Back to Essays

Back Home

What's It Like to Record a Song with Natalie Merchant?

[Hear the song and watch the video here.]

In 2008, the Meridian Arts Ensemble was asked to record a song with Natalie Merchant for her upcoming CD release. Her arranger for this
album was a composer named Stephen Barber, who has written a several great pieces for MAE (one is entitled Semahane, and can be heard
on the Meridian CD Anxiety of Influence). One of the songs on the new album was going to be a kind of circusy, merry-go-round tune, and
Stephen imagined brass as the natural background for the song.

We got a hiring call from Natalie Merchant's “people,” and we set a date during her recording period. We were emailed a demo of the song, with
Natalie singing over a midi (computer) background. She sounded fabulous on the demo, of course, and we were thrilled for the chance to record
this song with her.

The session was booked for a full day at a studio in upstate New York. The studio is in a barn-like building in the middle of nowhere – beautiful
and quiet. As I was parking my car, someone I didn't know was parking next to me. We got out of our cars at the same time. “I'm Natalie.” She
turned out to be nice, normal, friendly, and down-to-earth.

Inside the studio, I met the producer and the engineer, and saw Stephen for the first time in a while (he lives in Texas). The engineer for a recording
positions the microphones and is in charge of the setup. The producer runs the recording session. There was a small sheet of music on each music stand.
One by one, the Meridians drifted in, set up, and started warming up.

The first part of any recording session is microphone placement. A difference of an inch can make a large change in the quality of the recorded sound,
so it is crucial to find the optimal spot for the mics. For this recording, we each had one microphone near our bell, and there were a few mics in front
of the whole group. When we were all satisfied with the sound, it was time to begin with the song.

Stephen Barber had provided us with the outline of the song. This is a great way to work, and is especially fun for us since it lets us into the creative
process. As we played through what he had written, both he and we started having ideas: what if the trombone plays this? What if the horn doubles
the tuba here? What if we record this section, then go back and record other music on top of what we already have? All of this is easy to execute with
today's recording technology. We can record a section and then have it played back in our headphones while we record something else on top of it.
We can record a section, decide we only liked the first half, then listen back and have the producer “punch in” the second half (in other words, we start
playing at the spot where we didn't like the previous take, and the splice is made on the fly).

Whenever we went into the control room to listen back to a particular section, Natalie would be there,  knitting.

Throughout the recording process, Natalie stood in an isolation booth, singing the song with us. She sounded indescribably good every time, with
nothing ever out of tune. It turns out that none of this singing will be used on the final recording – she will sing the final track after our final track is
created out of all the material we recorded at the session. We are hoping the CD will be released soon, and you can buy it and hear our song, which
may or not be called Equestrienne.

[Note from several years later: the song is indeed called Equestrienne.]

Back to Essays

Back Home