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Capturing a sound that rings true

Immortalizing a performance takes more than hanging a mike and hitting 'record.' There's an art to these engineers' science.

December 02, 2007|Constance Meyer | Special to The Times

Rick RUBIN, George Martin, Timbaland, Brian Eno, Phil Spector -- the average pop music fan, if asked, could probably come up with at least a handful of names of notable recording personnel. It seems fair to say, though, that the typical consumer of orchestral and chamber music recordings, faced with the same question, would draw a blank.

Yet just as in rock 'n' roll or hip-hop, the engineer for such music -- who is often, though not always, the producer as well -- is the person who makes or breaks an audio performance. He chooses and then places the microphones for a recording session and later meticulously splices various takes -- in the old days with a razor blade and tape, today on a computer -- to achieve the best possible version of a composition. It's a version that may well reach far more listeners than live performances of the work did even many years after its premiere.

Indeed, Max Wilcox, 78 -- who has won five Grammys and whose recordings have garnered 17 -- speaks for the majority of his peers when he insists that his job is primarily musical: "I'm not a techie," he says. As a producer, Wilcox consults the musical score while supervising a recording, and he brings to his task not only his background as a classical pianist but also experience as a conductor. "I have to be enough of an audience to play for -- not that I'm so important," he says. The point, rather, is that the musicians being recorded are assured that "their musical output is being monitored and evaluated, both by them during playbacks and by me."

"Artur Rubinstein never chose a take in his life with me," Wilcox recalls of his working relationship with the famed pianist. "But we were so closely allied in our musical feelings that I could tell pretty much from the recording session what he liked better, and since we wound up making about 60 LPs together, we were something like musical twins. He referred to me as his collaborator, not his producer."

Recording engineer-producers often start out as electronic fiddlers, tinkerers. Take Chinese-born, New York-based Da-Hong Seetoo, 47, who is engineer and producer for the Tokyo and Emerson string quartets as well as many other ensembles. Seetoo was 6, living in Shanghai, when China's Cultural Revolution began and the record collection and huge sheet music library of his father, principal second violinist of the Shanghai Symphony, were confiscated. Under cover of darkness, blinds drawn, windows closed, the elder man taught violin to Da-Hong and his two siblings. The family also listened to "escaped" LPs that circulated within the local musical community.

Then, one day, Seetoo's father brought home a "used Telefunken reel-to-reel tape machine, so we could listen to the recordings again and again." The thing was, he explains, "If you own an illegal machine gun and there's something wrong with it, you can't have someone else fix it." And thus a technician was born. Over time, and out of necessity, Seetoo "would take things apart and try to reverse-engineer them," repairing belts, bushings, microphones, amplifiers and speakers.

In 1977, just after the Cultural Revolution, he came to the U.S. to study violin and then began pursuing a career as a professional musician. Occasionally, he says, he would take an engineering job, "to help out friends." But suddenly, an "opportunity landed on me. Eugene Drucker" -- one of the two violinists in the Emerson String Quartet -- "was in the middle of completing the Bach solo sonatas and partitas when the engineer fell ill, so he asked me if I could help him. I was playing, but I needed to make a living. And this stuff enables me to make a good living."

Armin Steiner might say the same thing. Steiner, 73, works chiefly on film and television scores, but he is widely regarded as being among the masters who engineer orchestral recordings. A native Angeleno, Steiner was the son of a concert pianist mother and a Hungarian international chess master father whose friends included many of the classical music emigres living in L.A. in the late '40s and early '50s. As a hobby, he recalls, his father recorded "Hungarian Gypsy music in our house, direct to disk."

Young Armin's keen ear was nurtured by the violin, which he began studying while a toddler. "Sound was of prime importance," he says, "how it projected." At the same time, he was acquiring technical know-how at home about recording and, inspired by his father's friend Michael Rettinger -- an acoustician and a leading engineer at RCA -- he went on to study acoustics at UCLA.

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