Russell Dawkins is an avid 6moons reader. He's also a recording engineer. A recent e-mail exchange on the subject of Azerbaijani music expanded into Russell sharing some photos of a recording project he was involved with in Armenia. As more and more e-mails crossed the ethers between Cyprus and Canada, the idea for a loosely formatted piece suggested itself. It would, in the same ad-hoc fashion as our e-mail exchange, become an improvised combination of travelogue, photo album, liner notes and select MP3 files. Audiophile commentary tends to focus on the hardware. It thus traditionally and sadly lacks the human element of the people involved with creating the music we listen to - the performing artists, the recording engineers and the very real adventures that are often involved when performances are captured in remote locales. Without further ado, here's our 'national geographical' glimpse behind the scenes of the art of location recordings. [Rather than resequenced, the narrative follows the original flow of e-mails between us. It all started with the photos.]

Saghmosavank Monastery where I recorded the Armenian Chamber Choir under Robert Mlkeian. In 2004 I went to Armenia to record a Gala Open-Air Concert by the
National Chamber Orchestra of Amenia (NCOA) at the Garni Temple, dedicated to the 10th Anniversary of the Armenia Tree Project. While I was there, a recording was made in the above monastery as well as two CDs' worth of studio recordings for the orchestra in a studio in Yerevan, the capitol. The latter two discs have yet to be released.

Armenian Chamber Choir, June 2004, inside Saghmosavank Monastery. Good perspective of placement of Royer SF-24 mic. Should have been closer and the choir width decreased with 3 rows. Note makeshift mic stand! It was cold in there (note sweaters) and just plain hot outside.

Google overview map of Armenia's neighbors, green arrow pointing at Garni.

Google satellite view of the historical temple ruins of Garni.

Looking north from the stage to what will be the audience risers for the Garni concert.
Finishing makeshift foam cover for the Royer SF-24 main microphone with my very effective and helpful assistant, Ruben Osipov.

Suren Ter Grigorian (centre), the best videographer in Armenia, director of photography for the Garni concert which was made into the first DVD to have been produced entirely in Armenia. I provided the sound. A classic collection of Armenian faces.

My then-new laptop recording setup 17" powerbook with Metric Halo MIO 2882 +DSP. This one rack unit box can record 8 analog and 10 digital inputs simultaneously.

Attaching foam windscreen. Notice the cable hanger, a very simple and effective device the sound man made.

Night rehearsal. Special Grivens and Coroner lights from Italy and Sweden respectively set up by Ruben Tonikian [inset above] who purchased them out of pocket through his Prolighting Company and had them specially flown in.

2 hours before the Gala concert started on July 2nd. Notice telescopic boom for one of the 6 cameras, speaker tower on right looking south. You can see the main orchestra mic hanging over the stage. It was a Blumlein recording with subtle addition of spot mics taped to the stands so as to be invisible to the cameras. It worked.

Mt Ararat and "Baby Ararat" from the road just west of Garni.

Looking East from the mixing position at Garni. There is a deep gorge to the south east and west that can clearly be seen in the satellite photo above.

At Aram's birthday dinner at a sidewalk café in Yerevan, with me between
Nuneh Badalian, who sang at the concert two days prior and Shakeh, Artbridge Cafe owner and tireless behind-the-scenes worker/supporter.

Aram at his birthday dinner (July 4th!) with cafe owner.

At this point, I perceived a brewing story and, without envisioning anything in particular yet, said as much to Russell.

I will contact the conductor and let him know what you're thinking. I'm not perfectly sure what the story is that you're envisaging. There are a number of parallel stories here - the story of Aram (which is quite an international and romantic story in itself); his time with the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia; these concerts (which typify Aram's approach).

I think that really this would be about Aram Gharabekian. If you knew his story, you would be amazed. A true romantic. Born in Iran, raised in Boston where his education and career got started, favored protégé of Sergiu Celibidache of Munich Symphony fame. I recorded his first CD back in 94 in Kiev (the one I sent you). He took over the NCOA in 97, I recorded them in 1998, 2004 (3 discs + DVD) and 2006 (DVD). The touring schedule of the orchestra would probably amaze you. Ideally, you would visit Armenia and interview Aram. I know you would find him extremely fascinating and be generally blown away by the ambiance and goings-on there.

I have not yet put into print the story about my recordings in Armenia but should and will. In the meantime, here is some info about how Aram and I met in Ukraine in 1993 while I was there to record a music festival. This meeting led to me going back in 1994 to record the Ukrainian Radio/Television Orchestra and later the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia in 1998, 2004 and 2006. He has a very unusual philosophy surrounding music and enjoys talking at length in the most exquisitely esoteric and vaporous terms about the very big picture regarding music's place in our lives. I'll send you some more pix if you like.

