Recording the Winchester College Quiristers with a view to bringing their plainsong performances to a wider audience presented a unique challenge!
Noted worldwide for their excellence, the boy Quiristers (Qs) of Winchester College in England are in high demand. They regularly perform classical and sacred works in the UK, as well as abroad. For example, they recently put on high-profile performances in the Vatican and Russia, and completed tours of Italy, Holland, France and the USA. The Qs regularly perform for radio and television, too, with broadcasts including Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols for BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong and Classic FM’s Christmas concerts. The Qs are Directed by organist, conductor and composer Malcolm Archer, a former Director of Music at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Recording the Qs at any time would be a fascinating experience and well worth exploring in these pages, but on this occasion I want to share my experience of a project that was, for all concerned, a little out of the ordinary.
During an evening in the pub, Malcolm invited me to add new, contemporary soundscapes and arrangements to plainsong — pieces which are usually sung a cappella — that would be sung by the Qs. The aim of the project was to broaden the Qs’ audience outside the classical and sacred music worlds; to add something fresh to the boys’ musical development. Not only would it be the first time that their sacred sound would be part of a contemporary recording, but this Three Wings project, as it became known, was uncharted territory for all who would be involved.
I knew from the outset that striking the right balance would not be plain sailing. Pure, traditional choral recordings mixed with electronic, sample-based arrangements have always seemed rather contrived to me — obvious overdubs, 4/4 time, and vocals being subsumed in the mix all contributed to that impression. Thus, I decided early on that I didn’t want to dry the whole thing out with virtuosity and decided I’d look for a more personal ‘lo-fi’ feel to the end product.
Although I listened extensively to other recordings of traditional plainsong, few had anything more than a simple drone accompaniment (that’s something big voices in small chapels were apparently able to generate in a 13th-Century organ without touching it). So, while one simple aim was to record the Qs’ performance as accurately as possible, this other material didn’t feel particularly relevant; it all seemed too reliant on a huge reverberant space, and it lacked the vocal clarity I felt this contemporary variation of the genre required. I wanted to balance the Qs’ use of reverberation with a more personal, attention-grabbing and engaging sound, somehow capturing both the breathy fragility in a child’s voice and the uplifting authority of a big acoustic. Thus, I’d need to capture both the choir and the ensemble’s ‘live’ sound (I wouldn’t accompany them when recording, but would lay down my parts later), and yet retain some control over the acoustic at mixdown.
I began, somewhat perversely I suppose, by looking at dry-sounding studio spaces that I felt would afford me the control I’d require. Eventually, I found one locally which had sufficient space for up to 12 boys, arranged in a semi-circle and facing Malcolm as conductor, with enough sets of headphones and green-room space for maybe as many parents. But I soon realised that if I ran the session in this studio I’d lose two critical aspects of the Qs’ performance, the first being their ability to blend as an acoustic group, and the second the ‘instrument’ the Qs usually play — the Winchester College Chapel .
In the Chapel, each Q’s voice is akin to a carefully selected pipe of an organ (Malcolm’s signature instrument), rather than an instrument in its own right; a voice, tuned to the space, that’s complementary to every other voice in the group. Chorister singing doesn’t get any more visceral than when Malcolm invites the Qs to ‘give it some welly!’ It’s a gentle siren, warning us of the arrival of a controlled exodus of vibrating air, energy and melody from the Qs, an instrument born of his careful selection, honed by his tutorship and amplified by the chapel acoustic. So... I changed my mind. We had to record on location, ‘at home’ in Winchester College’s Medieval Chapel.
I demo’ed and prepared sheet music for six pieces that we planned to capture in a day-long session. If successful, we’d duplicate the process. We first recorded in March 2015, on a day when the College was ‘down’ and its pupils off site. Later the same year, in October, we recorded a second session in similar circumstances, although we both lost and gained individual Qs during that time; Senior Quirister voices ‘change’ (their voices don’t ‘break’) and new Qs join as probationers.
Successfully capturing the Chapel’s acoustic was almost as important as capturing the Qs themselves, and this had a strong influence our recording setup. Completed in 1395, Winchester College’s Chapel is rectangular, orientated West to East, and is 93 feet long by 30 wide and, internally, 57 high. There’s no transept. In many ways, the Chapel might seem to have been designed chiefly as a frame for its extensive stained glass, which extends around three sides, above the altar and on the northern and southern sides. Wooden panelling also extends to a height of 15 feet on the Northern and Southern sides. There’s a smaller ‘chapel’ that runs parallel to the nave on the northern elevation for approximately 60 percent of the main Chapel’s length, with an open aspect.
