Monday, 13 March 2017

Studio sessions: preparation and thousand more things.

On February 17th, 18th and 19th I was in Colmenarejo (Madrid) taking part in a very interesting project: recording, together with  "Forma Antiqva", the music for "Poem of a Cell". "Winter&Winter" was in charge of the production, and the sessions took place at "Estudio Uno".

I got the parts sent to me two weeks in advance (something to be grateful for as, sometimes, there´s no other option than sight-reading). This way I knew I would be playing baroque timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, wind and opera gongs). Everything but the wind gong was already in my arsenal, so a quick visit to Thomann and, the next day, a beautiful 24" Wu Han joined the family.


© David Valdés


Before any recording, I always check the instruments I´m going to use so they do not fail me: heads, noises, mechanisms... Instruments are my tools, so I must keep them in tip-top shape so they enter the studio in perfect working order. It is also interesting to bring in a few of those needed so I have options and colours (I only own one glockenspiel and one pair or baroque timpani, but I´m very well stocked when it comes to triangles and gongs, so I brought all of them...). For the same reason, I like bringing in many sticks and mallets.

The good thing about getting the parts early is that I can have a look at them in advance, the bad thing is that it´s new music, so no records available for reference... I don´t know which other instrument I´m playing with, how to phrase, the absolute or relative of dynamics, articulation, if I´m doubling parts or soloing... There´s a preparatory work that has to be done so, once the red light is on, everything is perfect and works from scratch: it´s not nice having to roll another take or wasting my colleagues time because of me not being prepared.

So, first things first... There´s a job that, sometimes, composers and engravers miss: numbering all bars (if there are many tacet bars and the conductor asks "let´s take from bar X", I can´t waste everybody else´s time while counting or adding because they are not engraved: if bars are numbered I can pinpoint where to start without wasting a single milisecond). On the next photo you can see how I numbered bars. Also, I used a green pencil to mark a quite hidden bar change which could pass unnoticed during sessions.


© David Valdés


I also number cue bars so as to have information doubled and to minimize the chances of a mistake. You can see that on the second to last pentagram on the previous photo and on the next one.


© David Valdés


The next photo shows a very common problem: engraving software writes with no logic. Although correct, that writing makes reading unconfortable. My preparation work includes modifying it to get a more easy to read part so there are no problems once I´m in the studio. There are many different ways to write the same thing, and I opt for the easiest so the chance of a mistake gets minimized. Because of this previous work, I save my colleague´s time and avoid extra takes.


© David Valdés


Here´s another example. I also add an eye (that´s a personal thing :-D ) as a reminder that I have to keep playing after the line jump.


© David Valdés


I also mark the beats to differentiate very similar patterns. The triplet in the line above and the eighth notes below could be mistaken du to the very similar writing. Dear engravers: time signatures do not bite, you can use them at the beginnig of each line without problem ;-) .


© David Valdés


I also mark a clear mistake to discuss it with the musical director.


© David Valdés


When all the parts are marked and clear so I can´t make any mistake, the next step in my preparation is clear: practice, practice, practice... In this case, although not particulary difficult, the glock part needed some attention:


© David Valdés


 With parts and instruments ready, there we go, Colmenar...


© David Valdés


Once the sessions are rolling, everything goes ultra fast: two passes (at the most) and we are recording. Because of that, my radar has to be on during those previous run throughs so as to grab as much information as possible (pencil and eraser are my best friends). I write down cues from other instruments to secure a music I hear for the first time. This way I make no mistakes, and no takes will have to be repeated because of me. On the following photo you can see cues written down during long tacet periods.


© David Valdés


It´s also time for writting down ritardandi, comas, correcting mistakes (see the previous photo where a 5/4 was changed to 4/4), choosing mallets/sticks, listening to what the other musicians are playing to match their phrasing, articulation, dynamics, intonation...


© David Valdés


With regard to sticks/mallets, it´s a shame I have no photos but, when you go into the studio, it´s compulsory to bring a good arsenal so you can get as many colours and characters as posible and make both conductor and producer happy. But... No matter how many I bring in, the producer will always want to try all of them: I´ll star with a pair which he doesn´t like, we keep on trying untill we go full circle and get back to the original ones (he doesn´t know ;-) ) and... "Those are perfect!". I knew... :-D . Bring many sticks to sessions and use your best diplomacy and tact to deal with these kind of situations (and always remember: the boss is the boss. Do what you are asked to do).


