Tales From The Recording Studio

By John Cynan Jones, Conductor Emeritus

The recent issue of a compilation album featuring tracks from my recordings with the Treorchy Male Choir has brought back vivid memories of the “golden age” of analogue recording for EMI Ltd. I have always regarded the making of a record album as the greatest challenge for any amateur choir, for it is invariably judged by professional standards and faces stiff competition from other leading choirs of the day.

Park and Dare Theatre, 1988Park and Dare Theatre, 1988It may surprise listeners to learn that all our recordings were made during only two three-hour sessions on a Sunday, and this required a great deal of physical and mental resourcefulness on the part of everyone concerned. The Brangwyn Hall was chosen by EMI for its outstanding facilities. Sited in the middle of Swansea Civic Centre - and therefore immune to extraneous noise - the hall is renowned for its magnificent acoustics. It contains a large grand piano together with one of the finest organs in Wales, and the spacious stage area encompasses tiered seating for the choristers. Backstage there are spacious ante-rooms to accommodate members of the recording team and their equipment.

There were also on-site catering facilities for lunch and tea, when choristers were treated as celebrities by the genial waitresses. For obvious reasons they were rationed to one small bottle of beer with their meal; the few individuals who overindulged in liquid intake were invariably subjected to uproarious banter when they returned to their seats after having left to obey the call of nature!

The flashing of the red light adjacent to the conductor’s rostrum is the signal to begin proceedings, and it heralds the culmination of months of preparatory work. Having chosen the repertoire in conjunction with myself, EMI would commission any new compositions and arrangements which were deemed necessary. As these would usually arrive in manuscript form, the preparation of scores for our choristers often involved me in the typing of thousands of tonic solfa characters. There followed many weeks of intensive rehearsal, for the use of copies was expressly forbidden, the Choir’s policy being that “we go there to RECORD, not to REHEARSE!” The normal procedure adopted by producers Brian Culverhouse and Bob Barratt was to record every item by means of two complete “takes”, each safeguarded by the use of two machines recording simultaneously. Additional complete performances were recorded immediately whenever obvious deficiencies were identified. When small blemishes were spotted, “re-takes” of those particular sections were made for inclusion at the editing stage.

Our task as singers was eased by the presence of Stuart Eltham, that doyen of sound engineers. Following our first “run-through” he was moved to declare that “he considered the internal balance of the Choir to be absolutely perfect, requiring no adjustment whatsoever.” His presence at all our subsequent recordings during that period (including his emergence from retirement on one occasion) imbued us with a most agreeable sense of confidence that all was well backstage. Inevitably, all was NOT always well ONSTAGE. The hazards of singing with hands in pockets were sometimes evident through the occasional jingling of coins or car keys, leading to withering looks from the rostrum and a harsh rebuke from the producer! The perils of moving one’s feet while singing led to complaints about the creaking of floorboards, the microphones being so sensitive that even the sounds of sharp intakes of breath were sometimes captured. The final session of one recording was disrupted by the appearance of an organ “cipher” which rendered the instrument unplayable; on another occasion we arrived at the hall only to discover that the vital “Swell” division of the organ had been dismantled (without our knowledge) prior to the overhaul of the instrument!

Sing to the Lord” TV show, 1974Sing to the Lord” TV show, 1974Most of our recordings feature vocal soloists drawn from within the ranks of the Choir - Sam Griffiths (Baritone), Harry Price (Bass) and Wyn Davies (Tenor) – all of whom gave outstanding service for many years. If a soprano soloist was required, invitations were offered to young singers at the outset of their careers - Mary Davies and Josephine Jones. The organ accompaniments during this era were provided by Dilys Morgan Lloyd, David Bell and Hazel Davies, whilst the piano accompaniments were in the capable hands of Jennifer Jones, whose sensitive playing, of piano and harp, graced our performances for almost twenty years. It is rare for a distinguished musical arranger to acknowledge that his piano accompaniments were composed with a particular performer in mind, but this is how Mike Sammes declared his admiration of Jennifer’s musical skills.

The completion of the recording sessions does not mark the end of the conductor’s involvement with the record. It was with a feeling of intense excitement and anticipation that I would board an early-morning train from Cardiff to Paddington before taking a taxi to St John’s Wood to play my part in the editing process. These sessions took place in a sound-proof “cabin” at the famous Abbey Road studios of EMI, where I would join Bob Barratt and David Bell for a careful analysis of the huge spools of recording tape which contained every note of our performances at Swansea. David would be seated at the imposing editing desk, flanked by enormous loudspeakers. His stature as an internationally-recognised virtuoso was reflected in his title of “Organist to Herbert von Karajan” (Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), and it is difficult to comprehend how such a towering musical figure should be so eager to act as organ accompanist for our recordings whenever his other commitments permitted.

Bryn Yemm and the Choir, 1982Bryn Yemm and the Choir, 1982David also acted as “an extra pair of ears” during the recording process and then as Editor of the final product, his skills in technology matching those at the organ console. It would, of course, be quite incorrect to suggest that every item was perfect; it was in these circumstances that David’s amazing skill became even more evident. In Bryan Davies’ lovely arrangement of “The Finnish Forest”, with its delicate filigree accompaniment, the sound of Jennifer’s fingernails on the piano keys emerged as an unexpected intrusion on every version which we had recorded. Sensing our disappointment, David sent us off to lunch. On our return he gave me a card, to which were affixed a series of tiny slivers of brown recording tape; the
“clicks” had disappeared completely. At our next rehearsal Jennifer was presented with the card as a unique memento of the occasion!

Thanks to our association with EMI Ltd it is now possible to remind ourselves of the quality of performance of the Treorchy Male Choir throughout the 1970s and 80s; it remains a fitting memorial to the faithful choristers of that era.