The main interior door is accessed via a ‘narthex’ (foyer) that runs the width of the building, and both the door and narthex helped with exterior sound reduction. Immediately inside the Chapel, a wooden loft is home to one of the largest organs to be built post-War in a school. The gallery extends out approximately 15 feet from the West elevation. Above the side chapel to the right is a stone tower built in the late 15th Century at the Western end of the south wall, home to ‘the bells’ (of which more later). We set up a control room in the Sacristy, in the northern side of the Chapel at its Eastern end, accessed via a heavy door beside the altar.
All that now remains of the original building is the shell, comprising the stone walls and the fan vaulting of the timber ceiling, together with some of the choir stalls. There’s certainly no absorbent material here! The Chapel’s acoustic is clear yet warm, with a distinct, clean tail that isn’t overly long. We noticed a slight deadness under the organ loft and obvious distancing in the sound in the side chapel, but the relative impact of the Qs’ singing could be felt in all corners of the space, albeit with less clarity the further you moved away from them.
I met with the engineers for each session (Thom Ashworth of Opus Studios for Session 1, and Adaq Khan for Session 2) to discuss load-in, setup and control-room needs well in advance of the sessions; those throwaway questions at the end of such chats always makes them worthwhile! The setup for each session differed little, and I’ll detail the kit we used on Session 2, as the configuration was refined and a distinctive mix was more apparent.
Adaq ran an Audient ASP880 eight-channel channel mic preamp into an Antelope Audio Orion 32 audio interface. We recorded 96kHz, 32-bit PCM files in Pro Tools 10 HD on a MacBook Air, with a JoeCo Blackbox BBR1-B backup recorder running at 96kHz, 24-bit. I monitored via a pair of Sennheiser HD650 heaphones, and would find the Samson C-control’s talkback system indispensable.
The boys formed a semicircle of up to 10 Qs, with their backs to the altar — there was no formal order to them. Malcolm sat facing them to conduct, using a ‘classic’ electric piano with integral speakers for pitch referencing.
Blending the signals from a staggered series of mic arrays was an approach that worked well for us. We arranged everything around a core pair of ribbons set up close to the Qs, and all arrays were mounted overhead and away from the ensemble. Such positioning might deliver less control in mixdown than close-miking individuals, but the result would sound more natural and the ability to alter the blend between the arrays would, I felt, give us an airy, bassier sound.
Heading East to West from the altar to the organ, Adaq deployed a Rode NT55 with cardioid capsule as a mono ambience mic. This was placed close behind the Qs, but facing away at a height of 10 feet, in order to capture the reflections from this largely stone area, which delivered a different, remarkably distant and quite ‘metallic’ sound.
For the close setup, two Rode NTR ribbon mics, spaced about 22cm apart at a zero-degree angle (ie. parallel to each other), were placed approximately four feet in front of the Qs and just above head height (about six feet). This configuration was chosen to deliver a natural stereo image, with a close and detailed sound, and the ribbon choice was to avoid any undesirable harshness or brightness — the Rodes delivered a rounded, smooth but relatively bright sound, with a reasonable amount of natural reverb already present.
Behind Malcolm, approximately 20 feet from the Qs, in the centre of the nave, Adaq deployed a pair of Schoeps CMC6 microphone amplifiers (the linear variant, which is flat to 3Hz) with MK2H capsules, spaced 70cm apart at an angle of 45 degrees (pointing to either side of the Qs) and at a height of 15 feet. With their wide spacing, they were chosen for a realistic general representation of the Qs in the Chapel. Here, the panelling down both sides of the Chapel came into play. A ‘traditionally mixed’ signal was created, clear-ish and airy, bassier than the close set and already sounding quite distant.
A second pair of Schoeps CMC6s (MK21 capsules, 47cm apart, at 45 degrees) was placed a further 15 feet down the nave at a height of 20 feet. With a narrower spacing than the omni mics, and being sited both further back and higher up, they delivered a more distant, ethereal sound, with little vocal detail, as if the Qs were already at the far end of the space (which they weren’t, of course). When mixing a couple of pieces, I brought these stems forward to help build the impression of a recessional.
