In March 2000, I was working as part of the ‘house band’ on an episode of the BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’ from The Showcase Cinema in Leeds.
Conducting that day was Dr. Gordon Stewart. This was the first time I’d met Gordon, as it happens, it was also the night I would meet my future wife… but that’s a very different story.
Not only is Gordon a fantastic musician, he just so happens to be one of the leading lights in the world of Church and Cathedral organs. In the years following our initial meeting, Gordon and I have worked on various organ recordings all over the UK, and been involved with post-production on some from abroad.
I have to confess, before working with Gordon, my knowledge of organ music was very limited… I didn’t really understand the workings and what’s actually involved in such a monolithic instrument. I learned quickly and have been given various ‘behind the pipes’ looks at a good number of ‘classic’ organs.
Organ recording really is the epitome of Mohamed going to The Mountain. They ain’t moving… so if you want to record one, you’re going to have to travel.
Luckily, I have at my disposal (thanks in most part, to some very kind musician friends) an excellent mobile recording setup. Technology allows the use of a laptop as a ‘tape machine’ and through various microphones, pre-amps & 500 series outboard equipment, I’m able capture the essence of the organ & it’s environment, without the need for the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.
Whilst the organ is what you’re there to record, the surrounding acoustic space is really what makes the instrument sound the way it does. There are various microphone ‘techniques’ aimed at this type of recording, and whilst I observe the ‘dos and don’ts’ I always find it best when arriving at a recording session of this type, to wander around the space & simply use my ears to work out best positioning for microphones. Too close to the pipes & you end up with a very unbalanced sound, too far away & all you hear is the ‘space’… it’s not rocket science, but get it wrong and you’ll know about it when you get the sessions back to the controlled environment of the studio.
The organ is a dynamic instrument; from ear shatteringly loud, to whisper quiet all within a single piece. It’s important to make sure you have enough ‘head room’ when recording, as you don’t want to lose a take by not allowing for this and clipping the pre-amps. Get your levels & stick with them… when it comes to the final edit… you’ll be glad you did as you won’t have to match up differing recording levels.
A major consideration is also the ambient noise. The mics are so sensitive, even the placing of a coffee cup on a table during a take is a ‘no-no’. The positioning of a Church or Cathedral isn’t something you can do anything about, and we often fall foul to environmental factors beyond our control.
Here’s a few examples of some of the things Gordon and I have encountered during our sessions…
- We’ve recording in Hastings where gulls cries were a constant annoyance (though arguably part of the ‘soundscape’)
- Dewsbury where, ironically, Gordon was recording an album to raise money for the replacement roof lead which had been stolen. We had to stop constantly due to water dripping through the ceiling onto plastic sheets placed there to protect the Church floor…
- At Huddersfield Town Hall, which is adjacent to a sub-bus station, we had to contend with squealing bus brakes
- Clifton Cathedral was open to the public during recording so had constant traffic & slamming doors…
The list goes on… but basically, it’s my job to try to get the best recorded ‘clean’ take without any ambient interference to ruin the final recording.
Of course, before any recording is possible, Gordon spends days if not weeks preparing for a recording. Choosing the repertoire, having the organ tuned, preparing the organ stops and voicings, organising page turners, etc. It all takes a lot of planning.
At the end of April Gordon & I headed over to Providence Church in New Mills to record an album in celebration of the 100 year centenary of the J.J. Binns organ that’s stationed there. We chose a Bank holiday Monday to limit any unwanted outside noise and Gordon set himself the challenge of recording the whole album in 1 day. Normally for such projects, Gordon allow himself a couple of days recording. The pieces he chooses are often taxing and involve lots of stop changes, and it’s important to make sure every piece, movement or variation is recorded and faultless before moving on to the next.
At providence, we got cracking as soon as I set up the Mobile Studio (plus cup of tea), and had everything we needed recorded & ready for editing by early evening.
The time on preparation Gordon put in really paid off. For example, Gordon recorded his practice days before I arrived to ensure the balance of the organ voices were as he wanted them for each piece. It’s all in the fingers… & feet apparently…
Editing took place last week in my studio (StudiOK) & the album has been mastered and sent to manufacture ready for release on 7th June – a very fast turn around for any album project – 6 weeks from recording to release.
As I write, Gordon and I are in the process of putting together a ‘Big Cathedral Organ’ project for AudioNetwork and discussing the possibility of recording the 1889 Charles Anneessens organ at Priory Church of St. Mary in Bridlington. Watch this space for more details.
Gordon has a website highlighting his work & recordings – www.gordonstewart.org
The album recorded at Providence Church, New Mills will shortly be available here – www.gordonstewart.org/recordings
Thanks for taking the time to stop by…