The world of record production with Adrian Peacock

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Adrian Peacock is the producer for our project to complete AAM’s recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, featuring pianist Robert Levin. Here he shares an insight into his work.

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What does a record producer do?

I’m the one in the talkback box with the sound engineer. He works with all the microphones, cables, computers and technology, while my kit is a pair of headphones and a red pen. I try not to be intrusive – it’s the artists making the music, not me. On the other hand, I have to be sure that we have everything we need and that it’s all up to the artists’ standards. They look to me for reassurance. That’s always interesting because different musicians have different musical values. I try to find out what matters to each artist – what their priorities are. In the case of Robert Levin two things spring to mind – he is very experienced in the studio which is very telling, and secondly he is a real stickler for detail. He wants every note to be right, so I keep an ear out for that. I’m the fly on the wall, until somebody wants me to comment, in which case I get in there and say, ‘I still haven’t got this bit’ or ‘That hasn’t been together’ or whatever.

I also have to listen out for tuning. On early instruments that’s sometimes harder than on modern instruments. The keyboards we’ve been using in these sessions – special tangential pianos and harpsichords – are highly sensitive to temperature change and to being played, so the tuning can wander around quite quickly.

How far do you get involved in musical choices?

Some musicians are happy for a producer to get into it and others aren’t, and I have to work that out quite quickly, which is why it’s nice to work with people more than once. Some have decided exactly what they want and they’re not up for being shifted, so we just get on with it, while others are happy to think something could be done slightly differently. I might just suggest, ‘Have you thought of doing that?’ over for instance decisions about how to pace a cadence or about balance. For example, in these Mozart concertos, the second violins occasionally have really interesting moments, which often we don’t hear, so I would say, ‘You might want a bit more second violin.’ But it’s always in the spirit of collaboration. We are all on the same side, doing our best to achieve whatever it is we’re trying to achieve in the available time.

What are the challenges?

There are always practicalities and compromises – we rarely record under ideal circumstances. If recording in London, it’s noisy, with planes, traffic or ambulances. Another compromise is money. An average return on a 3-hour session is 12 minutes of recorded music – 15 if you’re lucky, 9 if you’re not. So for 70 minutes of music, you need five or six sessions and if there isn’t enough money to pay everybody for all those sessions, life starts to get tricky. It’s a plate spinning exercise. We’re all doing the best we can to achieve what’s achievable in the time available, with the resources we have.

How do you get the best out of players in a recording session?

You have to be human. We’re trying to be serious and do a serious job but there is always room for humour and levity. For example, Robert has an entertaining habit of finishing off sessions with a random tune – the theme to Road Runner or something which sounds utterly ridiculous on a tangential piano!

Musicians are amazing and they realise it’s a team game. In a recording session there’s nowhere to hide and you have to keep focused. We have a well-organised routine of breaks – 15 minutes in a three-hour session – which they need to keep their concentration.

I also can’t stress enough how important good biscuits are in the breaks! After all, it stands to reason, if the management looks after its musicians, the musicians will look after the music. If you give them top-of-the-range M&S, with more chocolate than biscuit, they’re going to play like a dream.

What happens after the recording?

If you’ve had six sessions over three days, there are normally 12 or 13 hours of recorded material, which will take me another two or three days to listen to and work on. I use a comprehensive shorthand in sessions so when the sessions are over I know what I’m going to join with what, and putting that together takes about a day. Then I send that to Robert and to Richard (Egarr – conductor) for their comments. Robert has a detailed shorthand to comment on what he wants improved and to make sure we’ve got the best version. He’ll send me that list and I’ll get to work on it.

There are so many things to think about on the fly that I can’t guarantee to choose the best material first time, so I go through it twice before sending it back to Robert. He sends back his further comments and I trawl through all the material to find better versions and make him the next edit. We bat it backwards and forwards until he’s happy and then the sound engineer works on the mix. I’ll have left markers along the way saying Robert would like a bit more oboe here or second violins there. The engineer adjusts things very slightly so we can hear every detail that we want.

It’s only three or four days’ work in total and artists often wonder why it takes longer than that to get through our system, but it’s not a question of how many hours you work on it, but of how many times you sleep on it. I often go back to things I thought were okay yesterday but today, after a good night’s sleep, they don’t seem so good.

What makes AAM’s Mozart cycle unique?

Firstly, there’s the fact that Robert is using all these different instruments, which has never been done before. I don’t think any of us had ever encountered a tangential piano and it’s a very interesting sound (this is being used for No 6 in B flat K238, No 8 in C K246 and one of the three keyboards in No 7 in F major, K242). The sound world demonstrates an authenticity that I think has never been heard. The other thing is that Robert is famous for improvising his cadenzas, so by definition this version has never been heard before. His improvisation and ability to make up music completely within the idiom is astonishing. When we get to his cadenzas you can almost hear the players’ jaws hit the floor.

What has been your highlight, working on this project?

There’s always a humility about being tasked to work on something like the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21, which must be one of the most astonishing pieces of music ever written. I have to pinch myself, thinking of the privilege it is to be in this chair, and to have an opportunity to listen to music-making of this standard. The experience is without compare.

When did you first encounter the AAM?

I used to sing in the AAM Chorus years ago, when Christopher Hogwood was still with us. As a London freelancer, I was lucky to take part in particular projects.

When did you become a producer?

I did my first production job in 1993. It was a revelation to sit in the producer’s chair, listening to wonderful music-making in the bizarre situation of being invited to pick holes in it. It was rather daunting in the beginning. But ultimately, we’re all armchair listeners. We all listen to something and think, ‘Do I like it? Don’t I like it? If I don’t like it, why not, and how would I do it differently?’ I enjoyed the process and word got out. My big break came in 2003, when I was asked to record the King’s Singers, which was the same time I became a member of the BBC Singers. For ten years I managed to do both but I got too busy so I left the BBC Singers. I’ve never been happier than where I am now.

How do you feel about the future of recording?

Why do people make records of anything? You could be cynical and argue that nobody needs to record the Messiah ever again. What can anyone to bring to it? Obviously, the soloists are important, but in terms of interpretation, hasn’t it all been done? I think the way forward lies in original programming, combining old music with new music. I’m always excited to see good programming. If you are going to record a piece that everyone knows, you have to understand your Unique Selling Point and hope that it isn’t merely to do it faster than everyone else, which has been a bit of an unfortunate fad in recent years!

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