|The Grammy Awards for classical recordings usually are not included in the pop-oriented television presentation ceremony. Perhaps that’s a good thing if only to keep Kanye West from popping up onstage and arguing that Beyonce was better than Beethoven.
However, it means you will have to listen closely to the CBS telecast on the night of Sunday, Jan. 31, for any fleeting mention of the winner for Best Classical Album. MTSU recording industry professor John Hill will be listening closely. He was an engineer on one of the nominated CDs.
Hill worked on “L’Enfant et les sortileges” (“The Child and the Spells”) and “Sheherazade,” both compositions by Maurice Ravel, by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Alistair Willis. Also featured in the recording on the Naxos label are the Chattanooga Boys Choir, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Nashville Symphony Chorus and eight operatic soloists.
Recorded in late 2006 and 2007 and released in 2009, “Ravel: L’Enfant et les sortileges” was one of the first recordings ever made in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. The album is up against some heavyweight internationally renowned competition, including Michael Tilson Thomas directing the San Francisco Symphony and James Levine directing the Boston Symphony.
“Of course, the source material is the orchestra, molded by whoever is conducting them,” says Hill. “But it also takes a solid technical team to put together a recording that’s going to be good.”
Hill’s responsibility was the so-called acquisition phase of the process, positioning more than 30 state-of-the-art microphones in just the right places and funneling the sound into a multitrack recorder. Typically, for a symphonic recording, the primary pair of mikes is placed behind the conductor, and spot mikes are scattered in various areas of the orchestra.
The technique of creating the mix in real time, as the orchestra is performing, is quite old school in an age when artists don’t even have to be in the same country, let alone the same studio, to lay down tracks. However, that’s standard procedure for recording classical music.
“It helps if it’s not your first rodeo,” says Hill, who rearranged the mikes for recording purposes following three live performances of the same material.
Of course, it wasn’t Hill’s first “rodeo.” He has been the Nashville Symphony’s recording engineer since 2000. In addition to a master’s degree in sound recording from McGill University in Montreal, he has a bachelor’s degree in music from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. No mere functionary, Hill considers his technical skills an extension of his artistic appreciation of the material being performed.
“I really consider myself a musician who has a set of technical skills to draw on,” Hill explains. “For this type of work, you would definitely not want to have somebody who is just fiddling with knobs. … One really has to have some type of working knowledge of music.”
To hear brief excerpts from the CD and an interview with Hill that aired on WMOT-FM’s “MTSU on the Record,” go to http://frank.mtsu.edu/~proffice/podcast2010.html and click on “January 10, 2010.”