The hottest Broadway show for decades has spawned a smash hit album. But, as engineers Derik Lee and Tim Latham explain, Hamilton is not your average ‘original cast recording’.
Hamilton: An American Musical has turned the world of Broadway musicals on its head, and has even been credited with changing Americans’ understanding of their own history. One critic described it as “so good that future generations will probably look back to it as the most revolutionary and influential production in the history of musical theatre”, and both President Obama and Dick Cheney have declared their appreciation, as has everyone from musical legend Stephen Sondheim to hip-hop stars like Kanye West and Jay-Z. The show has won a record-breaking 11 Tony Awards, and the asking price for a ticket for the last show in which the musical’s writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, played the lead role, was a staggering $10,000. The show takes in more than half a million dollars a week, and revenues from ticket sales from the New York show alone are expected to exceed one billion dollars.
Hamilton is a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804). One of the founding fathers of the US, Hamilton is mainly known as the author of most of the Federalist Papers (which promoted the US constitution), for being killed in a duel, and the fact that his portrait is on the $10 bill. So far, so high-school-boring. However, the main reason why Hamilton, the musical, went from what Miranda himself agrees was “a ridiculous pitch” to a musical revolution is its mastery of the hip-hop vernacular and use of a predominanrly African-American and Hispanic cast. The show took Miranda six years to write, and although it seamlessly integrates dozens of different musical genres, much of the content is rapped, often at rapid-fire pace. The two-and-a-half-hour performance contains a staggering 20,000 words, four times more than the average musical, at times whizzing by at a pace of six words per second, and the music has an ultra-modern, in-your-face, hip-hop/R&B feel.
The original cast recording, which has already gone platinum in the US, is the first original cast album to top the US Rap Albums chart in the US, the largest-ever streaming debut for a cast album, and in sales terms is currently second only to that of the 1996 Broadway rock musical Rent, which of course dates from a time when albums still sold en masse. It was executive produced by Miranda and two members of the Roots, drummer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson and MC Tarik ‘Black Thought’ Trotter. All three also produced, in conjunction with musical director Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman.
Original cast album recordings are usually quickly made, relatively unpolished-sounding affairs intended as souvenirs for those who have attended the show. Clearly, Hamilton is much more than this — but, as recording engineer Derik Lee and mixer Tim Latham recall, it was nevertheless made to tight time constraints. The pair had to record and mix 46 songs in just 34 days, and the restrictions of this schedule affected everything they did.
Hamilton premiered off-Broadway on February 17th, 2015, but its immediate success forced a move to Broadway far earlier than expected, where it opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6th. This meant, recalls Latham, “a race against the clock, because we had to deliver the finished record by a very specific date, September 17th, so it would be eligible for a Grammy nomination. To be considered an original Broadway cast recording, the show has to have officially opened before a note is recorded. So we set up Avatar Studio A for tracking on the 8th, two days after the show opened, and started recording on Sunday the 9th. I left that night with a hard drive of the band recordings of that day, and started mixing the next morning, while tracking, overdubbing and editing at Avatar continued. We mastered on September 14th-15th. We managed to pull it off because we had extensive pre-production meetings during which we came up with a schedule for these 34 days, with the tracking days timed down to the minute. So if a song was 3:15 long, we’d reserve 6:45 for two takes, and then we’d move onto the next song. We were moving at an unbelievable pace. I mixed for 18 hours per day, from 6am until midnight, every day for the entire 34 days!”
The team that devised, and maintained, this punishing schedule consisted of Lacamoire, Sherman, Miranda, Lee and Latham, with a central role for Lacamoire, who naturally was familiar with every note of the score. All had previously worked together on the cast recording of Miranda’s previous and first musical, In The Heights, which premiered on Broadway in 2008 and won four Tony Awards. In The Heights had a strong Latin music theme, and its soundtrack was recorded using the traditional approach whereby cast and band are tracked live in a studio live over one or two days. As Derik Lee explains, things were very different for Hamilton.
“The fact that cast recordings normally are done in just one or two days is partly because the cast does eight shows a week, and has just one day a week off, and if they work on that day, they get paid for an entire week. That’s not to mention the wear and tear on the players and musicians if several studio sessions are added to these eight weekly shows. Cast recordings normally are very hard on everybody, with people getting at best a couple of takes per song, and whether they nail it or not, you have to move on. Lately, with a move away from large 32-piece orchestras and scores incorporating DAWs and amplified music, you sometimes get a day with the band alone and a day with the singers. That’s how we did the cast recording of Sarah Bareilles’ musical Waitress .”