The next e-mail was a PDF of the original liner notes sharing the background information on Russell's first recording project with Aram Gharabekian, Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" suites and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet".

Notes on the Recording, by Russell Dawkins
It was the fall of 1993 when I first met the conductor and producer of this recording, Aram Gharabekian, in the city of Lviv in Western Ukraine. My wife Alexandra, an oboist, and I had just come from a couple of weeks in Kiev where I had been invited to record a music festival at which she was playing. We were visiting Western Ukraine where one side of her family originated and in order for her to give a master class at the Lviv Conservatory of Music. One morning we were having breakfast in the once spectacular hotel we were staying at when we heard someone speaking English at a different table. It was Aram Gharabekian who, it transpired, was a regular guest conductor for a chamber orchestra in Lviv as well as a number of other orchestras. We introduced ourselves and eventually Aram and I got around to talking about why modern orchestral recordings sound the way they do, "with shrill trebles" as Aram put it. The majority of his favorite recordings -- the ones he went back to again and again for pleasure -- were recorded in the 1950s, often in England. He wondered what was responsible - the microphones? the digital recorders? the CD medium? transistors vs. tubes? I enthusiastically offered my thinking on the subject, we talked for an hour, exchanged addresses and after attending one of his (delightful) concerts, returned to our home in Victoria, B.C.

A couple of months later, Aram phoned me from his home in Munich to say that he had been thinking about what we had talked about and to ask if I would be at all interested in coming to Kiev to record his first CD - a project very dear to his heart involving the Ukrainian Radio-Television Symphony Orchestra. The recording hall (the recording hall for the orchestra for radio broadcast) had very beautiful acoustics and the orchestra was 95 pieces strong. We had not only 17 days with the orchestra but these included 4 days of rehearsal time during which I could adjust microphone position. Anyone recording orchestras will know what an extreme luxury those circumstances represent. One of the reasons multiple spot microphones are used with orchestra is simply security in the face of the need to be expedient. Orchestras tend to be very expensive on an hourly basis to hire and time spent adjusting mic position is
time wasted not going to tape so the engineer is under pressure to arrive at a useable sound at the earliest possible stage in proceedings. Multiple spot or zone mics offer a needed measure of security under these circumstances. For a pure Blumlein stereo, ribbon microphone, no-spot-mic recording, those 4 rehearsal days would be nearly essential and in fact were fully utilized.

Of course I said yes to the project and after getting a new Apogee AD500 A/D converter for the project, left for Ukraine with all of my essential gear in my personal luggage, helped by the fact that I would be using a small portable DAT machine to record on. My gear was relatively simple and modest-looking and triggered snorts of derision among some of the engineers at the studio whom I was displacing on this project. They also thought what I was proposing to do was, basically, impossible -- quixotic -- if a professional quality product was the desired result. In fact, during playback of the first microphone position tried, the control room was packed with engineers from around the studio complex, anxious to hear what this 'wonder kid' from Canada with his bizarre ideas could come up with. The first microphone position is seldom much like the one finally chosen in circumstances like these but that is all most of the engineers there ever heard. It didn't sound great, yet, but that's all they wanted to confirm to themselves. After all, they made a living recording orchestras in this same hall and had refined their techniques with their equipment and their approach was very and necessarily different to this. This was their equivalent of audiophile flakiness.

No matter. A couple of the junior engineers were assistants and, although deeply skeptical of my approach at first, by day 15 of the project were almost dancing around the control room in their incredulity at what was possible with "only one microphone". It should be noted that, apart from the logistical reasons noted above, another reason that ribbon microphones had not been used in this way -- considering the distance from the orchestra required to achieve the right perspective (a 95-piece orchestra is wide) -- is that until the Speiden SF12 came on the scene in about 1985, ribbons were too insensitive and required so much preamp gain that hiss was unacceptable. Digital recorders, unlike analog recorders, tend to be very quiet so the hiss heard is not the tape but the microphone/ preamp combination. The Speiden used new tech Neodymium magnets which provided enough output that the ribbon could once again be considered as a viable option, even with digital. The recording that resulted has audible hiss but it is not intrusive and was considered to be a worthwhile trade off considering ribbons' advantages, particularly in the area of off-axis response which is important when you consider that the central portion of the orchestra is 45º off axis to each of the elements in the microphone and depends on the accuracy of the response at that angle to sound right, tonally.

