The Story of my CD
It all started with an email from my brother asking “Why don't you have music on iTunes?” and quite a long email conversation which is really unusual as far as my brother and I are concerned.
And as of today (April 23, 2018), I still don't have any music on iTunes. But I have 900 physical CDs stored in my apartment.
I had wished to produce an album before, but I knew very little about the music recording industry. However, I knew how to record myself and work with digital audio workstations. So I decided to dive...
First of all, I needed better recording equipment than what I owned. I had inexpensive cardioid microphones. I was looking for omnidirectional microphones that would capture the acoustics of the church I would record in and produce a recording that would sound like if the listener were seated in the church. I have learned that most microphones do not have a frequency response wide enough to cover the whole range of a pipe organ (including 32-foot pipes). I finally chose the Sennheiser MKH 8020 out of the few microphones that cover a pipe organ range.
I have also purchased a new audio device, the RME Babyface Pro, which is quite versatile. Since I was to record in a church, which is not a controlled sound environment (unlike a studio), I needed a noise reduction software. I chose iZotope's RX.
Meanwhile, I chose the repertoire that I would record: music from the Great French Organ School of the beginning of the 20th century. It is basically around two composers who were organ teachers at the Paris Conservatory—Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré—and their students. You can learn more about the repertoire by clicking here.
The recording session took place in March 2017. Here is what my wife wrote about it:
“We went to Montreal during March Break to record Matthieu's first CD album. We had a lovely vacation, so relaxing and refreshing... Not really. It was an intense, very demanding, challenging, stressful and stimulating experience all at once.
“First, a CD recording is different from a concert. There is pressure to get as much good material as possible in a limited timeframe. We are talking about several (good) takes of the same works. While little imperfections are a normal part of a live performance, the modern recording industry demands perfection. Recordings are worked on, and electronically perfected for the listener's pleasure. The recording is a product in itself, and it is not comparable to a live performance. Transmitting the performer's energy through the recording is challenging.
“Second, organ recording sessions are tricky, because they are not held in a recording studio. To reduce background noise, the time slots were booked from 6 to 10 PM, every day. Matthieu chose to record his all-French Romantic and Modern programme at the church of Saints-Anges-Gardiens in Lachine, on a large Casavant symphonic organ, a well-suited instrument for this repertoire. However, an organ is nothing without the church's acoustics, and out of several churches with ideal organs, Matthieu chose this one because of how music beautifully resonates in the church's space. There is a special atmosphere that comes with how sound lives for a couple of seconds before it softly fades away.
“Every morning, Francine practised at Montreal West United Church, her last ‘home’ church in Montreal. With services and a concert coming up, not practicing was not an option. On his side, Matthieu did some preparation work for his recording session, double-checked times, memory level for registrations, listened to his previous sessions, planned changes, etc. The afternoons were spent taking advantage of being in one of North America's greatest cultural centres: libraries, music stores, searching for scores or a particular solfege book, planning upcoming projects... And because we were not exactly on holidays (are we ever?), we still had administration work to do. Saint Thomas' came with us in the form of two laptops.
“On Monday evening, the first session was spent doing preparation work for the actual recording. Matthieu set around 200 pistons on the organ's sequencer, marking them in his scores with yellow stickers. Francine would then follow the music while it is played, and hit ‘next’ on the sequencer at those precise moments. Because the organ design at that church doesn't let the organist hear what we hear from the nave, Matthieu set the pistons while Francine was doing some writing ‘downstairs’. And then, Matthieu would shout: ‘How's this?’ and play while his wife paced around the church.
“Other sessions were spent setting up the equipment and recording the entire programme with Francine working the sequencer, for a little bit under four hours at a time. And Matthieu listening to the takes in the morning. And taking note of potential changes. And again. And again. We barely ever spoke during those sessions. We knew what we had to do.
“It snowed, too, which is always good for recordings, because the snow gives an insonorisation coat to the church, reducing exterior noises. Maybe this time around, Mother Nature over-did it, though. On Tuesday, it took us an hour to get from NDG to Lachine, and when we were finished, at 10 PM, we had to dig the car out of the snow with a unique shovel lent by the rector. With the blizzard around us, snow to our knees, snow in our boots, Matthieu at the wheel, trying to get the car unstuck, we shovelled our way out of the parking lot for over an hour, and when Matthieu was shovelling, Francine was defrosting the car, under the watchful eye of a church volunteer who was... clearing the steps of the church. Getting the car into the garage of the apartment building was something else, and we spent another hour and a half shovelling our way in, only to find the door broken. We finally got in, hung our soaked clothes to dry, and went to bed at 1 AM. [That was the night when 300 cars got stuck on highway 13 in Lachine.]
“The other sessions were easier. Mother Nature had calmed down. For each session, there were little changes, making the editing of the CD difficult, since Matthieu will not be able to mix multiple sessions together. For each piece, he will have to choose one session only. He is currently working on the editing. Some takes are not good. The organ acted up once. There are other takes when a stained-glass window buzzed each time he hit a particular note in the pedal. There is also a take on which we can hear someone walking... although we have not seen anyone else in the building that night. The joys of recording... We think it was all worth the trouble.”
When the recording session was done, the album was still far from being finished. I still had a lot to learn. The editing was done quite quickly, but I spent a lot of time on noise reduction. As I said before when a recording is not done in a studio, there is always parasitic noise on the tracks, including the noise made by the organ blower itself. The softer pieces are more challenging because the louder pieces cover the noisy sounds. If one takes off too much noise, it creates artifacts. The trick is to find the perfect balance, so leaving a little bit of noise is unavoidable. I made three or four “final” versions of my album, but was each time unhappy with the balance, so I started over again.
All in all, the sound has been modified as little as possible. The recording has not been normalized in order to preserve the actual difference between the softer and the louder timbers of the organ.
Then, I had to pay the royalties to the composers, which was done through SODRAC. I had to prepare the artwork for the CD case. Thankfully, I had the experience of producing graphics for industrial printing—even if I am only an amateur—so I knew pretty much how it worked. I am proficient with Gimp, and knew about bleed, CMYK, and so on. I chose <duplication.ca> for the replication of my CDs, mainly because they had good templates on their website. I have also learned the difference between duplication and replication.
Francine helped me with the program notes. We decided to start Aœdé again, and register it with the government of Ontario. Aœdé was our music production business when we were in Montreal.
I spent also a lot of time learning about the “lovely” world of barcodes. I have learned that the more you buy barcodes with GS1 the cheaper they get. Therefore, some people buy them in “bulk” and resell them for much cheaper than if you buy only one directly from GS1. However, you're dependent on your reseller. If he doesn't renew his annual license, you're in trouble. So I bought it directly from GS1 Canada. And I discovered that they only provide the number, not the actual graphic. So I had to ask a graphic designer to prepare the actual graphic, but that was quite inexpensive and quick.
Then, I learned more about copyright and legal deposit. I got ISRC codes. Now, I am still learning about sells and marketing.
I've learned a lot about CD production in the last two years, but it was worth it. The process is going to be much faster and easier for my second album which I intend also to sell on iTunes...
To support my work, please buy my CD! Click here to see the purchase options.