Blog - LMP - Concerns and Considerations
November 15, 2020
I'm finding this task to be daunting, for several reasons. There are a lot of practical and technical hurdles to overcome as well as some conceptual things to hammer out.
Warning: Some rather technical nerdery ahead
In trying to resurrect these pieces for posterity I have some decisions to make, especially as I am a layman. How much fidelity to the scores do I want to maintain? Should I choose the tempos to be more period appropriate for the original time of composition or should I err to the side of what sounds best to me? Most of the pieces use the general Italian tempo markings like "Allegro" which is anywhere between 110 beats per minute (bpm) to 130 bpm, at least in modern times. Which speed to I choose?
I'm going aim for the middle of the standard modern BPM range for the tempos, though I'll be taking it piece by piece. Some of the faster pieces will probably have an upper limit on how quickly I can play them. Hopefully the limit imposed by my technical ability will still be within the "sounds good" window or I'm going to have to re-arrange some measures, taking 16th notes to 8th notes etc. My biggest concern is that I'm going to record, say, three out of four parts for a quartet and then find there's a passage I absolutely cannot play in the last section.
I'm going to be combing through each score before I start recording to try to find potential trouble spots and realistically assess my ability to play them before I waste time and money flailing at them.
Do I follow the structure rigorously, respecting all repeat signs or do I pick and choose the refrains I want to follow?
Honestly, I'm probably going to go by my ear with regards to the microlevel structural elements like repeat signs. I think I'll stick to the period appropriate macro level elements, like playing Minuet and Trio as one complete movement rather than two separate pieces.
Technical Competency and Compromise
Bowed vs. Plectrum Instruments
I'm anticipating some technical challenges, even setting aside my own technical skill. I'm playing the pieces on the "wrong" instruments, using plectrum  mandolin-style instruments rather than the bowed strings the pieces were written for. It theoretically is the same, but plectrum instruments have different strengths and weaknesses than bowed strings.
The right hand technique for a plectrum instrument is less complicated than for a bowed one. The right hand on both types is largely responsible for the tone quality of the sound. The palette for a plectrum instruments is more limited, especially on a high string tension instrument like a mandolin. You have control over how hard you hit the string, the pick speed, and.... that's kind of it. On a violin, the bow pressure, the distance from the bridge, the bow speed, and the bow angle relative to the strings all contribute to the tone, with extremely nuanced gradations. (Right hand technique on a violin is really freaking hard to get right.)
From a general top level "pure notes" perspective, violin music tends to be easier to play on a mandolin than a violin. There's a lot less to keep track of between the simplified right hand and the frets which make intonation (i.e. playing the notes in tune) orders of magnitude easier. Also on a mandolin chordal passages are far easier on than a violin, both because of the frets and the ability to hit all 4 strings at once, which isn't possible on a violin.
Slow melodic singing lines sound better on the violin though, as you have as much sustain on a note as you can manage with the bow, as opposed to a mandolin where you pluck the string and rings for a finite amount of time and then dies out. Note shadings like vibrato are part of the violin toolkit, but is rather difficult if not impossible on the mandolin.
In the broad strokes, fast repeated string crossings are easier on the violin than the mandolin as they can be done with a very slight tilting of the bow angle whereas on the mandolin the required cross-picking technique means have to almost do a figure 8 back and forth which requires a lot more motion.
So playing the scores with plectrum instruments is going to be an exercise in compromise. Slow melodic passages will be easier to play, but more difficult to replicate the singing feel of the original, while fast string crossings are going to be much harder.
In addition to the compromises and challenges of learning and playing the pieces, there are undoubtedly going to be many challenges in the recording process. Not to get to Rumsfeldian, but I'm already having anxiety about the issues I know about. I have no idea what might crop up that I haven't anticipated.
