American Concert Pianist, Steinway Artist, Susan Merdinger

Reflections on making a violin and piano CD recording...

Yesterday was Day 1 of my recording session with the German-born violinist, David Yonan. This recording will be our first studio recording together, although we have performed together in so many concerts I have lost count. While I have made numerous duo piano recordings with my husband, Steven Greene, and have played many chamber music concerts which have been recorded live, this CD will represent the first recording of a piano and "other instrument" I have ever made. So I thought it would be interesting to share some of my impressions while they are still fresh in my mind.

First: If I thought mic placement was a critical issue for solo piano recordings, it is even more critical in a duo recording. WE fussed around with the mic placements until each instrument's sound and beautiful tone was captured perfectly, in addition to having to make sure the correct balance was achieved. This is a difficult  enough task in a concert featuring a tiny violin with a nine-foot Steinway D, but the balance between the instruments becomes less of a concern when one can control how much of each instrument one wants to hear by raising or lowering the levels of the mics in the mixing room. That being said, you have to decide on one setting for this for the entire recording, so a pianist and violinist always have to work hard to maintain the correct dynamic levels with respect to each other. Since David and I are acting as our own producers, this is a very time-consuming task, trying to remember and judge what sounds good during our recording takes. Last night I got home around midnight after a 5 hour recording session, and I fell asleep at my computer listening to our first day's of tracks.

Second: We went into this recording both of us knowing the pieces really well, but it was kind of interesting how this recording process actually made us discover some new ideas and the interpretation evolved a little bit more as we went along, mostly as we played with the dynamics, but also with respect to certain rubatos and liberties we decided to add or leave out.

Third: One needs to take breaks when making a recording! Even though it is tempting, with the clock ticking, to push through and not "waste" any time, it is fairly essential to maintain one's focus and energy levels for each and every take. I have usually limited any of my recording sessions to no more than four hours at a time, but with more people there are always more considerations, and therefore the feeling of wanting to record more. The difficulty of one person liking the way they played in Take 2, and the other person liking Take 3 a little better could become an issue when making the editing decisions. Fortunately, for the most part, at the end of many of our best takes, David and I would look at each other and nod in agreement- " that was better", or "that was good...". It's a little painful to think that some of my best playing and some of David's best playing could end up in the trash, if we did not both perform at our best together--- so that is the trick of recording a duo or chamber music CD....everyone has to come to the table with the same level of perfectionism and stamina to get through it all efficiently, yet with musicality and technical accuracy. Accuracy is important, because that is what the public demands from current recordings, yet, if you allow more than a few splices, the musical phrasing, architecture and structural integrity could be adversely affected.

Fourth: Instrument choice is essential- I was initially not used to the Steinway D in our location, but grew to be very comfortable with it after about an hour. Every piano can feel so strange and difficult to control if you are not used to it. As beautiful an instrument as this Steinway D is, I felt that my playing got better as the recording session progressed, until we both started suffering from fatigue around 10:30pm!  David was very fortunate to have on loan from an anonymous donor a magnificent violin from the 18th century, and while he is also still becoming acquainted with this violin, it is clearly going to yield a fantastic sound for this recording- much better than he would have on his own violin. Now I can hardly wait until we get this recording completed and we can all hear it and enjoy it!

Fifth: The editing process--this is the part I do not like...mostly because it involves making decisions! After that, the mastering of the final sound profile- another task I find to be very difficult because it is complicated by what one listens to during playback. Should we make a CD that sounds good in a persons car stereo, or on their computer or through high-fiedelity, high end stereo components and speaks in an acoustically-friendly space. Herein lies the essential and most difficult step of the recording process, ( after the actual playing, of course). While I like to think that not much should be done in the post-production, if one has carefully and appropriately placed the mics, there does seem to be a need to for adjusting the sound- and it is always easier to add reverb than to take it out, according to the experts.

Sixth: If Classical music is a hard sell, then why are so many musicians making so many recordings? I think the main reason is that we want to have a permanent record of our music-making, our hard work, our collaborations. We want to leave a legacy and we want to share our own interpretations of music that has withstood the test of time- some of it for literally hundreds of years. Does the world need another recording of Beethoven's Appassionata or Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata? Probably not...But need and want are two different things. And I firmly believe that if you are a lover of Classical music, then you definitely do want to hear your favorite pieces over and over again by different artists- because the music becomes fresh and new again in the hands and minds of different musicians. And of course, recordings help to document new, contemporary music of our time- and what better way to honor your composer friend who wrote a piece for you, than to record it for posterity in its first authoratative recording.

So, today we are on to "Day 2"...only a three hour session today, though. I think I will need a glass of wine and a massage after this is all done!

1 comment

  • Joan Merdinger

    Joan Merdinger New York

    Oh, Susan, I am sure that it will be a beautiful recording. How can it miss with such a pair of wonderfully talented musicians? It really must be fun to collaborate on this and you will love it once it is done. Enjoy, love Mom

    Oh, Susan, I am sure that it will be a beautiful recording. How can it miss with such a pair of wonderfully talented musicians? It really must be fun to collaborate on this and you will love it once it is done.
    Enjoy, love Mom

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