“...But I Can’t Play It Any Better”
The Making of a Recording as I Know It
“I love the energy and excitement of this take, I really do. But, can we have another take and aim for fewer wrong notes?” The professorial voice of the producer came through the talk-back microphone from the control room. With his reading glasses on, an arsenal of colour pencils at his disposal, and with his head tilted down, the producer flipped rampantly through the pages of the score.
“I can play it more accurately, but I can’t play it any better.”
These are allegedly the words of the legendary pianist Alfred Cortot, in his response to his producer. Whether this is a true account or merely a myth, it does not diminish this witty response from becoming one of the greatest one-liners in the history of performing arts, at least in my opinion. I remember having no trouble at all claiming it as my de facto motto, and at times, an effective self-defense, when I first heard it in my student days at the Royal Academy of Music. I never took notes more quickly.
Fast forward almost a century from Cortot’s time in the studio in the 1920s and 30s, recording technologies have advanced and leapfrogged multifold. In the gramophone age before the Second World War, artists had to record an entire side of a disc in one single take; and should god forbid, you had a slip or two in the 30-minute Liszt Sonata, you would have to do another full take.
The magnetic tape recording – invented in the 1930s and made popular in the 40s – opened the doors to the world of editing for recording artists. Little did they know that what they were unlocking was a Pandora’s box. Editing in the magnetic tape era meant physically cutting and piecing back together the recording tape at the exact right places, which I suspect, are where there are long pauses or between entire movements.
Then comes the digital age, beginning in the 1980s, where music was recorded on CDs, MDs, DATs, though most of these have now become obsolete and have been replaced efficiently by computer hard disks. Digital splicing and enhancements are today as sophisticated as one can imagine; and yet, accessible and easy-to-use. When a producer today asks for a more accurate take, the artist’s nonchalant response would be: “which note do you need?”
The Pandora’s Box
The purists among you might consider it a sinful act to edit away mistakes, blemishes, and mask technical incompetence. I would be the first to admit that I am “guilty as charged”. As a recording artist, I have probably recorded more of these “band-aid” takes than I have complete takes in the ten albums I have released so far. Guilty, because a part of our soul realizes that flaws make us human, and they do appear in live performances, however miniscule. And to eradicate any trace of that humanity in pursuit of a hollow sense of perfection does leave us guilt-stricken sometimes. It feels almost like I am genetically altering my own DNA as a performing artist. Yet, leaving flaws on a recording – a permanent record in history, no less – induces far more than just guilt, but shame; which leaves fixing them the lesser of two evils.
But artists are not the only defendant here. Over time, audience have come to expect flawless recordings since the first day editing was made possible. As a result, these note-perfect recordings have subconsciously shaped the way we perceive, expect and demand a piece of music to be performed – absolutely flawlessly – not only in recordings, but also in performances. Inside this Pandora’s box filled with editing gadgets, a vicious cycle is formed where greater editing capabilities produce even more note-perfect recordings, which in turn lower our tolerance for a performance that is less than note-perfect. Somewhere in that chain of events, accuracy becomes the over-arching priority, and risk-taking a casualty, which isn’t always a great thing in music making. Do editing capabilities produce better recordings or just more accurate recordings?
Let’s not get entangled in a philosophical debate here. If you can accept the fundamental differences between a movie and a play, and if a die-hard Shakespeare fan can bear to watch Much Ado About Nothing in a movie theatre instead of the Globe theatre without turning his or her stomach, then we are on the same page here. Just like movies and plays, recordings and live performances are quite different animals. Perhaps more so than you thought if you know what I know.
The Ten Ps of Recording
For human’s love of acronyms and initialisms, here are my 10Ps of recording. For clarification, the recording I am talking about here refers to a commercial CD release. (Yes, a CD; and for millennials who might not have seen an actual one, CD is the shorthand for “compact disc”, which you put into a stereo player, and sound comes out of a pair of speakers.)
Firstly, we have protagonist #1, the artist who is booked by a record label to record around 65 minutes of music for a full CD release. The composer(s) and repertoire, protagonist #2, is chosen either by the artist or in consultation with the record label’s A & R department (which stands for “Artist and Repertoire”). Nine of my 10 recordings were published by Naxos Music, which has a vision to discover rare gems in the repertoire –either great works by lesser-known composers or lesser-known works by well-known composers. I take on this ambassadorial role in Naxos’ quest with pride and humility.
