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How to record, mix and master classical music

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How To Master Classical Music-iMusician

Violin vibratos, the passion of a piano, amplifying and weakening dynamics, powerful synergies of individual instruments – all that and more is what makes classical music unique. With that, however, also comes a set of challenges, particularly in terms of recording, mixing and mastering the music. In this article, we’ll have a look at how a classical recording differs from a modern one and what rules one should follow to produce classical music.

Contemporary vs. classical music production

Recording Classical Music

The difference between classical and contemporary music productions is most significant during the stage of recording. Contemporary music is usually recorded in a dry studio environment (or any kind of place with the dry acoustics conditions) where audio can be well isolated providing more control over the recording during the mixing stage.

Opposite to that, classical music requires a recording space that is a thoroughly-selected venue with great acoustics and good-enough isolation from distracting external noises, such as traffic, busy street, or inclement weather conditions, like storms or heavy rains. For example, a room within another room with no exterior walls or a place with soundproof windows and door may work perfectly (as long as acoustics are great, of course).

A classical recording that showcases too much external noise can be extremely hard to enhance afterwards, even with an applied noise reduction tool. It’s also important to know that the concept of overdubbing (or also called layering), a technique in audio recording, during which a newly recorded sound or melody is added to an already taped musical track, isn’t really used when recording classical music. Instead, a seemingly single performance is created by putting together numerous takes of the same material.

Such a method traditionally requires an accurate timing as well as a good pitch in order to make the recording usable. Remember that detailed correction to the recording is not possible during the mixing stage (as opposed to contemporary music) as the use of auto-tune is a no-go.

Besides the appropriate venue, a good preparation as well as performance technique, it’s also the use of the equipment, such as microphones, mic preamps, converters, etc., and the strategy behind it that may well influence the quality of the classical music recording. Particularly the choice of mics and their placement in the venue are of critical importance during the recording session.

A well-located microphone is able to perfectly capture the soft nuances of classical music instruments, the voice range of a soloist or the variety of voices of ensembles, all while reflecting the nature of the venue. A basic method is based on placing a pair of stereo mics to capture the classical musician or the ensemble within its acoustic.

To that, one can add so-called ‘spot mics’ which are placed closer to individual instruments to reflect on additional details. If it’s possible, you can also add another pair of microphones which will serve to seize more of the whole acoustic place.

Classical music production-recording session-iMusician

Mixing classical music

While modern music production is often heavily revised and amended during the mixing stage, this is not the case for classical music. A classical music recording, first and foremost, strives to sound and feel authentic, real and transparent to the audience. As said above, auto-tune or any other digital processing and manipulation during the process of mixing goes strongly against the expected organic nature of classical music.

The only time that a level of automation or digital processing can be used is when it concerns a large ensemble recording. A touch of automation or digital reverb can accentuate the track’s strongest parts, interesting details as well as the texture.

What is applied to any classical music recording at this stage, though, is editing. The process of editing aims, most importantly, to select the best performances from the numerous takes of the same material and tie them together, all while securing smooth and organic transitions from one part of the piece to another. This requires a great deal of accuracy as well as sensitivity towards the nuances of a classical performance.

A significant part of the editing process is the noise reduction. While stitching individual parts together, one has to look out for any noises that are likely to hinder the overall experience of the performance. Such distracting noises may arise from foot tapping, loud page turns, accidentally striking the music stand or hitting the string with one’s bow. If you’re lucky enough, by noise reduction you may manage to reduce some minor external noises, too.

Something that may also be applied to the classical track is an appropriate level of compression. Of course, as assumed, aggressive compression should be avoided at all costs. However a gentle and slow compression may help tighten and round the sound of the piece, driving cohesion and wholeness of the performance.

orchestra-recording session-iMusician

Mastering classical music

The mastering stage of the production process should not traditionally bring any dramatic changes to the track. As said before, the goal is to maintain the transparency of the classical piece and therefore, any changes made, should enhance the listener’s experience of the music rather than modify it.

Something that needs to be paid attention to is the level of loudness. Classical music performances tend to be generally loud (especially if the orchestra is playing) so the usual goal during mastering is to decrease the level of loudness. Generally, the reasonable range you should aim for when mastering classical music should be around -20 LUFS to -16 LUFS.

However, the job doesn’t stop there. While the level of loudness of classical music recording needs to be lowered for the audience to enjoy the piece, it’s important to maintain the expressive quality and clarity of the performance. It therefore requires great mastering skills as well as experience and the right choice of a limiter (if one is used) to find the balance between the loudness and the way the music comes across.

When choosing a limiter, it’s definitely advisable to go for one that creates as natural sounding as possible. This may be, for instance, one that has transient shaping capabilities (can control the attack as well as the sustain of the signal), or one that has a longer buffer (enables slower attack and release time).

Lastly, although it’s not that common, what you may potentially opt for during the mastering stage is so-called multiband expansion. This is used particularly in case that too much compression was used during mixing, resulting in an over-processed sounding recording. Multiband expansion can help one to repair that, allowing them to control the dynamics and rehabilitate the timbre using appropriate attack and release settings.

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After recording, mixing, and mastering your piece, the production process is at its end. So what comes next? Assuming that you want to get the release out into the world, you first need to find a distributor, that would deliver your music (meaning the classical genre) to a wide range of streaming and download platforms, whether they are non-genre specific, such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz, etc. or focus on classical music, like IDAGIO, Vialma, or Apple Music Classical.

At iMusician, we are proud to support and distribute all kinds of genres, including classical music. To find out more about our products and services, check out our website!

Eager to explore mastering in more depth? Don't overlook our articles "5 steps to finishing a track properly" and "How to master your electronic music track".

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