Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Classical Profile: Dirk Sobotka, Grammy Award Winning Sound Engineer

I am fascinated by sound. In particular, music of course.....and the process through which it is captured for listening. My Dad had a great ear for this sort of thing. He had more pairs of headphones than anyone I have known, and he was very sensitive to the way recordings sounded. He has a number of very old recordings in his collection, dating back to the 1940's and beyond. Even though those recordings are not lush, stereophonic productions, he could listen through the cracks and noise to hear the music being made. He ultimately cared about the musical interpretation the most. But, being a historian himself, he also loved the historical context of the recording. When records went from mono to stereo, he continued to listen to the mono recordings as well. And when CD's came along in the early 1980's, he was among the first to proclaim that the sound of the vinyl recordings was better than the newly created digital CDs.(he was right too....).
I have rehearsal with the Heritage Philharmonic on Thursday evenings during our concert season. On the drive home, I listen to the Kansas City Symphony hour on KCUR public radio-89.3 FM. This is a broadcast of a live performance of the KC Symphony. On one particular evening, I caught the end of the Fountains of Rome by Ottorino Respighi, one of the compositions that causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up when you hear it (see one of my earlier blog posts for a link to this piece). It had been recorded early in the Fall by the KC Symphony. It was an incredible performance, and the sound quality was stunning. It got me thinking about how such a recording is made. "That sounds like a possible topic for my blog" I said to myself. So went to the KC Symphony website and found some contact info, sent an e-mail to an administrative assistant, and asked who makes the recordings. The answer I got was a guy named Dirk Sobotka, a sound engineer with Soundmirror, a recording company in Boston. So I sent Dirk and e-mail asking him if he would be willing to talk to me about how the symphony is recorded. He graciously agreed, inviting me to meet him at the Kauffman Center on one of his upcoming trips to talk and tour Helzberg Hall. I had tickets for the Verdi Requiem at the end of May, so I met Dirk a couple of hours before Saturday's performance. Here is his bio from the Soundmirror website:

Dirk Sobotka
Dirk Sobotka received his Diplom-Tonmeister degree from the Hochschule fuer Musik, Detmold in 1996. From 1997 until 2004 Dirk worked as a recording and mastering engineer at SoundByte Productions in New York City. In 2004 he joined Soundmirror in Boston, and was immediately made a part of the team remastering the legendary RCA Living Stereo series for SACD. Since 2006 he has been producing the broadcast and archival recordings for the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra, moving with them to their new home in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in 2011. As part of this relationship Dirk was the musical producer for the TV Special, “Homecoming: Kansas City Symphony presents Joyce DiDonato”, featured in the PBS Arts Summer Festival of 2012. In addition, Dirk remains very busy in working on commercial releases with an emphasis on opera and symphony orchestras. This work has resulted in multiple Grammy nominations culminating in the 2010 Grammy for Best Engineered Classical Album.
 A Grammy! Wow....this guy is BIG TIME. And he could not have been more polite and helpful to me, as I bombarded him with hundreds of questions about everything from what kinds of microphones he uses to who his favorite composers are.
He told me that there are multiple back-ups to assure that each concert is recorded properly...something I learned the hard way during my conversation with him. He allowed me to use my phone to record our conversation as we spoke. I had over 70 minutes recorded, and immediately after we met, I promptly deleted it, accidentally of course! NO!!! and no back-up (frown face). I emailed Dirk and fessed up to my goof, and he acknowledged this is the perfect example of why he makes back-ups!
So I am doing my best to re-create our conversation from memory and the few notes that I did take.
Gone are the days of tape. Everything is recorded on to a computer hard drive. We took a walk down to the stage. This was so cool...standing on stage at Helzberg Hall. It is so gorgeous. If you have been, you may have noticed all of the microphones hanging down from the ceiling. This is where it all starts...miking the stage. I learned from Dirk that the technique of miking an orchestra has changed very little since the early days of sound recording. There are 3 main microphones that hang above the front of the stage. They capture sound at the left, center and right of the stage. I looked this configuration up; its called a Decca Tree. Engineers at Decca Records developed this method for recording orchestras in the 1950's. It's still the standard today, and Dirk explained that 85% of the sound

