Serenade: the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD Page 3
Phillips: But during the recording, we lived in terror of coughing fits.
Atkinson: I draw the line at coughing. Even though Erich Vollmer, the Festival's Executive Director, warned the audience before every concert that we were recording and could they please not cough and sneeze at least until either the loud passages or between movements, there are always people who cough at the worst possible times---in the pause just before a cadence or during a very quiet passage. A lot of the editing we do is to work around problems like this. But if it's just a sound of a quiet audience noise, I'm not going to be bothered about it because it helps to preserve the illusion of being there.
It was only when the noise was really obtrusive that we tried to do something about it. On last year's recording, for example, we had a woman in the audience one night who was rattling her jewelry. As chance would have it, she was sitting right underneath one of the omnis! Actually I shouldn't say this, but the very quiet sound of her jewelry is there during quite a lot of one of the works on Festival. It was only when it was loud enough or not sufficiently masked to become distracting that I edited it out.
Editing is like all things: Used sparingly, it can make something better; but overused, it can take a thrilling live performance and turn it into something sterile-sounding. So given the choice between leaving a very slight audience noise in, or replacing it with a not-quite-so-well-performed, noise-free version of the same passage, I will always leave the audience noise in.
Phillips: Where does the art in making recordings reside?
Atkinson: The role of the producer, in this case the Festival's Artistic Director, Heiichiro Ohyama, is to make sure the performance best represents what the musicians intended. The role of the engineer is to ensure that the sound on the CD is as close as possible to the original. But there are so many decisions that the engineer has to make that affect the ultimate sound quality that I have a hard time with the concept that "the absolute sound" is inherent on a recording. What's on any recording is the result of an iterative process of decision-making tempered with experience and experiment which represents the engineer's best attempt at capturing the sound and the sonic picture of the musicians in the concert hall. However, it isn't just a matter of putting up microphones and capturing the sound.
The choice of the venue, which, like last year, was St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe, is fundamental, because that defines what the basic character of the sound will be like---the way the reverberation and the ambience washes over the individual images of the musicians and the way in which it modifies the tonal colors of the instruments.
Phillips: I thought that the sound of the 1995 Festival CD was phenomenally alive and bright and very much in keeping with the sound of the hall. Yet there were people who felt that there was too much of that liveliness---it was almost too much of a good thing.
Atkinson: Well, St. Francis is a very vibrant-sounding hall. It has quite a lot of bare plaster surfaces and is quite small---the reverberation time is not that long---so music there sounds vivid and exciting. That's the way it sounds live, and, as I said, if you adopt the documentary approach to recording, all you can do is capture that live sound as accurately as you can.
Phillips: If you'd been a different type of engineer, you could of course have sweetened it in the mix.
Atkinson: Some engineers record with the microphones close to the musicians in order to get a sound that is intrinsically too dry. In post-production, they then use some of the very good digital reverberation machines that now exist to sweeten it, to make it sound better than it did in reality. That's not what I'm about, however, and certainly not what I think Stereophile magazine is about (footnote 1).
Footnote 1: Sometimes you do have to compromise your purist philosophy. As you can read in the article discussing the making of Stereophile's Bravo! CD, when I recorded the 1998 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, environmental noise forced me to close-mike the instruments and use a multitrack recorder. I believe the results are still musical and true to the sound in the hall, but to achieve this the amount of time spent on the CD's production was tripled!---John Atkinson