Portrait of a Recording: The Blair String Quartet
A recent recording session with the Blair String Quartet allowed the Naxos.com staff a glimpse into some of the recording techniques that help make the Naxos American Classics series a favourite with critics and fans.
Taking place in early March at the recently constructed Ingram Hall at the Blair School of Music in Nashville, the sessions featured the renowned Blair String Quartet recording string quartets by Charles Ives.
Wandering through the music school halls before the 9:00am session proved a calming experience, with dedicated music students milling about the area, set to begin another day of rigorous practice and classes. The most noticeable activity came from behind the office doors of Christian Teal, Felix Wang, Cornelia Heard, and John Kochanowski, who were preparing for a day of recording as the Blair String Quartet.
Adjacent to the offices and practice areas was Ingram Hall, where producer Rich Mays and his assistants already had the equipment ready for the day's session. Mays’ welcome was very cordial, and before the session he took a few minutes to express a revelatory fact about himself:
“ . . . I don’t know of any other situations where the producer is a former member of the orchestra. I played in the Nashville Symphony for 11 years; I left six years ago . . . .bass trombone. I’m a recovering bass trombonist.”
This proved to be an interesting note indeed, since Mays would be serving as producer for the Nashville Symphony later in the month when they recorded works by Villa Lobos.
This day, however, all attention was on the quartet. At the start of the session, Mays prepared to determine which microphone would best capture the brilliant sound of the ensemble. He already had his three options in place:
- Royer stereo ribbon mic, which Mays described as being like an “Irish stout”
- B&K (DPA) 4003 high voltage mic, compared to a “good chardonnay”
- Schoeps subcardioid tube mics, which are like “really good merlot”
Mays planned to record with all three microphones at the same time during a test session, and then decide which would work best in this environment. The mic pre-amps were “Precision 8”s made by True Systems, and everything went from the stage to the control room at line level. In the control room, everything would be recorded into a Sequoia Digital Audio Workstation.
After the technical debriefing by Mays, the quartet members began to arrive. Their camaraderie was quite apparent as they adjusted chairs, stan ds, and ins truments to prepare for the day, although this was complemented by a strong sense of professionalism. As the other quartet members prepared, violist John Kochanowski – the earliest arrival – discussed Ingram Hall with the producer. Mays wondered at the magnificent hall, which was completed in 2001. Kochanowski noted that the hall was “extraordinary,” especially for the listening experiences provided to the audience.
After the quartet was in position, Mays explained the plan – they were to play an excerpt from one of the Ives quartets while Mays recorded wit h all three microphones. Mays then retreated to Ingram Hall’s Green Room, which served as the control room for these sessions.
The quartet played a familiar bit of their repertoire, and then gathered in the control room with the producer to hear which microphone would work the best. They first listened to the entire excerpt with three different mics, switching among the three as the recording played. Then they listened to the same few measures three times, each time with a different microphone. After debating the various advantages to each microphone, one was eliminated before the quartet headed back to the stage to record again and decide between the remaining two microphones.
The final decision was to use the Schoeps subcardiod tube microphones as the mains, with the B&K 4003 for ambience. To hear the expertise brought to this recording by Rich Mays and the Blair String Quartet, eager fans will have to wait until the CDs release; however, listeners can already experience quality repertoire recorded in great sound with over 100 titles already available in the American Classics series.