Interview with Da-Hong Seetoo, Grammy Award-Winning Classical Producer and Engineer
[See Classical Reviews, Pt. 2 for reviews of two of the Music@Menlo CD sets.]
Da-Hong Seetoo began playing the violin at age two and a half. Seetoo’s mother was a pianist and his father was a violinist who taught at the Shanghai Conservatory. He grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and had to practice with the windows closed because Western music was forbidden. His father was able to purchase – at great expense – a Telefunken reel-to-reel hybrid (tube and transistor) tape deck so he could copy any of the recordings that were circulated underground. “No one knew how to fix it, so I learned how to fix it myself. I was always interested in electronics. I built my first radio when I was seven years old,” he related. He skipped the first four years of college, going directly to the Shanghai Conservatory where he was a violin prodigy. In 1979 he played for Boston Symphony concertmaster Joseph Silverstein who recommended him to the Curtis Institute of Music where he was admitted without a live audition. He studied with Ivan Galamian, graduated in 1984, and continued graduate studies at the Juilliard School of Music, studying with the legendary Dorothy DeLay. He became known for making audition tapes for students. “People knew I was always tinkering with recordings – it came naturally,” he said. He started a performance career after graduating from Juilliard, but found the lifestyle lonely and unsatisfying. After six months he was asked to fill in for a sick engineer who was recording Bach Partitas for violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet. One recording led to another and today Seetoo records the Emerson Quartet for Deutsche Grammophone (where he won a Grammy for their recording of the Shostakovich Quartets), David Finckel and Wu Han on their own Artist Led label, pianist Christopher O’Reilly, Daniel Barenboim’s recent performances of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas in Carnegie Hall and violinist Gil Shaham and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Seetoo recently recorded his own version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra. I interviewed him in Menlo Park, Ca. on July 28, 2004 on the eve of the beginning of Music at Menlo, the two and half week chamber music festival created by cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han in 2003.
What is your recording philosophy?
I do whatever it takes to capture everything, whether it is a studio recording or a live concert. With popular music the recordings are improvised as they are performed. No one has ever heard new popular works. Anything goes, especially if there are electronic elements in the music. With classical music, done acoustically, you have to approximate what the real instrument(s) sound like. Everything is edited, whether it’s a live performance or done in a studio. In a live recording, I remove many parts of the musical event that are included in the concert: street noise, wrong notes, coughing, body movements. When I listen to a CD I don’t want to listen to a flawed performance and the musicians don’t want to release one. That’s why you have to make a separation between a concert and a recording. They are two different entertainment experiences.
What is your role in the recording process?
During the rehearsal of a chamber music piece, I become the conductor of the work. As they rehearse, I’m marking the score. I’m there to point out inconsistencies between what I hear and what I read on the printed score. I’ll say, ‘I thought this passage sounds a little different from the music on the score. Do you agree?’ Or, maybe I’m reading a different edition of the music than they are playing. Everything is open for discussion. Sometimes they’ll agree, sometimes not. It’s their decision. We fix it in rehearsal until we’re satisfied.
How do you make the recordings?
I record everything in rehearsal and in the concert. For commercial recordings I record 96K, 24 bit multi drives. I have a stereo pickup, many microphones and surround mics in the hall. For live chamber music recordings, I string two rows of three microphones equally spaced across the stage – one string in front of the stage and one close to the middle of the stage. Every performer ends up with a microphone close to them, yet I get good spacing of the stage. These are wired to the hard drive of a computer and I can adjust balances after the concert is over. It’s very possible that in the mixing I’ll only use two microphones to preserve the recording. When I record the performances at Music at Menlo at St. Marks Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, I set up my recording studio in the nursery and do the editing with speakers, not earphones. I use Schoeps omnidirectional microphones and modify the electronics in the microphones myself. The modifications improve the signal to noise ratio, and increase the bandwidth. By the concert time, sometimes I have everything covered in the rehearsal so I don’t need the concert. I never leave things to chances in the concert. I make sure everything is covered in the rehearsal. As a result, musicians don’t have to worry about getting it right in concert; they can relax, play full out and take chances.
