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The Choral Recording Process (a very delayed response)

This is in response to a reader (apparently I have more than one reader now), who asked this question:

“I’d love to see something detailing the recording session process someday – I’m a composer of choral music along these lines as well, but I’m just getting my feet wet in the publishing/recording arena.” (Matt Croft, Jan. 20, 21012)

For those who have taken note of just how long it’s taken me to answer Matt’s interesting question (six months and four days), I may be slow, but I am answering. That’s gotta count for something.

The choral recording process, like all recording these days, is undergoing some very real changes, due to changes in technology and to the tightening of budgets.

In Ye Olden Days (1980-2005), the basic approach to choral demo recordings was something along these lines:

1) Arrange & orchestrate the music. Hire a copyist to produce all the parts for the studio musicians. By hand. With pen and paper.

2) Hire an orchestra of top-notch studio musicians (anywhere from 25 to 50 players), put them in a quality studio with an experienced engineer, then record a full song every 45 minutes to an hour.

3) Bring in a studio vocal group of 8 to 16 singers and record the vocals, stacked up (layered) three times. They, too, would cut a complete song every hour or so. Add solos after the choir. (A good session singer can sing a complete solo demo in under 30 minutes.)

4) Mix the music with an experienced engineer in a studio equipped with Class A electronics on a very expensive automated mixing console. Generally, we would complete about three songs a day (10 hour days).

The recording process was remarkably fast. We would do a ten-song project, from start to finish, in about a week. And the result sounded great.

The process was also expensive. $50,000+ to record and mix 10 songs.

But things change.

Thanks to programs like Finale and Sibelius, the arranger is now also the copyist.  This means the arranger is doing more work than before, and often for a lower fee. But it saves the publisher money.

Choral music is now mostly arrangements of P&W songs. The arrangements are much more about a rhythm section, and less about the orchestra. So, fewer musicians are involved. The additional players are done in smaller groups as overdubs. Does it sound as good? Not necessarily. But it saves the publisher money.

Samplers are replacing musicians. Yesterday, for the first time ever, I turned in a set of tracks on which all the strings were programmed and printed at my home. And they sound remarkably real. The process was painstaking, time-consuming, and a lot less fun than a real string session. But it saved the publisher money.

Mixing is now regularly done by good engineers, who work “in the box” (on a Pro Tools rig) in a spare room of their own home. No honest engineer will tell you this sounds as good as mixing in a tweaked-out studio with Class A gear. But it saves the publisher money.

Notice a pattern? The past decade has been devastating to the music business, and that includes choral music. Print music sales have been declining for more than a decade. (There are a lot of factors, which I won’t get into here.) In order to survive, music publishers have had to cut costs wherever they could. And since the single most expensive part of the process was the demo recording, that was an obvious place to reduce expenses.

As a result of “reduce-or-die” cost cutting, we now work in home studios more often than not. Home studios have come a long way, granted. But very few home studios have 25-foot ceilings, sound-proof booths, and floated floors.

We work with smaller groups of musicians and stack things up more. And four brass players layered does not sound the same as ten players all together.

Rather than actually record every instance of a repeated chorus, we often “fly” the vocals from the first chorus, in order to save time. It makes all the choruses sound identical and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

I lament the drop in quality of our demo recordings over the past decade. It is a shame, and it isn’t likely to be reversed any time soon. However, as a choral composer, I have to remind myself that the demo recording is not the ultimate goal of my music. The real purpose of my writing is the live performances done by church choirs all across the country on Sunday mornings.

To that end, I’ve focused my writing a lot more toward music that is more performance-friendly. At the request of certain publishers, I still write the big orchestral accompaniments. But, left to my own devices, I’m writing more music that is meant to be performed with only piano as accompaniment, the way most churches actually use it. When I write for additional instruments, I try to keep it doable by fewer people.

These smaller arrangements still require a quality demo recording. And those recordings are done much like we always have: Record the accompaniment, then add the singers, then mix. But because they are smaller, they save the publisher money.

And when I save the publisher money, I have a better chance of getting published and making a little money myself.

Thanks, Matt, for the question. I hope I’ve answered it to your satisfaction. If not, you know where to reach me. Remember though – it may take me another six months to answer.


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