we hear comes from these 3 omnidirectional mics. There are other mics hanging over other areas of the stage, as well as other spots in the hall. These mics provide additional sounds that can be incorporated into the final sound recording. Anywhere from 19-24 microphones can be used. Dirk has a 24-channel sound board in his control room, along with plenty of other equipment that I really can't explain what they do. But after the sound enters the microphones, it travels to a rack of equipment off stage where it is processed and then sent to his control room. This has something to do with boosting the signal so it can travel such a great distance without degrading. This equipment also has something to do with converting the sound to a digital signal. 
Unlike studio recording, symphonies are recorded "live". It all happens at once. In the pop music world, each element is usually recorded piece by piece and then assembled in the mixing room. Bass, drums, keyboards, guitars, vocals, etc.....are recorded individually and pieced together. That is not the case here. Dirk records the KC Symphony as they perform. He records each performance of a concert program, typically Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoon. He then makes a CD copy of each performance for Michael Stern, the orchestra's conductor and music director. From there, they can evaluate each performance and choose which parts of each will be assembled into the "final performance". The technology allows Dirk to take a section from one performance and edit it with a section from one of the other performances to create a final "whole". Its truly amazing....this digital-age stuff is powerful! What makes Dirk a true artist is he is a musician first. He's not just a sound engineer....he knows the music. He follows a score as the piece is performed, and he has the talent and the ear to identify and appreciate the obvious challenges of a wrong note or missed entrance, but also the subtleties of musical phrasing, tonality, and shape. He is using this talent to create a final recording that will serve the musicians and the listeners well.
The acoustics of Helzberg Hall are wonderful. Dirk told me the Helzberg Hall is one of the best in the world. The natural sound of the orchestra in the Hall needs little if any modifying or applying of post-production sound enhancements such as reverb or compression. The warmth and life of the Hall itself, combined with the world class musicianship of the KC Symphony yields a sound that is "music to the ears" (I couldn't resist that one). I encourage you to listen to the KC Symphony Hour to experience the brilliance of our "hometown" symphony orchestra, brought to life via the talent of Dirk Sobotka. Here is a link:

Well done Dirk Sobotka!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Classical Profile: Patrick Neas: From KXTR to Radio Bach online.

Are you aware that beginning in the 1950's, Kansas City was home to one of the best classical music radio stations in the nation? On 96.5 FM? For me, the voice of classical radio is, and always will be, Patrick Neas, who joined KXTR as an overnight announcer in 1984. He soon worked his way up to program director and then morning show host. I remember driving to KC many times as a child to visit my grandparents, and as soon as we got close to KC, we would turn to 96.5 and try and pick up KXTR's signal. It was such a treat to be able to listen to classical music on the radio, and not just for a few hours a day....but around the clock. It seemed like a miracle that a city the size of KC would have such a treasure on its airwaves. Later down the road, I studied Radio-TV-Film in college, and hosted a classical music program on air, and later became assistant station manager of WISU at Indiana State University. I learned a lot listening to Patrick Neas and tried to apply it to my own style. He was a huge influence on me.
Fast forward to the digital age. KXTR is no longer on the air. Radio, and the music industry as a whole, has been revolutionized by digital down-loading, file-sharing, satellite radio, and most of all, the internet. But Patrick is still here in KC, very much a player in the arts community. He writes a weekly column for the KC Star, and most recently is part of a new start-up doing what he loves the most....programming classical music, now for Radio Bach www.radiobach.com 
I reached out to Patrick (I follow him on Facebook) and asked him if he would be interested in getting together sometime to talk about our shared passion: classical music. He graciously accepted my offer and we had a great visit recently at a local coffee shop where we connected instantly. For me, it was like meeting a celebrity.

