I listened to The Wall for the first time in 8th grade. While the music was initially what attracted me, Waters’ lyrics were the first form of poetry I’d ever been exposed to and the combination of these words and music would set an extremely high standard for everything I listened to for the next quarter century. On The Wall, The Dark Side of the Moon, and on and on, Waters manages to make lasting works of art and he’s done it again, creating, arguably, his life’s masterpiece, Ca Ira, which debuted at Number One on Billboard’s classical charts late last year.
And Ca Ira’s message of liberation of the human spirit is a work of staggering scope and complexity that quite possibly moves beyond what he’d ever have achieved with Pink Floyd. The album, produced by Roger Waters and Rick Wentworth, and engineered by Simon Rhodes at Abbey Road Studios, is the result of an exhaustive 12-year process that also, darkly and unfortunately, saw the death of Waters’ three close friends and collaborators, Philippe Constantin and Etienne and Nadine Roda-Gil.
It’s an opera in three parts, set in the context of the French Revolution, featuring an 80-piece orchestra, child and adult choirs, and a cast of well known opera singers including Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, Chinese soprano Ying Huang, and American tenor Paul Groves.
And this is its story.
There’s a Rumble Under the Ground: Roger’s Early Demos
Ca Ira came to life when Waters’ friend and associate for many years, Philippe Constantin, got Etienne Roda-Gil, Nadine Roda-Gil, and Waters together in 1988 to discuss the idea of setting music to a 50-page French libretto that Etienne and his wife had written and illustrated. Etienne initially wanted Roger to repurpose some of Waters’ earlier material, but after reading the libretto and seeing the accompanying illustrations, Waters was transfixed and started writing and recording a new score.
Throughout his career, Waters has been a tech aficionado. [Fun fact: He recorded the coins that appeared on The Dark Side of the Moon in 1972 on his old Revox A77 machine.] The very first demos of Ca Ira were recorded at Waters’ home studio in Hampshire, England, using a pair of U67s on his grand piano (and a U47 on his voice) into a Studer 24-track machine. “I always sing through a U47, which is like a bar of gold to me,” said Waters. “I do all my vocals with that mic, and I’ve had it for 20 years. It’s much bigger than a U67, and has that chrome bit that goes across the top. It’s a fabulous machine.” In these early demos, he also used an E-mu 3 sampler: “Really the best sample it had on it was bombs going off and shells arriving, and stuff like that. ‘Armageddon’ was the sample; I used that one a lot.” For the early demos of “To the Windward Isles,” Waters employed a Linn Drum, excerpts of which are audible in the DVD that ships with Ca Ira.
As the piece developed, Waters found that he needed to bring in someone who was a master at orchestration and arrangement, so he brought in producer Rick Wentworth as a co-producer. Waters and Wentworth refined the score, working at Waters’ home on an archaic Atari system running Notator, which was eventually swapped out for Logic Audio. For Waters, it was love at first sight: “Logic Audio is such a brilliant system; I’ve worked in Logic ever since then.”
But Waters had to personally overcome many technical challenges to create Ca Ira, and had to fully re-adjust the way he was used to writing and arranging. In creating the score, he had to work hard to understand the possibilities and limitations of every single element in the orchestra, as well as learn to read and write notation. “The biggest challenge for me was the technical stretch of coming to grips with how a symphony orchestra works. I think I always had a pretty good handle on the way choral music works, but I didn’t know much about orchestral instruments; what their ranges were and so on and so forth. So quite often when I finished an orchestration, I would go to Rick, who worked on it with me, and he would say, ‘I think that’s very beautiful, but you do know that an oboe can’t play that line, it doesn’t go that high,’ or that low, or whatever. So I would say, ‘give it to a bassoon,’ or ‘well, let’s make it work.’”
“I also had to learn to make sense of notation and manuscript; up until this point, I’d never even bothered to look at a piece of manuscript, and so I had to learn to read and write, which I did. I now know all the basic stuff about notation. Obviously I sort of knew a lot about it before because of the work I’d done in music before, but it was all done by ear.”
So to the Streets of London: Recording Commences at Abbey Road
As they continued refining the arrangements, the recording of Ca Ira began in earnest at Abbey Road. Initially, the lyrics and storyline for the opera were all in French, taken directly from Etienne’s libretto. However, on hearing the early recordings out of Abbey Road, Sony Music suggested a move toward doing the piece entirely in English, believing (quite rightly, as it turns out) that it had crossover potential. So, at Sony’s behest, Roger translated and substantially added to the lyrical aspect of the composition before an English recording could begin. During this rework, the scale of the piece increased dramatically as Waters reworked it to translate to the stage.
A false start occurred though, perhaps predictably, when the record company provided people “because they wanted marquee names on it,” Waters says. “So we spent four days with a producer and an engineer that came in from New York; it was an absolute disaster. They reassured me, and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got everything covered.’ I sort of believed them, but then I pulled the multitracks after they’d gone and realized they might have as well had a pair of stereo mics over the conductor’s head for all the separation that there was. It was just awful. So unfortunately, I had to can that first attempt. Sony, to their eternal credit, picked up half the tab; it cost us $300 grand to record that; they picked up $150k and I picked up $150k and we started again.”
On the second go-round, Waters and Sony brought in Simon Rhodes, the acclaimed Abbey Road engineer, who Roger states is “. . . probably the top classical engineer in England.” Waters says that it became obvious at the very beginning of the new sessions that it was absolutely the right decision to start again. The chosen venues for the recordings, which occurred over an extensive eight year period, evolved over time and included Air Lyndhurst, Abbey Road, Angel, Whitfield Street, Sony and Sphere in London, and Guilliaume Tell and Mega in Paris.