Last but by no means least was what turned out to be an inspired placement: a single Rode NT55 with cardioid capsule was hoisted up at least 30 feet, close to the organ-loft balustrade. (We had a lot of ‘fun’ getting it up there!) A very distant sound was produced, which could be used for washes of super-swirly reverb — I knew I’d want to drown the whole thing at some point! These stems were useful when extending solo reverb tails that had been prematurely shortened.
I felt it important not to forget that we were recording children, and that to some of them we would be scary-looking adults! With that in mind, I gathered everyone together in the Sacristy for informal introductions, to outline the programme for the day, to explain the process that the boys’ recordings from the sessions would undergo, and to reiterate our overall aim to broaden their audience. But most importantly, I encouraged them to have fun. We played back a demo of ‘Ave Marias Stella’, the most up-tempo piece in the collection, and I was chuffed to see the boys nodding along to the tribal drumming in the newly-created ‘middle eight’!
Aside from the bells ringing, often in time (happy accidents), there is naturally much unwanted noise in location recording, and the Chapel was no different: a murder of crows, apparently seeing the elevated organ mic, decided to have a sing-off; Flybe turboprops descending into Southampton Airport took advantage of the prevailing wind direction; the close mics revealed that one Quirister likes tapping his foot (shoes were removed!); and the turning of songbook pages was distracting and would be hard to isolate, so staples were removed and single sheets used. Ideally, the videographer and photographer would also be absent during takes, with so many wooden pews and choir stalls to navigate. It’s much better to overcome such problems before recording!
Early on, Malcolm reminded us to “Remember with this music that the tiniest thing going slightly wrong really shows,” and he was right. There are exceptional challenges in singing plainsong. Although often just a single treble melody part, it’s actually very complicated. (There’s more to be heard in a phrase of plainsong than in a short story!) Pieces metamorphose too; they rarely have a time signature, so there are no bars. Latin vowel sounds must always be consistent and matched, the timing spot on, and the words sung succinctly. And two of the Qs in Session 2 were in their first month...
We soon realised that recording complex phrases one-by-one had the potential to deliver the best performance, but that continuous recording would be preferable where possible. Recording things in start-stop fashion and occasionally changing singers also meant tempo, articulation and volume variances between phrases, making it very problematic to edit together different recordings of a single phrase. Furthermore, editing together complete phrases too closely wouldn’t work for improve timing, say, or to generate a build, as there’s a natural moment needed to draw breath to be able to actually continue singing, which contributes to the ‘live’ feel.
The second takes were regularly the best. Rarely did we need a third but we did record everything, including ambience and alternative takes, which are often useful. Malcolm would fine-tune his instrument, maybe asking one boy to step back in order to rehearse another until an attractive blend rang out. It’s one of his skills to encourage boys to successfully ‘stand up’ or solo as soon as possible in their Quirister development. Once each quartet, triplet and duet were blended and solos were flying, care was taken directing the occasional unison issue and loose Latin pronunciation, but Malcolm was always encouraging, always effective.
You can really hear the result in ‘Puer Natus Est Nobis’ and ‘Salve Regina’, both of which I consider to be special performances. The power in the last antiphon of ‘Nobilis Humilis’ has the Qs as a force of nature, large of welly. The solo throughout the elaborate and rangey ‘O Successores’, the only piece-long solo in the collection (sung by Tomas Magnusson), is hugely evocative and impressive. I couldn’t see Malcolm and the Qs when we recorded but it was tangible exactly what the Quirister Foundation delivers and what makes it unique; the professional and engaging delivery of the highest-quality chorister singing borne of world-class support for personal musical development.
My own job in all of this was relatively simple: capture the performance, remind everyone when we’d reached a crescendo in a piece, encourage the best blends, suggest the odd retake just to be on the safe side, and protect tacit silence at the end of phrases. But I can offer one useful tip, which helped me prioritise clips on these sessions: since Pro Tools gives each new clip a consecutive number, I marked the sheet music with that number at both the start of the bar or phrase and at the end, using a green pen for a good take and a red pen for a not-so-good take.
Back in the studio, I did the editing and mixing in Pro Tools 11. I had uniform stems with a natural yet controlled reverb, which I used to unify and animate the Qs — I always used all mic stems in the mix, but could automate the level of the different arrays to suit the track. I was chuffed that the pieces flowed easily, with bittersweet rushes, big, blended crescendos and brush-the-soul solos.
In the end, there weren’t often multiple complete-phrase takes to choose from, such was the strength of the performance — and that helped me keep edits to a minimum. Preserving intakes of breath was important, as they illustrate energy and control. I didn’t stress about removing the aforementioned bells, and kept them in the outro to ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater.’
