Talking Tech with GRAMMY® Award Winner Erica Brenner

by Jinni Fontana, with Erica Brenner

Jeannette Sorrell, artistic director and conductor of Apollo’s Fire (left),
and producer Erica Brenner. Photo by Jeannette Sorrell.

When I listen to classical music, I initially feel it in my brain; but the GRAMMY® award-winning, Apollo’s Fire “Songs of Orpheus”, immediately fired up my heart. It is visceral, stirring, and passionate, and the way producer Erica Brenner has captured all of these ethereal qualities is beyond exceptional. The album was the well-deserved winner of this year’s Best Classical Solo Vocal Album at the 61st GRAMMY® awards ceremony. I encourage readers to get the CD at https://apollosfire.org/cds-shop/, or at your preferred music retailer. Apollo’s Fire has also released at least twenty-five other albums to much acclaim.

Apollo’s Fire “Songs of Orpheus”, Winner of the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album at the 61st GRAMMY® Awards

I could go on for hours about the immense talent of Cleveland’s own Baroque orchestra— Karim Sulayman’s soul-wrenching vocals, Jeannette Sorrell’s artistic direction, and the impact the music has had on me—but I am going to focus on the technical aspects of how Erica produced and captured this lovely performance. I visited with Erica recently in her cozy Shaker Heights studio to chat briefly about her process. While parallels can be drawn between graphic design production and audio production, the hardware, software, and vocabulary are somewhat different. I am grateful for her help at explaining the audio technology as I was a little overwhelmed with all of the details.

Jeannette Sorrell and Karim Sulayman, with Apollo’s Fire. Photo by Erica Brenner.

Erica started out at world-renowned Telarc International in 1989 as an audio editor, eventually moving up to the Director of Audio Production. GRAMMY® award-winning producer Elaine Martone (her friend and collaborator at Telarc) gave Erica a job there where she worked until 2009 after the company was sold to Concord Music Group. At that point, she said that it was an “inevitable transition for me to become an independent music producer.”

Over the years, Telarc won more than fifty GRAMMY® awards. However, while three of Erica’s recordings were GRAMMY®-nominees when she was at Telarc, “Songs of Orpheus” is her first nomination and win as an independent producer. As a producer, she is responsible for many more aspects of a project that formerly had a company infrastructure behind it. She says that rather than working with a team of co-workers under one roof, she now works with a team of co-collaborators that include the artists, the audio engineers, the stage and production crews of the ensemble or concert hall, and the record labels and manufacturers. Oftentimes she manages all aspects of the project from concept through manufacturing, scheduling, recording, artwork, mixing, and mastering.

“Songs of Orpheus” was recorded live in August of 2017 at St Paul’s in Cleveland Heights, where the church was transformed into a private recording studio for four days. Over the following five months, the recording was edited, mixed, mastered, and then released in April 2018 on the Avie label.

Correct microphone placement in the performance space is crucial
when recording a classical ensemble. Photo by Erica Brenner.

Erica worked with recording engineer Ian Dobie—a protégé of the late Tom Knab, the longtime recording engineer for Apollo’s Fire. Ian captured everything on a series of strategically placed microphones. There were two sets of main mics picking up the entire ensemble from the front: one pair of AEA ribbon mics, and one pair of Schoeps tube mics that Tom Knab always used. Other spot mics were placed as needed within the ensemble, with three of them used on Karim’s voice alone. This placement gave Erica three different options to choose from during mixing.

While there the spot mics help clarify the instruments within a classical ensemble, not every instrument needs to have an individual mic. The goal is to recreate the ensemble’s sound capturing the natural balance of the instruments and voices in a more acoustic, concert hall atmosphere, rather than a highly produced studio sound. There is typically no overdubbing in the studio, so everything has to be captured in real time during the sessions.