The recording session normally takes place over two full days, some 16 hours or so of recording. This could take place in a “studio”, but only in the loose sense of the word. I did most of my recordings in the Wyastone Concert Hall near Monmouth in England by the Wales border, and for someone who lives in a city of 7-million plus, Wyastone is as close to the definition of middle of nowhere as imaginable. But in that nothingness of nowhere stands an unassuming concert hall with absolutely brilliant acoustics and a luxurious selection of top-notch concert Steinways. And when it comes to a recording, these two factors are of paramount importance. It is worth flying six thousand miles across the world to record there, believe me.
Recording studios, in most people’s mind, have padded walls, double-glazed windows and heavy-duty sound-proof doors. They are so built to favor clarity over reverberance, because reverb is something you can add digitally in the mixing process later on; but clarity is harder, though not impossible, to manipulate if the source lacks it. In effect, these purpose-built studios are ideal for recording pop music and voice-over, but not so much for classical music.
The need to have a great instrument to record on is plain and obvious. This is a pain, some say a craft, only pianists know too well. Our artistry is at the mercy of the instrument we are provided with. Fine, I’ll give that to organists and harpsichordists too. But we outnumber you! Imagine telling a violinist that she has to make a recording in the best hall there is, but with one condition: she cannot play on her own Stradivarius. “Don’t worry, dear, the hall has a pretty good replica. And you can come in early to practice on it for an hour or so before the session.” The violinist would surely question your sanity in response to that. You might just as well amputate her hands and ask her to record with implanted ones.
There is also one profound difference between a violinist and a pianist: we, pianists, do not know how to tune our own instrument. Some may ask, so what exactly do you pianists do? You don’t bring your instrument and you don’t tune it. Well, that’s why the piano is dubbed the King of all instruments! We get pampered. With 8 hours a day of pounding on the instrument, it goes without saying how utterly crucial to have a trusted technician on your speed dial and within a radius of 100 miles from the middle of nowhere. Usually, two tuning sessions are booked for each day of recording, once before the morning session and once before the afternoon one. It might even be wise to either be-friend or monetarily entice the technician to remain close by, should you be attempting to record some potentially-string-breaking hard-core stuff like John Cage’s prepared piano music!
The real maestro in a recording session does not stand on a podium, but operates out from a control room tucked away at the back of the auditorium. The producer’s role may not be well understood or advertised; and so, it deserves my glorification in greater details here. Unlike in the movie business where the producer is essentially the investor, the producer in our field is as hands-on as a first-time mother and plays multiple roles from start to finish. I have had the great fortune to work with the Grammy-Award-winning producer Phil Rowlands on six of my CDs for the Naxos label. Besides being a really cool, chilled and extremely knowledgeable guy (I could only fault him for being a Liverpool fan, but even that claim is weak in 2020), he juggles the below roles with exceptional grace and impeccable efficiency:
§ Inventory Manager: Owns and transports his armory of recording equipment, ranging from microphones, mic-amps, mic-stands, cables, computers, monitor speakers, back-up hard drives and you name it (Phil could easily e-bays these and trades in for a very nice Porsche some day!)
§ Engineer: Sets them up and problem-shoots if one of these many moving parts is not working as intended
§ Acoustician: Knows where to optimally position the piano in relation to the reverberance of the hall (that spot is not in the center of the stage at Wyastone, for instance) and knows which microphones to use where, in order to capture the “sweet spot”
§ Coach: Reads and knows the music (and musical styles) inside out; has a pair of acute and critical ears, and utilizes the art of language to issue verbal feedback and cues to the artist
§ Cheerleader: Knows what, how, when, and how much to say to the artist to get the best out of him or her
§ Surgeon: Keeps tabs of the great takes, the good takes, and the band-aid takes, and performs one micro-surgery after another, after another to edit the hours and hours of materials after the sessions
§ Make-up Artist: Performs additional cosmetic surgeries needed to digitally enhance the sound quality of the recording
The producer is a jack-of-all-trades, part-artist part-scientist. For me, the relationship between a producer and an artist cannot be a casual or transactional one, but one that must be rooted in trust and admiration for one another’s craft. I have to trust that Phil will tell me when a take is simply not good enough. I have to trust that he will neither sugar-coat nor terrorize his comments so that I can perform my best in a safe environment. Most importantly, I have to trust that he can get more out of me than I can on my own. I take my hat off to all the producers out there in the world, and particularly to Phil and other producers I have had the blessing to work with in the past and with whom, I never exchanged any unpleasantries, in words or spirit.
