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!


  1. Wonderful post Tim! I love the KCUR Symphony hour. It's usually what I listen to on the way home from rehearsal at church. Great background into the recording process.

  2. You are a smart woman! Thank you for your comment! Be well good friend.