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I’m Sitting In The Control Room…

… a personal reminiscence by James Rosenthal, that most patient studio engineer, of recording the Universe Symphony.

Five years later…

August 10, 2000
Mike Thorne has informed me of Johnny Reinhard’s proposal to record a symphony using multitrack techniques, and I must say I am intrigued and maybe even confounded.  As I become aware that it is an Ives symphony at that, my perplexity changes to enthusiasm and I express to Mike both my desire to do it and the idea that we can, somehow technically pull it off. 

I have always had a soft spot for 20th century repertoire.  Ever since an uncommon high school music teacher exposed me to some of the music of Varèse, Cage, Babbitt and Charles Ives.  Subsequently, an opportunity to be involved with anything Ives probably shrouds my eyes from the difficult task ahead.  I don’t know what I’m getting myself into.  I’m aware that it will probably end up being an awful lot of work but, hopefully, filled with many moments of awe and discovery.

March 5, 2001
Now I’m sitting in the control room surrounded by gear.

In two days our sessions with the main element of the Heavens Orchestra will begin: ten layers of flute and nine of violin.  My main concern is whether or not it’s all going to work.  Of course, I’ve already checked my machines but what we’re going to use them for is somewhat unusual and seemingly difficult.

James Rosenthal (sound engineer) and Johnny Reinhard in the Stereo Society control room recording the Universe Symphony.

Read producer Mike Thorne’s account of the recording.

photo: JR Rost, download print-quality photo

As usual, the front of the studio is occupied by the mixing console and monitor speakers, but today the studio is further crammed with two beta video machines, two video monitors, video camera and tripod.  We will be recording a second conductor to video for what is referred to as the ‘tripartite’ for the Heavens orchestra that live, had required a second conductor.

Back on September 26, 2000, we had already videotaped Johnny conducting, the ‘basic’ tracks of viola, cello, trombone and low bell.  We would use this direction for the majority of subsequent instruments. This new, second conductor video of the Universe required me to videotape Johnny watching the original ‘conductor’s videotape’ we made for the earth and cosmos orchestras while simultaneously conducting a subdivision of three beats per sixteen seconds. 

With all audio and video machines synchronized, the end result will enable us to play back the basic tracks to Tom Chiu and David Fedele two days from now with a new, more rhythmically-connected visual reference to guide them through what is a difficult section. In theory we could have two sets of musicians watching two separate videos simultaneously, approximating the two conductors needed at the live performance at Alice Tully Hall.  Soon Johnny is in front of the camera and, amazingly, he makes short work of it.  Somehow, he is able to lock into the original tempo and ‘do his thing’

March 7, 2001
Two days later it works perfectly.  Tom and David are able to put the tripartite down quickly and fluently.  Soon, we switch back to the original conductor video and continue with the rest of the violin and flute layers.  I’m beginning to really believe this is going to pull together.

December 9, 2003
I’m sitting in the control room, and it’s now over three full years since we started this massive project. What I didn’t realize is how much backing up, unloading and reloading, editing, track cleaning, and who knows what would be needed to put all these sections together contiguously as the continuous realization of the score.

All ten cycles of some 28 percussion instruments, seven movements of the earth and heavens orchestra (another 63 or so instruments) are now assembled and ready for playback. Johnny and I are ecstatic.  We’ve never heard the whole thing from start to finish.  What we hear in a completely unmixed state, raw and unadorned, leaves us in rapture.  We look at each other and bask in the satisfaction that we have realized a dream, despite the difficulties and complexities along the way. We can’t wait for Mike to hear it.

We are beside ourselves to be at this juncture in the project and are giddy with the pleasure of our accomplishment.

Then Johnny asks, ‘where’s the trombone solo at bar 197?’  Looks like we’ve a little more work to do.

– James Rosenthal May 2005