Do you record anything in a high resolution format?
Not for live recordings. For commercial recordings, I do PCM (pulse code modulation) which can be translated into SACD or DVD. PCM is a grid system with two elements: dynamics (vertical) and time (horizontal). You can take a snapshot of the music in any time fraction moment. SACD is encoded differently – instead of using a multi-bit system to take a snapshot of the music at any given moment, it uses a one bit system that captures the sounds moving up and down very fast. It’s a very good consumer sound delivery system – the dynamic accuracy is greater and it has a very good security characteristic – and it’s not easy to copy. But you can’t edit it in the computer as a raw data format. You have to transcode it to PCM, edit it in that format and then convert it into SACD. DVD and CD are basically the same thing: both are storage mediums. DVD means digital versatile disc. It’s like a computer hard drive, a storage cabinet. You stuff information into it. You can jam more music into with the same resolution or reach higher resolution with the same music. Both SACD and DVD sound better because you’re putting more musical data into the same capacity.
What do you think of surround sound for classical music?
At this point, I find it difficult to convince myself that it’s the way of the future. But I make all my recordings multi-drive with the surround information there if I need it someday. Every time I go to a high-end demonstration room or a production room with surround sound equipment, I find it interesting. But when I adjust surround sound to my liking, it ends up being stereo. Then, there’s the economic issue: surround sound is essentially six channel sound. Consumers have to spend three times more money to use it. So, who are we kidding? Do people really want to spend three times more money to reproduce sound? It’s hard enough to convince people to spend money to get a good sounding stereo system, let alone three times more to get the same quality on three channels. Maybe for video sound reproduction, but not music only. [This sort of unfortunate thinking that slows public acceptance of surround sound for music. It needn’t cost three times as much. And it is an avenue to get more people to sit down and really listen to music which they fail to do with two-channel. We shouldn’t be encouraging surround for home theater only…Ed.]
Do you think most classical recordings will be done live in a few years?
I hope not. No matter how much time I spend doing live recordings, the results can never be as accurate as a studio recording session. We spend three days doing a studio recording; only a day rehearsing and doing the live concert. As a result, you can capture more detail in a studio recording. Of course, you might not get the layer of energy that you could get in a live performance. A live performance and a recording are two different experiences; they’re different means of presenting music.
What about doing classical recordings live and producing them immediately after the performance so that the audience can purchase them?
It probably won’t be done because there are too many chances to make mistakes (deviations from the score) and in classical music the musicians don’t want that preserved.
Have you ever done an analog recording for LP release?
No, but I have recorded in analog and I’ve serviced lots of high end audio equipment. Playing analog is like riding in a horse and carriage today. When I want a romantic evening with my wife, I’ll go to Central Park in New York City where I live and rent a horse and carriage. What’s wrong with that? The sound with LPs on an analog system is very good. But from a practical standpoint, I don’t record in analog because of the equipment variability (tubes wear out, etc.).
Will more and more classical artists be recording themselves?
Yes. The technology has changed how recordings are done and who they can reach. You’d be surprised at how many classical artists are making money doing their own recordings. They sell their recordings at the concerts they perform. The revenue goes directly to the artists. And look at me: I’m a one man band. I can do alone what it used to take a production crew to do. I flew here and only had to ship four cases of equipment. I set up my gear in one afternoon and I’m ready to go. Very simple.
What are you recording at Music at Menlo?
Like last year, everything. We have 30 different CDs available now under the Music @ Menlo LIVE label from the 2003 festival. An ARTIST SERIES; a FOCUS SERIES (Music for Winds, the Cello, Music for Two, Music for Young Listeners, etc.); and a MICROCOSMS SERIES). A lot of musicians aren’t recording commercially these days and these CDs are a way of giving them their own CDs. These CDs will be produced on demand and can be ordered from the Music at Menlo web site (www.musicatmenlo.org).
— Interviewer: Robert Moon, August 2004