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Joanna Leach: Classical Music Production

Opinion | Music Production (Production Lines)
Published September 1994

This month, we turn Production Lines over to the classical fraternity, with some words from classical producer Joanna Leach.

Classical music producer and editor Joanna Leach began her music career as a pianist but moved into production when she met her third husband, engineer David Turner. They established their own record label, Athene (distributed by Albany), and became best known for their specialist recordings of early square pianos — most of which are in Joanna's private collection. David Turner died last year and Joanna is now running the label with the help of Mike Beville, head of Audio Design. Here she explains the role a producer plays when recording classical repertoire.

"I began playing the piano when I was quite young and eventually reached the stage where I was giving concerts. But once I married and had children, earning a living became more important and I took up teaching because it was more lucrative.

It wasn't until I married my second husband, the composer and cimbalom player John Leach, that I began to learn about recording. He often worked in a studio environment and I used to go along and watch the engineer balance the sound and mix as they went along. It was very basic then, because this was during the 1960s and the technology was quite simple, but it gave me an insight into what was possible.

John and I worked together on some film music and we also did some concerts, but after our marriage broke down I stopped playing in public until I met David. He loved recording, even though at that stage it was more a hobby than a job. Initially he recorded only friends, but as the equipment he bought got better and better, demand for his engineering skills grew and recording became his work. I went along to help and ended up acting as producer and musical director. I also handle all the editing.

As a producer of classical music, the most important thing you have to learn is how to listen to each take so that you end up with a cohesive result that sounds like one marvellous performance. At first I listened as a pianist and would groan at each mistake, but then I learned to listen as a producer and to know what could be fixed at the editing stage and what couldn't. I note down each bar and mark every little mistake, making sure that every part of the music is covered so that we have it all on tape. Then I take the DAT tapes home, play them through and edit them on a Sound Maestro system so that I get a seamless result.

My role is also to help and encourage the artist, because they can sometimes get into such a frightful state that they find it hard to play as they want to. I calm them down, get them to relax, and run through the piece as a practice. The tape is still running but we don't necessarily tell them that, and often those practice takes end up on the finished CD because they sound so natural and perfect.

It is very important that you know the music you are recording, because the one thing you must do with classical pieces is stay true to the music. For example, if you are recording the Debussy Preludes you have to know them even if you can't actually play them. You have to do your homework so that you are aware if there are mistakes.

One of the main differences between recording classical and recording pop music is that with classical you don't usually put effects on afterwards. The most you add is a bit of ambience, but apart from that the sound has to be pure and natural from the start. The skill lies in setting the session up correctly — and each venue is different. A very reverberant acoustic such as that in St John's Smith Square needs special care. The trick is to set the mics so that they pick up just enough ambience without being overpowering. We have since discovered that the BBC use a lot of extremely complicated cloths which they drape down from the balcony to dampen the sound when there is no audience.

With the majority of classical recording, you're not working in a soundproof environment like a studio, so you have to watch out for external sounds, like creaky floorboards and planes flying over. One can record in a studio, but I find that the sound is a bit unreal because it is so dead and blank.

I do feel it is important for people to listen to classical music emotionally rather than as an intellectual exercise. No‑one needs to know all the names of all the composers to be moved by a piece of music. If they like it and enjoy listening to it, that's all that matters.

David and I never wanted to make fantastic amounts of money from our work — we were more interested in doing something we were passionately keen on. When David died I didn't think I'd be able to go on, but it occurred to me that I couldn't just sit back and let everything that we had started fall apart. I miss him tremendously, but with Mike Beville's help I am about to release the first CD I have done without David — a recording of Schubert which I did with Peter Katin. Athene CDs are selling well, but the numbers are peanuts compared to pop or even a large orchestral work — and of course the budgets are infinitely smaller!"

Joanna Leach's production credits include:

• Masterpieces In Miniature — Martino Tirimo (Kingdom).

• The Complete Debussy Solo Piano Works — Martino Tirimo (Pickwick).

• Schubert Impromptus — Peter Katin (Athene).