Making high-quality audio recordings in a recording studio is one thing but making audiophile recordings at a remote venue has its own particular challenges. Neville Roberts visits London’s Temple Church to attend one such recording session featuring two of the Bach Cello Suites, performed by the renowned and award-winning cellist, Justin Pearson.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to attend a number of recording sessions in recent years. Having a technical background, I’m always keen to explore the technology used to make the recordings. The aim at each session has been to produce audiophile-quality recordings, including what many consider to be the ultimate in quality – professional master tapes.
Many of these recording sessions have been held at recording studios, where everything to do with the recording, from the acoustic environment through to the recording systems and microphones mixing, can be controlled to produce the final stereo mix. Making a recording at a remote venue is a completely different process altogether. So, when I was offered the opportunity to attend a recording session of two of the six J. S. Bach Cello Suites, organised by the audiophile record label Chasing The Dragon, I was extremely keen to attend, especially as I’m a lover of Bach’s music.
Coincidentally, it turned out that the brains behind Chasing The Dragon, Mike Valentine, and myself are both ex-BBC dating back to the seventies. Valentine was a BBC sound engineer and gained a lot of experience making recordings at outside broadcast events. All of his years’ experiences were certainly being put to good use for making this recording.
Recording the Bach Cello Suites
Bach’s first two Cello Suites had already been recorded several weeks earlier. This recording session held on 9 November 2019 aimed to record Suites 3 and 4, with Suites 5 and 6 being planned for January 2020 at the time of writing. These audiophile recordings are rather special as the analogue master tapes will be used to produce a set of limited-edition LPs that will be mastered at AIR Studios in London on their Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe. However, one of the things that will make these LPs special is that they are to be mastered at half-speed, taking advantage of new upgrades to the VMS 80. The recordings will then be released as a limited-edition boxed set, complete with a book – ‘The Cello Suites: In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece’ by Eric Siblin – which describes in detail the Bach Cello Suites. A limited set of copy-master tapes of the entire set of Suites is also being made available.
The Bach Cello Suites on this recording are performed by one of London’s busiest and most versatile musicians, Justin Pearson. Pearson has been principal cellist, general manager and artistic director of the National Symphony Orchestra, as well as guest principal cellist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the English Sinfonia Orchestras. For many years, he was the solo cellist in Andrew Lloyd Webber shows such as ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Evita’, ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ and ‘Bombay Dreams’. Pearson is presently artistic director and manager of the Locrian Ensemble of London, and he has written award-winning scripts for plays with music that have been performed in London’s West End. Pearson has recorded for many labels, including Hyperion, Naxos, Guild, ASV, Dutton Epoch, Carlton Classics and now Chasing The Dragon. He has also produced independent programmes for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4. Pearson served as a governor for the Royal Society of Musicians (a charity that supports musicians in need) and is musical patron of Sunbeams Music Trust in Cumbria, helping children and adults with special needs through music.
Temple Church in London
The venue for the recordings was the beautiful Temple Church in London, which has eight hundred years of history, dating from the Crusaders in the 12th century. The Church was built by the Knights Templar, the order of crusading monks founded to protect pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem in the 12th century. The Church comprises two parts – the Round and the Chancel. The Round Church was consecrated in 1185 by the patriarch of Jerusalem. It was designed to recall the holiest place in the Crusaders’ world: the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Due to its fabulous acoustics, it’s home to some of the most famous church music in London.
The recording equipment
As audio (and professional tape) enthusiasts, we don’t need any convincing about the importance of using quality equipment and cabling in our hi-fi systems. However, this is often overlooked by commercial recording studios (even those that offer audiophile-quality recordings), which focus instead on the practicalities of equipping a recording studio with equipment, especially cables, that can withstand the rigours of regular use. Similarly, equipment and cables used for recordings out in the field are often chosen for their ability to withstand rough handling. Fortunately, the importance of using audiophile equipment and cabling is recognised by Chasing The Dragon and no expense has been spared when recording the Bach Cello Suites. The cables alone cost tens of thousands of pounds per run!
The recording was made using a pair of Flea/AKG C12 microphones, separated by a Jecklin Disk, for the stereo feed, and a Neumann KU-100 dummy head for the binaural feed. For the analogue recording, the stereo output from the Focusrite microphone preamps was fed to a Sony APR 5003 master tape recorder running at 15ips and recording onto ¼ inch ATR master tapes. The Sony recorder has been renovated and calibrated by one of the best in the business – Petronel Butuc of The Audiophiles Clinic. Butuc has gained an enviable international reputation and his services are very much in demand, so it was especially fortunate that Chasing The Dragon’was able to secure his services for making these analogue recordings. Incidentally, a Nagra VI 6-channel recorder was used for the 24-bit, 192kHz PCM digital recording of the stereo feed from the C12s and the KU-100 dummy head for the binaural recording. For DSD recordings, two Tascam DA3000 DSD two-channel recorders were used – one for the stereo feed from the C12s and one for the binaural feed from the KU-100 dummy head. High quality Vovox and Nordost cables were used throughout the recording chain.
The ‘analogue source equipment’ (cello!)
Between the recordings, I spoke with Justin Pearson about the challenges he faced with these performances, and in particular, about his cello and bow. The cello was crafted by Francesco Ruggeri in 1706. Ruggeri, who studied in Cremona with Amarti and was in the same group of apprentices as Stradivarius, re-designed the shape of the instrument. Stradivarius, however, continued to make the more old-fashioned, traditional ‘Amarti-style’ designs. The reason for the re-design was that musicians required cellos for solo playing that would project more sound and be physically smaller to allow players to reach higher up the instrument while playing. Stradivarius probably made only about 60 cellos, while Ruggeri made considerably more.
The back of Pearson’s cello is made from a single piece of wood and the front is made from two pieces of maple wood, with beautifully-cut F-holes. When Pearson purchased the instrument, the scroll had disappeared, but it has now been replaced with one made by Guadagnini in Turin. Pearson had the cello restored in New York at a cost of £18,000 for the restoration alone! The bow is a Lamy Père, mounted in gold, and was made for an exhibition in Paris in around 1900. The weight and shape of the bow is balanced for solo playing, and Pearson bought it especially for this recording.
The resultant recording
The recordings from the master tape are truly spectacular. The performance is one of the best renditions of the Bach Cello Suites I’ve ever heard, and the recording quality is amazing. All the atmosphere and space of the wonderful venue together with the detail of the instrument has been captured beautifully, thanks to the skill of the recording engineer and the quality of the audio equipment used throughout the recording chain. But don’t just take my word for it – Chasing The Dragon has kindly made available a sample high-resolution 24/192 digital file that you can download from my website at rssconsultancy.co.uk/files/ChasingTheDragon/Bach-Cello-Suites.wav
For me, apart from engaging fantastic performers, the main challenge when making live recordings is how to capture and reproduce all the ambience of the environment without allowing it to detract from the performance. To overlook this would result in a recording that might as well have been made in a recording studio.
The goal of the recording engineer is to add an extra dimension of reality by capturing the magic of the recording venue. This requires not only considerable skill (a skill that is exemplified by these Chasing The Dragon recordings, which somehow manage to capture the essence of reality and transport the listener to the recording venue) but, also, the best in audiophile equipment for the recording chain, including the choice of microphones, cables, amplifiers, power supplies, and the recorder itself. The result is a listening experience that is much closer to a live performance and can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. Certainly, after the final recording session has taken place in January 2020, I’ll be one of the first in line to purchase what I believe will be an outstanding recording of a spectacular performance of these Bach masterpieces.