Erica explained how the space around the instruments is an instrument itself — the way the sound transmits into the room, bounces off many different surfaces, and then reflects back into the space. Loads of blankets rented from U-Haul, and then draped over the wooden pews, dampened the overly reflective sound coming from the expanse of the church.

Erica Brenner’s studio setup. Photo by Jinni Fontana.

Ian recorded the session directly into the Pyramix Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), a Merging Technologies product that is the preferred choice of pro audio engineers, especially for classical music. His analog to digital converter was the HAPI, also by Merging. This project (as are most classical music projects) was recorded at a minimum of 96K at 24 bits. Converting down to CD specs can be handled by several sample rate converters, but Pyramix has an excellent one built right in.

Erica had used a Sequoia v10 DAW for over fifteen years, but recently, made the transition to Pyramix in order to streamline the interface with the engineers. However, “Songs of Orpheus” was edited in Sequoia v10; and while an older version, it is still a great workhorse. Once the editing was finished, she bounced out the multitrack edit as individual tracks and then handed them off to Daniel Shores, the engineer who mixed and mastered the final album.

Many detailed notes must be kept during the recording sessions. Photo by Erica Brenner.

Many classical music editors and engineers prefer the editing capabilities and flexibility of Pyramix and Sequoia to Pro-Tools. While both of those systems are PC-based, Erica has successfully used both systems on her MacBook Pro by running Boot Camp, allowing her to use the Mac for the PC-based pro audio programs. In fact, she still uses a MacBook Pro 2009 model to run Sequoia—the Mac side is no longer supported or upgradeable, but the PC partition works like a tank. If it ain’t broke…!

During editing, Erica monitors the audio through a Lavry DA11 stereo digital-to-analog converter, using either Sony MDR-7506 headphones or through a set of PMC result6 speakers. These speakers are a great solution for a small studio as their dynamic range and precise clarity of the finer details is crucial for listening and editing.

Erica explains a bit about editing the audio tracks in Sequoia on her
MacBook Pro laptop, as well in Pyramix on her iMac. Video by Jinni Fontana.

All audio source files are stored on external hard drives during editing. Only the program is stored on the internal hard drives. Sound EDL files (Edit Decisions List) and any effects files are also stored on external drives and a safety backup is made for each project. If all the audio files are backed up on two different hard drives, and the editor and engineer are using the same DAW, the EDLs can be passed back and forth easily without having to send large files. This system greatly streamlines the workflow. It’s the equivalent of keeping .tif graphic files on a hard drive and passing the InDesign .indd files back and forth to a designer. In the end, only the mixed-down audio files (usually .wav or .mp3) are uploaded and reviewed through the cloud. Once the final edits, mixes, and masters have been approved, the mastering engineer creates final DDP files (Disc Description Protocol) for manufacturing and digital delivery.

Matching up video to audio tracks in Final Cut Pro X. Photo by Jinni Fontana.

As a natural progression from audio production, Erica added video production to her services as well when she became an independent producer. She recorded a video of the Songs of Orpheus performance that took place the week before the church recording sessions. She needed a good quality camera that could shoot continually for a long period of time, up to one hour or more. She discovered that the Panasonic GH4 was a DSLR-style camera (technically a Micro Four Thirds) that didn’t stop recording after a 20-minute file was written. The quality of the video, especially using Lumix lenses, was an outstanding choice for concert videos. She owns one GH4 with a 35-100 Lumix lens, but routinely rents additional GH5 cameras through Cleveland Camera Rental. She credits them for “improving the quality of my video presentations over the five years I have been renting from them.”

Erica uses Final Cut Pro X v10.4 for video editing and loves the program. She has had the benefit of learning Final Cut Pro without the baggage of former versions or knowing the interface of Adobe Premiere. She highly recommends Final Cut Pro as a powerful tool that can significantly cut down editing time once the interface is fully understood and embraced.

Erica invites you to visit her website, although she was quick to say, “a few things need to be upgraded and added.” She added, “Another challenge of the independent producer is one always works on the client’s project before one’s own!”

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