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Recording, editing and mixing process

By James Clarke, Studio Manager, Engineer and Producer at Tŷ Cerdd

It's almost a year since Tŷ Cerdd was invited to a preview of John Metcalf’s Under Milk Wood: An Opera. We were instantly moved by his interpretation of the Dylan Thomas radio play and agreed that it should be recorded and released on Tŷ Cerdd's new label. The work was commissioned by Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea, in coproduction with Le Chien qui chante (Quebec) & Companion Star (New York) and in association with Welsh National Opera. Its forces include piccolo, flute, bass flute, violin, viola, crwth (an ancient welsh violin), pedal harp, lever harp, accordion, piano, synth, organ and untuned/tuned percussion, played by 5 players in total. The various characters were played by seven singers each assuming several roles (see table below for details).

The practicalities of the recording were by no means straightforward. Firstly, because of the international cast of performers, the recording had to take place during the opera's tour in April this year. Luckily, a cancellation at one venue meant that we could get the whole company together for one and a half days. As we had two hours of music to record the standard industry formula, where a three hour session should capture c.20 minutes of music, was clearly not going apply. We only had three, three hour sessions. This only allowed enough time to have two complete run-throughs of everything with the occasional patch. It was thus reassuring to be in the very capable hands of the opera's musical director Wyn Davies (Director of Music for New Zealand opera) who knew the work backwards. We also had our own very experienced team: Gwyn L Williams, Jim Unwin and I producing and engineering the recording.

The recording took place at St. German's church in Cardiff on the 9th and 10th of April this year. Despite the obligatory barking dogs, helicopters and boy racers, it has a good organ, a very well maintained Petrof grand piano and a very large, but flattering, acoustic (4 second reverberation decay). This lent itself to the 'wash' of sound which both composer and sound designer Mike Beer were very happy about. Most of the venues on the opera's tour were theatres and thus had a very dry acoustic meaning that several artificial reverbs had to be used to create atmosphere. If anything, we had the opposite problem in St. German's because of its extensive 'bloom' and long reverb tails. Because of this, each instrument and voice was close miked for detail and an ambient stereo pair was used to bring in and out the larger acoustic of the church. 21 microphones were used in total and some were frequently moved throughout the sessions to maximise capture. The relationship between the close mics and ambient pair changes throughout the record to suit the feel of each scene. In some passages characters are pushed further away in the mix to give the feeling of aural perspective, movement and stage depth.

The recording was complicated further by the fact that the opera not only has additional sound design, but Foley (of Jack Foley fame) effects throughout, designed by Paula Danckert. Each Foley effect needed to be revisited for the recording because unlike in the theatre, the 'studio' recording would not have any visual stimuli. Because of this we elected to record most of the effects in a separate session at Tŷ Cerdd's studios so we had control of what made the final mix and what would make sense aurally. This had its own challenges; mainly because we had to make the Foley sit in context of the acoustic at St. German's. This was achieved by using several artificial reverbs and equalisation techniques to give the illusion that they were performed coincidentally with the recording. The additional Foley effects include harbour sounds, doors opening and closing, footsteps, a post box, galloping horses, washing up, glasses being dropped and slaps which tie in to the libretto. The additional sound design included seashore sounds (waves, wash and seagulls), rumbles, record players, children playing, vocal delays and music boxes. These had already been recorded by Mike Beer for the stage performances. There was also a pre-recorded organ and children's choir which we needed to 'pipe' into the church in order to get the timings right on the performer's overdubs. By the end of the sessions there were over 200 separate samples on 19 audio tracks plus the initial 21 tracks from the St. German’s session. See below for a screenshot of the project in Steinberg’s ‘Nuendo’; the digital audio workstation we used to track, edit and mix the opera.

Once all the audio material had been captured Jim and I had the challenging task of piecing everything together. The first process was to edit all the best takes together from the recording at St. German's. Without many options and because of John’s systematic use of polyrhythms it was often hard to jump seamlessly from one take to another without hearing changes in timbre and balance of the ensemble. This required tailoring some very intricate cross-fades moving very quickly from one take to another. Also, to create the illusion of space and intimacy, as well as balance, the recording required continuous volume enveloping (turning mics up and down) throughout. Each of the 13 scenes was recorded individually and sometimes in much smaller sections. These needed to be joined together seamlessly creating the illusion that it was all recorded at once in preparation for the mastering process which will start this week!

Since working at Tŷ Cerdd this recording has possibly one of the most challenging and multifaceted projects to date. It has also been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding mainly because it such an accomplished work. One of the great things about producing, engineering, recording and editing music is that you get to know it very intimately and this is a great example of how fulfilling that process can be.

Under Milk Wood: An Opera will be released on the Tŷ Cerdd label on 27/10/14 at The Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea. To pre-order contact: label@tycerdd.org

Recording UMW screen grab

Screenshot of project in digital audio workstation (DAW)

Role

Voice type

Premiere cast,
3 April 2014

Myfanwy Price / Polly Garter / Mrs Butcher Beynon / Mrs Floyd

soprano

Elizabeth Donovan

Gossamer Beynon / Lily Smalls / Mrs Pugh

soprano

Helen-Jane Howells

Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard / Mrs Organ Morgan / Mrs Dai Bread One / Bessie Bighead / Mae Rose-Cottage

soprano

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers

Rosie Probert / Mrs Cherry Owen / Mrs Willy Nilly / Mrs Dai Bread Two / Mrs Utah Watkins

mezzo-soprano

Karina Lucas

Mr Mog Edwards / Rev Eli Jenkins

tenor

Eamonn Mulhall

Organ Morgan

tenor

Wyn Davies

Dancing Williams / Mr Pritchard / Mr Pugh / Mr Floyd / Sinbad Sailors / Willy Nilly / Fisherman

baritone

Paul Carey Jones

Tom-Fred / Mr Waldo / Mr Ogmore / Cherry Owen / Utah Watkins / Inspector of Cruelty

baritone

Richard Morris

Captain Cat

bass-baritone

Michael Douglas Jones