Radio and Recording Techniques
By Percy Faith
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the February 1958 number of Music Journal, a music education monthly based in New York City and edited by former radio host and commentator Sigmund Spaeth. Its “advisory committee” boasted Robert Russell Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Morton Gould, and Fred Waring, among others. Various members of the Columbia Records staff – Goddard Lieberson and Mitch Miller – contributed similar pieces to subsequent issues during the year. Further note: It was written before Faith’s use of an expanded string section for the Bouquet series and other albums.
I have made three brief emendations to clarify the text.
Marginal introduction: Percy Faith, musical director of the Popular Division of Columbia Records, is known as a “musician’s musician”, in addition to his great popular appeal. One of the United States and Canada’s leading conductor-arranger-composers, he is conservatory-trained, with a wide experience in music from night club to concert hall. He is well known through such radio programs as The Woolworth Hour, as well as his records. Watch for his forthcoming album of “South Pacific”.
Perhaps the question most persistently asked of a public performer of music is “How do you achieve what you do, - what are the techniques or gimmicks used?” When a performer is a conductor-arranger-composer in radio or the recording industry, such questions are always concerned with microphones and a desire to learn his “tricks”. While there are mechanical ways to achieve special effects such as “back-tracking”, that is, recording four violins twice on the same tape to give the illusion of eight violins playing, these devices are not for me. In my opinion, the use of such mechanics never produces a true sound. The only satisfactory way to record the sound of eight violins is to use eight violins and to one who loves string tone, eight is really not enough.
In general, the techniques used to produce the Percy Faith recordings are those used by all well-trained musicians, who give their best to each performance. Of paramount importance with these techniques are the three elements of arrangement, balance and interpretation. The conductor must make sure that the score, in my case usually a special arrangement, is “right”, before the parts are passed out to the musicians. Given a score that can and will “sound”, the conductor must see to it that a proper balance between the several musical forces is maintained at all times. After that, his interpretation must be based on the intent of the creator of the score and in this he is dependent on his own musicianship and integrity.
Since I write my own arrangements, I have both the opportunity and the responsibility for getting them “right”. To me, there is no tone quite as beautiful as that produced by the strings when they play music properly written for them. There is always the choice, then, of when and where they will play, making sure, however, that what they play will indeed be “string music”.
In my orchestra I use a minimum of twelve violins, three violas, three cellos, and bass (two basses if one is playing rhythm), but usually the number and order is sixteen, four, four, one. I write for the conventional first and second violins, never hesitating to divide them into as many as eight parts and at the same time trying not to miss the chance for that broad, sweeping unison.
Importance of Strings
The strings, then, are the core of my orchestra just as they are of the traditional symphony orchestra. This does not mean that I use strings in every number of an album or a radio program. On the contrary, if a number can be performed by brasses, I may not use the strings at all, or they may be used as movement under and around the other instruments.
In addition to the strings, the orchestra employs three to four trumpets, three to four trombones, three French horns (when needed), five woodwinds, piano, celesta, harp, guitar, and two drums [two percussion players]. By means of “doubling”, the five woodwind players provide for five saxophones, four flutes, four clarinets, one bassoon and/or an oboe. The piano is used only for solo passages. Incidentally, it seems important to me that an orchestral arranger work away from the piano so that he thinks only in terms of the instruments he is writing for.
When I made the arrangements for the Gershwin Album, I worked, as I always do, from the original piano score, without reference to the [original] orchestrations. The [original] orchestral scores are “dated”, while piano scores contain the composer’s idioms and other characteristics. It is possible, therefore, to employ new orchestral colors and at the same time enhance the essential quality of a given composer. This I honestly strive to do.
Union rules permit the recording of four numbers in a three-hour session. Since this session includes rehearsal time, rehearsals and recording are done at the same time and place – the recording studio. In spite of certain pressures always present when striving for perfection, these recording sessions are comparatively relaxed.
The orchestra is seated in a conventional manner, with the strings in front and the other instruments where you would expect to find them in a concert hall performance. Rehearsals are conducted in what might be called a “workshop” manner. Since, with few exceptions, I use the same personnel, the men know what I want. It is possible to read through a number and then record it immediately. On the other hand, we may “talk-down” a number before playing it, outlining the parts that should be prominent and those that should be played as background, - in general discussing how the score is to sound. The players must be constantly reminded of their place in the ensemble and made to achieve the proper balance, if necessary.
Balance is achieved in the room by the conductor and orchestra just as though they were performing on a concert stage. The theory as well as the practice is: - if the balance is right in the room, it will be right on the microphone.
For most of our work we need only one “over-all” microphone, placed ahead of and above the strings. A soloist, such as a singer, or a solo group, such as a quartet or chorus, will have their own “mike”, which will be blended with the one used for the orchestra. For that intimate, muted brass tone, we sometimes use an additional “mike”, with the brasses playing directly into it.
The studio we use for recording has a low ceiling and a certain amount of natural reverberation and to this the audio-engineers add a little more. This is done by means of a “chamber” on a lower floor. The studio “mikes” are “piped” into a speaker in the chamber, where another “mike” picks up the sound and returns it to the control-room. Here the engineers control the amount of high and low frequencies to be recorded, as well as the amount of reverberation to be used. These men are my “ears”. They are highly skilled and I trust them to record what I want.
Whenever I have been asked to advise school and college conductors in their work, I have hesitated because I have always been impressed with their performances. However, when pressed to give such advice, I have added the following to the foregoing: Study and listen to all types of music, played by all manner of combinations. (A night club performer often teaches me as much as a Carnegie Hall recital). Keep up with the advances in musical theory and don’t hesitate to make judicious use of new chord and scale systems in your own writing. Above all, keep constantly in mind that a conductor’s job is faithfully to “realize” the score at hand. To this end, always regard balance as an integral part of interpretation and take the means and the time necessary to make it sound as its creator intended it should. When it is “right” to you, it will be “right” for your listeners.