TH: How did you get your start in classical music radio?
PN: I was going to Rockhurst and I always loved classical music and I was a big fan of KXTR in high school. So in 1984, I was in college, and I called up the program director of KXTR and asked for a job and sure enough they had an overnight shift. And they asked me to do a pronunciation test and I passed it. And so from that once a week overnight shift I just stuck with it and eventually became a full-time announcer, then became program director and then became morning show host.
TH: 1984 to when? When did KXTR go off the air?
PN: 2012.
TH: When did the signal leave 96.5 FM and move to AM?
PN: They took us off of FM in 2000. They thought they could make more money off alternative rock. We were running KXTR in a shoestring budget. They had to add a whole staff of people when they switched. Plus, we had really good ratings when they took us off FM. We had a 4 share, which put us in the top 5 rated classical stations in the country.
TH: I remember my dad always loved classical radio. As a youngster in Chicago, I remember him listening to WFMT quite often…which is still on the air. And then we had KMFA in Austin. And of course, whenever we came to KC, we always had the radio on KXTR.
PN: I worshiped WFMT for their programming. Their ratings were not as good as ours, but they had more competition in their market. For a long time, Chicago had 2 classical music stations. And universities too that also played some classical music. When I started working at KXTR in 1984 we had a program director who showed me the schedule that WFMT published in a local magazine, and it didn’t pander at all….they didn’t play Pachelbel’s Cannon over and over…and I respected that so much and it has guided me too. I’ve never tried to pander in what I program. I do try to be reasonable……I’m not going to program Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire during morning drive…but you know on the other hand, I am going to play an aria. But we had consultants in the 90’s that did not want any vocal music on the station. And they had audience testing….so they would play the William Tell Overture…which doesn’t really get going for about 10 minutes….the beginning is very unfamiliar for a lot of people (who only know the “Lone Ranger” theme from it). So they would play it for a minute and the testing audience would give it a thumbs down…and they’d pull the William Tell Overture from the playlist! They just didn’t understand the classical format at all.
TH: Unlike other formats….classical music does not fit into a little box.
PN: I do have to say that when I was a little kid, my family had these 2 albums where they would cut right to the “Lone Ranger” theme. And as a kid that grabbed me, but I think for the average radio listener, that you have to give it a little time to breathe.
TH: Speaking of children’s records…..since we are both from the same generation too, do you remember a record called Sparky and the Magic Piano?
PN: I do, yes!
TH: I don’t know anyone else who does! That’s so great that you do!
TH: Do you listen to other types of music?
PN: I do listen to other things, but I would say at least 90% of it is classical.
TH: So how did you get introduced to classical music?
PN: My family loved music, and they had music on all the time. And all different kinds too. My parents were not just classical music people. They had Eugene Ormandy’s record of Strauss waltzes next to the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel. So I was exposed to all of this good music. But for some reason classical music started to click with me in high school. I still remember seeing Woody Allen’s movie Love and Death..and that really triggered a love of classical music.
TH:  Prokofiev…….(the music of Prokofiev was featured throughout this film).
PN: Yes! Discovering Prokofiev…and as you probably know, one thing leads to another and then you start listening to Shostakovich…and other Russian composers.
TH: Right…the musical strands or connections that lead to new musical discoveries. I have been exploring French music lately that way. Gounod led to Chausson and then to other French composers…but always back to Debussy for me somehow.
PN: I have been into 19th century French music a lot myself. I think it’s really overlooked and doesn’t get played in the concert hall nearly enough. I love Massenet…the Le Cid ballet music. Saint-Saens, Gounod….Debussy was one of my early loves in classical music. When I was in high school I played piano, and loved to try and play Claire de Lune. And Reverie. As I have gotten older I have gotten into some of his more abstract music….Pelleas et Melisande, some of his tone poems…La Mer.
TH: Debussy is one of my favorite composers for sure.
PN: I have a real fondness for French music. There is something about French music that I think gets short shrift among classical music listeners. I don’t think it’s considered as lofty I think…
TH: I don’t get it!:) So what are some of your all-time favorite composers? I usually ask for top 5.
PN: Who is on your list?
TH: I always start with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven…..but then it gets so hard. I usually have Debussy at #4, and maybe Villa-Lobos at 5.
PN: Your top 3 are unchanging…mine are so fluid .But I have to go with 10! Picking 5 is too hard. Another French composer who I think gets short changed  and who I love is Rameau. He is way high on my list. I love Rimsky-Korsakov. And Dvorak. I don’t think he ever wrote a bad piece of music……everything is just…..you know…..
TH: I agree. I am still learning so much.
PN: Like you, I have very eclectic music tastes. There are very few composers that I just totally dismiss. I can find worth in every different composer and genre.
TH: I love it when I listen to a piece that is new to me….and I don’t get it! So I go back and try again…and again. And finally I develop an appreciation for it and it opens a new world to me. I recently wrote a blog about listening to Penderecki’s Stabat Mater for the first time…and how I did not get into it at all, but I kept with it and was finally rewarded.