“Sometimes, original cast recordings are done almost for archival purposes, and they typically don’t sell much,” continues Tim Latham. “But the record company, Atlantic, understood that something exceptional could be done with Hamilton, so they raised the budget and afforded us to make a proper record. When I first got the phone call from Atlantic, they asked me: ‘Can you mix 50 songs in two weeks?’ Once we had the team together we had long discussions about how to manage this, not only in terms of time, which was extended, but also how we wanted it to sound. There was a very narrow range in which we wanted the recording to land, which was to make it sound like an original cast album that people who like those kind of albums will enjoy, but at the same time to make it sound as contemporary as possible. We wanted it to sound as pop as is possible with a Broadway recording. At the same time we wanted to make the listener feel as if he or she is listening to a live performance of the play.”
“We wanted to make the album sound like a record,” adds Lee. “Because of the nature of the music, I approached it like recording a pop or a rock record. So we recorded the vocal ensembles with close microphones on every member, as if he or she was a backing vocalist on a pop record. We did not want the usual approach of having 20 people in a room, and putting up two room mics. We got right up close to everybody, with small gobos between the singers. We also recorded the band with close mics, particularly the drums and the percussion, because we wanted a very tight sound on the drums. I come more from a rock background, so I like heavy drums and heavy bass, and this was way more my direction in terms of how we did it. I really could flex my muscles here in approaching this as a hip-hop or pop album.”
The schedule that the company set out during “lengthy, lengthy, lengthy production meetings” was to record the band over two days, August 9th and 10th. A first three-hour string quartet recording session took place on the morning of the 11th, and in the afternoon, the band came back in to record with the strings, while a harp also was laid down at the end of that session. All this took place at Avatar Studio A. Following this, the company moved to Avatar Studio C, setting up and editing the recorded material on the 12th, and recording more string quartet overdubs on the 13th and 14th.
The 15th was spent setting up for the vocal recordings and doing more editing, and the principal male singers came in on the 16th, the principal female singers on the 17th, and the male ensemble on the 18th. Jonathan Groff, the only white principal singer, sang King George’s parts on the 19th, and the female ensemble sang their parts on the 20th. As he indicated earlier, Latham began mixing everything at his home studio, Invictus, in New York the day after the first band session, ie. on the 10th. Lee, Sherman and Latham moved to Atlantic Studios on August 21st, where the former two continued editing and comping while Latham mixed. Lacamoire and Miranda supplied continuous feedback throughout the entire process, while ?uestlove and Black Thought regularly dropped in to give their opinions as well.
The hectic schedule was made even more arduous because it came with two more internal deadlines. Latham: “We had to have seven of the main songs mixed for playback at Atlantic for August 25th. The songs were ‘My Shot’, ‘You’ll Be Back’, ‘Alexander Hamilton’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Stay Alive’, ‘Helpless’ and ‘Dear Theodosia’. There was a second listening session on the 28th, for which we had to get another eight songs ready, including ‘Non-Stop’, ‘Yorktown’, ‘One Last Time’ and ‘The Schuyler Sisters’. We called these songs the core seven and the big eight.
“The listening sessions were to make sure that everybody was happy with the balance between the instruments and the vocals and the balance between it being a borderline Broadway and a borderline hip-hop/R&B record. The other issue was that we wanted the band and singers, and also us, to be able to do the heavy lifting first, hence we started with the main songs with the densest arrangements, which were labour-intensive to play, record and mix. This allowed us to work on them while everyone was still at their freshest, and also made it possible for Derik and I to create the sonic blueprint for the entire show.”
In addition to drummer Andreas Forero and percussionist Benny Reiner, the core band consisted of bassist Richard Hammond, guitarist Robin Macatangay, and two keyboardists, Kurt Crowley (also associate music director) and Alex Lacamoire (not only the arranger and music director, but also the conductor). These six musicians set up in more or less a circle at Avatar Studio A, in such a way that both the drums and the percussion could be entirely isolated. Lee elaborates: “The band set up differently than they do in the pit at the theatre, because the Studio A in Avatar is much larger. The drum room there also is much bigger than the space he has in the pit. Live, they are used to seeing the conductor, Alex, on a video monitor. So we put a camera on Alex, and showed him on video monitors in front of the players. This meant that sight lines weren’t that important. The other thing that was crucial during tracking was that the band had played this show already many times before, so when they entered the studio they had the whole show ingrained in muscle memory. They knew their parts inside out, and also knew exactly what dynamics to play everywhere. It helps to have a singer to inspire and focus a band, but in this case the band was already locked in, and this allowed us to move through the recordings very quickly.”