Is your choir ready to make a recording? The question is far-reaching (and so are the answers). Let’s look closer at the following items: the beginning perspectives; what should you expect from your choir in the way of energy and endurance; what should you expect as far as addressing 15 to 50 “co-directors” who “just want to help; what level of professionalism should you pursue in terms of engineering, studio and final media and quantity thereof; and what should you expect for a final product.
Perspectives before you begin
How would you describe your choir?
1. My choir doesn’t know their stuff and just getting them together on a Sunday morning is a success.
2. My choir knows their stuff but it is doubtful that I could get them organized and on the same page to go and fill the seats at the local Civic Hall in support of a visiting performing choir from out of town. I doubt they’d be interested.
3. My choir knows their stuff and would be the perfect support group to go and fill the seats at the local Civic Hall in support of a visiting performing choir from out of town.
4. My choir knows their stuff and would be the perfect opening group at the Civic Hall to warm up the crowd in support of a visiting performing choir from out of town.
5. My choir could very well headline a concert at the local Civic Hall. The community is very supportive of their efforts.
Some choirs are purely “on-campus ministry based” and/or excel to a moderate proficiency which would not be considered “performance ready.” Other choirs will “chomp at the bit” to sing seasonally throughout the Christian calendar in specially designed services celebrating God and His music. Still others will look at their ministry to include “off campus outreach” which might include appearing in the community or on tour. These categories are not meant to imply a qualitative or “importance” hierarchy, but rather to help identify realistic expectations regarding recording your choir.
Expectations, Targets, and Reality
Chances are that the majority, if not all of your choir members have never recorded professionally. It is also likely that your accompanist has not either. Consider, then, that deciding to do a recording is similar or equivalent to preparing to perform a significant musical piece such as “Messiah” or the Rutter “Gloria” (or any other fairly complex work) with only a four to six week rehearsal learning curve.
You now think to yourself, “Four to six weeks to learn the entire work and then perform it before a “sold out” crowd of waiting enthusiasts? Has he stepped off of the realistic train and left his luggage?” The shorter answer is that the suggested illustration above is designed to get you thinking about realistic goals as they pertain to your choir and in this case, you must begin the recording process by carefully selecting attainable, feasible selections that your choir can sing well and confidently.
A recording session is not the time to choose unknown works you think they might eventually sound “confident” singing. Rather, your target pieces should be familiar and comfortable choices so that your bottom line finished product will be pleasing to everyone involved. If the singers are not confident and comfortable to a great degree with the song selection, it is likely that the overall product will accurately reflect those sentiments.
If you simply pick a handful of familiar songs, will that guarantee that each piece be tight and without error? Not necessarily. There are no guarantees of that sort in recording, so set your level of expectations appropriately, yet strive to give those involved the opportunity to “rise to the occasion” so to speak.
Give the choir the best chance of success for each tune you choose to record by choosing to record fewer as opposed to more selections. You will probably want to record again. Don’t risk jading your choir in this first recording experience by trying to make them do something completely out of reach. Each participant will remember this recording and their memories will be the stepping stones to the next recording’s success.
Are there exceptions? Yes; if you have a seasoned choir of several years with strong sectional leadership and several pieces confidently under their belt. In this case, you could possibly choose 7 to 10 (or more) pieces to record if you set your expectations appropriately lower for the larger number of pieces. When the recording has begun, there is essentially no more time for rehearsal and practice – you and your choir need to be ready to record or you might end up with a very expensive recording of a rehearsal which no one will want.
The “Co-Director” Syndrome
A recording session of a choir generally involves the following folks: Choir, Section leaders, Choir Director, accompanist(s), Recording Engineer(s), and finally a Producer (who is likely to be, and usually is, the Choir Director). Define these roles early on and meet with each leadership role well before the mics arrive and the recording light begins to flash.
A common (yet unfortunate) scenario is that, once the recording session begins, the ensemble goes from one director with, for instance, thirty voices, to one executive director with about twenty five “co-directors” who all have visions of how the session should proceed. Often the co-director visions include repertoire selection suggestions or changes, generally in an honest effort to be helpful. The result of this “well-meaning” scenario, typically, is that the session has to be stopped and reevaluated and repurposed so that choir members become choir members again and the choir director is in charge once more – at the cost of valuable time, money, and a shift in morale that is not completely transparent in the finished product.
To make the process easier, define things at the beginning verbally and in writing, so that everyone understands roles and responsibilities. This makes expectations as clear as possible and mitigates any confusion long before the “tape rolls.” Better communication leads to better clarity and defining moments in the recording itself.
What about the less familiar roles noted above?
The Recording Engineer is the person responsible for microphone placement and position on anything or anyone being miked. Their job is streamlined when the leader has already decided what instruments will be played on what pieces and if there are solos and how many of them in each piece.
Treat your engineer as you would a concertmaster or contractor for a concert accompanied by orchestral players. The more information you can convey to your engineer about “what” you want, “who” needs to be involved, and the “style” of the music, the better. All preparation before arriving at the studio will pay enormous dividends in time and money.
Experienced and seasoned Engineers seldom need suggestions regarding mic placements and cable locations, so they are often best left alone to do their job without well meaning helpers. On the occasion that they need another set of hands for help, they’ll likely ask. This applies to both the on-site recording (recordings being done in your sanctuary or other remote location), as well as to recordings done in a studio.
The Recording Engineer also is responsible for capturing the recorded sounds through the microphones, mixers and cables and wires etc, to the satisfaction of the Director and Producer. The engineer works closely with the Director and Producer, stopping and starting the recording as often as necessary to capture the desired choral and instrumental sounds. The choir must trust this team work in order for the recording to proceed smoothly. Trust cannot be overlooked and should be addressed and understood well in advance.