PN: It’s so interesting you bring him (Penderecki) up. When I first graduated from high school in ’77, I had some really horrible grunt job downtown, so I would escape by listening to KXTR…and this was before radio consultants…so they could PLAY Penderecki at 9:00 am in the morning. It was his Partita for Harpsichord and Electric Guitar. And that combination of instruments in my teenage mind was so incredible that it made me a life-long fan of his music. I don’t think even I would play that piece on the radio. That program director from back then probably doesn’t know that he made such an impression on me.
TH: Janacek was a big early influence on me.
PN: Yes….the Sinfonietta…and I love his piano music. I have grown into composers too. There are some composers who early on I didn’t like at all…like Chopin…it just seemed like easy listening. Wimpy music.  But now, I see there is a lot of blood and guts in his music and he has climbed really high on my list. And another composer I liked OK but was not that passionate about but is now one of my favorites is Liszt. His piano music is unbelievable. He’s a very deep composer. His Piano Sonata in B-minor is really incredible.
TH: Did you see the writing on the wall when KXTR was moved from 96.5 FM to AM?
PN: Yes. The history is interesting. KXTR started back in the late 1950s by a group of classical music lovers who wanted to start an FM classical music radio station. It started in a house on Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park. Then it moved to the Country Club Plaza in the space below what is currently Starbucks.
TH: Oh yeah…it used to be that German restaurant?
PN: Right…it was below that. And then RLDS bought it and moved it out to Independence. And this is what I remember listening to back in the ‘70’s, they had a segment called Apple Tree Hill…very charming. And then Robert Ingram bought it from RLDS in 1975 and moved it out to KCK, in this little trailer with no windows. But it was in a lovely, charming little valley that had all kinds of wild life..and it was just really neat. And so they owned us until 1996 when Heritage Broadcasting bought it from the Ingram’s for $11 million dollars….who had paid $500,000 for it in 1975. Two years after that, in 1998, the Sinclair Broadcast Group bought it from Heritage for $22 million dollars!
TH: Wow, so it went from $11 to $22 million in just 2 years!
PN: In the late 1990’s, after the FCC deregulated the industry and companies could own as many stations in a market as they wanted…the price of radio stations just skyrocketed. But now they are in a financial jam because terrestrial radio has all sorts of competition. Their revenues are sinking. And these big corporations have these huge debts after spending millions of dollars acquiring these stations…and they can’t make it back. It will be interesting if one day they sell them off and they once again become mom and pop stations.
TH: Maybe it will come full circle?
PN: Maybe….In 2000, when they took us off FM, they told me at the last minute that they were moving us to AM.  And the next day we were on a horrible signal (1250). Then we moved to 1660. Those were dark days. Although… we hung on for 10 years.
TH: It’s not just the music that brings the listeners. It’s also the personalities…the interviews …the opportunity to hear music for the first time. Even with an AM signal, I still tuned in to hear what YOU had to say. And AM is OK for that.
PN: In 2012, out of the blue, they just blew it up all together and put a business format on. I should have seen it coming, but still I wasn’t expecting it. Because we had no overhead. Everything we made was gravy for them. That’s the history of KXTR.
TH: What have you been up to since then?
PN:  For the past five years I’ve been writing a weekly column for the Star. It’s been really great because it’s given me another outlet. I have a degree in English. I enjoy it. It is challenging…it’s a tough gig to write a weekly column
TH: Coming up with ideas and topics to write about each week must be a challenge?
PN: Yes, and gathering the information, interviewing people and all that.
TH: Who are some local artists you have connected with?
PN: I enjoyed talking to Charles Bruffy a couple of weeks ago (Director of the KC Chorale) about the Rachmaninoff Vespers. He is very entertaining.
TH: I am looking forward to the Verdi in a couple of weeks.
PN: You know, I just talked with Michael Stern about that a couple of days ago. That’s going to be in my column next Sunday.
TH: That’s a BIG name to talk to!
PN: Yes, and what I love about Michael Stern is he is so eloquent. He “writes” my column (laughs). He is an exacting musician which is why the symphony has become so good. They are on fire! And I don’t know if you have heard any of the recordings they have been making for Reference (recording label)?
TH: No, I haven’t.
PN: They are Fabulous!
TH: So where do you think classical radio is headed?
PN: I am doing Radio Bach now, and in it’s infancy in so many ways. It’s an online, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week  broadcasting from Johnson County Community College.
TH: So where do I go to hear it?
PN: RadioBach.com. At this point its music and imaging. We are going to keep building on it, adding interviews etc. I am not doing a show yet, but I am hoping to in a year or two. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a morning show again. And now that we are streaming, I don’t feel beholden to any kind of crazy consultant ideas…
TH: You can play what you want!
PN:  I think it will distinguish us. The thing about being on the internet is…we are competing with every classical station in the world. We want to give this a strong, local angle with arts leaders etc. We’re going to get there.
TH: So you are optimistic about the future of classical music in society?
PN: I think classical music is hip, and I’m not just saying that…I really honestly do. I think that people who don’t think its hip aren’t hip!
TH: I love that! That may be the signature quote for this interview. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
PN: You are welcome!

