Though it has been rumored that I was either abducted by aliens or succumbed to economic pressures by becoming Bernie Madoff’s exclusive record producer, I am, in fact, still a resident of planet Earth, and although I can see Bernie’s penthouse from here, I am neither in his employ nor have I been victimized by Ponzi or any of the other Happy Days characters.
The Broadway cast recording is a unique experience. Over the years, in an effort to protect actors and musicians from being unfairly exploited, their respective unions have negotiated a set of stringent rules with show producers. In a nutshell (I miss pistachios), actors are paid the equivalent of one week’s salary to be recorded for eight hours within a 24-hour window, which—with very few exceptions—results in a single day of recording for shows that could contain 30 tunes, an 18-piece band and a cast of 20 or more. By any stretch, it’s an expensive production (considering that sales seldom recoup the costs) but a necessary documentation to prolong the life and afterlife of any show.
In the olden days, there were several choices of large, versatile and technically equipped studios in Manhattan that would allow a seasoned production team to create a recording environment that would give the cast and band a sense of their live performance. (Recording in the theater has other sonic and union problems that make that option rarely feasible.) One by one, the economy has picked those studios off. This past March, the last—Legacy A509—closed it’s doors…everyone apparently needs new condos.
So, when I got the call to produce the new Broadway revival of Hair for Ghostlight Records, my excitement (I’ve always loved the music and have fuzzy memories of being naked onstage at the Aquarius Theater) was quickly replaced by the dilemma of finding a place for the 12-piece band and 34 cast members that would give me a fighting chance of reproducing the energy of the “Great American Tribal Rock Musical.” I mentioned the disappearance of the largest New York studios. In fact, there are very few quality studios with rooms of any size left. I finally settled on linking two rooms, Legacy (the original 48th Street location, formerly Right Track Recording) A and B, to give me control over the band that would be set up in studio A and the cast that would be primarily in studio B. The studios are back to back on the third floor and I was able to control everything through tielines on the SSL 9000 console in A. The superb staff at Legacy provided a flawless interface, which included a four-camera split-screen video.
For most cast recordings, scheduling the actors (so that no one exceeds their eight hours) is a daunting puzzle and requires recording the show in a jumbled sequence. For Hair, which has 35 tunes sung in part or in their entirety by the whole cast, we decided to have a single call time and record in show order. Studio B was set up with four gobo-separated omni mics for “the tribe” and four isolated solo mics in the B vocal booth and B control room. I also used the vocal booth in A for primary solos. (I’ve decided not to include diagrams in the name of job security… Hey, Rudy Van Gelder still has hoods over all of his mics.) Prior to the session, musical director Nadia Digiallonardo, Ghostlight associate producer Noah Cornman, production stage manager Nancy Harrington, Ghostlight president and co-producer Kurt Deutsch and I created a positioning chart for each tune, and each cast member was given the list so that they would know which labeled mic to move to once a song was completed. The wrangling of the cast was the biggest unknown factor in our efficiency estimate of staying on schedule.
On the day of recording, the band’s downbeat was called an hour before the cast. The legendary drummer Bernard Purdie—whose credits are too numerous to mention, but include the original demos of the songs that would become Hair—came in for a soundcheck on the setup day prior to the date. The band (Nadia Digiallonardo—conductor/keyboard 1; Lon Hoyt—assistant conductor/keyboard 2; Steve Bargonetti—lead guitar; Andrew Schwartz—rhythm guitar; Wilbur Bascomb—bass; Allen Won—woodwinds; Elaine Burt, Ronald Buttacavoli and Christian Jaudes—trumpets, Vincent MacDermot—trombone; and Joe Cardello and Erik Charlston—percussion) was fantastic and well rehearsed from weeks of preview performances. We were balanced and ready quickly, and recorded the couple of short instrumental pieces in the show as well as the opening track of “Aquarius,” then took a break while the cast wandered in and got situated. We used the playback of the “Aquarius” track to get everyone’s headphones balanced; then the band returned and we started cutting Hair.
Since Pro Tools has become the standard recording medium, the criteria for deciding when a track is acceptable have changed. Our initial decision was to do two takes of each tune, then move on. That requires a lot of on-the-spot decision making about whether any clams or inconsistencies can be “Pro Tooled.” Questionable situations prompted either additional takes or inserts.
Any concerns over the energy of the show being diminished by the separation of band and cast never materialized. And my secret concern that the young cast—mostly studio neophytes (and of course all of them unborn at the show’s original creation)—would have problems adjusting, vanished in the camaraderie that they have developed and is so evident in their live performance. Oh, and the wrangling…not a problem. They’re actors, after all, and used to being told to “stand over there and sing this!”
We finished an hour early with everyone pumped up, not unlike the crazy, audience-participation ending to the show. It was an amazing day when you consider all of the potential pitfalls. The studio setup worked flawlessly; the band and actors rose to the occasion; and all of the support people were, well, supportive.
I trust I have not made this all sound too easy. Forty years of experience probably helps. In any case … don’t try this at home.
Joel Moss is a music producer, engineer and consultant, and a veteran of numerous cast album sessions. He shared a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album for Ray Charles’ posthumous release Genius Loves Company.
Visit the official Website of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical at http://hairbroadway.com/.