You are here

Classical Recording: A Practical Guide In The Decca Tradition

Classical Recording: A Practical Guide In The Decca Tradition  Book Review

Over the years, I must have read a small library’s worth of books on music recording techniques in general, with many concerning the specific approaches typically employed for classical music, in all its forms. However, this new 410‑page tome published by Routledge at the end of 2020 has established an impressive new high‑bar in the genre. Indeed, I forecast that it will quickly become ‘the’ standard reference work for students of all levels.

Its three co‑authors, Caroline Haigh, John Dunkerley, and Mark Rogers, all gained considerable experience working with Decca (hence the book’s subtitle), with over 70 years between them at that great institution. Haigh worked mostly in post‑production roles at Decca over 18 years, while Dunkerley’s 50‑year recording career won him 15 Grammys, and Rogers, also a Grammy‑winner, started his career at Decca, EMI and Warner before becoming a freelance producer/engineer, working with many high‑end clients, including the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden. All three also lecture on the University of Surrey’s Tonmeister, the UK’s premier sound‑recording course. So these are three very experienced high‑end practitioners of the art, who have also developed abilities to explain techniques and concepts in ways which are easy to comprehend.

The book is divided logically into three sections: Before Recording, Recording, and After the Recording Session, with two chapters in the first, three in the last, and fourteen in the middle. Plenty of (black and white) photographs and diagrams accompany the text throughout. The first section considers the recording venue acoustics, what to be aware of and to look for, and pragmatic ways of coping with less‑than‑ideal situations. It then goes on to explore the importance of building a good rapport with those responsible for the venue, the required equipment, and the practicalities of safely rigging mics and cables, communications between control room and recording floor, and how to run a session and optimise the workflow — all with lots of real‑world experience underpinning the suggestions and guidance.

As you’d expect, the Recording section is the meaty core of the book, covering a wealth of different recording techniques for different situations, all drawn from the experiences passed down through generations of Decca engineers. From an explanation of the pros and cons of basic coincident and spaced mic arrays, four chapters cover the techniques appropriate for solo instruments, solo piano, voices, and then soloists accompanied by piano. A separate chapter is dedicated entirely to the Decca Tree, in all its variations, with extraordinary detail and practical advice, before continuing with a discussion of ‘ancillary microphones’ (spot or accent mics), and then surround sound techniques.

The section continues by documenting yet more practical techniques for soloists with orchestral backings, chamber ensembles, wind, brass and percussion bands, pipe organs, choirs and, finally, large‑scale productions involving solo voices, orchestra and choir (an appendix describes Decca’s approach to opera recordings, too).

Completing the section trilogy there’s a chapter examining mixing techniques (including the use of EQ, delays, reverb and the art of riding levels), followed by one covering the aims and philosophy of editing, maintaining the musical flow, the requirements of a practical editing system and the source‑destination (or four‑point) technique. There are also very insightful sections on refining edits and problem‑solving, working with different instruments, overdubbing and ‘emergency measures’, which describes techniques for replacing and removing individual notes in piano performances. Finally, a chapter on mastering for classical music looks at noise removal, the importance of room tone, breaths and fades, levels and loudness, and track marker locations for CD mastering.

A bibliography and suggestions for further reading are provided, along with appendices covering Decca’s opera recording practices, orchestral layout notations, and a fascinating collection of original Decca setup sheets from a number of historic recordings. One unexpected but welcome appendix, given that the mic techniques throughout the book are mostly illustrated with high‑end Neumanns and Schoeps, describes how to construct a low‑cost alternative to the classic M50 for use in DIY Decca Trees.

It will quickly become ‘the’ standard reference work for students of all levels.

Classical Recording is a remarkably comprehensive but easy to digest book, explaining a range of thoroughly proven techniques for recording an enormous variety of classical instruments and ensembles in different situations. Practical hints and tips gained from years of experience pervade every chapter, along with fascinating historical insights of how the ‘Decca sound’ evolved. Mic placements are described in great practical detail, not only in the technicalities of optimum heights, angles, spacings, and distances, but also in terms of why those positions are favoured and how the sound is likely to change if mics are moved in different directions — all great information to guide the reader when faced with non‑ideal circumstances for their own recordings.

Without doubt, this book is the best and most informative I’ve read this year, if not in the last decade, actually. For anyone with an interest in recording classical performances of any form — whether they’re an amateur, a professional or an academic — this is absolutely essential reading and will serve as a valued reference. Thoroughly recommended: definitely one to add to the book shelf! 


Paperback and eBook versions: £29.59. Hardback £96.00.

Paperback and eBook versions: $39.96. Hardback $128.