If running a full marathon takes a professional athlete about 2 hours on average, then making a CD-length recording is equivalent to running seven marathons over two consecutive days, and often – as is in my case – while jetlagged! The stamina, the mental and physical preparations cannot be taken lightly at all. It begins with my packing list for the trip. In my suitcase would be an ample supply of sleeping aids to regulate my sleeping from the moment I get on the plane, an assortment of tea bags and instant coffee packs to reverse the effect of the pills, my well-trusted portable ultrasound machine to help alleviate muscle and tendon pains, and a set of attire that appeals nothing to the optics but only to my personal comfort. (For me, it is usually a polo shirt, sweat pants and running shoes, though I had recorded an entire album without shoes on, mostly to avoid pedaling noises, but also for the novel idea of feeling skin-to-skin with the damper!)
Choosing which movement to record first is as psychological a decision as it is for a tennis player to choose whether to serve or receive first in a match. I would usually start with some easier movements, though nothing is really easy under the scrutiny of a microphone. But to bag a few good takes early on helps me build confidence and momentum.
With a few tracks under my belt, I would then march on to tackle the most challenging movements – either a long one or a killer movement with plenty of technical runs awaiting my “fat” fingers to land awry. The rationale for going straight from the easiest to the hardest on Day One is not exactly rocket science: get to the hard stuff before you run out of steam.
Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, the producer rarely, if ever, says “cut” or “NG” in the middle of a take, except when there are major technical issues. It is almost entirely up to me to decide when a mistake, or a series of them, is deemed detrimental, hence making a take unworthy of continuing. Sometimes, a mistake early on in a take allows me to become less uptight about delivering a technically flawless performance but more focused on delivering a performance that takes on more risks. I also rest assured in the sinful knowledge that mistakes can be patched up later on.
Personally, I would normally go for a complete take of a movement, though seldom an entire multi-movement work. Very rarely would the first take be that perfect take, but even in the few rare instances where I was totally satisfied with the maiden attempt, both the producer and I knew we would do another one. We always want two good “covers” for each and every bar of the piece. (In fact, Phil rarely speaks of a take as a “good take”; but instead, he would say, “we have got that ‘covered’”.)
If I am working with a producer like Phil whom I trust so much that I am comfortable to leave my reputation on the line for his judgment, then I prefer not to spend much time at all listening to the takes during the session, except at the very beginning only to agree on the acoustics. I find listening to playbacks not only disruptive to the flow of playing, but to the mind as well, as it so easily activates our overly self-critical thinking. But I know many artists rely and thrive on listening to playback during a session. For a start, wind players cannot physically record 8 hours a day without deforming their lips, and as such, they can afford to take more time to listen to playbacks. Pianists virtually know no limit as to how many hours they can play a day.
In most cases, three or four full takes of a movement are more than enough. There is nothing to gain beyond that besides frustration and fatigue, no matter how strong a force of nature you believe you are. Instead, it is showtime for Phil to call out his bucket list of places to “cover”. Doing these patches requires a whole new dimension of focus and energy, one that draws deep from an artist’s experience, as I need to imagine and replicate the flow, the energy and the sentiment of the passage, utterly, intentionally and blatantly out-of-context. In many ways, this process is more grueling than recording complete takes. But the good news here is that you only need to get things right, once. (Yes, I am a “cheat”, “guilty as charged”! End of my confession.)
After patching and having the “we’ve-got-it-covered” reassurance from Phil, I would sometimes request to do a complete take of the movement again. Safe in the knowledge that I have everything covered, this extra take is one where I can switch completely to live performance mode, thereby increasing my risk appetite, lowering my obsession for accuracy, and allowing myself to simply enjoy the music. This is the go-for-it take, so to speak. Whether or not that extra take yields any actual benefit for Phil in any way, it always does something far more significant for me: this act of going-for-it tele-transports me back to the familiar world of a performing artist.
Without an audience, recording artists are void of that invisible and intangible energy and vibe we as performing artists crave and feed off from. A different brand of adrenaline is felt in a recording session – one that is built more on the fear of failing than on the thrill of delighting.
A recording session is not a walk in the park by any means, shape or form. It is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Even though there are “second chances”, you are still expected to deliver, within a finite period of two days, something that is worthy to go down in history, that not only represents your artistry but that of the composer.
