There Lies the Disc, the making of the new Cantus CD The Sound 2
That the workaround didn't introduce any sonic compromises was a gift from the recording gods. That I could manage all the wiring changes and equipment substitutions in an hour with the singers waiting—and without messing up anything else—was a miracle.
Other than that single equipment failure and the unavoidable noises, the sessions were relatively uneventful. I continue to marvel at the Cantus singers' ability to retain their enthusiasm and their musical chops for up to four hours at a time, particularly in a work such as Edie Hill's "A True Heart Is Waiting," which, because of its length and complexity, had to be tackled in sections, in a total of 56 takes. On the other hand, it took just four takes for the band to nail Peter (P.D.Q. Bach) Schickele's whimsical "Jonah's Song," with its piratical rolled rrrrs.
One highlight of the sessions was on Day Three, when, before the start of the evening session, the Washington Pavilion's management threw a reception for Edie Hill, Cantus, and the mayor of Sioux Falls and his guests. After being treated to a live performance of Incantatio mares aestuosi by contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, producer Erick Lichte lined up the visiting dignitaries around the perimeter of the stage and I recorded them in a series of drawn-out whistles, some going up, some going down. In postproduction, I mixed these whistles in with the final assembled performance of Incantatio to add an eerie, otherworldly feeling. (The work was written in commemoration of the September 1994 sinking of the MV Estonia ferry in the Baltic Sea. I understand that the whistles represent the souls of the 852 passengers and crew who drowned.)
Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" also commemorates a wreck at sea—or at least in one of the Great Lakes—and I initially prepared two mixes of this. The first was as I described above, where the sonic picture was painted with the three pairs of distant mikes, the spot mikes added in at a low level to add focus to the sounds of the solo voice, guitar, and cello. (This was the mix that ended up on the CD.) But I also prepared a "pop" mix, for which I used the spot mikes to create the primary image, then added in the distant mikes to flesh out the soundstage. I felt the sound of this mix was more vivid, with an appealing immediacy. However, it got an immediate thumbs-down from Erick: "The cello sounds too close and the balance with the choir is off. Alan sings the verses with the choir differently than his solos. You can hear the energy peter out on those verses in this mix, which it doesn't on a broader mix."
I tried to preserve the dynamic range of the original takes, but some gain trimming was inevitable. When Adam Reinwald turns his back on the mikes and cups his hands around his mouth to shout "Ankur legoo" (Anchors aweigh) in the middle of Tormis' Muistse mere laulud, that used up the top 6dB of the CD's dynamic range all by itself. (A BIG voice, Adam's.) Figuring that no one would miss what they didn't know was supposed to be there, I cut the level of just those two words to allow the rest of the CD to be brought up by the same 6dB.
I grew to love all the songs on this CD, especially Kelvin Chan's interpretation of Stanford's haunting "Homeward Bound," the lyrics of which give the album its name. But perhaps my favorite of the set is Timothy C. Takach's arrangement of "Valparaiso," from Sting's 1996 CD, Mercury Falling. The original has Sting singing in a fake-folk style, but in Tim's arrangement the song is transformed into an entrancing lament. At dealer evenings last winter, I played the 24-bit files of various works off this album in various forms of completion, but I would always start by playing "Valparaiso" as the audience took their seats. By the time the song ended, the listeners were held in rapt silence, their attention captured.
I thank the staff of the Washington Pavilion for their willingness to chase down and eliminate sources of noise emanating from inside the building. However, there remained the various noises from the outside world, listed by Wes Phillips, that intruded on the Great Hall's stillness. Fortunately, the frequency content was generally low enough, and the tessitura of the music generally high enough in frequency, that I could use a relatively benign high-pass filter. Still, there were some passages in which the only take on which the singers soared was one with the thud of a pile driver or a crack of thunder or the hooom of a passing boom car. In those cases I applied a much more aggressive filter, but only for the minimum amount of time. I then reinserted the extra-filtered music into the master file. And using the high-quality filters that can be achieved with the Metric Halo MIO 2882's internal DSP engine kept the fleeting sonic degradation to a minimum.
As always, I did all the mixing, gain adjustment, and equalization with 24-bit resolution, reducing the word length to the CD's 16 bits at the very last stage before assembling the master to be sent to the pressing plant.
There Lies the Home is available from Stereophile's secure "Recordings" page, as are the previous five CDs I have recorded for Cantus. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed its genesis.—John Atkinson