first CD production remembered

Yesterday I uploaded some samples from the completely remastered version of a CD that was issued in 1993 under the somewhat juvenile title Three harpsichords Seven composers (see here for the uploads). The idea of the original production, initiated by a friend who also provided the contacts, was to combine several harpsichordy instruments (a 2-manual French, a 5-octave 1-manual Italian and a pentagonal virginal) and a selection of suitable repertoire in a sampler fashion which he had seen and liked in a CD production with historical organs.

This disk has been sold out for years. Last year I bought the recording tapes, the master CD and the rights. My friend Erik Sikkema has now made a complete new edition from the selected takes.

Why all this effort, one could ask. Many musicians are actually not very interested in their old recordings – I would characterize my own interest in my early efforts as “mild” at best. But this production is different – it is my first solo CD. It is also different in that it came out of the editing process quite battered and bent. Here’s the story.

The recording was made in late 1992 in the rather large Caroli church in Borås. I had practiced like a maniac and played a long test recital in the same church. The label owner (a person with experience in choir recordings) and my friend and another friend all came per car from Holland. Microphones were set up, test recordings compared, the recording was made and after three days everyone left with a smile and a handshake. After that, it took a while to select the good takes, and I finally received a cassette copy with all the selected bits unedited in a row. Everything was in order, the sound was great. There were, however, two versions of the ‘a’ part of a Byrd Pavane on the tape, and one surplus bar in a Scarlatti sonata. But that’s what, in the age before e-mail, letters were for. I wrote a detailed one and sent it back to the producer on the same day (I found it back in the box with materials. It’s a very beautiful letter).

After that things went bad really fast. The producer called one day and told me with a hint of complaint in his voice that the person who did the editing had made a row about that he couldn’t get the takes together because of the acoustics of the church, and that they had to apply a filter of some sorts to the recording in order to make ends meet – but that the task was nevertheless almost undoable. I had been present at recording sessions; I knew that the amount of takes for my CD was normal and that harpsichord recordings in churches are not uncommon at all. What could I say? I told him to send me a sample so I could get an idea about what he meant.

Then I received a copy of the final master, completely edited and with the mentioned sound filter applied. The editing was good (even if some chord-release-articulations between a few of the Frescobaldi variations were magically missing), but the accidental bonus bit of the Pavan and the extra bar in the Scarlatti were still there. And the sound filter, whatever it really was, had done two really bad things. First of all, it subdued about half of the instrument’s attacks, making the total amount of attacks alternately too soft or out of proportion harsh. The overall impression is as if the plectra were made with soft tips and very little string overlap: sometimes they catch the string a little bit, sometimes more. Second, it generally steepened the decline of the after-sound, making all three instruments sound as if they have rather poor soundboards, loose bridge pins and/or corroded strings.

These were not my instruments any more. About an hour after I had opened the envelope I called the guy, but yes (or no), the CD was already in production, there was nothing to be changed now. This is the version that was sold in small batches in Holland until it was gone. I never listened much to it, couldn’t bear it.

Erik now used the unfiltered original tapes and, in a few hours of work, re-edited the entire disk. I was present to fix some final issues: there is no problem with the acoustic at all, and certainly not with the amount of takes. The real problem, as it turns out, is a good dose of background hiss from the original tapes. This was what the noise filter (because that’s what it was) was supposed to subdue. The story about the editing difficulties must have been an invention. In the new version, we simply accepted the hiss, because the overall improvement is otherwise quite dramatic: the new disk resembles a good analogue recording, and the instruments sound not at all unlike the real thing any more. Although this had to wait until 16 years after the deed, the final product makes me very happy.

Of course, I would be interested to issue the CD again in its resurrected form and with a good distribution this time. But what we’ve got now is good as it is: the order is restored at last!

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8 Responses to “first CD production remembered”

  1. Thomas D Says:

    I assume these people are not involved in harpsichord recording any more … otherwise you would be obliged to name them, wouldn’t you, to avoid any future mishaps?

    What slightly surprises me is the absolute dishonesty involved. Not just to the listener (which is expected for ‘professional’ sound engineers and producers) but to the performer.

  2. skowroneck Says:

    I can’t speak for the guy, but I believe that the harpsichord adventure was an exception in his activities.

    For someone who has lived in Amsterdam and had to deal with Dutch house owners, plumbers, previous apartment occupants and car renting firms, this level of honesty is impeccable…

  3. Erik Sikkema Says:

    This has nothing to do with dishonesty. I think the engineer has even acted as the best he could. The first problem was the far too low recording level. The engineer treated the digital system as an analog tape and did not use the last 20 dB from his converters, or he had completely misaligned his analog mixerdesk. In those days, AD converters were not better than say 13-14bits, so rather noisy when not used at their maximum. The only way to reduce the noise afterwards was using a dynamic filter, but in those days these things were not as they are today. Probably there was even an additional digital to analog to digital conversion step involved making it even worse. So the noise was eliminated, so was the decay of the sound. It was hard to hear the differences between the three instruments. After re-editing the original “noisy” tapes, we found the sound so much more natural. About the noise, that sounds about as a good as an analog tape recording with a Dolby A from the 80s.

  4. skowroneck Says:

    I agree with Erik here. I admit I didn’t like how the editing procedure was handled, but I suppose that the recording issues, and especially the noise, were due to a lack of experience.
    In the meantime, I had another friend (see David Pickett’s blog link in the blogroll. Yes, Erik, I’ll let you hear the results!) experiment with a moderate and up-to-date noise reduction, and what emerged from under the blanket of original hiss was (in the Italian fragments) a feedback of action noise through the floor – a previously undetected problem.

    …this simply weren’t the most brilliant days in the history of recording harpsichords.

  5. Gerhard Says:

    Het is toch leuk om weer eens te lezen hoe Erik tegen de kwestie van de eerste budget-CD aankijkt en de techniek uit die tijd.

    Tilman, weet jij waar ik informatie kan vinden over de “oude” Dulcken van je vader die ergens te koop staat ?
    Is dat het instrument dat is gekocht door een vrind van Skip Sempé ?


    Gerhard Boogaard

  6. skowroneck Says:

    Gerhard, ik schrijf je wel per mail.

  7. Freek Sluijs Says:

    Hi Tilman,

    het toeval wil/coincidence is that I played this particular cd a few times lately because I really enjoy the way you perform the music on the three different instruments. And, yes I do not like the sound very much. Unfortunately there are more cds out there that do sound like this one in that sence. Just the wrong processing of the material or maybe even mistakes made – like Erik Sikkema says – during the recording.
    But what remains is an interesting and well performed display of three different tunings and instruments.

    So I for one would be interested in buying a new cd. But the way I read your blog story, there is no fysical cd for sale yet.
    You could provide a -customer payable- 16 bit download on the internet. CD Baby might be useful for that.

    Best regards from a former fellow school student,

    Freek Sluijs

  8. skowroneck Says:

    Thanks Freek – I’m emailing you…

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