Inside Track: Recording On Location
Neville Roberts details the challenges faced by audiophile label Chasing the Dragon when trying to get the best possible location recording…
Having a technical background and a passion for high-quality audio, I'm always keen to explore the technology used to make great recordings. Over the past few years, I have experienced this process first hand. Irrespective of whether the recording has taken place in a dedicated studio or at some other venue, the aim has always been to produce audiophile-quality recordings in high-resolution digital format, as well as the best that analogue has to offer in terms of professional master tapes on half-track 15 inches per second quarter-inch or half-inch tape, and direct-to-disc LPs.
I was recently offered the opportunity to be involved with an extraordinary recording project undertaken by audiophile record label Chasing The Dragon. The project was to record all six of J. S. Bach's Cello Suites, performed by one of London's busiest and most versatile musicians, Justin Pearson.
L-R: Petronel Butuc, Mike Valentine, Mat Sartor, Adriano Pennett
As it happens, the brains behind Chasing The Dragon, Mike Valentine, and myself are both ex-BBC dating back to the nineteen seventies – although we didn't know each other at the time. Mike was a BBC sound engineer who made recordings at outside broadcast events, and his many years of experience have certainly been put to good use in the production of these recordings.
The whole process was a massive undertaking for everyone involved. The recordings were made during 2019 and 2020 at two church venues. Unfortunately, the pandemic halted the project early in 2020, and a new venue had to be found to complete the project once lockdown restrictions were lifted. The recordings are rather special, as the analogue master tapes will be used to produce a set of limited-edition LPs mastered at AIR Studios in London on its Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe. Only a thousand limited-edition boxed sets will be produced, complete with a book called The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin. A limited set of copy-master tapes of the entire set of suites is also being made available.
Justin Pearson was Principal Cellist, General Manager and Artistic Director of Britain's National Symphony Orchestra between 1994-2004 and played guest principal cello with the English Sinfonia Orchestra. He is the founder, artistic director and manager of the Locrian Ensemble of London. He has recorded with many labels, including Hyperion, Naxos, Guild, ASV, Dutton Epoch, Carlton Classics, and now Chasing The Dragon.
Justin Pearson monitoring the sessions
For many years Justin was the solo cellist in Andrew Lloyd Webber shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Whistle Down the Wind and Bombay Dreams. He's also written award-winning scripts for plays with music performed in London's West End and produced independent programmes for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4. He served as a Governor for the Royal Society of Musicians (a charity that supports musicians in need) and is Musical Patron of Sunbeams Music Trust in Cumbria, which helps children and adults with special needs through music.
The 2019 recording venue was Temple Church (above) in London, which has eight hundred years of history, dating back to the 12th century. The Church was built by the Knights Templar, the order of crusading monks founded to protect pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem. The Church is comprised of two parts – the Round and the Chancel. The Round Church was consecrated in 1185 by Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was designed to recall the holiest place in the Crusaders' world: the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Due to its fabulous acoustics, Temple Church is home to some of London's most famous church music.
The 2020 sessions were performed at St Botolph's Church (above) in Chevening, Kent, a beautiful church in lovely surroundings that dates back to the 12th century. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the wall formerly separating the two parts of the south aisle was removed, and the Church was enlarged by the addition of a nave and nave arcade. The increased size offered a great acoustic environment for the organ installed in 1890 by Bishop & Co of London. The organ is in its original condition and has a tracker action that uses mechanical linkages between the keys and the air valves. In 2008, all the lath and plaster to the sloping ceiling between the dark wooden rafters was replaced. The building certainly has excellent acoustics, and this makes it a fantastic venue for recordings.
Mike Valentine seeking guidance from a higher power
The importance of using high-quality equipment and cabling for the recordings cannot be overstated. However, this fact is often overlooked by commercial recording studios, which focus instead on the practicalities of equipping a studio with equipment, especially cables, that can withstand the rigours of regular use. Similarly, equipment and cables used for recordings out in the field are often chosen for their ability to withstand rough handling. Fortunately, Chasing The Dragon appreciates that sound quality counts, and no expense was spared when recording the Bach Cello Suites. Some of its cables cost tens of thousands of pounds per run!
The recordings were made using a pair of Flea/AKG C12 microphones set in omnidirectional mode and separated by a sheepskin-covered Jecklin disk, which enhances the stereo image when used with omnidirectional microphones. A Neumann KU-100 dummy head was also used for the binaural feed to make a version of the recording that is particularly suited to listening on headphones. One of the many challenges is to get the positioning of the microphones just right. They have to be close enough to the instrument to capture all the detail of the performance and, at the same time, be in the correct position within the church to capture the ambience of the venue. There will be no opportunity to make corrections afterwards as the stereo audio signal from the Focusrite microphone preamps remains in the analogue domain throughout the recording chain to achieve the very best audio quality.
For the analogue recording, the stereo output from the Focusrite microphone preamps was fed to a Sony APR 5003 master tape recorder running at 15ips and recording onto quarter-inch ATR master tapes. The Sony recorder and Focusrite preamps have been renovated and calibrated by one of the best in the business – Petronel Butuc of The Audiophiles Clinic. Butuc has gained an enviable international reputation, and his services are very much in demand, so it was fortunate that Chasing The Dragon was able to secure his services.
A Nagra VI 6-channel recorder was used for the 24-bit, 192kHz PCM digital recording of the stereo feed from the C12s, and the KU-100 dummy head was employed for the binaural recording. For DSD recordings, two Tascam DA3000 DSD two-channel recorders were used – one for the stereo feed from the C12s and one for the binaural feed from the KU-100 dummy head. All digital recordings were managed by digital engineer Matt Sartori. High-quality Nordost, ZenSati and Vovox cables were used throughout the recording chain.