When it came to adding my arrangements, I had to desist from over-doing things and smothering what they’d created — always go with the performance. I’d return to the riffs I’d demoed to gradually build a ‘sonic journey’ into each piece but maintain its traditional structure and lyrical narrative.
My starting point for riffs is an early, plastic-braced Garrison G10-E — a deeply resonating electro-acoustic guitar and, as it turned out, the only acoustic instrument we used on the plainsong collection. I used two capos, a full one and a partial capo (the best musical purchase of my life). I partnered it with the Alesis Q20 ‘Master Effects’ rack, cut the dry signal almost completely, and usually dialed in a 245ms pre-delay, 10-second tail with high-frequency roll-off, and 100 percent ‘reverberation swirl’. This generated a faux-reversed string sound that reminds me of the filigree and strained string melody of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe TV theme, and film soundtracks to Roman Empire epics of the ’50s.
On a few occasions, I turned to Pro Tools’ Elastic Audio processors to make a little more of a rhythm and to up the ‘journey’, but the conventional monophonic algorithm for voice puts a damper on choirs. I toyed with the polyphonic option but it was creating too many artifacts, so I ended up using the rendered ‘X-Form’ algorithm. Post-mix, we deployed iZotope’s RX5 noise-removal software to nix the odd crow, creak or sibilance niggle. I felt I’d been able to make the whole mix sound ‘live’, as if we’d all recorded at the same time, in the same space.
Winchester College’s Quiristers are unique, and in plainsong they have a sound that especially resonates in us. I was recently reminded that young choir voices emerge through mimicry of the technique of more mature voices in the group, but also (and more often) that of their director. It has been a particular honour to work with Malcolm and the Qs to create something so fresh and purposeful. I’ve never heard these pieces sung so well and hope you enjoy them too!
All images by Hester Marriott (www.hesterphoto.co.uk), except ‘The Quiristers outside Winchester College Chapel’ by David Lol Perry.
David Lol Perry is a composer, musician and producer who, back in the ’80s, was the guitarist in 4AD favourites Anna Livia. In 2013, David left a perfectly good job in the City of London to return to music full time, and has since composed music for a new play based on the life of Joseph Merrick (the ‘elephant man’), released an instrumental album, Han, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and won a Quantum Music Works Signature Licensing artist deal.
Uniquely, since Winchester College’s inception over 600 years ago, 16 boy ‘quiristers’ (a very old word for choristers) have been supported to sing in its Chapel — no other senior school has done this for anywhere as near as long. The Qs have won the BBC’s Young Chorister Of The Year competition on three occasions, and today include the current winner, Angus Benton. They recently performed at John Rutter’s 70th birthday concert in London.
Whilst at St Paul’s Cathedral, their current Director, Malcolm Archer, led several State services including the Tsunami Memorial Service, the London Bombings Service and the 80th Birthday Service for Her Majesty The Queen, for which he was invited by Buckingham Palace to compose a special anthem, performed live on BBC 1.
David aimed to create an ethereal arrangement that added intimacy, complementing rather than dominating the sung melodies, but which could be easily performed. This demanded that the vocal tracks be upfront, so the singers’ personalities weren’t camouflaged by a back-of-cathedral acoustic. The Qs’ sopranos range up two octaves from middle C (C4) so, during their parts, David concentrated sonically and dynamically below and above that range, as well as on percussive elements to add structure and tempo. Rather than use an acoustic classical chamber orchestra, which was an option but would add a period feel, he chose to ‘anonymise’ sample-based instruments using outboard and plug-ins, to create sonic backdrops and surging washes that borrowed from arrangements of the past and wouldn’t overwhelm the Qs’ power. Key to building arrangements was the sympathetic tonality of individual blends of voices with the Robinson Crusoe-style harmonies David heard when jamming along with his Garrison GE-10 electro-acoustic, which often failed to make the final mixes but gifted the instruments he eventually used a voice.
Three Wings 1 & 2 by David Lol Perry, featuring Winchester College’s Qs, are the first in a series of three EPs and are already set to be featured on BBC Radio 2. They are available now on Neon Records on all major platforms and direct from www.davidlolperry.com. A behind-the-scenes film from Session 2 can be viewed at https://bit.do/threewingsfilm. All the tracks featured in this article can be streamed at davidlolperry.com/sosm.