Meet Jean Yves Munch, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Recording Engineer

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?

We 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?

I 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.

So what 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?”

There 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. I 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 premiere. 

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 the beach!

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. 

Posted by Sam Napolitan at 15:33
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