Orchestral performances may be a relative rarity on U.S. broadcast television these days, but the past 18 months has seen quite a growth in classical music streaming online. Orchestral music has long been wrapped up in certain expectations, from the seating of the musicians to the quality of the audio, but the coronavirus pandemic has chipped away at some of those expectations, and that’s a good thing, according to New York-based Jody Elff, a Grammy Award-winning audio engineer, sound artist and designer.
“I think it’s a wonderful time for orchestras in general, largely because of the shift in audience perception about what quality means or what an experience can be like,” says Elff. As a result, orchestras worldwide, from the Boston Symphony to the Berlin Philharmonic, many of which have long offered broadcast streaming, ramped up those capabilities during the pandemic, he says.
“I think it’s still true that if anybody can make it to a concert hall to see an orchestra in person they will. But I also think that the climate has shifted a little bit in terms of what people are willing to accept at home, and the fact that different organizations are ramping up their interest in producing high-quality content for broadcast. These two things support each other.”
The broadcast industry is going through a transformation, Elff says. “Everybody wants to be a content producer. Apple, Google, Netflix want to produce content. Broadcasting for streaming is different than broadcasting for television, in some ways, because people are watching on small screens. The way content is edited and presented is different; the way audiences access it is different in a lot of ways.”
To his mind, he says, “It has less to do with the screen than with the audio playback device you’re listening to. One of the things we used to be very mindful about years ago is that people tended to listen on TVs that had poor speakers. You didn’t want to push too much bass through your mix because it would make the speaker crap out.” But now, he says, most people listen on headphones, though ranging from very low to very high quality. “You obviously can’t serve everybody, but you do have people listening on devices that are capable of a broader frequency response than a lot of people used to enjoy. In some ways that can be liberating.”
While classical music performances are still a frequent occurrence on televisions across Europe and other parts of the world, the heyday of the orchestra, when the likes of conductor Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra ruled the airwaves, are long behind us in the United States. Arguably, the last orchestra that U.S. TV viewers saw on a regular basis was Doc Severinsen’s 17-piece ensemble on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which ended in 1992. Ask anyone in the street to name a major orchestral broadcast event and they might struggle to even come up with the Boston Pops July 4th Spectacular.
That said, there is still orchestral music programming to be found, and during his 30-plus years in the business Elff has had a hand in any number of such broadcasts. In fact, he’s had a hand in all sorts of audio enterprises. Primarily a recording engineer (Elff won a Grammy in 2016 for the Sing Me Home album by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble), he is also a pioneer of live-streaming and a veteran front-of-house mixer, and has made field recordings across Africa, created a variety of sound installations and mixed countless televised network concert events. Currently, with business partner and fellow broadcast music mixer John Harris, he also operates a remote mixing service for live broadcast and recording — HEAR or Harris-Elff Audio Resources — that operates out of NEP’s Gemini truck, which houses two identical audio rooms, as well as their respective Dolby Atmos-capable home studios.
There are differences between broadcast and recording where large musical ensembles are concerned, of course. “With a live broadcast you have a whole lot less time to put it together,” Elff says, and not every A1 is up to that challenge. “There’s a load of very talented, experienced broadcast production mixers who do the talking heads, rolling in production elements like tape playback and production cues, and sometimes manage remote correspondents. But it’s a particular kind of challenge to have your hands on 128 channels and make it sound like a studio recording to-air, when you might only get a 10-minute soundcheck.”
Jody Elff, a Grammy Award-winning audio engineer, sound artist and designer.
Audiences generally expect to see a symphony orchestra arrayed in front of them with the first violins on the left and the celli and double basses on the right. But not everyone agrees on the way that the sound should be presented on a televised broadcast, Elff says. “There’s such an aesthetic about the orchestral perception and audiences come with a certain expectation. Sometimes musicians, music directors and conductors come with a similarly potent but different expectation about the sound.”
For instance, he says, “If you’ve got a multi-camera shoot onstage and you’re able to get a tight shot of the oboe player, there’s a kind of convention that, at that moment, we really want to be able to hear that oboe. So there are subtle mix changes that people might do if they are score-following, raising the oboe to match the visual.”
That differs from a straightforward recording, not to mention the expectations of classical music purists. “It’s not very true to a more traditional recording approach, because you wouldn’t be pushing soloists around that way if you’re not seeing them,” Elff says. “So being mindful of the platform you are presenting on and what the media is and how it’s being received is really important.”
Overall, he says, “My approach would be, especially if it’s with picture, to recreate the experience of sitting in the concert hall. That means you’re going to get more reflections from behind you and more direct sound from in front of you. If the viewers are able to listen that way it can be a very immersive and compelling experience.”
The venue, therefore, is part of the experience. “My feeling, and I don’t know if this is sacrilegious or not, is that it’s important to present the quality of the room as much as you can. When it’s possible to use the sound of the room I think it’s advantageous to do so.” While it might be contentious among purists, he says, replicating the hall artificially through the use of reverb can help eliminate a noisy background environment at the particular venue.
“But in pure classical recording, there are always mics picking up the sound of the room; that’s very much a part of the craft,” he says. “That’s as much a component of the experience and the orchestration as what the second violin part is doing. Composers write with that quality of sound in mind. And people celebrate these legendary halls, like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Boston Symphony Hall or Disney Hall [in Los Angeles, home to the LA Phil].”
Elff spent 16 years touring and recording with the Silkroad Ensemble, providing him with insights into the presentation of a large ensemble that doesn’t conveniently fall into what might be called the Western tradition. “The Silkroad Ensemble poses a bunch of interesting challenges even before you put them on stage. The biggest, most obvious one is that it’s a collection of instruments that were never meant to play together as an ensemble, things like the Chinese pipa, the Japanese shakuhachi or the Persian kamanchah. These have historically been played mostly as solo instruments, for the most part in smaller environments. If you put a pipa — a wonderful, exciting instrument to listen to — in front of a wall of Western percussion, it doesn’t stand a chance.
“So the first thing to do is to find ways to support the intent of the musicians in their music making. Put them on stage in a huge festival environment or at Tanglewood [Music Center] and reinforcing or balancing is job number one. Once you find that musical balance it’s not that much different than putting it in a space that an orchestra would be in. That musical balance still creates a musical ensemble sound, and that sound can exist in a 500-, 1,000- or a 10,000-seat venue.”
The Grammy-winning Sing Me Home album features a lot of different instruments in interesting ways, Elff says. “But it sounds like a studio record, even though the quality of the sound and the balance are great. If you were to take a performance of those same pieces and put it on stage with a video component, to hear it sound like the record would be very incongruous to your perception. In that case, there’s a great value to making the thing you are seeing match the thing you are hearing. You could watch a U2 concert and if you can’t hear the audience it’s going to be really strange. So that’s true in almost any broadcast environment.”
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