When the sounds of a symphony drift across radio airwaves, a
stereo, or a Spotify playlist, it is easy to overlook how they evolve from
a live performance into a recorded format. Enter the recording engineer. For the Grand Rapids Symphony, Principal Recording Engineer Jean Yves Munch
faithfully records the orchestra’s live performances, capturing the excitement
of live concerts while maintaining the superb sound quality to which the listening
public is accustomed.
Since 2005, Jean Yves has worked with the Grand Rapids
Symphony to record, edit and mix concerts for Blue Lake Public Radio broadcasts
and CD recordings. He’s recorded over 150 concerts with the orchestra, including
performances of acclaimed soloists like Stephen Hough, Lise de la Salle,
Jean-Philippe Collard, André Watts, Jon Kimura Parker, Dylana Jenson and many others.
He produced the Grand Rapids Symphony recording, “Philip Sawyers Symphonic
Music for Strings & Brass” and helped to establish a digital music library alongside
Music Director David Lockington. Upcoming projects include the production of a
CD featuring the works of composer Avner Dorman, including the world premiere
of “Dialogues of Love” with the GRS in November 2014.
We visited Jean Yves in this studio located in nearby
Saugatuck, Michigan to learn more about his life as a recording engineer.
How did your
relationship with the Grand Rapids Symphony begin?
I was contacted to see if I was interested in the position
in 2005. It was not something I had done before. I’ve always been in sound but
in different areas, mostly documentaries and feature films, but never in the
classical music world. It was definitely a challenge for me.
Did you find that
there was a difference in recording a symphony vs. recording for film?
The technique itself and the
tools you use are quite the same. There are little variations, but I went to
film school to learn all the recording techniques and to use my ears. I am used
to working with new environments because when I work on films, I always work on
location. So, I approached recording the orchestra as a regular job, just with
a lot more people involved. I always loved the life of performance.
What techniques have
you used to capture the sounds of the orchestra?
used what is called the Decca Tree method for many years. It was my main pickup
that captured about 80 percent of the sound of the orchestra, in addition to
other microphones. I used it for many years with great success; it’s a really
sweet sounding microphone arrangement. The only thing was it’s pretty hard to
set up because it’s a big, T-shaped rig that was two meters wide and one meter
deep. I had to set it up for each concert because nothing stays in DeVos Hall
between concerts. It was quite a workout to get that big rig to fly over the orchestra.
I think someone in the orchestra named it “the pterodactyl” because it was always
hanging out over the orchestra! I always thought it was a thing of beauty but
it was definitely noticeable.
I’m always looking for new and better
things to bring to the orchestra, and a few years ago I was lucky to experiment
with a fantastic microphone that is a lot easier to set up. It’s a native
B-format microphone made in California by Josephson, a very famous microphone
maker. Basically, instead of having three microphones on a huge Decca Tree,
it’s an arrangement of three microphones. When you bring the three tracks to
the studio, you can steer and modify the characteristics of the mix. So, it
gives me more flexibility with the mix back in the studio.
Besides setting up the equipment, is there
anything else you do to prepare for a recording?
don’t study the score, but I try to listen to the music beforehand so I know
what to expect. I don’t listen to other recordings and try to recreate that
sound. I might consult with David [Lockington], the guest soloist or the guest conductor. Of
course, I study the soloist. For example, if there is a harp, it is going to
need to be a little more in the mix. So during rehearsal I'll experiment with microphone placement that favors
that instrument. When there’s a soloist they always have additional
microphones. That’s mostly how I prepare for the job.
happens to a recording once it’s in the studio?
Soon after I started working with the Symphony we implemented
a cloud-based system that works well for everyone. What I do after each concert
is produce a pre-mix of the Friday and Saturday recordings and post it online
so the necessary staff can listen to it on their computers or iPhones. Most of
the time, David would let me know which recording he likes
better—Friday or Saturday. Maybe we’ll go with the first movement from a Friday
performance and the second movement from Saturday. It’s pretty simple editing
for radio broadcasts. It’s capturing a live performance which is different from
CD production. With most of the concerts, I try to get a good live recording
but its importance for radio is mostly to show that it is a live experience.
Yes, you are going to hear the public and sometimes people cough. Today, with
all the tools that we have available, we could extensively clean and perfect
and I’m not sure if I want to do that. I think there is a value to all the
sounds from a live performance, and I hope that when people listen to live
recordings on the radio it makes them want to come to the concert. A perfect
recording may cause people to expect something that doesn’t exist when they
attend the live performance.
How did you prepare for your current
project—a CD featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony’s world premiere of Avner
Dorman’s “Dialogues of Love?”
are two things that come into play. First, there was a dialogue with Avner
Dorman and with David. David had been rehearsing the piece so he knew what the
challenges are and what to expect. We had an extensive conversation in
preparation for this special recording, especially because it is a very large
ensemble. With the orchestra and choir it was a really full stage, so even
microphone placement became a challenge. The organization has always been very
gracious with me and they understand that I’m here to capture whatever is
possible during the performance, so they are very accommodating when we need to
squeeze in a microphone stand.
asked to have more rehearsal time with the orchestra than I do generally, so I
had a couple more days to set up all the microphones. This year especially, I
implemented a new recording rig in the hall and tried a technique that allows
more recording tracks. It was quite a challenge with a new system and a world
Of all the places
you’ve recorded, what’s your favorite?
I’ve recorded quite a bit in little churches around Paris
and I’ve found some very nice natural acoustics. It’s mostly old buildings, several
centuries old. Buildings you won’t find in America because there are very few
of them. I also like natural acoustics. I’ve recorded on a beach and it’s
beautiful, but of course you’re not going to bring a symphony orchestra out to
What do you
love the most about working with the Symphony?
I can build on my experience
with all the conversations and all the recordings that we’ve made together and
improve the process. For example, each time I work on a film, when it’s
finished, I’m not going to redo the same thing. [The process] is different for
every film and as one project it’s over. With the Symphony, every year I come
back to the hall with the musicians, and we take what we have been working on
from the past seasons and learn from it. I really value that, I think it’s very
cool and it’s something I don’t have with any other of my projects.