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Listening to the Band

Our man John James goes behind the scenes at the Beeb to find out how LTTB gets on the air - with a little help from Fodens and Russell Gray

Listen to the Band

Listen to the Band
Friday 25th July - BBC Radio 2 (88-91 FM) 9.30 pm.
Featuring a session from the Fodens Richardson Band, conducted by Russell Gray
Presented by Frank Renton.
Producer - Al Booth

The Thunderer - J.P Sousa arr. Mortimer
Scheherazade - Finale Rimsky Korsakov, Arr J. Ord Hume
Tico Tico – Arr. John Iveson - Cornet solo - Mark Wilkinson
Birdland - Zawinul arr. Sandy Smith
Sweet and Low - arr. H Snell
Carmina Meo - Trombone Trio - San Giovanni/Chaplain arr. Rodney Newton

On a warm Spring evening the destination for 4BarsRest.com was Studio 7 at the BBC Centre on Oxford Road, Manchester - home of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. This expansive studio has quite an open acoustic and is therefore most suitable for a recording of a brass band, giving an ambience that is most receptive and clean.

On our arrival the Sound Engineer Paul Smith, whose son plays with the Besses o’ th' Barn Band was well into the process of setting up for the recording and was positioning one of the many microphones attached to boom arm stands around the chairs placed in the well-recognised band formation.

Paul, using his vast experience planned the session - unsurprisingly, much as he would for an orchestral recording, so he had the configuration of stands, leads and microphones well positioned in readiness for the arrival of the band, which on this occasion was the Fodens Richardson Band - top of the 4BR rankings and for this recording under the direction of their professional MD Russell Gray.

For those of you with technical knowledge a configuration known as a Decca Tree that consisted of three microphones positioned above the band, as if placed at the three points of an equilateral triangle, would capture the principal sound picture.

Providing further ambience, to the front of the band complimenting the Decca Tree were placed wing microphones to capture the right and left sound picture and these would help to fix the stereo placement with microphones from Brüel & Kjær, Sennheiser, AKG and Schoeps which were all being used during the recording process. These are expensive bits of hardware indeed and fair play to the BBC, you can see and hear that our licence fees have been well spent in the pursuit of giving top quality brass band sounds.

Microphones were placed quite strategically in front of each section of the band but these were to be used quite sparingly and were set to clarify the tonal characteristics of the band sound. The only equalisation used was a little bass roll-off used on the closer mics to avoid distracting resonances in the finished sound.

The completed DAT recording of the band would be mastered using PC based digital audio utility SADiE, as the finished recordings would be taken back to Pebble Mill, the home base for the Listen To The Band producer Al Booth and broadcast assistant Val Simmonds, for final mastering. It sounds a bit technical, but it does guarentee a top class product.

Al Booth, the producer of the show, although from the strong banding area of South Yorkshire has musical roots that lay with the orchestral woodwind section - namely the flute. She also has a wealth of experience as a Choral Conductor and as she told us it was quite a steep learning curve when she first took over the reins with LTTB. That was in her early days as producer and to see her work now one would undoubtedly conclude that she had been working with brass bands throughout her career in music. LTTB cover all the major contests and earlier this year they were out in force in Bergen for the European Championships where they worked (as well as enjoyed themselves it must be noted) throughout the week long extravaganza. Al Booth brings a keen ear and a penchant for excellence that has boosted the reputation of LTTB in the high circles of the BBC - something we must be very thankful for in these days of "Dumbing Down" at Aunty.

To complete a LTTB session (after the band has recorded) takes about 4 ½ hours (from start of the first note to the last word from Frank Renton) to complete and the production editing and balance was to be finalized at Pebble Mill before the programme would be neatly concluded in a further recording session in Birmingham when the show’s host broadcaster and conductor Frank Renton would add the links.

This mid-morning session actually saw the completion of three separate LTTB recordings and although quite relaxed in mood was most workmanlike in action.