The sessions were originally tracked on a Sony DASH 48-track digital machine using a variety of Neve and SSL consoles. This subsequently changed over to a Pro Tools/Pyramix combo: Pro Tools for the vocals and Pyramix for the orchestra. Everything was mixed in the Abbey Road Penthouse Studio through a Neve Capricorn desk onto a separate Pro Tools mix rig in two 5.1 and a 3.0 stem. The virtually premixed effects were then combined with this session by David Novack and David Paterson in New York and the whole was then finally mixed simultaneously in 5.1 and stereo, in English and French, back in London.
Now Hear Ye!
Rhodes recorded the basic orchestral parts with Wentworth conducting, then proceeded to record the adult and children’s choirs, then the soloists. His objective was to make it very natural sounding, using a very standard symphonic arrangement of instrumentalists. Rhodes was careful to capture all the individual elements within the orchestra that required controlling later: “I was aware of Roger’s background where there is 100% control of every element. But with an orchestra there’s so much spill; that’s what recording classical music is all about — controlling the spill from one mic to the next and using it to your advantage.” As standard practice, Rhodes doesn’t like to record with any processing; if something isn’t sounding right, he prefers to change or move his microphones, or rebalance the orchestra.
While the recording was in process, Waters would often make on the fly changes to lyrics and arrangements, so everyone involved had to stay on their toes: “He would experiment with different notes and lines as we went along. Once we figured out where he was coming from with this, we were very able to steer the ship in that direction. The project was evolving the whole time, and you had to keep track of where you were every single moment,” Rhodes says. As producer, most of Waters’ time was spent on the studio floor with co-producer/conductor Wentworth and the artists, while Rhodes manned the controls and kept track of all the takes.
To facilitate overdubs and keep the orchestra in synchronization, Rhodes says the conductor had to be videotaped to serve as the common reference point: “It was quite interesting, because we videotaped the conductor and then we edited him on U-matic tape. Then we had the orchestra digitally edited using two 48-track machines. We had to edit the conductor at the same time, which is just a case of slaving the two video machines together; the one you recorded on and the one that you’re playing the conductor off of.”
Waters has a particular fondness for the human voice, and the rich sounding choirs are one of the most obviously appealing elements of the album. The adult choirs, which included the London Voices and the London Oratory Choir, consisted of about 60 people and the Italia Conti Children’s Choir of about 20. While recording the choirs, Rhodes was thinking in 5.1 the whole time, using left, center, right and two room mics. For the front mics, he used Neumann U47s, for the rear mics he used U67s, and the room mics were KM 84s. Apart from the room mics, no microphone was ever placed more than 10 feet away from any element in the choir.
To record the soloists, Rhodes used a Neumann U47 and employing an operatic distance of about three feet, which he says gives the voice a greater chance to develop overtones. This is particularly fascinating to watch in the DVD that comes with the album. Rhodes describes how the sound can change over very short relative distances: “When you record a vocal a few centimeters away, you have a colossal difference in perspective. If you record the vocals at an arms length, you’ll find that the whole thing integrates more comfortably.”
Kings, Sticks & Dramatic Sound Effects
Ca Ira presents us with a wide array of sound effects: barking dogs, wind and rain, creaking ships, and, of course, the guillotine. These add an enormous amount of dimension to the recording, and are placed very strategically in the 5:1 field: “You have to create on and offstage effects,” says Rhodes. “This was an area in which we had a lot of fun and had to be very creative.” David Novack and David Paterson handled sound effects design on the record, which Waters says involved chopping melons in half to create the guillotine noises, among other things. For the wind noises, Waters’ employed his original tried and true Putney VCS3, the same machine used for all the wind effects throughout “Wish You Were Here.” “It was made in 1965, and just pre-dates the Moog by a few months, I think. It has only three oscillators, but it makes great wind,” Waters says.
Vive L’Enregistrant de Ca Ira: Mixing and Mastering
Since Ca Ira was recorded in so many different venues over a period of so many years, Rhodes was faced with a challenge in achieving a common acoustical feel throughout the record. To help even the score, Rhodes integrated a Sony 777 convolution reverb along the way: “The Sony was the only one available at the time. I actually sampled Air Lyndhurst and used it on the entire record.” Rhodes says this helped assimilate the vocal tracks, which were recorded in both large and small rooms.
For the most part, Waters let Rhodes drive during the mix phase, apart from suggesting that he slightly alter the overall perspective of the singers in the mix: “In the originals, the singers were much more in your face, and I said ‘Simon, we need to pretend we’re in an auditorium and at least try and make the singers sit on a stage somewhere in front of us, with an orchestra behind them.’ I wanted it to sound like it was a performance of a piece,” Waters says.
The album’s mastering is an achievement in itself though: there are many very quiet intimate sections on the record, as well as many loud, powerful sections. The balance of all these elements have been handled solely by Rhodes’ expert hands at Abbey Road, using the dynamic algorithms of no less than a TC Electronics M5000. After Roger listened to it in his car and said it was a little too dynamic, Rhodes gently added some multi-band compression to smooth it out. “I hope I’ve struck a balance between not being too dynamic and being exciting; loudness is subjective though. In the real world, it’s more dynamic than you can really get on a CD,” Rhodes says. The end result is that all the emotion and variety of the performances have been preserved.
And having worked on the recordings for eight years, Rhodes feels that no stone was left unturned: “We’ve spent a long time reflecting on all the recordings, all the mixes, every aspect of it.” Ca Ira is quite an accomplishment not just artistically, but also technically considering the mammoth changes that have occurred in the recording industry during the last decade, not the least in the area of recording software.”