6 Recording, Broadcasting & Streaming

Nowadays almost every public performance is recorded in some way. This in itself reduces the potential for risk-taking in performance compared with 50 years ago when recording a concert was a significant task requiring specialist equipment, or 100 years ago when it was almost unheard of. I’ve heard this referred to as “the curse of the recorded age”!

As a minimum, professional performing ensembles or venues will most likely make an archive recording of reasonable, if not broadcast, quality. Non-professional groups will usually record their concerts for the benefit of their members (just be sure to get consent from any paid professionals who are playing or make it clear when you book them that this will happen). 

But let’s consider situations where a concert is to be broadcast on radio or television, either live or at a later date; released as a recording; or recording sessions where there is no audience.

It’s often said that orchestras who do a lot of broadcasting, such as the BBC orchestras in the UK, play differently to those for whom a broadcast is an occasional part of their concert life. This may be true, in that there is a certain kind of concentration and focus that comes with the “red light” being on, and when it’s going out live this is further enhanced. It certainly doesn’t need to result in boring performances, but it probably requires the conductor to be consistent in tempo and approach from the rehearsals to the performance. 

I found this particularly striking during the COVID-19 pandemic when conducting radio and streamed performances without audiences. If it wasn’t live, it felt the same as it always did. When it was live, particularly for radio which meant nobody needed to get into their concert clothes, it felt incredibly relaxed until a few moments before the broadcast. Then there was suddenly an atmosphere of performing in a concert even though there was no audience there. 

However, if it is for later broadcast or release, there will be the opportunity for patching to cover any mishaps in the performance. Often the dress rehearsal will be recorded because the sound engineers will be checking the balance. Even though the red light may not be on, everybody knows it’s happening, and it can often be that there is no need to redo something after the concert if the producer is confident they got that bit from the rehearsal. If not, you may be asked to do a small section again before the musicians are released. The producer will have the final say in these decisions.

A recording session as opposed to a live performance that is being recorded is a different matter again. The musicians will be very concerned about accuracy and will also be wary of playing too much and running out of stamina. What matters is the recorded sound that is being captured, not how it sounds to you or anyone else in the room. The conductor therefore places a great deal of trust in the producer, and many leading conductors develop close relationships with a producer and will refuse to record with anyone else. 

It is always worth talking to the producer before the sessions begin, to discuss a way of working, talk about the music and what you are both aiming for interpretatively. When the session starts, do as you are told unless your opinion is asked for. Normal practice is to record a large chunk, maybe a complete movement or short piece, and then either do the same again or break it down into smaller chunks. Every note should be played at least twice so that there is always an option, and as you zero in on specific bars then the takes become shorter and shorter. Digital editing is now so advanced that they will only need a short amount of music either side of the specific measures that aren’t yet covered. When there is time, doing another full run through of a movement once everything has been covered in shorter takes can yield fantastic results. Everybody can relax safely in the knowledge that it’s all there, and you may get a better performance altogether.

Professionals know how to behave in a recording session, but if you are working with amateurs, students, or youth orchestras you may need to talk a little about turning off phones, being careful of noise from mute changes, page turns, lifting or putting down instruments in the string section and even sometimes percussionists moving from one instrument to another etc. There is nothing worse than a great take being followed by the producer saying “yes, there was a noise 3 before D so I’m afraid we need that again”.     

As video technology becomes more ubiquitous, it is becoming more common for concerts to be filmed for streaming, either live or deferred. The main difference this makes is that the director and camera crew need to rehearse as well. This will usually mean a full run-through of the entire programme before the performance, resulting in something that feels more like a dress rehearsal for an opera. 

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