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Finding the Heartbeat: Inside a Recording Session

August 28, 2012

The recording session is one of the ‘arrival points’ for aspiring musicians, full of implications and notions of success. I want to share the experience of my most recent recording yesterday. This session was a demo with a wonderful singer – Maria Soulis – of five Spanish art songs. We recorded a five song demo for Maria’s agent so that she can pitch the project [an homage to Garcia Lorca in song] to concert promoters. This means we will not make too many edits. Three of the songs are by Manual de Falla which are miniatures that pack a huge punch. The songs seem epic in scope because of the emotional range, and present a significant challenge to the guitarist because they are impossible to play as written. It is incumbent upon the player to leave notes out – sometimes up to half the notes in a passage – so the verve and energy in the music can be conveyed.

The other two of the songs on this project were “set” [meaning the existing melodies had accompaniments added] for piano by the marvelous Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Step one – preparation

In this case a very busy schedule prevented me from doing my normal amount of preparation. I have, however, played three of the works for over 25 years and have performed them in a variety of contexts, including one previous CD recording. On the night before I played through everything 15 times with a metronome. I became a little disconcerted because I discovered a new way to play the intro to the Jota by de Falla. In previous performances/recordings I have “bulled” through the opening, but I always felt that the music needed a certain fluidity that was missing from the Llobet transcription. Just before the last rehearsal I figured something out that brought this smoothness into the score, but I still had to learn it!

The other two works were guitar versions someone did of songs set by Garcia Lorca of old Spanish songs. The ideas were good, but as I worked on them they asked for more: different octaves in some places and more vigourous accompaniments in others. Practicing these pieces became a creative act as they developed more with each repetition. This was a little worrying. In the studio you aim for consistency – not flexibility.

Step two – morning of the recording

Warm up – my personal strategy is to do a stretching exercise followed by vigourously working on each finger of both hands individually. I work for speed, developing the extensor muscles of the right hand and increasing the speed at which I can release the left hand fingers after they go down. I go through each hand twice, increasing the speed the second time through. This is followed by a bigger stretching exercise with the fingers even more extended than they were for the first on.

Then I put the guitar away. Recording is deceptively fatiguing with the mind trying to create, recreate and play all the correct notes in a stressful situation. This leads to a very tired brain, so saving oneself for the work has become part of the process.

Step three – the recording facility

I make it a point to arrive 45 minutes early and leave the guitar in its case to acclimatize slowly to the room conditions. My experience has been that tuning problems can occur if the instrument is still warming up [or cooling down] if there has not been sufficient time for each part to change temperature naturally.

Step four – sound check

Listening back to some sections of pieces is very, very important. If you do not know the recording engineer then this time provides a chance to come to an agreement on the sound quality. It is also a chance to hear the music as a listener would, and make small adjustments. For example, microphones can pick up very small changes in volume and tone colour because they are placed fairly close to the guitar. This means that one can enjoy playing quieter than for a concert in a big hall and start crescendos from a softer point.

Yesterday’s session was at the Music Gallery, a venerable institution that has served the new music community of Toronto for over 35 years. Paul Hodge has worked the controls for that entire period and is a favourite of many musicians. His experience is remarkable; he has dealt with the most extreme situations and has solved more problems than I can imagine. I have worked with him for my entire career so he knows my sound. For all these reasons it is a very comfortable place to work.

The current incarnation of the Music Gallery [there have been four] is at St. George the Martyr Church, so there is a lovely natural reverb, making phrasing easier, and offering the performer a chance to enjoy their sound as they perform.

Finding the heartbeat

During the sound check I made a discovery about the music: in two of the pieces my accompaniment is really the heartbeat of the singer. In the Jota, which depicts a man singing to a woman at an upstairs window, the guitar part functions as a heart throbbing under the singer’s impassioned melismas. In Nana it is the calm heartbeat of a mother singing her child to sleep. It is unusual for me to rethink the music in the recording studio. Normally it is during rehearsal and practice that I think of how the text and music go together, how the harmony flows, what tone colour to use etc.

Maria is a very experienced singer, and it has been a pleasure preparing the material together. Her confidence with the songs makes my job easier, and is part of the reason that I was able to reach this revelation. My focus was on how best to support the singer, and to clearly define my role.

Step five – recording

It was a convivial experience, we both prefer to do complete run-throughs and decided that minimal editing was our best bet for the demo. It turns out that we both warmed to the material and improved after the first takes. The exception was the Jota, which requires a third take, and Nana, which was better the first time around.

We decide to make one edit – to get rid of a click I played at the halfway point in Nana. This was done by simply using take two of the opening and pasting it together with take one for the second half of the piece.

note: these two tracks may be heard for free at:

Mullah Nasrudin was walking in the countryside with a priest and a minister. It was a hot day and they were sweating profusely. Nasrudin cried aloud, “Dear God, we are three of your hard working servants, please let us find solace from this heat.”

Just then they came to a large pond. Since there was no one around and they had no swimming custumes, they quickly disrobed and began cooling themselves as God had created them.

Unfortunately some mischievous children discovered their clerical robes and took them for fun and started screaming for the villagers to come and look.
The priest and the minister ran out of the pond covering their genitals. Nasrudin too ran out but he covered his face. The minister said, “Don’t you have any shame? Why do cover your face?”

Nasrudin replied, “That’s the part of my anatomy my congregation knows.”

One Comment
  1. I’m still learning from you, while I’m improving myself. I certainly liked reading all that is written on your website.Keep the information coming. I liked it!

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