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NOTES FROM THE UPTOWN SESSIONS: Making the Leap from Stage to Studio

August 7, 2012

Have you ever attended a pop concert and left disappointed with the artist’s live performance? Perhaps you expected it to match the polished nature of their recordings? Hours in the studio – and many more hours of post-production editing – sometimes give artists the dangerous luxury (and illusion) of near-perfection on record, while paradoxically dooming them to never approximate this perfection live. Unlike disappointing recording artists, classical singers are bred as live performers.  Only occasionally are they afforded the opportunity to record. When this happens, however, classical singers have the opposite problem: they must try to bring the magic of a live musical experience into the studio.

Thanks to the generosity of our friends and supporters, VOX 3 Collective has been given the wonderful opportunity to produce the company’s debut recording project: two full albums of new art song, due out in December 2012. Before our first studio session last week, we had to prepare ourselves for some specific challenges.

VOX 3 Collective Loyola University

Soprano Laura Pinto in rehearsal with VOX 3 Collective at Loyola University

When I perform art song live, I am most often standing in the crook of a piano, with the instrument’s reverberations soaring past me and my collaborator seated only a few feet away. This close connection allows us to feed off each other, giving and accepting cues about tempo, emotion, dynamics – or even recovering from a mistake – with just a breath or a glance. Studio recording, by contrast, is done using an isolation booth for vocals, to preserve clear sound and allow for ease of editing.  Since I would be singing this material shut in a separate room, I had to be ready to perform at the same level, even though I could only see my pianist through the glass and faintly hear his breath as picked up by his piano microphone.

Similarly, I also had to be prepared for the sharp difference in acoustics between recording studios and concert halls. Since classical singers are accustomed to performing without amplification, we tend to identify our vocal sound as not just what comes out a few inches from our mouths, but as the sound of our voices bouncing off the walls of the room and, eventually, into the ears of the audience and ourselves. We love singing in “live” spaces—those with little or no carpet, high ceilings, and which give our voices a rich, resonant quality.  We dread singing in “dead” ones—those which make us feel as though we’re singing into a pillow, and seem to expose our every flaw. Unfortunately for us, the latter is a necessary evil in the recording studio so that the engineers can have as much control as possible on the raw sound during the editing process. When singing in a room that seems to dull our sound, it is difficult to recognize that for what it is and not be thrown off by the difference in “our” sound. This difference is heightened by the fact that we are wearing headphones, which pipe in the simultaneously unfolding music made by our collaborators. I usually compromise on this by only allowing the headphones to cover one of my ears, leaving my other ear free to judge my acoustic sound in the way I am most comfortable.

There are also a few other distinct differences I noted:

Soprano Laura Pinto and pianist James Morehead at Uptown Recording in Chicago.

  • Because we are used to singing in recital halls and on stages, it is hard not to be self-conscious in a booth with a microphone close to your mouth. Things that you would never worry about onstage, like an accidental smacking of the lips or a loud breath, suddenly demand your awareness in the studio. Sometimes they can be edited out, but other times they can’t; the last thing you want to do is make unnecessary work for yourself and/or others.
  • In the studio, some of us choose to record with the music in front of us, since there is no audience in the studio and much of the music is rhythmically complex. Keeping page turns absolutely silent or anticipating them enough to wait to turn when you are not singing can be both difficult and distracting. And though it is helpful having the music as a security blanket, if we are not careful, it can also be a crutch that prevents us from seeing the big picture and being expressive.
  • Speaking of expression, we are tasked with providing as energetic and as engaging a performance in the studio as we do in front of an audience. That special energy must be turned on in the studio, even without the audience, and remain on for every take. Because the visual element to a live performance has such a capacity to move people, it can be daunting trying to accomplish the same task with your voice alone. No hand gestures, no flashing of the eyes, no telling posture – just sound.

Performing artists in the studio also face the temptation to try to be perfect. This may well be the most trying challenge of them all. Just when we have made peace the fact that the imperfections of our live performances are what makes them so thrilling and organic and human, a little guy appears on our shoulder who says, “If that was no good, you can always do another take.” Luckily we have several realities to keep us in check: the expense of studio time, the limitations of our vocal stamina, and the rational knowledge that nothing will ever truly be perfect…but darn if that doesn’t stop us from trying. Did we capture the essence of a live performance? Did our humanity show in the form of a mistake that slipped through? I can’t say for sure, but I’ll let you be the judge after the album release. Stay tuned for more information on the progress of this project…and don’t forget to visit iTunes or CDBaby for the finished product in December!

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