A Mosaic of Music: Stereophile's Clarinet Quintet CD

It's the grain elevators that break the monotony of driving across the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle. As you pass one, another one appears on the horizon. Thus you know you're making progress, despite the fact that the landscape remains unchanged.

From Santa Fe to the old railhead town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, you curl around the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristos, the "Blood of Christ" mountain range immortalized by songwriter Paul Simon in "Hearts and Bones." But once you cut off I-25 at Springer and head due east across the plain toward Dodge City, you're faced with 300 miles of lonely cattle ranches and only slightly less lonely small towns. Each has its elevator. Each is proudly picked out by a faded sign indicating, for example, that its high school seven-a-side football team was the regional champion in 1985. Only the "Wizard of Oz" Museum in Liberal, Kansas, and the signpost in Kinsley, Kansas, indicating 1561 miles to San Francisco in one direction and 1561 miles to New York in the other, show awareness of a world beyond the endless plains.

It was May 1999 and I was driving my wife's Land Cruiser, its capacious maw stuffed with recording gear, to Kansas' "Crossroads of America," Salina, for the second time to make a recording for eventual release as a Stereophile CD (available for purchase on our Recordings page). Clarinetist and audiophile Antony Michaelson and a string quartet he had assembled for the project had spent a week rehearsing in New Hampshire, and were driving westward from Kansas City in a rented van. The plan was for the two vehicles to arrive simultaneously in Salina on Sunday evening so we could spend the next two days at Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios recording the Brahms and Mozart Clarinet Quintets.

The last couple of hours of the 650-mile drive, the countryside was eerily like England, with rolling grass-covered hills, though the interspersed fields were ripe with ruddy sorghum rather than golden wheat. I turned into the parking lot of Salina's Holidome hotel at exactly 7:30pm and pulled up next to a Dodge van.

I heard a woman's voice: "How will we know when the English guy from Santa Fe has gotten here?"

I wound down the window. "I'm here. Let's go eat at Russell's Diner."—John Atkinson

Capturing the Sound
I had first made a recording in the superb acoustic of Blue Heaven Studios in the summer of 1998, when acoustic bass guitarist Jerome Harris and his Quintet had laid down some blistering jazz for Stereophile's Rendezvous CD (STPH013-2). So when Antony Michaelson and I were discussing the possibility of my recording him in some of the pinnacles of the clarinet repertoire, it seemed a no-brainer to return to Kansas.

As I have written before, the decision about where to record a project is fundamental to the ultimate sound quality, and there was no doubt in my mind that what was once Salina's First Christian Church would provide sympathetic support for these intimate chamber works. In addition, the facts that there was a fully equipped control room at the back of the nave, and that the church building was wired for analog and digital audio, and video, would make this bout of location recording less stressful than the usual routine, in which all equipment must be shipped in, set up, then torn down, packed up, and shipped out again.

The next decision concerned the microphones. As always, my main pickup would be the spaced pair of B&K (now DPA) 4006 omnis that have been featured on the majority of Stereophile's recording projects. I readily admit that the imaging produced by spaced microphones is not particularly stable, with a tendency for off-center sources to be located farther to the sides of the stage than is strictly accurate. However, omnidirectional mikes have superbly extended low frequencies and a coloration-free midrange. The sonic picture these Danish mikes would capture would be fundamentally true to the characters of the instruments and of the acoustic space.

Also, as in many of my previous recordings, I would supplement the 4006es with a centrally placed, quasi-coincident pair of directional mikes. While such mikes tend to have lightweight lows when used distant from the sound sources, they can capture quite a sharply defined soundstage. Intrigued by some superb recordings I had heard that had been made with large-capsule capacitor mikes, I decided to use a pair of Neumann M147 cardioid microphones. Though the M147 uses a tube, it has a very low noise floor, meaning that it would work well in this application. The Neumann also has a slight rise in its response in the presence region, which would give it useful "reach."