From the New York Philharmonic to the Grammys, LARRY ROCK rolls into A-List contention as the man most likely to make classical music sound the way it’s supposed to: grand.
Listening to the New York Philharmonic’s recording of John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls is an intense experience. The 25-minute composition superimposes text drawn from missing persons posters, memorials, and first-hand accounts on a large orchestra, combined with spoken names of victims, haunting solo trumpet, and pre-recorded sound — the overall result is decidedly powerful, evoking clear images of loss and anguish, and pushing the boundaries of “traditional” classical orchestral performance. The piece, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, was commissioned by the Philharmonic to honor the victims, heroes, and survivors of the September 11 attacks.
And in addition to capturing Best Orchestral Performance (for the New York Philharmonic) and Best Classical Contemporary Composition (for composer John Adams) awards at the 2005 Grammys, the recording of the live performance won the Best Classical Album Grammy for John Adams and New York Philharmonic Audio Director Larry Rock, who engineered the recording and co-produced with Adams.
On The Transmigration Of Souls is a massive performance featuring the New York Philharmonic, solo trumpet, New York Choral Artists adult chorus, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, six men and women speaking the names of victims and other phrases, and an electronic “soundscape” recording of street noise from New York City (which was presented in surround in the live performances). Capturing the premiere performances of the work for CD release presented a unique challenge for Rock, who drew on years of experience recording classical music in numerous venues to ensure the final outcome.
EQ caught up with the Grammy-winner as he prepared dinner for his son prior to baseball practice.
You started . . .
I began in radio, and spent 13 years at WFMT in Chicago, a classical station that syndicates the broadcast of orchestra concerts. So I got a lot of my experience in recording and production there. After that I worked in a production company, and eventually went freelance. From there I was hired by the Philharmonic. My title is “Audio Director” — I’m not sure exactly what that means. [Laughs.] But basically I’m both an engineer and producer. I spend most of my time engineering and recording concerts each week. Then I’m the producer for record releases, and I produce the weekly radio series music.
I studied electronics and music; I played trumpet. With recording you can only study so much, then you have to hear it and experience it. Radio work is great because week in and week out the quantity of repertoire is so vast. It would take years and years of record work to get that amount of experience — to end up with that big of a catalog of knowledge of how to record a given piece — it really is sort of like building a repertoire.
But my job now covers everything from miking to recording to editing to CD production. I started in 1997 as an independent contractor with the Philharmonic, then I became a full-time employee, which is a testament to their commitment to this — to my knowledge, no other orchestra has a full-time engineer/producer. Usually recording is done on a subcontract or radio station basis. But the Philharmonic has a strong a commitment to it.
But why classical music?
I was exposed to classical music at an early age. My mother played violin as an amateur, and there were records as I was growing up — not to date myself, but starting with 78 records. [Laughs.] I remember my fourth grade music teacher played Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which gave me the bug. Then my grandfather gave me a recording of Beethoven’s 9th by the New York Philharmonic, of all things. So I was accustomed to hearing a lot of classical music.
Of course, I went through the ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll period, but as a serious pursuit, classical was it. Part of it came from a technical aspect — the idea of recording an event in an acoustic space, rather than creating a studio production, which is a very different activity. I was always interested in the activity of capturing a live event. Actually we’re creating an illusion, not really capturing reality — capturing reality is a difficult proposition.
Is it harder with classical? If so, how so?
The logistics of setting up mics. A given week’s program will have several different pieces that will be totally different. The first part might be Bach with a half-dozen instruments, while the second half has a huge orchestral piece. So being able to set things up to switch gears fast is important.
It’s a concert hall and the mics can’t be too apparent, so small mics are better than large-diaphragms, because large-diaphragms are too visually intrusive. I work hard to minimize any need for processing or EQ by concentrating on mic selection and placement. I try to use the right mic so it doesn’t need EQ or processing.
Part of what you do when you record multiple performances of a piece is to make them as identical as possible for editing later. I do record multitrack, but I rarely have time to remix. Typically we record 24 tracks, occasionally a big theater production will have up to 64 tracks.
I usually record straight to 2-track, using hard disk recording, and also burn a CD too. I’m using a TASCAM MX2424 as the converter after the preamps, mixing on a Yamaha DM2000, then going back to the TASCAM and to a PC with Nuendo.
The nice thing about doing it this way is that if I do need to remix, I can just push stop and it’s all set up. I don’t have to change modes or anything. Digital mixer scenes are used for each piece or even each movement of each piece. This saves writing down everything I do, from rehearsal to performance or to revisit from an earlier time.
What mics are you using to record the Philharmonic?
For the overall sound I use four omni microphones: two Neumann KM130s and two Schoeps MK2Fs, placed right in the boundary between near-field and diffuse-field, right about at the edge of the stage. So I’m getting a blend of the orchestra before the hall has too much effect on it. I can alter the color by adjusting the balance between the two pairs of mics; the Neumanns are transparent, and the Schoeps are warmer. It acts as a sort of “organic” EQ — I think I just invented a new term there: “organic EQ.” [Laughs.]
