And so we talk things out and play back the trial recording a second time.
By the time the first official recording session begins, everything - the distance between the instruments and the main and room microphones and the levels on the mixer panel - are in perfect order. The total production period may last three to five days, and during this time no changes are made, this in the interest of preserving the natural sound balance.
It is then that the Score comes to occupy the focus of the Tonmeister's work. He has to know it down to the very last detail. There is more to a Tonmeister's work that just eliminating background noise, dynamic imbalance, and intonation turbulences. Like the conductor on stage, he is also there to encourage the musicians to give it their all and to conjure up the atmosphere of an unforgettable concert evening for the listener.
A CD recording is the product of the musical dialogue during the recording sessions and the careful selection of the right Takes in the final montage of the Master Tape. The sessions yield from eight to twelve hours of tape material for each CD. Now the Tonmeister is faced with the task of making a Cut List on the basis of the precise entries in his score. The master tape gradually takes shape on the Editor in the form of the best musical combination of the best takes. The various cuts are matched to produce a first-class listening experience without resorting to technological tricks to change the character of the original performance.
The same goal set for the recording as a whole is also set for the Musical Editing.
MDG has two systems for musical editing at its disposal. The Sony system employs longitudinal recording. This means that the takes are copied cut-for-cut from the player to the recorder in "real time." The master tape is produced on the recorder. The advantage: the editing can be done directly from the recording tapes. The disadvantage: later changes are time-consuming because they have to be made in real time.
The Sonic Solutions system works with hard discs on which all the takes have to be stored before the editing process proper can begin. The advantage: each cut can be changed afterward. The disadvantage: the time it takes to load and unload the system. The exabyte loads and stores in double real time and can also be accepted as a digital master from the CD manufacturer.
The finished result of the editing process is presented to the musicians, who may request another version of this of that passage. Once the final musical corrections have been made on the Master Tape, a Tape Check is made. The master tape is examined for electronic errors, and a printed control sheet lists in minute detail all the levels in the automatic Error Correction.
Then it is time for the PQ Data. The track numbers indicating the beginning and ending of all the movements are assigned to the tape, and sometimes index markings are included for the easier location of subdivisions such the variations in a variation work or the trio section of a minuet. A total program time is assigned to the CD. This information offers important orientation for the listener at home. One more listening check, and then the master tape is sent out to be transferred.
While the master tape is being finished, work gets underway on the booklet accompanying each and every CD. A cover illustration appropriate for the music has to be located, a title is chosen for the CD, and a graphic artist presents a sketch for the title page.
Our musicological assistant is in charge of the introductory text to the works, checks quotations and opus numbers (numbers are much more error-prone than letters!), makes translation assignments, telephones for missing musicians' biographies, and in the midst of all of this hopes to keep the names and the photo faces straight and to meet all special requests.
Musical and technical data are printed on the "inlay card," the last page of the CD packaging with its list of movement titles, playing times, artists, and sponsors.
Have we left anything out? Oh yes, the label for the printed side of the CD.
The master tape and the films are sent to the neighboring town of Gütersloh to be pressed and printed, respectively. Our tried-and-true partner Sonopress, a Bertelsmann subsidiary, has been located there for more than twenty years.
It is now high time to inform our Sales Partners that the new recording will soon be ready for release on the market. Copies for the press are packed and sent off, and advertisements are placed in international music journals. We read every magazine and every journal that we can get our hands on and are always on the lookout for expert advice and objective criticism. And again and again the MDG listening audience has encouraged and stimulated us to continue on our recording path.
And then the process begins all over again...with a new idea.