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Article by Dean McNeill

Why record a CD with your band? What really is the point?

For the past 5 years the University of Saskatchewan Jazz Ensemble 1 has gone into our makeshift recording studio to record some of our current concert repertoire. Every few years we release an independently published compilation CD. To date we have released 2 such CDs respectively entitled Bumper Crop and Bumper Crop II-Outstanding in their Fields. Although we are collectively proud of these recordings, they are by not what I would consider ground breaking new musical milestones in the larger musical mosaic. Why then do we bother? What is the real point? Why should you consider doing the same with your band?

Archival:
Perhaps most importantly this recording process produces a quality archival record of the band. It is always a bittersweet time of year at the final spring concert when the band plays the music for the last time. I have found this archival process particularly gratifying not 3 months after the disbanding of an ensemble, but rather 3 years afterwards.

Promotion:
A significant number of people have heard the University of Saskatchewan jazz bands because of the creation of these CDs who otherwise would not have heard the group. These individuals include our institution's upper administration, student's family members who are living afar, music alumni (some of whom have made donations because of the CD) and so on. These CDs have helped to promote the ensemble long after the band has disbanded; when we are all off doing other things.

Educational Aspect:
The actual process of recording and mixing a CD is a unique and powerful learning experience for all. As a learning tool, students understand quickly that 'tape recorders do not lie'. Their individual and ensemble playing in the studio almost always improves with each take as their perceptions of their own playing are refined throughout the day of recording.

I also have become well aware of the power of musical observation from a director's perspective. The first year we made such a recording, I talked to the band extensively immediately after we listen back to each take. Time permitting we then recorded another take with the understanding that the band would make revisions based on my suggestions/observations. Eventually I realized that I was not taking advantage of the unique educational opportunity inherent in the recording process. Although leadership will always be required from the director, overall I now say as little as possible after listening to a take; rather I let the students make the comments and/or we simply listen to the take and then record another (again time/chops permitting). In this environment, the next recorded version was almost always significantly stronger. In this regard talking about music really is like dancing about architecture, as more often than not, the students knew what needed to be done to make the music sound better after listening to each playback. This is due in part to the immediate and transparent feedback provided by the recording process combined with the fact that we had been working together as an ensemble for an entire academic year; by the time we record each spring, we have an ensemble concept well established. As well, with this approach, students would often fix things I would have not thought of fixing myself. When I spoke less, students took more ownership of the end result and the entire recording process became more effective and efficient.

Repertoire Selections: Support Canadian composers/arrangers:
One might think that there is in fact little advantage in rerecording music which has already been definitively recorded. Although this is true from a purely archival point of view, educationally I feel that a band rerecording a jazz classic or two, striving to be as authentic stylistically as possible, is well worth the time, effort, and royalty expenditure. In addition to selecting classic repertoire to archive, we also do our best to record (archive/showcase) the work of Canadian composers and arrangers who have not been recorded/archived/celebrated to the degree that they should.

Royalties Considerations:
One can obtain most royalty recording permission through the Canadian Mechanical Musical Rights Association. Although there is a substantial fee involved, the process itself of obtaining mechanical recording rights for most songs is considerably easier than I had imagined. For details visit http://www.cmrra.ca/.

Cost/Revenue Considerations:
Pressing the CDs, getting the royalties secured (which is a must), paying for liner notes, cover design and duplication, and so on is not as expensive as it once was however it is by no means cheap and a significant financial burden for most music programs. We usually budget $3000.00 for the creation of 1000 CDs which covers the cost of reproduction, liner note graphics, royalties, jewel cases, and shrink wrap. Various companies will agree to do a portion of these reproduction tasks or the entire project as a package deal. Cost varies significantly depending on how much color one wants in the CD liner notes, how many pages the liner notes need to be and so on. The actual recording costs are above and beyond these reproduction costs as well. Finding the funds is a challenge to say the least. That being said however, selling 300 CDs at $10/CD will account for these project costs leaving the band with 700 free CDs to sell for profit or to give away for promotional and/or recruitment purposes. As well, funds from the first CD project (over and above the 300 unit break even mark) can finance the next CD project providing the music program can sell a substantial number of CDs. In this regard, the first CD project is the hardest to launch.

Band Cohesion:
The recording process is long, arduous and fraught with setbacks. It is also a fun way to develop band cohesion both musically and socially. A recording session before an important concert is a great way to galvanize the collective will of an ensemble. Recording sessions tend to significantly develop student's concentration levels as well.

