The recording of the Mass in C
minor began as a MIDI project.
As I composed pieces or parts of pieces I would record them in my office using samples and synthesizers together with my sequencing gear. Some of my instrumental samples were better than others — the oboe, harpsichord, pipe organ, and bassoon were pretty good, while the strings, flute, trumpets, and French horns were not so good — but the question of recording vocals was obviously out of the question. For solo vocals I would often use an oboe sample or some other solo instrument to stand in for the human voice. For choral parts, however, there seemed to be no other choice than to use the oooohs or aaaaahs from a library of choral samples. These android-like sounds were, of course, entirely inadequate and sounded unintentionally comic. I plugged away anyway, making cassette mixes, bringing them home to listen to, making changes, finishing or adding to pieces, sometimes throwing them out. There are probably over one hundred cassettes still floating around on this project.
After making some headway on the piece, I decided that I could live with the synth and sample orchestra, but obviously would have to record real singers in order to hear the music. I thought that if I finished the music of the Credo and the Kyrie, then I would reward myself with an attempt to record singers.
Without having finished anything, but having written a piece I liked, I called my friend soprano Valerie Wilson-Morris, and asked if she would be willing to record the soprano solo, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, from the Credo. She agreed. After years of muddling around with samples in my office, I finally had a genuine, live musician bring life to the music. Valerie did a splendid job. I was thrilled with her performance. It changed everything. With her encouragement and support I was determined to finish the Credo and Kyrie and record live vocals. In addition to being a fine singer, Valerie also represents a number of world class vocalists from the Met and the New York City Opera for work in commercials. We had worked together on many television commercials I had written that were operatic in nature — "Michael J. Fox Goes to the Opera", for Diet Pepsi, and "Roma" for General Electric — to name two. Valerie agreed to help me contract a chorus and soloists for the sessions.
Another Pro Joins the Team
At this time Jon Altschiller, chief engineer at Sunday Productions, came aboard the project. Jon and I began the arduous process of stripping off tracks from my sequencer on to multitrack digital machines in preparation for the vocal sessions which would be recorded analog at The Warehouse Recording Studio.
Euphoria, Time, and Money
We went into The Warehouse with the choir in October of 1999. There would be no time for rehearsals. Instead, I sent each singer a CD of the tracks, including synth vocals and a copy of the vocal score, in advance of the recording sessions. I asked each singer to learn the appropriate parts before each session.
I will not forget the first rundown of the first piece at the first recording session. It was the rather simple chorale Patrem Omnipotentem. When the choir began to sing, a capella, I felt myself floating to the ceiling, born up by the magnificent sound they made. I felt the supreme privilege of being in New York, of being able to have some of the finest musicians in the world sing my music. With a group of singers so prodigiously gifted, a C major scale would sound profound But I knew immediately that I had to finish the piece.
At each session, we would run down an individual piece once, or maybe twice, and then record. As soon as we got a good take, we would double the track and move on to the next piece. On average, there were four to six singers on a part — soprano, alto, tenor and bass. We doubled to make the choir sound bigger. Thanks to the consummate musicianship of each member of this extraordinary chorus, the method proved efficient and we completed the choral parts of the Credo and the Kyrie in four recording sessions of three hours each.
Ellen McFaul was able to attend many of the recording sessions and with her video camera captured the choir in documentary fashion.
Some Tech Stuff
The choir was arranged, from stage left, in the following manner: basses, tenors, sopranos, altos — in groups, not in rows. Jon used four Neumann U-87's as spot mics, along with two AKG-414s in MS stereo mode. Passes were recorded on two tracks only. Jon's technique is to record flat using little if any EQ. He carefully checks the room sound, adjusts microphones to bring that sound in, and that's it. He is not the sort of engineer who immediately starts twisting and turning equalizer dials. The track faders are lined up neatly in an almost straight line at zero v.u. It looks deceptively simple, but with this technique, playbacks never require labored fader-moves, and mixing is simplified down the road.
The Warehouse Recording Studio, owned and operated at that time by Roger Tallman, has an automated SSL 4000G board. The studio is also equipped with a pair of stereo EMTs — the real deal Rolls Royce of echo chambers. The control room, designed by Tom Hidley, is one of best sounding rooms in New York. Jon had brought Genelec bookshelf speakers, but the control room monitors at The Warehouse (giant Westlakes) are so well tuned we listened on them most of the time. We recorded everything on banks of Tascam D88 digital recorders. The aim was to finish in Pro Tools.
Tom McFaul, Boy Conductor
I conducted the chorus. Though I do not consider myself a conductor, I knew I would be able to do at least an adequate job of keeping things together because of my experience in working with groups of singers overdubbing onto prerecorded tracks. Perhaps too naïve to be intimidated, I simply forged ahead as composer/conductor.