For woodwinds I use the Neumann KM140. Generally I use all Schoeps and Neumanns. When clarity is the priority, it’s Neumann, when warmth is what I’m after, then it’s the Schoeps.
On percussion for instance, even though it’s fairly loud, with the reflections off the wall and so on, you still have to help it out. So for that I use Neumanns for clarity.
For string spot-mics I use the Schoeps, the MK21, a sub-cardioid, which is a pattern halfway between omni and cardioid. I try to keep it to one overall mic per section — one mic on first violins, one on second violins, one on cellos, and so on.
I also use an MK21 as a solo spot mic because it works on everything — violin, voices, everything. Because it’s a sub-cardioid it blends with the omni sound quite well. I generally work from less directional mics at the front of the orchestra to more directional mics as I go upstage.
I’m using Millennia Media HV3D, John Hardy M1, and Benchmark mic preamps.
How hard was it recording John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls?
Our setup was slightly different since that was recorded a few years ago [in 1992]. We used the TASCAM DA78HR 8-track recorders, which are the high-resolution version. We had about 48 tracks of material with chorus, children’s chorus, and whatnot. There were actually a couple of live radio broadcasts of two different performances. So we worked in parallel with all the multitrack gear in one room to make sure we had everything recorded. Then the stereo mix was done independently of the tracking.
What we did in post-production for the record was copy all of that material to Pro Tools at Masque Sound in New York. We loaded all the tracks of all the performances in Pro Tools, then we edited between performances. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of editing, probably 20 to 30 edits in the 25-minute piece.
Because there were sound effects in the halls, the performances were slightly different in their timing. So we had to be very careful when editing between performances. That was where choices were made. John Adams, the composer, and I worked together to make the choices, and when there was a compromise to be made, we figured out what to do.
But this was a little different because there was so much going on. The children’s chorus was in a different part of the stage, with their own setup and mics. Also the surround effects in the hall were laid down directly to the multitrack. Since they were amplified in the hall, they were bleeding everywhere and we wanted to keep things clear in the recording. We had to be careful of getting too much of the ambient sound in the recording, which is not a typical situation with the orchestra.
I have a pair of B&K 4006 mics that I normally use for hall ambience, but I couldn’t use them for this mix. Probably the balance was a little heavier on spot mics than normal. We wanted to be able to control how much of the individual voices reading the names of the victims came through without fighting what was happening with the orchestra. So it was a balance of what was happening in the hall with what we wanted for the recording.
How much editing and processing is done on a typical classical recording?
For live recording, you don’t do as much as with a studio recording. For radio and live recording, I don’t go nuts with editing. There may be an edit every 10 minutes or so. I can edit on stereo master or multitrack, but I usually do it on the stereo mix. Refining across stereo is easier than trying to cross-fade everything on the multitrack. It’s more splicing together takes than dropping in instruments. There isn’t any isolation, so it’s rare that we can drop something in that wasn’t from that performance — it’s hard dropping something on a track because there’s so much bleed.
Is it very different from recording other styles of music?
A lot of it is philosophical. We’re usually recording music that has been around for a long time, and there is a preconceived notion of how it should sound. There’s an appropriate style of sound, just as there is an appropriate style of playing for Baroque or Romantic music. If you’re working in a studio and the composer is there, you can create an effect, but generally there is a benchmark for the sound in classical music that you don’t have in other idioms.
As a classical engineer, you have a concept of the sound that you like and you think other people would like. The object is to integrate that, to be able to adjust it to what people want. If you’re lucky, what you like is what others like too, then all is comfortable. But there is a quality to what classical music should sound like. That’s true in other styles, too, but in other styles innovation is more important. And what was good 40 years ago may not hold up now. But with classical, what was good 40 years ago still sounds good today.
Another difference is the notion of sonic purity. We use the choice of mics to make things sound natural rather than choosing from a palette of colors. In most pop recording, what you hear on the vocal mic is not what you hear in the real world, but it’s still pleasing. It all comes down to working with a blank slate or trying to recreate what happened in a real space.
And while classical music may not have the appeal of popular music — it may not be as “deep” — it’s very wide in the sense that just about every community has some type of classical music. In the smaller cities there’s probably more of a chance to get to record an ensemble.
So one good thing about it is you can put together a recording package with good quality with not a lot of money. You could have a pair of Shure SM81s, which are good quality mics, a Mackie mixer, and a standalone CD burner, and you haven’t spent too much — you can get started for under $2,000.
Being able to do good recordings with two microphones is a good way to learn. You learn a lot about acoustic effects and how to achieve balance with mic placement, mic selection, patterns, and so on. So acoustic knowledge is very important. In a lot of studios you attempt to remove the acoustics, to make a very neutral sound. But any venue for classical music will have its own character, and being able to adjust to the acoustics with the choice of microphone and placement is very important.