Interview with a Sound Engineer

28th September 2021

Features NMC Recordings

Recording engineer and producer David Lefeber talks about listening in the context of recording sessions and the editing process.

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As a producer and engineer on many of NMC’s recordings, I am in an enviable position of not only hearing the music of many of the composers and performers featured on the label but also of working very closely with them towards achieving those recordings. The listening required, rather different to that done for pleasure, is perhaps best described as technical listening. My role, is to act as a mirror for the players, to listen to how they are interpreting the music, referencing the score, and reflecting back on the successes or otherwise of particular approaches. I am not an interpreter, merely a mediator between the score in performance and the final polished recording. This relationship is extremely flexible and always to the service of the music.

“My role, is to act as a mirror for the players, to listen to how they are interpreting the music, referencing the score, and reflecting back on the successes or otherwise of particular approaches.”

So much of the music recorded on NMC is very new. This offers up an added bonus of working alongside composers in the sessions, of helping the performance captured by the microphones reach their expectations as closely as possible. For a composer, the very act of writing down in notation one’s musical intentions is an extremely skilled operation, one honed over a lifetime of experience. Notation, conventionally speaking, is an imperfect code for performance, this is why we need interpreters.

Having the composer on hand during the sessions to elucidate their intention beyond the score’s codification can never be underestimated. It is a perfect opportunity to fine tune small details (dynamics, articulation, phrasing, sometimes orchestration too), changes that often find their way into post-recording score revisions (... or maybe that little gem of information was meant to be a secret ...). Scores, after all, are not carved in stone.

In my view, it is important as producer to provide the time and space for a composer to find solutions to any small issues that arise. There is no other occasion where a work can be heard in such detail. A recording session offers the luxury of having as many goes at musical passages as it takes to reach the satisfaction of all parties involved. For composers new to recording, this is a revelation. NMC affords that opportunity to many young composers like no other British label.

“The producer’s hat is a difficult one to remove.”

Much of my experience of listening to music these days is thus during sessions. And then of course editing too. It is highly detailed listening. I might also describe it as structural listening, building a mental sonic picture during the sessions of how the piece will be put together during the edit whilst also representing what composer and players intend. Such an approach to listening can be exhausting and not ideal for domestic ‘pleasure’. But the producer’s hat is a difficult one to remove. It is hard not to spot mistakes or less-than-ideal recorded sound and just hear the music.

However, the mere beauty, drama or perfection of some works can wrench that hat off my head. Janáček’s String Quartets, every time. Bach’s A Musical Offering, St John’s Passion or Goldberg Variations. Stravinsky’s Agon or Les Noces (Royal Ballet’s production a few years back still resonates in me). A recent trip to hear WNO’s production in Cardiff of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead blew me away. And in two visits to the Royal Opera House, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (to my ear one of the best modern operas), and Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur will stay with me.

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