Aram is an intensely passionate man and rather courtly and formal in his manner. He told me that when he first heard Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suites as a teenager in Iran (he was born and raised there) he thought "this is wrong!" and longed for the chance to do it the way he imagined it. This recording represents his way. Some orchestral musicians who have played this piece as ballet accompaniment think the tempos taken are too slow. When played as a concert piece it is often still taken at dance tempos but this really is not necessary and could be considered a limitation to musical expression. No such limitations are in play in this performance.

The following is an expanded version of the "Technical details of recording technique" which was on the inner pages of the booklet that was included with the original Russian Disc release in 1996:

"It is our intention to create a listening experience more like real concert performance than a 'recording'. This has involved a careful re-thinking of many facets of the recording process. These include:

  • capturing the natural tonality of the instruments, the orchestra as a whole, and the concert hall itself.
  • preserving the appropriate balance of loudness between individual instruments and the whole orchestra, thus preserving the sensation of depth.
  • creating a realistic spatial rendering of the orchestra which readily detaches from the speakers and lets you listen 'through' your system to the performance. (i.e. permits suspension of disbelief)
  • capturing the spirit, inspiration and tension of a real concert performance by recording performances of the complete work played right through, not as separate movements or passages. Occasionally, a passage would be re-recorded for insertion into an otherwise good take, but the basis was one chosen performance of the complete work. Ay the end of one grueling session in Kiev, a senior violinist came up to me on the way to a break. Sweating but beaming, he tapped his chest over his heart and said "very difficult, but great enjoy!"

"A microphone technique which satisfies the first three considerations is the crossed figure-of-eight pair, the so-called Blumlein configuration. Significantly, I think, ribbon microphones were chosen over the more usual choice of circular diaphragm condenser microphones. This choice was made based on the superior off-axis response of the ribbon which affects the tonality of the centre of the orchestra as well as of the hall itself. In fact, the entire 360º around the microphone (not above and below) is picked up in a very natural manner. This is by virtue of the very small width of the ribbon element, when compared to the diameter of the condenser diaphragm. This affects the tracking of the shorter wavelengths of interest, being a small rather than large fraction of the length of these (note: at 12,000Hz peak-to-peak, distance is about one inch). The down side of ribbons is their lower output and the slightly higher hiss levels resulting from the microphone preamplifier working harder. The microphone, a Speiden SF12, was one of about 50 completely hand-made by Bob Speiden of New Jersey, a talented and devoted recording engineer/machinist (!) who is still actively mastering vinyl, although his microphone is now being manufactured by Royer and has been modified from the original. His microphone is sensitive enough to pick up violins playing pianissimo at a distance of 20 feet, with acceptable levels of hiss from the preamp. As mentioned, in order to preserve natural spatial characteristics, no spot microphones were employed. The recording equipment chain was thus allowed to be simple, short and of high quality.

"To enable this, I situated my table 25' back from the conductor. Specifically, 35' of Monster Professional mic cable fed the mic preamp, 2 more feet of the same fed the Apogee AD500E A/D converter which sent its digital output down 6' of Apogee WydEye digital interconnect to the input of the portable TEAC DAT recorder. The net result of all this plotting, we believe, is a recording that invites you to turn the volume up rather than down, and which sounds pleasant and quite correct at realistic (quite high) playback levels. Aram and I hope that the joy we felt in making this recording will communicate itself to you."

The following is extracted from the notes for a CD I recorded for Aram in Armenia in 1998: "Aram Gharabekian", according to Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer, "knows how to inspire an orchestra to give him what he wants". During his eight years as Music Director and conductor of the Boston SinfoNova Orchestra (1982-1990), Aram Gharabekian won national recognition and praise for his innovative and enterprising programming, as well as his critically acclaimed performances in major American venues, including Carnegie Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Boston's Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall. Active as a guest conductor, Aram Gharabekian has been the Principal Guest Conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic in Croatia and appears frequently with several orchestras in Europe and the United States. He is the recipient of the Lucien Wulsin Performance Award for the best concert performance aired on America's NPR, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Award for Adventuresome Programming. He has twice been honored by the Harvard Musical Association's Best Performance Award and on four occasions his performances have been singled out as Best of the Year by the Boston Globe.

Born to Armenian parents in 1955, Aram Gharabekian moved to the United States at a very young age where he continued his studies in composition and piano. He graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston with a Master's degree in Composition, and continued his postgraduate studies in Musical Phenomenology at Mainz University in Germany. He studied conducting with Franco Ferrara in Italy, and in 1979 became one of the few conducting pupils of the legendary Sergiu Celibidache in Germany. He was also granted a fellowship to study composition and conducting under Jacob Druckman and Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.

In 2004, I returned to record one CD for the National Chamber Choir of Armenia, two CDs for the orchestra and the sound for a DVD made of a Gala concert at a spectacular temple in Garni, on the road to Geghard. This temple resembles a miniature Parthenon. [This loops back to the opening photographs higher up on this page. Now more photos followed, of a concert for which Russell provided sound.]