Though they had never sung together before, each member of the choir had experience in singing both choral and solo repertoire. All the singers were first rate sight-readers as well. For those members of the choir who were not familiar with the pronunciation of church Latin, I put together a phonetic guide for each piece.
Tom's Orchestra Wilts on the Vine
The resounding success of the live chorus only pointed more to the inadequacies of the synth orchestra. What was going on here? Was this just a demo? The chorus certainly did not sound like a demo. The chorus and soloists sounded like finals. I decided that I needed at least some live strings to add musicality and believability to the rather stiff-sounding quantized string samples.
The FSQ Comes to the Rescue
It occurred to me that my niece, Rebecca McFaul, was a violinist in a string quartet, the Fry Street Quartet. I knew they were good. I didn't know they were great, until I heard them live. I had heard a recording made during The Banff String Quartet Competition.
I called Rebecca and proposed that they come to New York to overdub parts on the piece. They were quartet in residence in Hickory, North Carolina, as part of Chamber Music America's "Rural Residencies" program. They performed chamber music in rural areas of the southeast that would otherwise never have had the opportunity to hear a live string quartet. The FSQ also served as section leaders and soloists in the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra.
I could provide only modest compensation. I explained I was producing the Mass myself with no financial backing. I sent them the piece, as it was, for their review and decision. They agreed to my proposal. It was good timing. The quartet was coming to New York for another project at just the time I needed them. I sent parts, and Fry Street Quartet worked tirelessly in preparation for the sessions. They had only parts written in my hand. Rebecca went over every note of every part to make the note heads more visible. By the time we went into the studio they were perfectly prepared.
Double Takes and Single Takes
It was our intention at first to layer the quartet by doubling or tripling tracks to create a string section. This did not work out. Fry Street Quartet plays so consistently that doubling them on tape resulted in phase cancellation. To our astonishment, the effect of overdubbing made the sound thinner rather than fuller. After a few attempts at changing instruments, or bows, and other tricks, we decided that we would simply record one stereo track, no doubling. That had the positive effect of making the strings more personal, more chamber-like. It is a distinguishing characteristic of this recording and one that is immensely pleasing to me.
There were some instances where overdubbing to the prerecorded synth tracks just didn't work — the soprano solo Et in Spiritum Sanctum — for example. When the string trio played the music by itself in rehearsal it sounded exquisite, but when we tried to add that to what was already on tape, including the vocal solo, it just didn't come together. We decided to throw out the old track altogether, made a new basic track of just the string trio and then brought the soloist back to re-sing to the new track. The result is a flowing lilt, rather than a stiff compromise.
Any piece where I could get rid of sample strings altogether I did so. This resulted in not only a more musical feeling but also more contrast in dynamics.
Tom Makes Generous Gesture (Read: A Call for Help)
All through this project I have encouraged collaborative input from the performers. And I've gotten it to a high degree, making everything better. It was simply in my best interest to do so. It was also more fun. I don't believe there is only one way to perform any piece of music. I don't consider anything in my music chipped in stone. I want the interpretation of the piece to be a result of all involved. I am always willing to change things according to what is best for the performers I have hired. I like to go with the flow and see what happens. I try to make my statement by putting down on paper the most careful and thoughtful score I am able to produce and then let it go.
The choir is bigger and more operatic sounding than one might expect for a piece in "the Baroque style." But I'm not writing or producing in the Baroque style. I'm simply writing and producing music. I like to see things change, go to unexpected places. If I didn't I would have stayed with MIDI.
Fry Street Quartet Shames Bogmoor Chamber Players
After the live strings were added, the rest of the synth orchestra sounded worse than ever.
Tom Forsakes His Real Job in Pursuit of Counterpoint
Before doing anything else, the piece had to be completed. I took the next year to complete the composing of the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Even though I was still working in advertising at this time, the composing went much faster. I was now writing pieces for specific singers I had gotten to know while recording the Credo and the Kyrie. When I refer to the history of this piece, I tend to say Credo and Kyrie in that order. In a performance the Kyrie is first, and the Credo near the end, but I completed the Credo first. This was a discipline thing for me. The Credo is by far the largest piece, the longest and most difficult. I figured if I could complete the Credo I just might possibly be able to finish the whole thing.
I wrote the Benedictus for Deanne Meek. I had gotten to know the full range of her magnificent voice and made her use all of it in this piece. I asked her to come by when I was writing it. She made many valuable suggestions as to how to approach certain intervals, and how better to phrase the text. I took all of her suggestions. She also told me that I was a horribly cruel person for leaving her all alone descending to a low G. As a general rule, I am mean to singers. "When do I get to breathe?" they often ask. I say, "Breathe on weekends."