The studio environment is generally intimidating to those who are not familiar with the process, and it can be a “double whammy” because in the studio, you are likely paying by the minute for the engineer’s time and finished product whereas an on-site recording is often paid for on a “project” basis as a whole. Be a good steward of your investment (in the recording), plan far ahead, and prepare up through the day of the recording and also minimize unsolicited “suggests and help” from the choir and accompanists during the recording process. A “recording specific” rehearsal, much as might be done to work out the logistics of a processional, or massed choir seating, will help the choir overcome the fear of the unknown.
You, your budget, your engineer, and your recording will benefit. The Producer will likely be the same person as the Director, even though their roles are fairly different, so besides having to pay attention to the moment in the recording to make certain the parts are correct and done well for the piece, you must also be thinking globally as well regarding structure and overall competency of the piece being recorded and as to whether or not the piece will ultimately be included in the final product by how well it is sung and played. The Director’s focus needs to be in the moment with the choir, accompanist and the Recording Engineer whereas the Producer needs to be paying attention to the moment, but is ultimately concerned with the global final product and budget. For the inexperienced Director, recording-wise, it may be useful to ask a trusted choral colleague to serve as Producer for your initial recording.
Here? There? or Everywhere?
Should we record in a studio or ask someone to record us in our sanctuary or other Hall?
There will likely be four factors helping to make this call; budget, the choir’s atmospheric comfort, the suitability of the sanctuary to the style of music being recorded, and budget. Though the first and last factors are the same, the point needs to be doubly clear; recording in a studio is generally far more expensive than recording on-site, particularly for the inexperienced choir. The studio, however, can turn out much “cleaner and faster” teamproduct due to the technical advantages that studios inherently have at their finger tips (which you will pay for).
A factor to keep in mind is that most studios run 24×7, and the most inexpensive time to record is during the “Red Eye” hours of midnight through 6 AM. Daylight hours, including evenings, are premium priced. Budgetary considerations, plus the choir’s comfort in working in a familiar space mean most initial choir recordings are done remotely, also called “on site” or on location at the church. A “compromise” might be to use a neighboring church that may have better or more favorable acoustics. Recording Engineers who record remotely will (or, better said, should) bring all the necessary mics, cables, and recording equipment to produce the desired finished product.
Keep in mind that studios offer completely controlled environments, meaning that street traffic, sirens, planes and “outside” audible mitigating factors are nearly nonexistent. By way of comparison, recording in a church (for the most part) means recording in an uncontrolled environment. Most seasoned Remote Recording Engineers will save time and money by closely monitoring the recording tracks and stopping the process as soon as an interfering factor becomes present so that the recording is not compromised any more than acceptable.
Pick a Space
What kind of “live” environment should you choose for a recording?
All hope is not lost if you can’t rent a professional studio. A good Remote Recording Engineer will carry some “little black boxes” (as they used to be called) that, when used properly, can create an environment for the choir using degrees of spatial digital reverberation (and the like) so that even if you are recording in a carpeted Fellowship Hall, these little black boxes can help create the desired audible atmosphere of possibly a large tiled room, a reflective hall or space/hallway or maybe even a simulated European Cathedral.
To make the best of your surroundings, in recording pieces that are choir only, try to choose a room which will offer the live acoustical properties that would be best if your choir was performing live. A good Engineer can capture not only the choir in that setting but also the sound of the room as well, recreating that live experience in the recording. The same can be said if the pieces chosen to record were to be choir and piano only, or with strings/wind instruments. A single location would not be preferable if the intent is to record live drums and or percussion on one track and choir with pipe organ on another.
If your accompaniment will include drums, percussion and/or any amplified instrumentation, it is common to record those instruments first, and, if possible, in an acoustical environment that is considerably more “dead” than “live.” To add the voices, use black boxes to set the recorded atmosphere musically then, using some monitoring, play back the accompaniment track and record the choir as they sing along. This process opens up a number of challenges for the engineer, but if done properly will provide the best recorded balance of instrument to voice. It will also be considerably less complicated than trying to record the choir singing over the volume of an organ, drums, bass guitar, and percussion instruments.
The responsibility of the Director is to know in advance what locations are preferable for each component of the finished recording, secure (reserve) those locations, and dialog with the Remote Recording Engineer to determine if the multiple remote locations will work well. Some recordings need to be accomplished over a few days to couple weeks depending on everyone’s schedules and availabilities and associated budget. An experienced (recording-wise) choir and director often choose to space out a recording project over several months in order to record smaller segments of the whole project. This can be a benefit to budget, and reduce the amount of physical stamina necessary from the choir when the project is compressed. Both of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses and you will have to research your options to determine which will be best and most suitable.
The Final Product
What should you expect for a final product?
Bottom line; you want to set your expectations in direct appropriate relationship to your choir and accompanist’s capabilities and overall potential. If you are not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it is unlikely that your finished product will sound like it. Set the bar a little higher than where your singers and players are currently. The opportunity to record can be a very good and productive tool in helping your choir move forward as a body and micro-congregation of Sunday morning leadership. This opportunity generally unifies those involved, IF proper preparation, planning, practicing, and rehearsing have been taken seriously. It will certainly do so if everyone is on the same page as far as the goals and intent of the recording. More than one choral “cook” can spoil this recorded soup, so discipline, order, and a clear understanding of choral authority are necessary ingredients. The end result will hopefully be something all those involved will be pleased with, and can serve as a blessed product of and for the Lord.
Finally, it is almost an axiom amongst those that have recorded, that, as in California real estate, you must start somewhere. Over time, most recording artists (both solo and ensemble) will tell you that their first efforts were good “as far as they went.” Don’t be surprised if, after your first recording, the time will come when the desire is to do it again, “only better this time.”