Passing by Studio 2, used to record bands and Studio 3 home of the ‘Archers’ the more compact twin-roomed studio 5 with its soft lighting and smaller booths was the base to bring together the final stages of the broadcast. (The recording of the band seems to be the easy bit, and so we will come back to that later)

Whilst the radio player feature allowing internet listening to specialist BBC radio shows from the last 7 days is centrally managed, Val Simmonds of the LTTB production team, ensures that visitors to the LTTB website ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/shows/listentotheband/ ) are able to find a track played in this week or last week's show.

Part of her duties at the full recording was to ensure that the names of the soloists and details of the music played were accurately noted and it was during this finalising session that she carefully fed that information into her computer as the final mix of the broadcast was being mastered.

Supporting Al Booth and Frank Renton in this session was Senior Audio Supervisor Chris Reeley and he carefully set up the programme for this sitting by placing the BBC Radio2 jingle at the head of the first piece ‘The Thunderer’.

In the recording booth a small tabletop lectern, an AKG microphone and a pair of Sennheiser headphones would be the tools used to capture the morning’s work.

The script for the show was the outcome of the combined efforts of both Al Booth and Frank Renton and there was an obvious warmth and camaraderie as they read through the script together where they agreed on minor adjustments to just let the language flow a little easier. With his obvious experience and having presented the show for a number of years, Frank varied both the timbre and pitch of his voice to deliver friendly yet concise links. On this occasion the script had more than its fair share of challenging pronunciations, composers and a fair bit of important information to impart.

The sound of ‘The Thunderer’ was now coming through the speakers and Chris Reeley gave the cue. “Thirty seconds”. The music faded and Frank delivered the opening welcome and introduced the band and moved effortlessly to the next piece of music the Finale from ‘Scheherazade’.

Whilst the music was playing he took the opportunity to re-read the script before the next cue “forty seconds” and so each link following the same pattern being recorded sequentially.

In a concentrated two-hour recording session it is tribute to the team that there was only one real out-take to frustrate the presenter.

“One minute”, said Chris Reeley as ‘Tico Tico’ was drawing to its conclusion. A sip of water, a pen being rolled between finger and thumb, a slight inclination forward towards the microphone and a finger pointing from the desk being the cue to speak. What emanated was a croak like a rusty concertina! - “Oh a frog in the throat,” came the frustrated voice from the booth.

Take two - a short rewind of the music, another sip of water, a pen this time being rolled a little more agitatedly between finger and thumb, another slight inclination forward towards the microphone and a finger pointing the cue to speak and an approximation of the sentence that came through was “Mark Wilkoinsoin and Trico tricahhh ahhh – oh move your lips Frank!” and a raspberry blown to release the frustration – no expletives and no fit of the giggles just a re-focus and take three - the consummate professional, a perfect take and the recording completed and ready for broadcast.

The most vibrant recordings of brass bands are generally forthcoming from halls and rooms which have a sympathetic ensemble acoustic so the LTTB recordings are produced in venues which, with experience, have proved to compliment the sound of a band and these include the Town Halls at Dewsbury and Morley as well as St. John’s Church in Gosforth.

Approximately half of the sessions for the show are recorded in BBC recording studios whilst the remaining sessions are recorded on the road when a B-Type van is used to engineer the session with three production crew travelling to record the band. It can take up to 2 hours to rig up for an outside broadcast, in contrast to the 30 minutes it takes to dropping the equipment.

To avoid unnecessary and extensive travel for the bands BBC producer Al Booth arranges for recordings to be made at a venue as close as possible to the home base of the featured band. This is unless, of course, as with the recent coverage of the European Championships the programme is an outside broadcast and these present their own individual set of dilemmas for the production team. A case in point was, as she highlighted, the energetic performance from the Stavanger Band at the Gala Concert in Bergen.

Production values for the BBC are extremely important so for some outside broadcasts they will sometimes turn to Doyen recordings with their producer Nick Childs to record the show to ensure its high standards.

