In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first broadcast on October 6, 1951, the BSO will return to return to the WCRB airwaves this coming Thursday night for a special broadcast. In addition to interviews and recorded features, the program will present Sean Newhouse conducting Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, from Peter Grimes; Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2.
Sixty years ago, The Lowell Institute Broadcasting Council founded WGBH in part to provide broadcasting of classical music, and on October 6 of that year, WGBH FM signed on the air for its first broadcast, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday night subscription concert. Relations between WGBH and the BSO were so close that for the next two years, WGBH’s office and studios were actually located in Symphony Hall, and the symphony programs listed the station’s complete programming. Neither of these is true now, although the president of the Lowell Institute still sits on the board of WBGH.During the intermission of that first historic broadcast, composer Aaron Copland spoke emphatically “It is particularly heartening to be able to take part in the first broadcast of WGBH. I wish I had known about the plan to establish it when I was in Europe for the first six months of this year, because whenever the question [of American radio broadcasts of classical music] came up, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sheepish.… It is particularly heartening that there is now a station of great interest to an adult mind. … Since each Friday afternoon [broadcast] program will be repeated on Saturday night, listeners will have the opportunity of hearing a new work twice. We contemporary composers like that idea: for the second hearing often tells more about a work than the first. When second impression of a new work may be more or less favorable, it is seldom is exactly the same.”
The Boston Symphony Transcription Trust was formed to record and archive BSO concerts beginning in October 1957. Its final tape distribution covered the Tanglewood concerts of August 1991. Brian Bell, producer with Ron Della Chiesa, announcer and Jim Donahue, engineer took charge of the BSO broadcasts on October 4th, 1991 and remain in those roles today.
BMInt was interested in learning the history of these broadcasts and the factors that influence their quality and usefulness. This interview on the subject of the BSO recording and WGBH broadcasting offers the thoughts of one of Boston’s preeminent recording engineers, Sound Mirror’s John Newton, and is a companion piece with BMInt’s interview of WGBH Director of Classical Services, Ben Roe here.
Newton: WGBH has a tremendous history with the BSO. WGBH was founded in part to broadcast the BSO, and I will say for the record, that it is ironic that they have drifted so far from those original days. If I could do what I wanted to, which of course I can’t, I would put the good music back on the strong WGBH signal and put the talk radio which competes with WBUR on the lower-powered WCRB, because I think the community would be better served. Unfortunately there are a lot of business people who say that is not the case.
We’re not responsible for the signal that goes out over the air on WCRB, though. That’s the responsibility of Jim Donahue the engineer and Ben Roe the station manager, et cetera. I’m sure they can give you a good idea of what they do. But I presume that Jim Donahue cannot monitor the actual WCRB signal at Symphony Hall because it’s a very weak signal coming which doesn’t reach very well anywhere in Boston.
BMInt: Anecdotally, reception at Symphony Hall has improved since the FCC eliminated a pirate station operating near WCRB’s frequency, though still not ideal for evaluating.
Newton: That’s led to some broadcasts apparently where technical problems such as reversed channels could be traced to the transmitter site rather than to the BSO booth. If no one who’s musically sophisticated can monitor the actual signal then that’s more evidence of the staffing problem. One person simply can’t do it all to a high level. Particularly with broadcasting, someone has to be listening.
Originally the WGBH broadcasts were recorded and saved in the WGBH Transcription Trust, and some important historical re-issues have been made from that material. In terms of commercial recordings, the BSO’s recordings are among the most famous in any repertoire going back the beginning of “recorded time.” And certainly that will continue into the future. Yet the record companies are releasing fewer and fewer orchestral recordings from the major orchestras because of the cost, and on the other hand, the orchestras were getting to a position to be able to create their own record labels or license their own materials. But the only way to have that happen is to archive it when it happens. You can’t go backward and say, ‘Wow that was a great concert. I want to record that.”
At the time that James Levine began as BSO Music Director in 2004, the broadcasting institutions [WGBH and WCRB] were not in a position to do the archiving that the Symphony needed, as that was technically quite different from what they broadcast stations needed, so they asked Sound Mirror to come in to record all of Levine’s concerts and several other concerts each year that management thought would be important for saving in archives that could be used, for instance for high-quality SACD recordings or commercial CD recordings or for the creation of files to be sold for download, but not yet to the best of my knowledge for internet streaming live.
Our archiving agreement with the BSO was that we would provide microphones, put them in correct positions, and make all of those microphone signals available to the broadcasters. Symphony Hall has three separate rooms for recording: one for archiving and two for broadcasting (formerly WGBH and WCRB had separate booths) that can access the same microphones, allowing totally independently production. The broadcasters can create from our microphones the mixes and the balances that they wish.
For the main microphones, whether they are up front for the orchestra or in the rear for the ambience channels, we always use pressure microphones, commonly known as an omni-directional microphones from the major manufacturers that have been making them for seventy years: Neumann, Schoeps, DPA (previously Brüel & Kjær) — are the main ones. We change microphones periodically because there are musical requirements for which we think certain microphones sound better than others.
The support microphones, usually cardioids or figure-of-eights which we change more often than main microphones, tend to be ones that we’ve found to work particularly well on a certain instrument or a section of musical instruments. We use the same brands as in the main mikes, but we use a wider variety in the support microphone area. We use ribbon mikes from Royer , Coles, and Beyer. We use cardioids from all the manufacturers named before as well as Sure. The major microphone manufactures are making better microphones every time they change their design.
We create from those microphones two types of multi-channel high-resolution archives. One is a Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) archive that the Boston Symphony has asked for. The other is a Direct Stream Digital (DSD) archive which is of an infinitely higher sonic quality, but much more difficult to use and not as popular because of that extra difficulty. But the BSO is unique and we have to do it the best possible way, regardless of how difficult it might be to post produce material.