Bach's Cello Suites are some of the most recognisable and well-loved pieces of classical music, although little is known about their history. Scholars believe that Bach composed the cello suites after the Brandenburg Concertos in about 1720 while working as Capellmeister in Köthen.
However, the precise date has never been confirmed as the cello suites' original manuscript has never been located. For a cellist, one of the great beauties of the suites is their lack of musical markings or notes, which makes them extremely versatile. The earliest manuscripts, which are copies penned by Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena, bear no indication of how the pieces should be played, so this is entirely down to the player's interpretation.
Between the recordings, I spoke with Pearson about the challenges he faced with these performances and, in particular, about his cello and bow.
Neville Roberts with Justin Pearson
The cello was crafted by Francesco Ruggeri in 1706. Ruggeri, who studied in Cremona with Amarti and was in the same group of apprentices as Stradivarius, re-designed the shape of the instrument. Stradivarius, however, continued to make the more old-fashioned, traditional 'Amarti-style' designs. The reason for the re-design was that solo performers required cellos that would project more sound and be physically smaller to allow players to more easily reach higher up the instrument while playing. Stradivarius probably made only about 60 cellos, while Ruggeri made considerably more.
The back of Pearson's cello is crafted from a single piece of wood, and the front comprises two pieces of Maple wood with beautifully cut F-holes. When Pearson purchased the instrument, the scroll had disappeared, but it has now been replaced with one made by Guadagnini in Turin. Pearson had the cello restored in New York for £18,000 for the restoration alone! The bow is a Lamy Père, mounted in gold, and was made for an exhibition in Paris in around 1900. The weight and shape of the bow are balanced for solo playing, and Pearson bought it especially for these recordings.
The five-string cello
Although Suite No.6 could be played on a conventional cello, Bach wrote this suite specifically for a 5-string cello. The instrument played for this performance was built following the Stradivarius model used by the legendary French makers in Mirecourt. This cello is made from European woods, hand-picked by the luthiers at Pro Arte Antwerp. A 5-string cello extends the upper range of the instrument, and the bass string is tuned to the same frequency as a 4-string cello. This reduces the large movements of the arm that would be required while playing the higher notes.
Two of the sessions were held at Temple Church. At the first, Pearson was the only musician, and at the second session, Pearson was joined by Katherine Rockhill, who provided the piano accompaniment for a version of Suite No. 3. A graduate of the Royal College of Music in London, she was a Foundation Scholar, Major Prize-Winner, Junior Fellow and also winner of the Tagore Medal, presented by HRH the Prince of Wales. Robert Schumann wrote arrangements with piano accompaniment for all six cello suites, but they were subsequently destroyed by his wife, Clara! However, Schumann's accompaniment for Suite No. 3 survived, and this version of Suite No. 3 was also recorded.
Katherine Rockhill and Justin Pearson in session
All music was recorded in stereo with only the pair of Flea/AKG C12 microphones. The piano was carefully positioned so that the microphones could capture all the detail of this instrument, as well as the cello and the atmosphere of the church. The result is that the recordings have superb clarity and excellent instrument focus and positioning.
The last two suites were recorded at St Botolph's Church. One of the challenges that Mike Valentine faced was the noise from passing aeroplanes, which made it necessary to record several extra re-takes of some of the movements. Valentine explained that when recording in London, the background noise floor means that any unexpected sound from, say, a passing dove is not particularly noticeable. However, recording in a quiet county location means that any external noise is instantly noticeable on a recording, leaving no alternative other than re-recording a movement. On one occasion, Pearson reached the end of a movement, and just as the sound of the final note was dying away, an aeroplane flying overhead could be heard faintly in the background on the monitor headphones. Valentine was not happy with this, so the whole movement had to be re-recorded!
Pedro Silva playing five-string cello
For recording Suite No. 6, Pedro Silva was invited to play the Stradivarius copy 5-string cello. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2018 with a Master of Arts in cello performance. He enjoys a varied freelance career as a musician and frequently collaborates with Early Music ensembles and West End productions. In 2017, he founded MyLuthier with a colleague, a business that provides musicians with high-quality instruments at affordable prices. Silva now splits his time between this business and performing.
The master tapes of the recordings produced at both Temple Church and St Botolph's sound absolutely magnificent, capturing all the detail of the instrument, as well as Pearson's sensitive and captivating playing. They also reproduce the wonderful atmosphere and space of these excellent venues beautifully. However, you don't need to my word for it because Chasing The Dragon has kindly made available a sample high-resolution 24/192 digital file of one of the Temple Church recordings, which you can download from my website.
Apart from getting the performance right, the main challenge when making live recordings is to capture and reproduce all the ambience of the environment without letting it detract from the performance. Failing to do this would result in something that might just as well have been done in a studio. Capturing this along with the instruments requires not only considerable skill but also the best in audiophile equipment for the recording chain – including microphones, cables, amplifiers, power supplies, and the recorder itself. This combination of skill and quality equipment should result in a listening experience that's much closer to a live performance and can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home.
A Chartered Scientist, Chartered Engineer, Chartered Physicist and a Fellow of the British Institution of Engineering and Technology, Neville has worked as a Director of the British National Health Service, for the Ministry of Defence and in private industry. He’s a lifelong audio enthusiast and regular contributor to British hi-fi magazines, with a passion for valves and vinyl.