The Story of the Recording

by Kirk Whipple & Marilyn Morales

In this section we will share what went into the making of our recording, Celebrating Americans. Every serious recording project is different, but they all share three common aspects: planning, discipline and hard work.

The preparation of each score is time consuming. While we have prepared scores by hand using pencil and manuscript paper, we tend to first write paper sketches and then finish our new works using an electronic keyboard, computer and music writing software. The computer can save us time in some areas, but there is still quite a bit of listening and thinking that is involved in the creation of a new arrangement — and especially in the creation of an original composition.

Then, of course, we have to learn what we wrote. Some may think that, because we created a composition or arrangement, we automatically know how to play it. This is just not true. For instance, Ballet For Two Pianos took us hundreds of hours of practice - not just to learn, but to master. Attention students: There is something very valuable to be gained here! In our fast paced world people tend to be impatient, wanting immediate gratification and quick solutions to problems. Musicians — and serious artists of other disciplines — must have the patience to work long hours over many years to develop their skills. The most talented, promising young artists will never arrive at a professional level without patience and hard work.

We have been developing the music of Celebrating Americans over many years. The earliest pieces were our arrangement of Linus & Lucy, which we added to our repertoire shortly after we met in 1988, and Ballet for Two Pianos, which we premiered in 1991. It was not until we adapted Rhapsody in Blue in 2002 and added it to our repertoire that we decided to produce a collection of music written entirely by American composers. The last score for this project, Kirk’s arrangement of The Original Boogie Woogie was completed on September 26th, 2002. Then everything began to come together.

About two months before the recording we booked the Victor E. Clarke Recital Hall at the University of Miami for the evening of January 14th, 2003. Luis Ruiz, manager of concert halls at U.M. also warned us of construction work that would be going on at the time of our recording. We followed his advice and booked our session to begin at 6:00 p.m., a good hour or two after the end of the construction day.

Also during this time we were having meetings with graphic artist Patricia Stanila. She had recently finished producing four other similar CD graphics packages for us, so the initial planning on this latest project was much less work. As always, there were a lot of details to check: colors, precise choice of graphics, text information and of course our schedule. Most of Patricia’s work was completed before we even recorded a note.

In terms of the duplication of disks, we decided to go with the company we had previously worked with, Discmakers in New Jersey. They did a great job for us in our previous projects and were ready for what was going to be a very tight production schedule. Now everything was in place.

And yes, we were practicing as much as we could!

A few days before the recording we met with engineer Paul Griffith and piano technician Paul Bruno (the "Stereo Pauls" as we call them!) to lay out the plan for the evening and to take a quick look and listen to the pianos. We had already recorded three different projects in this recital hall with Paul Griffith, but one of the pianos had been changed from the previous recording. One important piece of planning would be the order in which we recorded the pieces.

We knew that we needed to have the lowest string, an "A" detuned by one half step on one of the pianos. (For details, see our comments about The Easy Winners on page 9.) We figured that, since no other piece used this lowest key, we could have Paul Bruno leave that string untouched for the remainder of the session. He would not hear of it! He asked us to call him after we recorded the first piece with this special tuning. After which, he would return to bring the string back up to pitch. What a guy! Of course, we took him up on his offer.

The night of the recording arrived. Aside from set-up and tear-down, Celebrating Americans was recorded in one six-hour session. Paul Bruno was wrapping up his tuning job when we arrived. After we adjusted the placement of the two grand pianos, Paul stuck around for a few minutes to listen to his work and then left to tend to another piano on the campus.

Then we continued warming up at one piano while Paul Griffith positioned the microphones and then went into the control room to check the levels and qualities of the sound of the piano. At this point Paul also turned the stage lights on to warm them up. We discovered in an earlier recording that the stage lights vibrate sympathetically to certain piano frequencies when the lights are not warm. This cost us a full hour of recording time when we recorded Danzas Para Dos Pianos and Latin Lovers. (It just goes to show you: nothing beats experience!) Paul recorded us while we played a passage. After we went into the control room and listened to that short section, we agreed that the recorded piano was sounding good and were then ready to begin. It was about 6:45 p.m.

There are a lot of things that can produce unwanted noise in a recording studio. So, before we began recording, we emptied our pockets, turned off our cell phones, placed a cloth on a music stand next to the piano where the "eggz" shakers (used in Rhapsody in Blue) would quietly rest, took our shoes off, tightened the piano benches to reduce squeaking and then took a few deep breaths to relax.

Since we used sheet music on some of the recordings and did not want the sound of page turns, we also had to coordinate our stops and starts with Paul. This was not a problem for him; part of an engineer’s job is keeping track of everything that gets recorded so it can later be put on the recording in the right places.

Paul B. showed up as we were getting through The Easy Winners. After we finished this piece he quickly brought the low string back up to pitch. We listened to our recording of this piece in the control room with Paul G. during the tuning. We were taking advantage of every minute of our precious studio time!

