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QUESTION: How do you record a large Broadway cast album?
There are not many large rooms left in New York City to record Broadway cast albums, particularly ones that require an orchestra and a group of singers to be recorded at the same time. Our Studio A is large enough to accommodate both in one room and have a proven track record to do it successfully. Sure you can do it split across two rooms, but why pay for two when you could do it in one and why add the additional complexity and heighten the risk of something going wrong?
Avatar Studios has recorded many cast albums over the years including Les Miserables, A Catered Affair, Avenue Q, Cabaret, Grey Gardens, The Pajama Game, Spelling Bee, Sweeney Todd, Little Women, Next To Normal, Xanadu and many others. The most recent cast album we tracked was Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show. By doing many of these types of sessions, we have accumulated experience in carrying out what some might describe as a pressure cooker since there are many actors / actresses / musicians involved, who are all on the clock, and the sessions are often attended by producers, songwriters, other production personnel and sometimes VIPs.
The important factor here is to be able to isolate the players. There will be some leakage, but minimizing the effect is the key. Taking a session we did in Studio A for Les Miserables, the set up that worked well is shown below (click on image for a larger view). In this session, there were a dozen singers and the orchestra was made up of a dozen string players and a woodwind and brass section.
Studio A has two large isolation booths in the rear – the piano room and the rhythm room, which can be closed off using sliding glass doors. Studio A also has two smaller iso booths next to the control room. The multiple singers and chorus section were all situated in the piano room with eight microphones. The rhythm section consisting of percussion, drums and guitars were in the rhythm room. The principal singers were in the small iso booth closest to the main live room. The main live room was split down the middle using a wall of tall gobos to isolate string players from the horn players. Looking out from the control room, the string players were on the left side and the horn players on the right all facing away from the control room. The conductor was at the edge of the main live room facing towards the control room. The Fender Rhodes player was right in front of the conductor. All the singers and players had a clear view of the conductor as did the people in the control room.
Some variation of this set up was used in other cast album sessions. Sometimes the conductor stood in front with his back against the control room glass with all players looking towards the conductor / control room. Sometimes, the singers / chorus and rhythm section swapped rear iso booths depending on the sonic and size preferences, i.e. one booth is more lively and slightly smaller than the other larger and drier rhythm room.
Another important point is to be organized and have multiple cue mixes go out to each subsection and make sure that everyone with headphones is comfortable. Typically in these sessions, we assign two experienced assistant engineers with one or two additional runners. We usually spend a few hours preparing and setting up either the day or night before the session. After a while, the set up goes fast.
This type of session is quite hectic and often lasts one full day, but once the session is done, there is a great sense of accomplishment of having successfully dealt with so many people and any unexpected hiccups (countered by quick workarounds). It is all about working quickly and you cannot do these types of sessions unless your equipment is well maintained and your staff is right on the ball. It also helps to have thick skin. I know these are not the kind of things one thinks about when listening to cast albums, but hopefully you now have an insight into how it was recorded.