Next Time, Request a Tonmeister

I’ve been in at the Philharmonie recording some pieces this week (four down, four to go). While of course I was impressed the incredible musicianship of the performers, I wasn’t at all expecting to be so totally blown away by the audio team. These guys really hit the ball out of the park!

There is a German word for which there is no easy English translation— tonmeister—that is loosely equivalent to “recording engineer” or maybe “producer”. Maybe “sound director” would be the best translation—a lead engineer who is equally at home recording, mixing, rehearsing, and following a score. The tonmeister takes an active role in the entire process, and first spends many hours studying and marking scores, planning takes as well as a rehearsal schedule. All decisions on how to record the piece—especially the choice and placement of microphones—are ultimately based on the tonmeister’s understanding and interpretation of this score, so I’m grateful to have someone who really understands these pieces at the helm.

The tonmeister also serves as another set of ears when evaluating takes, which is especially helpful as I have a better ear for timbre then for intonation. Each take he would mark notes that were marginally sharp or flat in different colors, including several notes in inner voices that had completely eluded me.

My experience in the recording studio is of course very limited, but I haven’t seen many people with this kind of dual training in the states. Not that there aren’t musical and competent audio technicians; just that you might not be able to expect them to know at what pitches those harmonics are going to sound. There seems to be a real need for musicians with this kind of training.

From what I can tell, the quality and heritage of the tonmeister is one of those “German” things. Germany probably has over a hundred professional orchestras scattered about, so maybe that’s some of it; in addition, Germany has a proud tradition of radio orchestras that I would suspect created a demand for these kinds of minds.

It’s been great having a special pal whose main concern is making these performances of my music sound as good as possible. In fact, I’d like to bring him around with me permanently—because, as I learned this week, one of the hardest things for composers might be to stop worrying about how their piece sounds and to start thinking more about how the performance of their piece sounds.

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