While she was at my office one day, I played Deanne the Qui tollis, which I had originally intended as a countertenor solo. I asked her if she would learn it. She did. I never thought about a countertenor again. Her performance is stunning.
The Domine Deus was written specifically for Eduardo Chama. I would never have written such challenging coloratura for a bass if I didn't know that I had Chama to sing it. He came to my office one afternoon and sang it in a few takes.
The Agnus Dei, tenor solo, was written for Eduardo Valdes. Mr. Valdes had been the key tenor soloist in the Kyrie, in the duet Et in Unum Dominum, and in the brilliant recitative Confiteor. He was also the leader of the tenor section in the choir. I love his voice, his musicianship, and his giving spirit.
Valerie Raises the Bar
In all the vocal production, but especially when it came to recording soloists, Valerie Wilson-Morris was invaluable in getting the best vocal performances from the singers she knew so well. Valerie is a world class vocal producer. It was her idea to replace the soprano section near the end of the Gloria with a mezzo-soprano solo, a brilliant notion that contributed so much to the musical texture of that piece.
Mass in C minor Redux
After composing the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, the whole production effort started up all over again. In October of 2000, I brought the choir back, as well as soloists, and completed the vocals in about six more three hour sessions. By this time, my son John McFaul had learned Finale and agreed to copy the parts properly. My old friend Skip Kennon also helped out with copying. No more composer-copied, handwritten parts. John and Skip provided easy-to-read, professional copies.
The Fry Street Quartet came back also and completed the new string parts. The FSQ was now being mentored by Isaac Stern and were in demand all over the world. I was lucky to get them back. Part of the "bait" was taking Fry Street Quartet out to great New York restaurants after recording sessions. Apparently the restaurants in New York are slightly more varied than those in Hickory, North Carolina. Once again they were perfectly prepared and a great pleasure to work with.
Bogmoor Chamber Orchestra Hanging by a Thread
Samples were falling by the wayside now. It was obvious they weren't good enough to stand up to the live players. The production of the piece seemed to be on an inexorable roll. Jon Altschiller kept up with all the changes in an assiduous manner. His perfect record keeping and unfailing professionalism is what allowed this project to be completed. Everything was going into Pro Tools now, the data swelling to several gigabytes.
More Brilliant Players
Live oboes were added next — an enormous improvement thanks to the wonderful interpretation and musicianship of Shelley Woodworth and Diane Lesser. Having been booked to play on a "Latin Mass," Diane asked: "Where are the congas?"
I got my friend Trudy Kane to come in and overdub the flute solo in the Qui tollis. The piece came to life immediately as a result of her magnificent playing.
Altschiller and I decided that the sample trumpets could no longer be tolerated so Alan Rubin and Lew Soloff came in and replaced them with brilliant playing.
Next we recorded French horns. Susan Spaulding and Stewart Schuele came in and did a marvelous job, recording at The Carriage House in Stamford CT.
Anthony DeQuattro was next, replacing the synth timpani. Suddenly there were great dynamics from the percussion.
My old friend Tony Levin, the great bassist, agreed to come in and replace the synth bass. He had to sight-read his parts. He rose to the occasion. Rebecca McFaul had always referred to my synth basses as sounding like "furniture being moved upstairs."
The awesome task of mixing all this now lay before Jon Altschiller. The piece was nearly two hours in length. There were thirty-one separate pieces of music. Some pieces had over sixty tracks of recorded material. Three different recording studios had been used. All had to be put together in a coherent whole.
By this time, late 2001―2002, Jon had built his studio 'chillersound, a fully equipped mixing, recording and mastering studio featuring Pro Tools. Jon had recorded every note of the Mass in C minor and knew the piece inside and out. Without his technical mastery, musicianship, and unerring ears the project would have fallen apart. Jon made many good musical suggestions. I'm quite certain it was his idea, for example, to replace what once was an oboe solo in the Qui sedes with a boy alto solo.
Can You Hear the Difference?
An interesting note for audiophiles: There were three, one-off, or jukebox mixes that survived without ever being changed — the Crucifixus, Confiteor, and Et in Spiritum Sanctum. These were quick mixes made on the spot using the stereo EMT at The Warehouse. It is interesting to compare the sound with the other mixes that used a Lexicon 480L echo unit specially tweaked by Jon to match the "small church" sound we wanted.
Jon and I averaged about three or four mixes a day, sometimes more. We made some editorial cuts. The Credo was shortened by about one third. It felt too repetitious. Cuts were also made in the Et Resurrexit and the Kyrie.
