Reviewed in Theatre Organ, the journal of the American Theatre Organ Society (Nov/Dec 2011)
Reprinted with permission
"The Making of Tales from the Chambers"
by Mike Bryant
In the copy Doug Grant originally submitted for his review of Tales from the Chambers he asked “how did they do that?” several times. We thought our readers might like a bit of insight into what is unquestionably an “out of the ordinary” recording experience.
First, we want to make it clear that no cats were harmed during the production of this CD.
Logistics, even for a solo organ recording, can be fairly daunting. If the organ isn’t equipped with a record-playback system, it has to be recorded live, and that means coordinating availability of the venue (often in the middle of the night), the artist, the organ technicians, and the recording engineer. Very few solo tracks are a “clean” one-pass take. Every organist makes mistakes, even the very best, and the finished product is usually assembled from multiple edits. The best recording engineers and the best organists can make it almost impossible to detect the edits today.
The longer an organ blower is on, the more the temperature in the chambers will shift. As temperature shifts, so does the tuning. After each take, a technician may need to touch up a pipe or two whose pitch has shifted perceptibly. All this makes for some very long days—or nights.
If the organ is equipped with a record-playback system, the tracks can be recorded over a period of time, whenever it’s convenient. When all the tracks are finished, the recording engineer and technicians can come in, tune the organ, and do the recording all in one session.
Now, with a trio….
The logistic difficulties associated with a Trio con Brio recording are immense. How many venues equipped with three organs can you name? First challenge: finding two more organs. First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon is home to a four-manual, 107-rank behemoth with some 14 ranks of high-pressure theatre pipework and an Allen R370 three-manual classical instrument.
Two different organs, a classical Allen L-8 and an Allen Q-311 theatre model filled the third spot on Tales from the Chambers. Few Allen organ dealers maintain much depth of stock in theatre models—the bulk of their business is in the classical arena. It is not unusual for two different dealers, hundreds of miles apart, to be involved in supplying the additional organs. That was the case with Tales from the Chambers. The Q-311 was only available for the first recording session, so a second dealer provided the L-8 for the later sessions, and the recording schedule was set up accordingly; numbers that didn’t require the additional theatrical assets of the Q-311 were recorded in the later sessions.
Availability of the venue is a major consideration. First United Methodist is a very large and active church in the community, and its sanctuary is used by a number of local musical groups. They rent the sanctuary for rehearsal and performances, which often ties up the space for several days at a time. During that time the chancel is reconfigured, and access to the console and the church’s Mason & Hamlin grand piano becomes very inconvenient.
Then, there is the issue of artist availability—not only for recording sessions, but for rehearsal as well. Jonas Nordwall and Donna Parker both live in the Portland area, but Martin Ellis lives in Indianapolis. All three are active performing artists with commitments scheduled months in advance. Finding holes in their schedules when all three are available for several days in a row is tough. Additionally, Martin has to make several trips to Portland to rehearse with the other two. Neither Donna nor Jonas have two organs in their homes, and moving the church’s Allen from the chapel, where it is installed, into the sanctuary for a two-organ rehearsal is not practical. So, one organ and a piano is the typical rehearsal setup. Generally, the rehearsals wind up being some combination of the three: Donna and Martin, Martin and Jonas, Jonas and Donna.
The use of the church for recording presents some other issues, too. First United Methodist Church is located in downtown Portland, and sits on the side of a hill adjacent to a busy intersection. This intersection is home to a transfer stop for the bus service and a light-rail station. Both light rail and the buses run day and night.
The Trio is faced with all the logistical and technical challenges of a solo recording done on an instrument without a record-playback system…times three.
Even three consummate artists find it difficult to get through an entire piece without error. An error in a live performance will certainly be forgiven, but one on a recording is less likely to be. The recording engineer will be the judge of whether an edit to correct the mistake will be successful or not. Many retakes are the norm. The more complex pieces can each occupy the better part of a day.
So, back to Doug’s question: “How did they do that?”
Doug wondered who played what, whether they were all together in one venue and playing at the same time, or if it was recorded separately and then reassembled in post-production. And, of course, he was curious about the sound effects.
The concept and content of this disc suggested more extensive use of sound effects and “unusual” percussions than you’d find on the average organ recording. To achieve this, several different sources were used. The Allen Vista module provided some of the additional voices and effects, a Roland GX-70 keyboard provided others, and the remainder, such as rattling chains and some of the tambourines, were performed live.
The entire CD was recorded live, with all three artists (plus coffee-fetching, page-turning, chain-dragging “assistants” and even the cat) performing simultaneously in real time. A number would be rehearsed until all were comfortable with it and in agreement they were ready to record. Recording engineer Dennis Hedberg, working from a room well behind the chancel area, would start recording and yell “Go!” All too frequently, though, recording would soon come to a stop with a yell of “Train!” or “Bus!” After the noisemaker passed, the piece would start over.
Even though the church’s organ is equipped with a Uniflex relay system, the record-playback capabilities can’t really be used for a Trio recording. Because all of the performers depend on each other for visual as well as audio cues, to have one portion pre-recorded is, once again, impractical. With the lead parts moving from one instrument to another during a number, trying to record separately would not likely be anywhere near as successful.
To the question “who played what?” the answer is “everybody.” The artists rotated around the instruments depending on what best suited the piece. If Donna’s part was better suited to the church’s organ, that’s what she played. If Martin’s part called for him to do the sound effects, he was at the console next to the Roland keyboard. To sum up, you’ll hear each artist on every organ—you just may not know when.
For some of the effects, the Roland keyboard was positioned just to the left of the console. The organist would reach over and fire off the swirling wind, or the thunderclap, or whatever effect was needed. Where more extensive use of the Roland’s sound effects was called for, an assistant was called into play to press the right button at (hopefully) the right time.
Still wondering how they got the cat to meow on cue? Well, we’re going to leave you in the darkened chambers and keep just a bit of mystery….
© Trio con Brio 2017