This a 12 camera shoot in Zvartnotz, 2006. It set a new record for Armenia which lasted two weeks until Charles Aznavour came to town with Jacques Chirac! The occasion was the celebration of the 15th anniversary of independence from USSR. Here's the orchestra website. Check out Special Projects. What you will see (illogically - their site needs rationalizing) is the liner notes I made for their 1998 recording.The last track was recorded in a chapel carved out of solid rock -- a mountain side -- and with a 6-second reverb time. This was the first time a recording had been done in there since it was created in 325 AD or so and it was also the premier recording of the piece "The Lost Balloon". Edward Hairapetian, the composer, was in attendance for this recording, with damp cheeks by the end.

A view over the mixing/ recording/lighting control area earlier on the day of the concert showing the telescopic camera boom at rest on its tripod. Seating for around 1000 was custom built for the event.

Rehearsal on concert day.

Setting up on the first recording day. Ruben under the Beyer headphones, me "under" the Etymotics. All I had to work with I had carried on in a backpack. Fortunately this was possible thanks to the laptop-oriented system I was using around the Metric Halo MIO 2882 +DSP as the interface. I even had the Royer SF 12, cable hanger, windsock, shockmount, y-cord and Etymotic Research ER4Ss in my backpack just in case the worst came to the worst and British Airways lost my luggage. They did. They were not to deliver my clothes suitcase until a week after I arrived. My equipment case carrying 7 microphones, two 8-channel mic preamps, cables, chargers, tools, furry wind socks hand sewn by me for this occasion etc. finally got to Yerevan after I had arrived home in Victoria - about 4 weeks late and half destroyed from being dropped multiple times from all appearances. The two 8-channel mic preamps had been disassembled for inspection and not put back together completely. One push button was completely missing from the case and many screws from the preamp case were tumbling around inside. The equipment case, bought new for the trip, had been dropped so hard the lids would not fit on properly and had to be strapped on.

All the wires were cryo'd, of course. Evidence of Armenian pixie dust may also be seen on XLR plugs. Live sound engineer Karen Chilingarian, pictured here, was using surprisingly superior equipment, a real pro. Speakers were the excellent DAS of Spain.

Aram Gharabekian surveying the scene.

With principal cellist Ashot Aivazian. I was told he made his own cello but never confirmed that.

Dimitri Dessyllas, founder of Typana Percussion Ensemble and professor of percussion at the Athens Conservatory.

Typana Percussion Ensemble from Greece (looking towards audience
from rear).

Zurna ensemble (loud!).

Armenian Chamber Choir.

Overview with Vahagn Dhol ensemble on the dance floor.

Dancer Aida Amirkanian from Los Angeles, against orchestra.

Aida Amirkanian.

The maestro against audience.
Now the MP3 exchange began in earnest: These are a couple of tracks I did in 1998 in the studio, just for a sample of Armenian orchestral music. These are by Aslamazian, Armenia's favorite composer. It is his music that is playing non-stop at the memorial for the Turkish genocide. I really like them best from that CD: 1.mp3 [Cloudy Sky, 4.18MB] and 2.mp3 [The Red Handkerchief, 3.59MB]. The next one is the first movement of Prokovief's Romeo & Juliet, "Montagues and Capulets", and the latest 2005 remastering, with the 95-piece Ukranain Radio and Televion Symphony Orchestra: 3.mp3 [5.86MB]. The next one is Mirzoyan - Shushanik which, I think, means "swallow". It's lovely: 4.mp3 [5.9MB]. Then comes Johann Strauss' Pizzicato Polka. Notable are the birds half-way through. This is well after dark - it's black outside and an amazing atmosphere: 5.mp3 [3.08MB]. The last one is Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus. I just love this piece. The orchestra is joined for the last half of the concert by the NCCA - National Chamber Choir of Armenia and by three different operatic soloists: 6.mp3 [4.15MB].

While on MP3s and a musical meze of tidbits from here and there, here's my favorite track [3.3MB] of Eyyub Yaqubov, the popular Azerbaijani singer who kicked off my exchange with Russell. If you like this style of singing, you'll love Jaghoub Zoroofchi who also performs in traditional Azerbaijani operatic settings. XDot 25 has two albums, unfortunately of inferior quality. Still, they're plenty effective to showcase the tremendous artistry of this signer. EWorldRecords has many more albums - with downloadable samples no less.

And thus ends our impromptu musical tale from Armenia, of certain artists on and behind the stage - with Aram Gharabekian and Russell Dawkins in great spirits after their July 2nd concert...
Russell Dawkin's e-mail