Wednesday, October 26, 2005

I wrote a long entry, Internet Explorer froze up, and I lost it.

Have I mentioned lately that Windows is a piece of crap?

Anyhow - back to our regularly scheduled post.


Last Friday, Pat (aka Tony Alva) recorded the Taize Choir at a Catholic High School in Georgia as part of the ongoing partnership between Smoke and Mirrors and Pat's Grey Cat Sound. Originally, Ted (aka Jackson) was scheduled to make the trip down to assist, but at the last minute he got an emergency call from a pharmaceutical company. Turns out there were some drug salesmen that needed some information to sell drugs STAT, so Ted headed for Newport while I headed to the post office to overnight a mic (the beloved Studio Projects C1) to Georgia.

The tapes (and mic) came to NY yesterday, and we spent some time listening to and loading the contents last night.

These kids can freaking sing, to my very untrained ears. The music is powerful, emotional, and inspirational (especially considering my atheistic slant); my favorite parts are those sung in Latin, or Italian, or French. (I think those are the languages. There may be some Spanish in there as well.) In English it's a bit too literal. I like my praise vague.

But what about all the technical minutiae, you say. Do not fear!

The recording quality is quite good, although it was done on blackface ADAT and has the limitations inherent in the medium (timecode dropouts are always an issue with those machines, and they're 16 bit). The C1's (mine and Pat's) worked well as a stereo pair. There was an AC running for most of the session - it was the old AC vs. Comatose Performers conundrum - which is audible on the quiet parts and masked on the loud parts.

And man, are there quiet and loud parts. A choir has an enormous dynamic range, already above the limit of a 16 bit medium (with a theoretical dynamic range of 96dB) and not far from the limit of 24 bit (ideally 144dB).

So there are two issues, intertwined, that we will deal with as we mix and master this project.

First is the dynamic range. Compressors and limiters are the usual tools for handling this, but in choir music (like classical) compression can really change the feel of the performance. It's not like rock and roll, which is built around compression (guitar amps compress, tubes compress, tape compresses, the radio compresses...); choirs are meant to be listened to live with all the dynamic range the ear can handle (120dB before the threshold of pain). But once you put them on tape (or disk) you have to deal with the noise floor of the medium.

We started by normalizing. While I normally don't like normalizing (it's more math, the bane of digital), in this case it makes sense. I need as much level as I can get going into whatever the next part of the chain will be or my noise floor will increase. Normalizing brings everything up until the loudest part is at maximum volume (what they call 0dB in digital - and if you find the whole dB thing confusing, you're not alone), keeping us from guessing how much gain we should be adding. George Vitray has advised that choir recordings are often not limited at all, and I'm inclined to go with him on this one. Listening to this recording should be like being there, not a combination of what we would hear and what we want to hear (the usual case for recording). Perhaps some very very slight limiting, only to eke out a few more dB (noise floor, everyone).

In terms of the AC, we'll use very minimal filtering. We started tweaking filters last night, and we'll likely end up automating them, using them as needed (ie on quiet parts) and shutting 'em down when things get loud. With a choir you have to watch your EQ'ing, as you can easily thin the sound and take voices right out. The human voice has a pretty wide frequency range. We'll be careful.

So once we've got the dynamic range and AC under control, it's a simple matter of separating the tracks into individual songs, putting them in order, and off to Georgia it goes.

I hope the kids like it. We'll keep you posted.


At 4:12 PM, Blogger Tony Alva said...

I have the highest degree of confidence in you guys with this one.

"These kids can freaking sing..." I almost passed out when all this beautiful sound came from this gang of gawky and awkward teenagers. They were all wonderful and absolutely blown away by how good they sounded on tape. Since I didn’t have monitors to play it back to them with, they each would shyly wander over to my workstation during breaks and ask to listen to what I had recorded through a set of spare headphones (always politely asked permission). One girl actually began to cry after hearing one of the tracks.

I agree with you on the English language thing. All the pieces are hundreds of years old and just seem out of place in anything other than old world languages.

I did some research on the whole Taize thing. It’s actually a localized style of repetitive “chant” from the Taize providence in France. I didn’t quite get it until the director’s wife put it all together for me. Once you hear it, it sort of all makes sense.

I think you’d agree that this is certainly a different kind of project than any that we’ve done before and I’m certain that more of this work will come our way. I look forward to sitting around a campfire with you, Jackson, and George to hear your thoughts on how we make the next one even better.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Jackson said...

Once I put down my guitar solos it'll rock!

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Chrispy said...

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Ted and I are going to add a few things to make the tracks more "interesting." I'm sure the choir won't mind.

I mean, they don't REALLY expect people to want to listen to singing, with no drums or guitars, do they?

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Dave Cavalier said...

I heard that the kids are hiding a couple of blackface Twins behind the Marshall stacks.

That's just what I heard.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Dave Cavalier said...

>>One girl actually began to cry after hearing one of the tracks.<<

Whatever you think about religion, churches figured one thing out early on; the power of music is unreal.

I grew up going to St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. It's an Episcopal Church, which is the American offshoot of the Anglican Church.

The music there is magnificent. The boys choir is world famous and tours said world. I find the sound of the organ so emotional that I have trouble not blubbering when it gets cranking. There are some hymns that are so triumphant that I feel like I've been through the wringer after listening (e.g. "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones).

Now that's rock!

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Chrispy said...

Indeed, spiritual music has a strange way od moving the spirit.

Dave - you're right, music and religion are about as intertwined as things get. The power of a choir cranking away is hard to deny.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Dave Cavalier said...

I can't wait for Rob to post here and tell us that there is a random, evolutionary basis for music and religion it's all meaningless.

Man, that guy can bring you down.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Chrispy said...

Yeah, science brings me down.

Of course, there probably IS a strong evolutionary basis for the importance of music (as there must be for the importance of religion). Such a behavior must confer some kind of selection advantage for it to have been maintained and developed this far.

I think "music" probably appeared far earlier than speech, as a form of indentification or communication... and...


At 10:45 AM, Blogger Chrispy said...

Not that there's anything random about evolution, of course!

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Jackson said...

I am just amazed by the intracasies in choir arrangement. I think with a ton of work (study) I could manage to write something glorious like that, but no amount of training will ever enable me to sing like that.


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