The number of microphones we put out for a concert depends on the repertoire for a particular concert series. We work on the same week cycle that the BSO works on. If they’re working on a three-performance week, say Friday, Saturday, Tuesday, we put out the microphones for that week and we use the rehearsals to determine where to put them and so on. And if the repertoire is wide-ranging, for instance if there is a Mozart symphony at one point and a large oratorio at another point, we have to put microphones out for all of the repertoire. So for the Mozart symphony we need far fewer microphones than we would for a large oratorio with a chorus and soloists and so on. But they’re all out there at the same time because we can’t re-hang microphones during a concert.
When we archive concerts over the course of a season, the most complicated musical program will require perhaps as many as 45 microphones, but we don’t just send all the channels to be archived without post-production. The only way to be 100% sure that you have chosen the right microphone and put it in the right place is to listen to it. If we can’t produce a very good mix for two channels then we haven’t done our job right. So we do pretty sophisticated and effective stereo mixing as part of the process of archiving.
In the simplest setups, back when we were doing entire programs of Mozart symphonies, we perhaps had as few as a dozen microphones. We never restricted ourselves to say, three mikes as in the old RCA “Living Stereo” days, because with our archiving of up to 45 channels we could always select three if we wanted to create that sound.
But the work we do in archiving a performance should not be confused with the work we do releasing a commercial recording. We do make CDs of every performance we archive, and those CDs are distributed to the conductors, to the management, and the soloists for all of the purposes you can imagine. Many were unbelievably wonderful. That’s the reason we are there archiving. But the point is we are not there each night creating a recording for release — we are creating an archive that can be a source of products. And certainly, when the broadcast people are there, one of the products that gets created from the raw material that Sound Mirror creates is the broadcast.
We’ve produced four or five rather good sounding and rather well received commercial recordings from the Levine archives. And I approached them the way I would approach any commercial recording. I don’t think of a commercial recording as being a substitute for a concert; I think of it as being a completely different product. People who buy and enjoy recordings don’t do so because they can’t or don’t want to go to a concert. They buy them because listening to music presented that way gives them a different kind of experience than going to a concert. And if you listen to the recordings that we make that we are rather well known for — the BSO recordings, the Mariansky recordings, or any of our other orchestral recordings, you’ll find a completely different experience than what you would have found had you gone to those concerts. You’ll hear a balance that is not necessarily from the conductor’s perspective or from seat A 12 or B 21 or C 93. You’ll hear a balance that you can’t hear from anywhere in the hall. It will be much better and more musically appropriate because we have that ability. We don’t arbitrarily do it alone, but rather in conjunction with the composer and the conductor. But certainly you can hear much more orchestral detail than you can from any given seat in any hall. We try to create a sonic envelope that is at least as exciting as what you would hear in the hall, thinking that is the kind of product a commercial release needs to be.
Whatever the market wants we can create, using the appropriate technologies. We can even make recordings which sound stunning in your car — better in your car than they will sound anywhere else. There’s going to be a major breakthrough this fall in sound for classical music in cars. And of course people spend more time listening to music in cars than anywhere else.
There are a lot of other things we could do. For instance we could create a binaural recording using an artificial head. We have experience with that because the orchestra in Milwaukee for which we also create archives, has for quite some time hung an artificial head for binaural recording. It’s a product they expect to sell, but I would not say they’re having overwhelming sales success. There are a couple of downloads available in that format. It’s a tiny niche product. Most people don’t choose an iPod and headphones as their high-quality music listening experience. There may be a lot of twenty-somethings who listen that way, but they don’t care if the recordings are created in binaural or conventionally. The people who care tend to have higher quality headphones and a quiet environment to listen in. This may be an interesting scientific area as well, but not a big market as evidenced by the number of people who buy binaural files rather than loudspeaker/stereophonic recordings. Binaural recordings don’t even sound good for near field listening through computer speakers. Binaural recordings only sound good on headphones. And loudspeaker recordings sound good on loudspeakers. For a long time people have tried to build processors that convert one form to another, but with limited success.
I was just talking with someone the other day about creating the old “Living Stereo” sound. You absolutely can. The same microphones are still available today. But let’s talk about what you have to do to make that happen. First you have to have time, because the orchestra has to be moved around by the stage hands to balance things, because that’s how they did things in those days. Then you have to have a set of listening equipment that is historically appropriate, because those recordings were made to sound good on that equipment. And while those vintage recordings still sound very good today, modern recordings sound better. The photographs of those historic sessions show the BSO still on the stage rather than spread out into the auditorium as with other orchestras. But it requires a tremendous amount of time to set up and balance and you can’t do it at live concerts since the revised seating would not please audiences.
Bookkeepers might like this approach because it costs a lot less to buy and use three microphones than forty-five. But the question is whether that would be a good value. Are you getting what you need and desire. You have to be able to look at different technologies and decide where they work and where they don’t work. They cost of recording may seem small in the context of the overall costs of presenting an orchestral concert, but recording is still an additional cost, and it’s not miniscule. No organization today has excess money to spend on things that they can’t put a current or future value on. Nevertheless, having those 45 tracks gives us tremendous flexibility down the road for creating products we haven’t even heard of today.
It might look like fun, but it’s an awful lot of hard work and a tremendous number of man hours involved in this work. Neither Sound Mirror nor the broadcasters have staffs of any size anymore — certainly Jim Donahue for WCRB does everything himself at Symphony Hall, though he has some interns at Tanglewood. There’s an awful lot of time spent on catwalks — I’ve climbed them for 50 years.
We don’t yet know what were going to be doing for the BSO this season, though we expect to be there for several weeks.