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17th September 2008
2:30 pm - I have just arrived at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street amidst a flurry of activity. The famous choir of St Bride's is engaged in final rehearsals for their upcoming disc, which is to be recorded over the next three days.
As an objective observer and with limited musical knowledge myself, it is an ideal opportunity to get an insight into the often overlooked 'blood, sweat and tears' behind the familiar end result. It is a chance to indulge in the auditory sensation of a finely-tuned instrument in flight and witness first hand the necessary collaborative process that is essential from everybody involved in making the completed disc a musical success.
3:30pm - With rehearsals now in full swing and the sun beginning to stream in through the large side windows, I take a seat in the side aisle and savour the pot pourri of sound that has begun to diffuse throughout the church. The engineers scurry about setting up all the necessary recording equipment and have begun the time consuming task of taping down the mishmash of cables that snake their way throughout the building.
Andrew Watts, international counter tenor and a prominent choir member, has taken a step back from singing on this disc in order to produce it. He joins the colossal statues of Saint Bride and Saint Paul in watchful gaze over the unfolding scene. Andrew, with his vast musical knowledge, is meticulous in ensuring that everybody involved (the singers as well as the sound engineering team led by Edward Armitage) are 'singing' not only from the same song sheet but the same note too. The positioning of voices in relation to each other and in relation to the microphone is, as I am beginning to understand, paramount in achieving the best possible result.
Musical jargon abounds and I am keen to understand the mix of language being used. "Knitting", as I am to learn, is not an activity enjoyed exclusively with a yarn of wool and two needles. The process of "knitting" or editing bars of music together is an integral necessity to a producer's armoury and a necessary tool in bringing the best musical moments together to form a continuous melody.
6:30pm - An air of excitement is building as the choir return promptly from a short break. They settle down to record the first track of the evening - "Teddy Bear", an arrangement of this classic number for male voices. The initial thirty seconds are sensational and recording is proceeding hitch-free. I am captivated. Suddenly there is a loud stutter from one piece of recording equipment and a rather unhealthy ticking noise brings recording to a halt. Three further takes from the beginning and the same result... Could it be that the batches of blank discs being used are faulty or more worryingly... Is their a problem with the equipment?
Pin-dropping silence washes over the church as Andrew cradles his head in his hands in disbelief - the silence is telling. Only the gentle humming from a nearby pub down the road (which sounds like it is doing roaring trade) manages to ease the stifling tension.
There seems to be a definite problem with the equipment and with no back-up machine present and with time being money, an executive decision needs to be made. Andrew along with Robert Jones (Director of Music) and Edward Armitage decide that the best possible outcome for the evening will be to rehearse for another hour and then call it a night, returning slightly earlier tomorrow. The choir, who are fully committed to this recording, agree to an earlier start and an even later finish. The premature ending to the evening's schedule pushes pulses up to a more vigorous beat and expectation levels are raised a few notches. The disc has to now be completed in two sessions and not the allocated three.
18th September 2008
6:00pm - Everybody arrives in good time and with brand new recording equipment in place and two further back-up machines on hand; the opening track - Teddy Bear - 'kicks' off the evening's programme. Within a mere six takes there is enough top quality singing recorded and with all the equipment working a dream... we are moving swiftly on.
A beautifully moving rendition of "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" cascades effortlessly throughout the church like an ethereal whisper. Apart from the momentary disruption of the shuffling of feet and of pages being turned, twenty minutes is all that is needed for the desired sound to be achieved.
Just when it seems that the brakes have been released and we are moving at full steam, the reverberating sound of a lone drill from nearby road works shudders into the church! A paper-shuffling nightmare ensues during "Autumn Leaves" and everybody is made fully aware to the sensitivity of the microphones. Twenty-six takes later and the track is finally complete. A welcome twenty-minute break is called.
8:40pm - The intermittent disruption from road works has eased now only to be replaced by a string of stray ambulance sirens and high pitched screeching from the nearby pub! Despite the noise from outside, recording has to continue. A spine- tingling version of "Angel" featuring Claire Seaton with the choir now fills the church. The power of the text along with the uniqueness of Claire's delivery of the piece leads Andrew to remark: "How wonderful it is to hear the words so clearly!" "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" along with "In My Life", "True Love" and "With A Little Help From My Friends" are all completed in quick succession, devoid of any stray sirens and erratic drilling noise.
Tiredness is starting to set in fast and Andrew realising this, decides to call a halt to the evening proceedings. There is a quiet sigh of relief from the production team as recording comes to an end. The progress today has been a lot better than was anticipated. Eight tracks have now been recorded through a sea of noise disruption and the 'lid of the pressure cooker' has been ever so slightly lifted... Time now to do some 'investigation' into the source of the 'noise' coming from that pub!
19th September 2008
6:00pm - It is Friday night on Fleet Street and the nearby eateries are packed to capacity with people enjoying themselves. The noise once again proves to be a big problem during the first track of the evening - "Stairway To The Stars". The sensitivity of the microphone is further highlighted with the creaking of Robert Jones' shoes. The conductor quickly removes his shoes and continues to lead the choir in the comfort of his socks!
"Bohemian Rhapsody" is a huge challenge for the choir. It is a complicated arrangement and is taking a long time to complete. We are still recording this track one hour later! The track is very technical with regards to the arrangement of harmonies and Andrew is adamant that everyone is to sing at the same speed and with the same energies.
A slight venting of frustration, privately from the control room and with his spectacles now in hand, Andrew is finally happy enough with the material recorded and we are moving on. A producer's insistence, as I am starting to notice and understand, can be relentless in achieving the best possible sound and the correct intensity of 'colour' to illuminate the canvas of a blank disc.
"He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and "Summertime" are recorded in only a few takes with exquisite execution. The title track of the disc - "Nobody Does It Better!", is given a little more time, to ensure that it delivers the punch and power it deserves. Sounding car horns now join the eclectic ensemble of disruptive noise but recording soldiers on and by 8:50pm the track is done. The final ten minutes are just enough time to record "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and with the choir comfortable with this familiar anthem - two takes is all that is needed to get it right and that is a wrap.
It has been an extraordinary three days of both high and low emotion. The chance to watch from the shadows has given me a wonderful insight into the hard work required in completing the disc as well as the necessary collaborative process that is essential for success. It has caused me to be much more mindful of everyone involved in the process: the singers, the sound engineers and the production team, who have all worked together to co-create this disc. The end result is simply stunning - packed with an abundance of beautiful singing and harmony.It will most definitely take you on an exhilarating musical journey!