Rebecca McFaul and Russell Fallstad assisted in mixing as well. Jon would do all the "heavy lifting," and then Rebecca and Russell would add input from the point of view of live performance. Our combined emphasis became more and more on the live players. At this time Rebecca also replaced the violin obbligato part in the Qui tollis. We brought in Jennifer Grim, flute, to replace the sample flute in the Kyrie and the Domine Deus French Overture.
When the mixes were complete and assembled, Jon and I both agreed that we wanted Bob Ludwig to do the final mastering. Bob is and has been for many years the finest mastering engineer in the business. Bob is extremely busy. We sent him a few mixes from our project and he agreed to do the mastering. Mastering is the very last stage of the mixing process. It is done from two track masters. Final adjustments in EQ, stereo balance, echo, and compression can be made. Bob enhanced the sound by expanding the dynamic range, and by opening up the stereo. There are only subtle differences between the pre- and post-mastered mixes, but they are important. As Jon has said "Bob's final masters fill the room more." They are slightly more dynamic. Jon and I worked extensively on the spacing between movements and Bob wisely wished to make no changes.
Bob made a special master on digital tape that can only be played back at one speed — real time. This was used to produce the glass master from which CDs are made.
I would never produce a large piece of music in this way again. Basically it is working backwards, and this was one of the biggest challenges for Jon. He made it work, along with the intense focus of all the musicians involved. It was a long labor of love for all. It would have been far less expensive to find an orchestra, choir, and soloists, and rehearse and record in the normal manner, say in Budapest. On the other hand, this project would never have happened at all without its humble beginning in my office nearly eight years ago. The final recording is a unique sound that is the result of twenty-first century technology, and in that sense is a thoroughly modern production.
— T. McFaul
From Contributing Artists
When my longtime friend and colleague,
Always a scholar, ever pursuing and mastering intellectual endeavors, Tom often spoke enthusiastically of his hobbies over the years during downtime in the recording studio. Astronomy, gardening, and classical piano were a few of his passions, and I knew he was, by no means, a dilettante at any of them. So, when Tom requested I come by and hear a few pieces from the Mass that he was writing, I expected I would be in for a special treat. Incidentally, at that time, Tom seemed convinced he would never complete the work. There was one piece he wanted me to sing, entitled Et In Spiritum Sanctum. I found it to be one of the most beautiful and vocally demanding pieces I had ever attempted. Tom and I put it to tape the very next week. I believe it was then that he saw the credibility in his efforts and soon enlisted me to help him realize its completion. I happily signed on.
What has unfolded since then is better heard than described. Enjoy!
— Valerie Wilson-Morris (soprano)
The Mass in C minor is a
Being involved in this project has been a great joy in my life for the past two and a half years. It was a marvelous experience for me and my string quartet to work on this piece in the studio with the composer and Jon Altschiller.
The nature of this recording project was uniquely demanding, since we were laying down tracks to accompany prerecorded voices, guided by a relentless click track and synth orchestra. Though the click track and synth orchestra were not particularly inspired, the music itself clearly was, despite the computer's performance. It was extremely satisfying to breathe life into the synth orchestra and to begin to hear the whole of the piece taking a more humanized shape. I was in heaven learning the music and helping to put this giant work together for a CD. I also enjoyed the final phases of the mixing that Russell and I were involved with. We got to live out our conducting fantasies by simply asking Jon Altschiller to make something happen. He always found a way!
Who, after Bach, would dare to write a Mass in the baroque style? Few have. However, posing this question misses the point — the Mass is a form that allows for great stylistic and emotional exploration. A better question might be: Why don't more composers try their hands at allowing this magnificent form to structure their musical endeavors? Well, in addition to risking comparison with the undisputed genius of Bach, there are many pesky practical considerations. Any "classical" piece on a large scale is nearly impossible to get performed. It's simply too expensive and risky on the part of the conductor or presenter. I admire those who disregard the practical in the name of creativity and reach for more.
I've heard Tom refer to the recording of the Mass as his "vanity project," but I beg to differ. A work of this magnitude has so many details — and those are problems that have so far made it too expensive and risky on the part of the conductor or presenter to program it for a live performance. Thank goodness Tom had the will and lack of pragmatism to go through two and half years of recording and production so that it's possible for the rest of us to hear it! Now that it is available to listen to, perhaps it will get the billing that it deserves.
When I contemplate what it would mean to actually imagine such a work, and then put it to paper, I'm in awe of its creator. The inspiration, imagination, skills, and finally the discipline to get it all down are not merely impressive, but actually a tremendous gift to everyone who makes or listens to music — and the Mass in C minor is great music.
— Rebecca McFaul (Fry Street Quartet)
Copyright © 2002–2011, Thomas G. McFaul