In a solo recording, I am almost in control of all the above: my intentions and stamina, my emotions and anxieties, even my vulnerabilities. Imagine adding a chamber music partner to the mix and this spider web of complexities multiply exponentially! Making a recording with a fellow musician – with the in-built egos of artists in general, has the ideal recipe to wreck any human relationship. An abundance of mutual trust, patience and empathy, and an equal dosage of forgiveness are called for, especially when you thought you had nailed a take perfectly, only to be told by your partner that she wasn’t happy with the intonation in the second last note! Or vice versa. I can only count myself as truly blessed to have not only one but two perfect partners-in-crime. I am grateful to be able to still call my colleagues, clarinetist Andrew Simon and violinist Hyejin Chung, as my dear friends after making multiple CDs together.
The sense of accomplishment at the end of a recording session is unlike any other sensation bestowed upon the life of a musician. It is neither as adrenaline-pumping as walking out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall nor as elating as receiving a thunderous standing ovation. The accomplishment is more of a solemn kind: it is as if justice has been served on a work of art; and by leaving your mark, you are now assuming custody of a part of the legacy of the work and of the composer.
The job, of course, is not yet finished as we have only painted the pieces of a puzzle up to this point. Phil has the distinct pleasure (or unenviable displeasure) of hearing the takes over and over again in the editing process in the weeks that follow. I would be sent the “first edit” in due course, which really is the first chance for me to assess how I did in the sessions. I would listen to the recording as nitpickingly and intensely as a detective combing through thousands of clues in a homicide investigation. The end result would be my own wish list sitting in Phil’s email inbox a few days later. In it, he would find my comments neatly listed and categorized into three alerts:
(1) CRITICAL – these are “federal offenses” which must be fixed or else, I am doomed;
(2) BEARABLE – these are “misdemeanors” which if they cannot be fixed, the world does not come to a tragic end;
(3) FIX-IF-YOU-CAN – these are “misconducts” such as the barely-audible extraneous noises arising from the pedal or my fingernails (which some people actually find authentic and personal, including Phil!)
With someone as experienced and skilled as Phil in what he does, this process is largely civilized and would only take a couple of friendly email exchanges to get it onto the final master, ready to go to print. Amazingly, Phil has never let a Cat. (1) or (2) wish of mine unfixed or compromised. How he does it, I do not know, and shall remain his Grammy-winning trade secrets. I suspect that it is in part due to how he manages his bucket list of “covers” during the session.
It would be another nine months or so before the CD is released. But that immense gratification of unwrapping the CD, putting it on, and listening to it from beginning to end doesn’t get old. (I try not to think about the dwindling sales of CDs from 942 million in 2000 to 46 million in 2019 in the United States, and that’s including pop music!)
The icing on the cake, or equally probable, de-icing, comes another month after the release, in the form of a review. Nowadays, reviews focus a lot more on the repertoire than on the performer, and rightly so. If my interpretation of the work does so much as to allow others to uncover the composer’s intentions, then I consider my mission accomplished. In any case, all artists look for in a review is just one usable quote in their favour, no matter how absurdly abstract or out-of-context it may be. For example, The American Record Guide calls Lee a “first-rate artist” – these three words would appear loud and bolded on a concert poster – where the sentence in the review could go on to read “but he fails to deliver a top-notch performance in this one.” Hypothetically speaking. Really, the second part is hypothetical.
For Better or For Worse
The year 2020 may well be a pivotal year where the social function of recordings takes a different spin, and begins to chart another path in the way we perceive music. In the absence of live musical gatherings in most part of the year due to the unrelenting spread of Covid-19, music examinations, auditions and competitions alike are effectively transformed into contests of recording techniques or capabilities. Musicians around the world are taking their recorded performances to social media at the sweeping pace of a tsunami. To what extent these recordings – some professionally done and others, of the home-made varieties – shape the way we perceive music remains to be seen. Might having genuine human flaws in a recording be making a comeback and be the new trend? Only time will tell. Nonetheless, it is my true hope that by sharing my personal stories of my time in a recording session, I have given you something to ponder with next time you listen to, or make a recording.
After ten albums and over 100 other recordings for radio broadcasts, I think I have the Pandora’s box figured out. I have now come to realize and embrace the medium of recording – with the endless possibilities it offers – as a separate artform, just as Glenn Gould had when he decided to stop performing in public at the age of 31 and devoted himself exclusively to recording instead. It was in the studio where he believed he could best express his musical statement on a piece of music, undisturbed by variables and leaving nothing to chance. I am at peace with that, too.
“Yes, Phil, I can play it both more accurately and better!”