Behind the recording with Philip Hobbs

Linn's chief producer and audio consultant Philip Hobbs shares a unique insight into the making of "Franz Lehár: Love was a Dream", the new album by Britain's number one tenor, Alfie Boe.  The album was recorded at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in May 2009 and features The Orchestra of Scottish Opera directed by Michael Rosewell.   As producer and engineer on this recording, Philip is able to give a first-hand account of the recording process...

"Part of the challenge of making albums like the Lehár album is that there is so much going on in every bar and so little time to get everything right. If you listen, for instance, to the violin solo line in many of the tracks, there is something approaching a concerto going most of the time, with fiendishly difficult high writing where the smallest blemish of intonation will be immediately obvious.  And of course   the times when the solo violin has his most difficult corners are also the points when Alfie is going full throttle.

As a result it is traditional to do this sort of record in two stages: the first stage is to get the orchestra's ‘backing' right, with the singer in a separate room singing along, but without the orchestra being able to hear him.  This orchestral track is then edited to remove any orchestral imperfections and then the singer is brought back into the studio and made to sing along to his own backing track.  The results can be very effective and it is certainly a much less risky way to work, but there is a real danger that the results can be a bit soulless, since the orchestra doesn't get the chance to react to the singer, and the singer in the end has to match his performance to the existing backing track. 

So with Alfie's Lehár album we decided to take the big risk and work ‘as live'. Rather than in a separate room, Alfie stood right in the middle of the orchestra between the second violins and the violas, a few feet in front of the conductor.  The risk is simple: if Alfie goes for his big note at the end of a phrase and the orchestra is out of tune or not quite together, then there's no option but to do it again.  So everyone has to be completely on their mettle, fully concentrated and focussed not only on their own performance but  of everyone round about them. 

I had never worked with Alfie and so for me this was a huge leap in the dark, but I have to say the risk was well worth taking. Alfie is, of course, one of the most fantastically reliable singers I have ever had the pleasure to work with  - an utterly bullet-proof technique, so on the few occasions where we did need to cover the same section a few times, there was never any doubt that he would nail it every time until the band got it right.  But the orchestra was superb:  people assume that orchestras are all sort of the same, but good opera orchestras have a different  skill: the ability to with a singer through all the minor points of flexibility of rhythm that makes the difference between a really musical interpretation and something that could have been generated by a machine. With a brilliant conductor in Michael Rosewell, who understands this repertoire from the ground up and who has  known  Alfie's voice from his early days at college, what we ended up with was something which sounds completely alive."

About Philip Hobbs...

Philip Hobbs travels the world regularly, making world-class recordings for Linn as well as other labels.  He is our chief producer, audio consultant and top acoustician.

Recently described in a Japanese Magazine as "the man with the golden ears", he certainly does have a lot of special tricks and skills in the recording world that James Bond would be proud of!

Philip first started at Linn over 27 years ago and has been one of Linn Records' top engineers since the label began.