Back to the actual recording though and on the evening of the recording it was about 6.30pm when the players began to arrive at the studio for the scheduled 3-hour recording session due to commence at 7.30pm that would, if all went according to plan, result with between 24 and 27 minutes top draw playing.

The choice of music is left somewhat to the discretion of the band and their musical director. As a rule of thumb the producer does like to keep a space of six months before repeating any single piece and tries to strike a balance in the content to feature different arrangers and styles. Whilst mainly steering away from more highbrow or avante-garde music and not discouraging pieces that demand a high technical ability, the main focus is to produce a show that does both the music and the band justice. The content therefore tends to reflect this with its mix of marches, light classics, 1 or 2 solos and selection of easy listening pieces.

On this occasion, before the band settled, MD Russell Gray met in the control room to agree an order of play taking the more demanding and solo work first before turning to the lighter arrangements later in the session. Copies of the short scores were given to Al Booth to allow careful assessment of the musical content and accurate timing of the music with each individual metronome mark, timing and performance styles carefully noted and highlighted.

By 7.35pm with the band all in their places and the 16 microphones patched in to the desk, the red light in the studio was illuminated and a test recording of the opening march ‘The Thunderer’ was undertaken.

This highlighted a number of changes that were needed. The microphone covering the drum kit was ‘frying’ and this was quickly changed and in order to give, in Al Booth’s word, a ‘snazzy’ sound, whilst the band moved into a little tighter formation. This minor adjustment complete and with the group as a whole happy with the balance and sound of the band the recording process recommenced.

Sound Engineer Paul Smith sat at the sound desk with its bank of slide controls whilst immediately behind him with clipboard and note pad sat broadcast assistant Val Simmonds. Throughout the evening, using a stop-watch, she would take note of the duration of each ‘take’ and note its relative position during the recording process.

At 7.45pm the recording light went on again and in earnest the band whipped through the first take of the Sousa march. With Val noting the recording time of 2’14’’ Al Booth had been listening and marking on her copy in highlighter pen. She marked any slight imperfections she picked up on during the performance as she aimed for near perfection. Russell Gray looked to the sound booth and through the intercom she asked him if he would cover the first four bars again. With this completed this opening march was in the can.

‘Tico Tico’ - a challenging solo for Mark Wilkinson, Fodens Principal Cornet was the next piece to be covered and so the same processes were followed - firstly a complete run through and then some short sections just to take it close to the final broadcast edit. For this recording the soloist stood at the front of the band, as he would in concert and this particular recording was very much collaboration between producer, MD and soloist. They each noted areas that they felt would benefit with a re-visit and just dropped in short phrases before Mark, striving for that extra 10%, covered a part for his own personal satisfaction. It was in the opening section of this piece where the recoding engineer’s skills were truly called upon as the producer asked if he could balance off and ‘tweek’ the latin percussion sounds so that they came through cleanly and yet complimented the overall sound picture.

This brought the clock around to 20:10hrs before the next eight minutes of demanding music with music from ‘Scheherazade’. Al Booth sat with a deliberation and focus marking her copy in blue highlights and using her metronome to clock the exact tempo.

As the band ended the piece and the music faded away Russell Gray wiped his brow and he and the band waited with hushed stillness for the red light to extinguish. Working together both Al Booth and Russell Gray discussed the recording, one noting the opening cornets whilst the other commented on the basses ‘chasing’ the music in the latter part of the piece. With that the blue highlighter pen was exchanged for a pink one and the so the process of recording short passages continued with a few short phrases and sound bites re-recorded to re-create that definitive broadcast performance. The pink highlighter swapped for an orange one then to green and each passage was re-recorded and then ticked or highlighted with the coloured pen to indicate its acceptance. This incredibly patient and meticulous process continued with dialogue between the studio and sound booth until everyone was satisfied with the end result. It was impressive.

The final broadcast edit, completed back at Pebble Mill would, without question reflect the masterful playing of the Fodens Band and so the session continued.