Friday, June 6, 2014

What the......???? Tchaikovsky?

I was in the car recently, driving home from somewhere, and I turned on satellite radio, Sirius channel 76....the Symphony channel. I intentionally try not to look at the digital readout that shows what piece is playing because I enjoy trying to guess what it is. I'm not sure what my batting average is, but I'm pretty sure is fairly high. But on this evening, the piece playing was not familiar. I was able to identify it as a string quartet....this was obvious, and it was certainly not a Baroque or Classical period work. It sounded like it might have been from the early 20th century.....it was very a fascinating..and it was captivating. The more I listened, the more perplexed I was......I had no idea what it was or who it was written by. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I looked at the display. Tchaikovsky.....his string quartet number 3. "This isn't Tchaikovsky" I uttered......."no way". The same composer who wrote the Nutcracker...Swan Lake....1812 Overture? Nope....the music I was hearing sounded nothing like Tchaikovsky. I do confess that I am not a musical historian, scholar, nor expert. As much as I do know about the classical music repertoire, there is far more that I know little to nothing about. Prior to this evening in the car, I had no idea that Tchaikovsky had even written any string quartets.

I had tuned in just as the third movement had begun. It has such an unusual tonal quality. Melodically speaking, it is very bare and sparse......nothing to hint or suggest that a master of melody had written it. But it was so powerful. I almost had to pull the car over because I was so transfixed by what I was hearing for the first time. I arrived home as the fourth movement was beginning, but I stayed in the car to listen to it before I went in the house. I could not wait to explore this piece in its entirety the next day....and to read about Tchaikovsky's string quartets. These moments of exploration are wonderful. It turns out this amazing quartet was written in 1876. You can hear the third movement of his third string quartet here.