studio diary 20150126 or, the making of a monster (concerto)

I find an evening at last, to sit down and attempt a final mix of my most-ambitious-to-date piece of modern classical music, the above referenced “concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings“. I’ve been working on the score for weeks, and for the past couple of those weeks, I’ve been reviewing the score, the arrangement, the instrumentation, the relative instrument levels, and actually, over a period of many days, I have made numerous small edits to the instrument levels in particular, trying to make sure none of my brash, overbearing solos are indeed, too brash or overbearing.

trying to keep the beast tame and submissive, without taking away any of his brute strength – maybe that is easier said than done. I know this piece like the back of my hand, better, in fact, because I really want it to be the best of breed, my first classical release of the new year; the second longest in duration, but, it has also become, what is almost certainly the most ambitious classical piece I’ve composed so far..

so to that end, I’ve spent even more time, than I lavished on my previous classical works, let’s face it, classical music is slightly more serious than rock, prog, or even ambient loop guitar, and, due to it’s relative complexities, it does take more in the way of time to acheive the perfect mix, the perfect master, the best sound quality that I can manage, and I don’t mind in the least that it does – because I believe it’s worth any amount of time – if the results are what I can “hear” in my head. and…they are.

concerto no. 4‘ to me, is like an old friend, that I’ve recently spent a lot of extra time with, and in doing so, learned new things about that old friend – and I think that’s really the best analogy that there is, a friend, and now, as I sit down to mix and master the piece, it will be like taking that perfect snapshot of my friend, as I wave his / her car down the drive and he / she heads off into the sunset.

the snapshot that maybe at the time, you take, and set on the top of your desk, and forget about for a while, and then, you run across it, weeks later, and you reflect back on the time you and your friend spent together – and you smile, because the snapshot has successfully caught the image, spirit and soul of your friend, as perfect of a moment in time as can be.

I undertook a piece of work last year, which was the rebuilding of the studio in a new premises, and that work is finally “done” – well, at least to an acceptable stage, so what I am doing now, is that each time I engage in a musical function, I make sure I have my tools and processes in tip top shape, so as to consistently get the best sound quality possible, to try and instil as much life and joy into the recordings as I possibly can.

in this case, that means a standardised mastering session in SONAR X3, one developed by me over the passing weeks, this one’s current template is called ‘Audio-Masteringx2’ and it is a very straightforward session indeed, consisting of two audio 24 bit 48 Khz stereo audio tracks, a pro channel preset that includes a compressor, an equaliser, and an RC-48 reverb from the world of komplete.

various presets have been developed, and this piece uses a fairly standard one, with a subtle, evenly matched compression that is hopefully undetectable to the ear, a gentle frequency enhancement from the hybrid equaliser, and finally, one of my very favourite reverbs at the moment, from the RC-48, “large random hall with random echoes” which at the moment, is set at about 32% wet. in this case, that might be the final level of the reverb, or not, depending on how the master I create tonight plays back in the morning.

I’ve carefully readjusted both the compressor and the EQ until they sound right to my ears for this particular piece of music, and the reverb level is the icing on the cake, the large hall is perfect for the boldness of this piece, and the keyboards and the strings fly out into that beautiful stereo reverb with equal beauty – it just enhances everything that I drop into it.

so I have done what I can as an engineer, after rejecting the first exported Notion file as too hot, the second export came out just perfect, still strong but never clipped, which is right where I want to be. I’ve spoken elsewhere of my penchant for producing music that is not slamming the underside of zero db; preferring a nice, gentle -4 db or even -6, occasionally moving up to a -3 or -2 db final output level if it’s rock, or prog, and it’s meant to be very ‘in your face’ and ‘LOUD’. I do like a good sense of dynamics, but I don’t like senseless or extreme volumes battering my poor, tired ear-drums.

for a piece like this, my final target will almost certainly be -4 db, but that will be subjected to several listening tests before I accept it. if need be – I will adjust it as my ears dictate.

but – there are many other things to consider when mixing and mastering this piece of music. I’ve made some unusual mix choices, for example, I have purposefully “placed” one of the main instruments in the piece, the harpsichord, panned almost all the way to one side. this is because I visualise this piece as being performed live, so I am sitting in the centre of the audience, the harpsichordist is on my far left, for example, the pianist, on the far right, and the poor celeste player is sat dead centre on the stage.

yes, this is to simulate a live situation, yes, it is intended to create an unusual stereo effect unlike that on many other classical recordings, but there is an even more unusual reason for my unusual stereo panning set up – it enables me to perform live circulations, a la Guitar Craft, using the keyboard instruments. and furthermore, I have also set up the string players into a similar scenario, because I have called upon them to harmonise with the keyboard instruments, while what happens is in essence, a “classical double-trio circulation exercise’ during the performance.

If you listen to the second movement, which begins at 7:18, after a brief introductory piece, begining at 7:39, you will hear the world’s first harpsichord – celeste – piano ‘circulation”, which at this point, is just single trio, from 7:39 to 9:00; but at 9:00, you will hear the second trio arrive; string trio of violin, viola, and cello, also set up with similar radical stereo imaging, ‘join in’ with the keyboard circulation, playing in unison or harmony with it up until 9:43, so from 9:00 to 9:43, we have the world’s first ‘classical double trio circulation’ – which was very interesting and exciting to score – I love the idea of using one of the best things about Guitar Craft, in my own classical music of today – why not? To my ears, a circulation of guitars is one of the most beautiful events in music (just listen to the California Guitar Trio or indeed, the League or Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists if you don’t believe me!!) so why not create one (or two, indeed) in my music now? And why not use keyboards instead of acoustic guitars?

I don’t have the luxury of having half a dozen Crafty Guitarists at my beck and call, so I can engage in acoustic guitar circulations, whenever I please. years ago, I solved that problem by making an album of ‘solo’ circulations for one electric guitar and a very long delay; now, I just add my circulations into my latest classical score! why not?

I’ve described now, in broad strokes at least, some of the physical work that has gone into this piece. but – I still have questions. metaphysical questions:

how is this even possible?
where does the knowledge come from?
how is it that, almost as if by osmosis, I can score classical music?

on a more practical level how do a handful of piano lessons as a child, one semester of piano theory at college and a long career as an ambient loop guitarist (and sometimes-member-of-the-orchestra of crafty guitarists), prepare me to be able to score classical notation? starting at the tender age of….fifty-six??

and the honest answer is: I truly do not know. I have no idea how I am able to do this. I start with a melody, I add in more instruments, I build the pieces measure by measure. but what I really don’t understand is…where do the classical melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, come from?

when I write rock music or pop music, I can hear the influences, I am conscious of playing in the style of guitarist a or bassist b. but for classical music, I don’t have the education, or the mad skills, to copy or mimic any influences…I just start scoring melodies and the rest, takes time…and days or weeks later, yet another concerto appears.

this one being perhaps the most musical and surprising one to date.

but I am not rejecting this particular ‘gift horse’, he / she can stop by any time if this is the result,

I give you, ‘concerto no. 4 in F major for harpsichord & strings’ by dave stafford, created in the Notion for iPad application.

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