© David Valdés


During these run throughs I have to keep my ears wide open and listen to what the other musicians are playing so we deliver a coherent whole. Here you can see a very easy timpani part.


© David Valdés


The producer told us those notes represented a menace coming from the underworld (with this information I can guess character, dynamics, sticks...). I discover I play them together with the double bass: I now know intonation has to be perfect (it has to be perfect anyway, but because we are playing the same pitches, it has to be "specially perfect"). Also, although we have the same writing (plain half notes), I was playing them legato and he was articulating them. I realize that, have a chat with the double bass player and we decide to play them separated (different articulation fro the same thing is a no no...). There was this discrepancy during the first run through, but everything was perfect from there on. You can see me talking to the cello and bass players trying to unify criteria.


© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu


On the following one, the cellist and I are clarifying an excerpt so my gong part fits where it should.


© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu


A good communication with the other musicians is crucial, and it has to be carried with the utmost respect. I must be ready to modify my playing for the benefit of the group: ego and stubbornness are completely useless: if there´s something people really appreciate in a musician (specially a studio one), that´s flexibility.

More examples showing the importance of reacting (fast!) to what I´m asked... Mi glock part states "sempre piano" (see photo above), but the conductor wants me to do some inflexions the other players are doing. I write down and play them:


© David Valdés


When the producer hears them, he prefers to keep everything flat, as he thinks it´s a stratified, layered texture... He not only wants them piano, but pianissimo. So, in a very short period, I have played the same thing in three different ways. Flexibility is key in this kind of studio work: I have to be able to INMEDIATELY play something that is not on the part, to modify dynamics, articulation, phrasing..., or to add something NOW that was not even written ("David, get into the booth and improvise a pavana "alla Monteverdi", as it will suit this number". I almost spill the coffee I was drinking and, out of the blue, the red light is on and I have to play something that works and not waste my colleagues time: I have to play -whatever- and make it happen no matter how hard it is). I have to be ready to inmediately play what I´m asked.


© Forma Antiqva/Jaime Massieu


So, the tape is rolling: I have to avoid any kind of noise (squeaking chairs, rolling sticks falling down, page turns, sliding papers, resonating instruments...). To avoid this last issue, I always have black towels at hand (they are discreet and don´t call for attention on stage), which I use to lay sticks on or to hang from the instrument (or cover it...). Total silence before and after playing, no speaking unless I´m asked... If I make a mistake, I have to say it so it doesn´t get to the final edition. Loads of patience and concentration for the many repetitions... My mobile phone has to be off: my attention has to be on what I´m playing, not on whatever is going on in my telephone. It must be switched off not only because a matter ot attention and respect: it can interfere with (in fact, it does interfere) the electronics in the studio. Concentration.

If I have to re-tune (unavoidable when using calf heads), I do it piano, respecting when the rest of the instruments do so (makes things easier, I don´t disturb, don´t make any noise, avoid tensions an keep the good vibe...). I always tweak intonation in between takes to make sure it´s perfect when I have to play: tuning fork at hand, soft stick, piano, no disturbing and perfect intonation. Done. Every happy and gay.

If the preparatory work is done, sessions will run smooth as silk.


© David Valdés

If I have nothing to play, I prefer staying out of the booth to avoid noise and distractions. I never go too far so as to be available, just in case I´m needed. My favourite place to be is the control room because I can follow the proccess, I´m at hand and I like technology and recording, so...When in the control room, remember: there´s people working, so no noises, no distractions, no disturbing...


© David Valdés


Everybody in the studio is working: let´s make their job easy. We have to say "please", be kind (sincerely), give them a hand, offer solutions and not problems, know when to ask for something and when not... If, once we are done setting up, the technicians are still bussy, why not helping them?  Remember: if we are not only good musicians, but easy-going and polite, chances are that we will be booked again.

Microphones, techniques, preamps, outboard and all that stuff I like so much will, maybe, be detailed in the future ;-) .

I´d like to thank "Forma Antiqva" and Jamie Massieu (photographer) for some of the fantastic photos illustrating this article.

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés

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