After Paul B. left, about 8:00 p.m., we recorded the rest of the pieces at one piano: Rhapsody in Blue, Nola and Solace. As there are quite a few page turns in Rhapsody in Blue, this part of the recording took quite a bit longer than we had anticipated. Also, maintaining the energy of the music during these planned breaks can be quite a challenge. Additional starts and stops not only slow down the recording process right at the break points, but, if the recording artists are not careful, these breaks can also interrupt the flow of performance in other places, disturbing dynamics and tempi. In some ways a concert is much easier. Since (most of the time!) the performers do not stop, there are no worries about things like noises from page turns or bench squeaks.

After we finished recording the pieces at one piano and had listened to all of our work, Paul G. jumped into action to adjust the placement and technical settings of the microphones so that we could record the two-piano works. While he was doing this Kirk was placing the fine chain on the treble strings of Marilyn’s piano to get ready to record The Star Spangled Banner / A Prayer for Peace. We were joking with Paul G. that "maybe we should keep it secret from Paul B. that we were going to touch the bass strings with our fingers and put a chain over the treble strings. You know how fussy those piano technicians are!" We all had a good laugh, a drink of water and then got back to work.

It was now 10:40 p.m., and the three of us were a little nervous: we had used up over three quarters of the session to record just over half of the material, with one of the biggest pieces coming up. Fortunately, our preparation paid off.

We decided to record the four movements of Ballet For Two Pianos next. Since we had memorized this work there were no page turns to worry about. Aside from one re-recording of the first piece, Hoedown, we recorded all four movements in one take each. Paul G. was not quite satisfied with the sound when we began recording the two-piano works, so he made a minor adjustment before we continued. We were elated to get through the Ballet so quickly! We recorded the remainder of the two-piano works, (Not So) Simple Gifts, Linus & Lucy and The Original Boogie Woogie just within our allotted time frame.

Paul G.’s wife Asia (pronounced "AH-shuh) showed up in time to hear us record the last two pieces and celebrate the completion of the recording. The four of us were excited about the sound of the recording. Asha’s positive response, along with the other three of us, also helped us to make a crucial decision regarding "The Woodstock Effect" in Linus & Lucy. (For details see our comments about this piece on page 10.) While Paul was burning CD copies of the night’s session for us, the four of us packed up. After an adrenaline packed evening and a very late snack we got to sleep at about 4:00 in the morning.

The following two days were a whirlwind. We were preparing for our upcoming Gulf Coast / East Coast tour, which was to begin on February 6th. The kind people at Discmakers told us that, "while there was no guarantee, we might be able to get finished copies of our new recording by February 6th if they could get a master recording by Friday, January 17th. After a good night’s sleep we woke up around noon and got back to work.

Kirk: "I edited all of the pieces on our home computer while Marilyn took care of upcoming tour business. Since not all of the pieces were recorded in single takes, there was quite a bit of work to be done. I worked all day long and straight through the night to finish." We had scheduled another editing session with Paul G. to do some of the finish work that could not be completed on our home computer. Here (with approximate times) was the wild day we had on January 16th:

8:30 a.m: Kirk calls Paul to say that the 9:00 a.m. editing time was not going to be late enough! There was still about an hour of editing to go. Paul was grateful to have a little extra time for breakfast.

10:45 a.m: Kirk leaves the house with CD copies of edited recording.

11:00 a.m: Kirk arrives at the University of Miami. After a few minutes Kirk and Paul realize that the edited recording needed to be formatted differently. Kirk calls Marilyn to get this process going at home while Kirk races back — of course following applicable speed laws!

11:30 a.m: Kirk returns home and finishes format process with Marilyn, grabs a bite to eat.

12:30 p.m: Kirk leaves home with re-formatted recording.

12:45 p.m: Kirk & Paul begin final post-production work, including the final adjustment of the reverb or "sound of the room" in which the pianos were recorded.

2:00 p.m: Patricia Stanila, who was waiting for a call, hears from Kirk. She needs to receive the exact timing of the pieces and other last minute details. Kirk gives her an estimated arrival of 3:00.

2:45 p.m: Kirk leaves with final edited version of the recording and picks up Marilyn at home.

3:30 p.m: Kirk and Marilyn arrive at Sir Speedy / Bird Road with all of the needed information. Patricia inputs the new information into the graphic documents. After several final necessary checks Patricia prints proofs of all of the graphics and burns a document CD that Discmakers will use to produce the CD graphic inserts.

4:55 p.m: Kirk and Marilyn jump across the street to a UPS drop site. Fortunately, the UPS driver is running a few minutes late. Kirk and Marilyn finish packaging the completed product and hand it off to the UPS driver.

5:08 p.m: (We checked the clock!) We head home! And the good news…

Because of our hustle, hard work and attention to details, the production of our CD copies went very smoothly at Discmakers. So smoothly, in fact, that we received shipment of 1,000 copies of Celebrating Americans on Tuesday, February 4th — two full days ahead of schedule and just three weeks after we entered the recording studio!