A new spin on the old testament: On the surface, a violin and a piano recording interspersed with spoken-word narration should be as straightforward as a session gets. A couple of mics on each instrument, an hour spent tweaking the mic placement, an isolation booth for the narrator, and the tape's rolling.
But for pianist Ben Zebelman, violinist Lorenza Ponce and co-producer Steve Rosenthal, a recording of a song cycle based on the Old Testament poem “Song of Songs” turned into a showcase of their collective talents — Zebelman and Ponce as writers, performers and producers, and Rosenthal as a co-producer, engineer and mixer. It also made full use of Rosenthal's studio — New York' famed Magic Shop — with its ample tracking spaces, extensive collection of vintage mics, Neve 80 Series console, EMT plate and a Pro Tools TDM system.
“We worked out this elaborate setup for the piano and violin where you use pairs equidistant from the sound source,” explains Rosenthal. “We had two Neumann U67s on the piano for close-miking, two Neumann KM56s at a medium distance and a pair of Earthworks mics for ambience. For Lorenza, we used Neumann U47s up close, Coles 4438 ribbon mics a little further out and a pair of Neumann U87s in the room. This gave us a lot of options at the mixing stage if we wanted to change tones for different songs.”
In addition to the two sets of six mics, Rosenthal placed a Neumann FET 47 underneath the soundboard of the piano, a 9-foot Yamaha grand with a low-end resonance that he describes as “enormous.”
All mic signals went straight into the Magic Shop's prized Neve, an 80 Series custom wrap-around board with 56 inputs of Flying Faders automation. The tracks were recorded to the studio's Pro Tools MIXplus system and mixed back to Pro Tools through the console.
Zebelman says he is delighted with the way the recording turned out. “Steve is really into the overall sound of things,” he says. “The way he blended the violin and the piano, they both sound great and different than they might on other albums.”
Ponce, who had previously recorded at the Magic Shop with Sheryl Crow, Mitchell Froom and others, says, “Steve always gets an amazing sound on my violin. With this recording being just violin and piano, we had the luxury of using multiple mics on the violin, so we were able to capture the three-dimensional qualities of the sound emanating from the instrument.”
For the narrators, Zebelman, Ponce and Rosenthal debated at length if they should record them in a live-sounding room, trying to match the ambience of the instrumental recording, or go in the other direction. They chose the latter, preferring the intimacy of a small iso booth for the spoken segments, which are read by actors Laurie Brown and Andrew Marston.
The version of “Song of Songs” that Zebelman and Ponce used is a new translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch. Its inherently erotic nature lent itself to the interplay between the violin and the piano, representing the woman and man, respectively. The music was written quickly, with Zebelman and Ponce both bringing a small amount of complete material to the collaboration and composing the rest in a marathon session at Zebelman's home studio. Many of the bits that the two artists improvised on the spot were used in the final piece.
“A lot of times we just jammed out,” says Ponce. “I'm a spur-of-the-moment person, and I believe that what comes out of you first is your most heartfelt emotion.”
“Song of Songs” marks the first collaboration between Zebelman and Ponce, two acclaimed New York musicians who were brought together by music industry veteran Robert Fisch — who serves as executive producer on the project — and Rosenthal, who had worked with both artists independently.
Zebelman's previous works include the independent albums Kol Nidre Variations and Suite: Noah's Ark, based, respectively, around the ancient Jewish prayer and the Biblical story of Noah. Zebelman has won the Howard Hanson Music Award and the Miles Davis Jazz Award.
Violinist/vocalist Ponce has two solo albums to her credit: Imago (Angel/EMI) and the independently released Mystic Fiddler. As a session/touring musician, Ponce has worked with Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Ben Folds Five, Jon Anderson, John Tesh and Kitaro. She was recently featured alongside Bon Jovi in The Concert for NYC and America: A Tribute To Heroes.
Despite Ponce's busy touring schedule — she recently hit the road with Crow's band — she and Zebelman plan to perform “Song of Songs” at least once at an event that benefits the children's programs of Cancer Care. The album's release and gala performance are both scheduled for April 2002.
As far as the Magic Shop is concerned, the 12-year-old studio is alive and kicking, reports Rosenthal, denying rumors of its demise. True, recent times have been tough for the studio business throughout the industry, particularly in New York, especially in the downtown area where Magic Shop is located (and where two other mainstays, Greene Street Recording and Sorcerer Sound, recently closed). And it's also true that Magic Shop has seen its share of canceled sessions lately and felt nothing but a chill from out-of-town clients who used to regularly travel to New York to record, but are now finding other venues. But Rosenthal is taking it on the chin, defying the bleak economic climate, making renovations in his old shop and keeping his fingers crossed for bluer skies.
Avid Users of Pro Tools: Avid and Digidesign hosted the first-ever Avid World East and Pro Tools Conference, an educational forum for the film, TV and music production communities. Held December 10-12, 2001, at the New Yorker Hotel, the event featured keynote speeches and workshops by film editors Mark Goldblatt (Pearl Harbor), Mix's “Sound for Film” columnist Larry Blake (Traffic), Eugene Gearty (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Andy Mondshein (The Sixth Sense). Avid Technology's president and CEO David Krall also spoke.
On the music side, engineers Jan Folkson (Steely Dan), Chris Ribando (Mary J. Blige), Paul Falcone (Michael Jackson) and Rich Tozzoli (Al DiMeola) delivered sessions of various Pro Tools-related topics. Tozzoli's “Mixing in Surround Formats,” which showcased his 5.1-channel recordings for Hernan Romero, DiMeola and Vernon Reid — as well as a live Joni Mitchell tribute concert in Central Park — was particularly well-received, drawing an audience of 85 people and raves from the crowd.
The Avid World East and Pro Tools Conference was organized by New York marketing firm Mindshare Ventures and digital media training center Future Media Concepts. Mindshare president Rick Friedman says, “More than 800 people attended the event, and over 400 came to the classes, so we're very pleased with the turnout. We're also pleased that people ranked their satisfaction with the event at 3.9 out of a possible five. For the first time out, we feel we've hit a home run.”
The attendees were as diverse as they were enthusiastic, representing 26 states and a number of overseas countries, including France and Israel, according to Friedman. Given the success of the conference, Friedman and Future Media president Ben Kozuch are exploring the possibility of holding Avid/Pro Tools expos on the West Coast.
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