(For more on the technical side of recording see this blog post I wrote when Beemo was tracking our full length album in 2018)
First and foremost I'm not sure how to mic it. In the past I've used a close condenser mic  pointed at about the 12th fret, catching the sound coming right out of the instrument. However that has always been when the mandolin is a support instrument, which is definitely not going to be the case here. Will a close mic be able to capture the chamber music in a performance hall vibe I'm going for? Or will we need a less directional room mic that will capture the reverberations not only from the instrument but from off the walls? I have no idea. (Fortunately this is a challenge that I don't have to figure out by myself. I'm going to be recording with Mike Walker at Dreamwalker Studios in Gotha, and he is a really experienced sound engineer. In Mike I trust.)
Recording acoustic instruments is difficult; there's no hiding behind distortion or gain like with an electric. Every fret buzz, every accidental mute, every unintentionally ringing string will come through loud and clear. I'll have to be really well rehearsed and have my wits about me to make sure my fretting is done cleanly and in the right place (to avoid mutes and fret buzz) and that my fret releases are good to avoid a staccato feel and to keep the string ring under control. This is potentially a huge gotcha when playing violin music on the mandolin; with a violin as soon as your bow stops or moves on to another string, the sound stops. A metal stringed mandolin will ring for a while, potentially causing dissonance or muddiness when a note goes on past it's intended end point.
And speaking of strings, mandolin strings are tuned in pairs and any slight deviation in tuning within a pair can throw off your intonation  and throw dissonances onto your notes. It is way more noticeable on a recording than it would be live. Those kinds of issues can get more severe depending on where you are on the neck and how you are fretting the notes. It's one more thing to be paranoid about in the recording booth.
I'm also a little worried about my endurance. Recording is tiring; it requires a lot of concentration to get a good clean take and some of these orchestral pieces are north of 10 minutes long, far longer than the style I'm used to.
That's a long time for me to be recording, especially as it will be more or less continuous playing and there's no ensemble to hide in. No autopilot chord chug chugs on this stuff. I'm going to have to make sure I build up my endurance during rehearsal and plan the recording sessions carefully. The Fodor Quartet 1 that I'm learning has a nasty section in the first violin part right at the end of the piece's second movement, about 10 minutes in. It would be wise of me to record that piece out of order, doing the second movement first, and early on in the session so I'm not already exhausted before trying to most difficult section.
I've already decided I'm not going to be a purist about "I will record this in one take like a real musician would!" I don't have the skill for that, and I'm breaking so much new ground for myself, that I would be doing a disservice to the material I'm trying to preserve purely on a pride issue that I don't have the ability / experience to back up.
Maybe as I do more of these I'll get to that point, but since my goal is to resurrect these dying pieces and get the best experience for the listener, I'm not above going back and punching in a flubbed phrase. The ship has already sailed on 100% fidelity as I'm already playing it on the "wrong" instrument, so I am going to try my best to let myself slide on some of the challenges the mandolin style family will impose.
I'm also not sure how I'm going to work out the dynamics, the ebb and flow of the volume swells and decrescendos. I can execute the ones that are explicit in the score, but as I'm tracking  this one instrument at a time the push-pull of the melody line and the natural dynamics  may be hard to do. I'm not sure how to handle this yet. One thing at a time.
Reading over the above again, I'm reminded how much I have no idea what I'm doing. I really hope this works....
 A plectrum is a pick.
 Condenser mics are really sensitive microphones that are also really directional, meaning that they'll only cleanly pick up what they are pointed right at. And I do mean sensitive; I've screwed up takes where I shifted in the chair and the seat squeaked a little bit, but it was enough to show up loud and clear on the track.
 Intonation is accuracy of pitch. If you have good intonation, all your notes are in tune. This is a bigger problem on fretless instruments where even millimeter shifts alter your pitch slightly.
 "Tracking" means recording a track, usually a single instrument at a time. Again, for more see this blog post.
 Chamber music doesn't use a conductor, so the musicians are listening and reacting to each other without an external time keeper.