Advantage to recording every year:
Even though we do not release a CD every year, pedagogically it is advantageous to record every year. Student expectations and experience is transferred from one class to the next year by year to a much higher degree than if we were to only record in the peak musical years; when we have a very strong band.

The Recording Process Itself:
This process is not as complicated as it once was. These days one can purchase fairly inexpensive mixing software (even just in stereo (2 channel)) onto which all tracks can be mixed down. Music stores rent digital tape recorders (i.e. 2 channel or 8 channel) quite inexpensively as well as very good mixing boards. Students or friends of the band can run the board for the conductor, as doing both is too much multi-tasking in my opinion for the director. Microphones can often be borrowed from others for the recording day/weekend. Multi track recording is also not as complicated as it once was.

If a music program has the luxury of hiring a professional or semi-professional sound engineer, I would suggest taking the time to educate the engineer about how you want your band to sound. Often sound engineers have not listened to a lot of acoustic wind music (concert bands or jazz bands) and as such, their concept of an ensemble sound may be (far) off the mark. With some poking around, one can likely find out who the good sound engineers in the community are and if they are easy to work with.

Live vs. Dubbed Solo Issues:
Other than improvised solos, this article applies equally to wind ensembles, choirs, jazz bands, chamber ensembles and so on. On the issue of recording live improvised solos versus over dubbed solos, I will be the first to agree that live solos have an interactive spirit that is very important. Recording as a student and now as a director of a student ensemble however I do suggest to students that they consider letting the band focus on a getting a good ensemble take, after which the student can have as many tries at the solo as they wish. Pragmatically, unless the student soloists are very strong and consistent, it can be frustrating for all, for example when the ensemble take is strong but the improvised solo was not strong or vice versa. Ideally we record the student improvising a solo simultaneously with the band however we isolate the student in a separate room. That way if the ensemble take is strong but the soloist was unhappy with what they played, he/she can always improvise another solo without compromising the good ensemble take with their original solo spilling into the other microphones (this effect is called bleeding).

What right do we/I have to make a CD:
When discussing CD projects with other directors this is the biggest issue holding people back from participating in this pedagogical/archival/promotional activity. The vast majority of us do not conduct the premier ensemble(s) of the nation, province, city, district and so on. I do not feel that this should keep us all from feeling welcome to participating in the recording process however. If one focuses on the process of recording and the net positive results to the ensemble and music program, how the end resultant product measures up to the band down the street is a secondary concern in my opinion. Yes people will compare recordings, just as they do live performances.

But the market is already saturated with "less-than-ideal CD's":
People involved in the music business for many years will make this (valid) observation. At one point, making a record (LP) was a huge deal and quality control was something of an absolute. The industry has changed. We are in fact now inundated with CD 'product' which have become business cards for an ensemble/program. This is not a value judgment; it is the way it is. Obviously it does not make sense to create a musical business card that does not showcase a music program in a positive light. With the right repertoire, preparation, and modest recording goals however (I.e. 2-3 tunes per year over 3-4 year period will fill up a CD nicely), often a strong compilation CD can be created which all are proud of. This approach also gives the music program more time to raise fund to offset the reproduction costs.

Real life considerations:
I will be the first to fully acknowledge that most directors at the high school and post secondary level already have their plates overflowing with activities. To add a recording weekend into the yearly activities may simply be unrealistic especially when the related expenses are factored in (who wants to do yet more fund raising?).

Worth the effort:
Obviously I feel such a process is worth the time and effort. Perhaps my real point here is to offer the above suggestions to my colleagues across the country. If you do make a CD, please send me a copy of it as I likely can't make it to your year-end concert. If you would like a complimentary copy of one of our CDs, please feel free to contact me.

Dean McNeill is Head of the Department of Music at the University of Saskatchewan. Canadian trumpeter/composer Dean McNeill holds degrees in jazz studies from the University of North Texas (Masters), McGill University (Undergraduate), and Grant McEwan College (Music Diploma). Currently he plays with the Metro Jazz Ensemble, The Saskatchewan Brass Quintet, and the Saskatoon Symphony. His trumpet teachers include, Bill Dimmer (Edmonton Symphony), Kevin Dean (McGill University), Real Mathew (McGill University), Garry Guthman (British Columbia), and Keith Johnson (University of North Texas).

 

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