‘Carmine Meo’ a trombone trio arranged by Rodney Newton was the next item and here in order to achieve a balance and clarity a stereo pair of microphones was set for the soloists who had positioned themselves in front of a facing toward the band.

Playing the trio were John Barber, John Stevens and Tim Bateman and there was only the need for the sound recordist to check a few balance problems. The 4’01” piece was recorded with ease and confidence that only left a short revisit at the end when Russell Gray just looked for a little more secure intonation - but this was truly striving for perfection.

The recording session had reached a natural break at this point but rather than take a short halt the members of the band requested that they push on and so to a recording of ‘Sweet and Low’ which featured a quartet including Mark Wilkinson (cornet), Helen Fox (Flugel), Janet Gilder (Tenor Horn) and Glyn Williams (Euphonium).

With 18’45” of music so far recorded it was important to not let the band sound feel jaded and so Russell Gray and Al Booth took a little time to discuss the way forward to maintain the quality of sound and performance that had so far been achieved.

With this work the quartet again came from within the ensemble and positioned themselves in a horseshoe formation facing toward the soprano cornet. As this adjustment to the band was being undertaken the familiar face of Paul Hindmarsh, returning from a long journey, took a place in the sound booth. His obvious empathy for the sound of brass was apparent from the moment he heard the music begin to play.

In order to get the sound as clean and warm as possible the microphones were taken back just a fraction further than for ‘Tico Tico’ and ‘Carmine Meo’ and so with two short test recordings evaluated the studio light was illuminated yet again and the band played with superlative phrasing during the actual take. Despite the quality exuded this did not match the standards of tuning, intonation or phrasing exacted by soloists, MD or producer and so a second take was immediately taken.

“That’s beautiful, thank you”, said Al Booth before both her and Russell Gray then began to find areas for improvement.

This truly was a search for perfection and as Paul Hindmarsh listened intently moving his hands with the phrasing and Al Booth unconsciously found herself doing the same it was apparent that we were listening to something a little bit special.

Russell Gray gave a little cock-eyed look that had an inquisitive air about it but a reassuring word from the booth still didn’t deter him from just covering the opening phrases “just to nail the cornets”, he said. Take 40 was simply immaculate, as Paul Hindmarsh commented just before he left the booth, “He ‘s right you know.” This was a compliment to the MD indeed.

‘Birdland’ has become a bit of a jazz/rock standard and here the band relaxed and let their hair down. The microphones were again repositioned after an initial take as the band’s formation was adjusted to bring the kit player closer to the trombones. This did everything to again create that tight feel to the music. “Ready to put a light on this”, said Al Booth.
“Tempo 196. This was a new metronome today and I’m determined to use it”, she said.

Never at a loss for a cheeky reply the voice with Scottish brogue replied, “Do you think it would work better with batteries in it”.

Russell Gray’s comment summed up the warmth and friendly atmosphere that pervaded this whole recording session as this piece, covered in two separate stages, flashed by in a trice and with that the recording session closed. 22.35hrs and Russell Gray spontaneously punched the air. Sighs and smiles stretching right across the band and the recording session came to a conclusion in the three hours planned and set aside.

Fodens Richardson had done their stuff nearly to the exact minute asked of them, and the BBC accountants were very grateful indeed that there wasn't the need for "overtime". Al Booth was delighted by the way in which the session went and was looking forward to putting the final touches to a broadcast that she felt was one of the best of the year.

Meanwhile the band packed up their instruments and headed for a quick pint before the journey home. It was hard work, but when you have standards to maintain, it was well worth it. Russell Gray felt it was a good evenings work and was looking forward to the broadcast, whilst 4BR thanked everyone for allowing us the chance to see how making LTTB was done.

A lot of hard work by a lot of professional people goes into making the half hour programme that is our flagship broadcast output. As we have said, in these days when everything seems to be "dumbed down" LTTB remains a beacon of excellence we must maintain with our very lives. Without it where the hell would we be? Find out on the 25th of July.

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