By Sigurd Neubauer
Before overseeing all recordings at the Royal Academy of Music in London, David Gleeson spent decades in industry where he recorded music for several Hollywood blockbusters, including, Lord of the Rings and the Titanic, among others. He’s also worked with some of the top pop artists of the day: Celine Dion; Mariah Carey; and Jennifer Lopez.
“During my collaboration with James Horner and Walter Afanasieff for the Titanic title song, my job as recording engineer was to help realize their vision of a power ballad,” Gleeson recalls. He’s referring to Dion’s mega hit – My Heart Will Go On – whose final note he extended. “Fortunately no one seems to have noticed,” the gregarious Brit says with a laugh.
For the past decade, Gleeson has supported some 900 students at the Academy by helping them navigate the complicated world of recording, making it as easy and seamless of a process as possible.
“The Academy is an old school conservatory with principal studies for all the orchestral instruments, plus departments for opera, jazz, and musical theater – not to mention extensive postgraduate research. Although recording production is not taught directly, my role as Head of Recording is both to provide a service for students’ recording needs, and to create high production value content for social media,” he says.
The Academy’s recordings are posted on its YouTube channel to “showcase the brilliant work of our staff and students, thereby attracting the brightest and the best in the next cohort,” Gleeson explains.
His job is also to help students with establishing their musical careers by introducing them to professional recording production. But equally important, Gleeson insists, is how recording can help students promote themselves to prospective employers by showcasing their talents.
“We’re trying to use technology to make the recording process as straightforward as possible. Everyone is busy and students’ workload is already at capacity.” Gleeson doesn’t want to make their lives more complicated than it need be.
“Students being students, they often end up applying at ‘the very last minute’ for grants, scholarships, and competitions, all of which require high quality recorded submissions. To help them focus on their performance and not the process of making a recording, the technological process needs to be as seamless as possible.”
The Academy has invested significant resources into its world-class recording facilities, Gleeson reveals as he’s pointing to the state-of-the-art cameras, microphones, and recording equipment – designed to efficiently capture everything from a small chamber ensemble to a full orchestra.
“We aspire to the same high production values established by the legendary Deutsche Grammophon and New York’s Metropolitical Opera. This is an incredibly high bar for a relatively small institution such as ours to achieve,” he says.
Continues Gleeson: “Although our AV infrastructure is designed to make the biggest productions using highly skilled crews, we’ve found ways to repurpose the equipment to benefit our students requiring almost zero technological know-how.”
Over the past eight years, the Academy has developed an easy-to-use system for students -including when it comes to basic editing using a secure, cloud-based platform.
Best of all, the Academy is not charging any fees for its recording services.
“We want our musicians to know how recording works by the time they start their careers,” Gleeson says, but explains that the Academy (in keeping with its traditional conservatory methods) does not offer any film scoring courses nor Tonmeister courses,” Gleeson says. Although we do employ Tonmeister graduates, and take industry-placement undergraduates as interns.
Explaining the role, “Tonmeisters are trained to have a deep understanding of the theoretical and practical knowledge related to sound recording. The title can only be achieved from a handful of institutions across the globe and spans both the arts and technology,” according to Blackhill Studios.
The concept was first conceived by the legendary composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) who wanted technicians to be musicians and technically savvy. From the 1950s onwards, Tonmeister courses were provided by leading conservatories around the world.
A veteran of the recording industry, David Gleeson oversees the Royal Academy of Music’s recording department. Photo credit: Courtesy
We want to make music recording an easy and seamless process for students
“I joined the company just as its ‘Golden Era’ was drawing to a close. Decca employed some incredibly innovative people since its inception in 1929. It was a unique, ‘Old World’ place to work, also known for its egalitarian culture.”
Gleeson is referring to the fact that from the legendary New Zealand lyric soprano Kiri Te Kanawa to the receptionist, “everyone would have lunch together in the refectory.”
“During my time there, Decca had many incredible artists, but its technicians had come from the British Military after World War II. The technicians had developed recording technologies during the war to detect German submarines. After the war, they brought their skillset to the recording industry where they developed second careers.”
The ranks of engineers a young Gleeson joined had been trained by the World War II veterans, which generated a near constant pursuit of excellence and encouraged maverick thinking and experimentation, he recalls.
While Decca specialized in classical music, it had also made an infamous decision to turn down The Beatles.
Responding to what has changed in the recording industry since the early 1980s, Gleeson points out that the sonic quality has improved over the years but argues that it’s what’s being captured that ultimately matters, and that’s still the same today. [But, of course, AI is trying desperately hard to prove me wrong!]
There are advantages and disadvantages, Gleeson explains in reference to what the change in technology means practically.
“The advantages are that making multi-track recordings, editing, and post-production are all easier today. The downside is that there are too many choices, and one can over-produce something to the extent it is all perfection over passion, which somehow risks the recording losing its soul compared to what one would experience during a live performance.”
Gleeson left Decca in 1989 to join Abbey Road Studios, which is owned by EMI Records. He left Decca because of his interest in studio-based production over that of classical music and location recording.
Although Decca eventually went bankrupt in the 1990s, its brand was ultimately acquired by Universal Music Group but “the Decca of today is not the same as the one I knew from the 1980s,” Gleeson explains.
“I moved to Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, which is located some 20 miles north of San Francisco. At the time I arrived, it was a new but an absolutely fascinating place to be,” he recalls.
Lucas had wanted to break away from Los Angeles which is why he built the Ranch. The filmmaker not only set up a residential post-production facility but also a scoring stage, “with the lowest noise interference of any professional recording studio on the planet, by virtue of its location. It is fantastic.”
The Ranch’s relatively remote location, however, did provide some challenges for local talent as the musicians from either the San Francisco Opera or the San Francisco Symphony had to commit extensive travel time to go back-and-forth for regular scoring sessions. “Players were worried about the traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge and they couldn’t really work at the ranch while making it back to San Francisco for evening gigs,” Gleeson recalls.
Next, the Brit set up his own production company with partners, Ren Klyce and Malcolm Fife, not long after which his collaboration with Howard Shore began. The Canadian composer is primarily known for his music of The Lord of the Rings. [Long-running Saturday Night Live TV show theme too!]
“I left the film industry in the early 2000s because of its taxing travel schedule and how it impacted personal life,” which is why Gleeson and his wife eventually moved back to London.
Responding to when the transformation of the recording industry took place, Gleeson describes year 2000 as a “watershed moment” when CDs had lost out to streaming services. “Sales in the industry and revenue were declining due to piracy and downloading services.”
Gleeson also witnessed the technological transformation towards the digital age.
“It was a proliferation of choice for the consumer and technician alike. With the rise of the relatively cheap, digital recording equipment, the bar had been lowered as recording costs dropped correspondingly.”
With the combination of the dot-com bubble burst and ascent of the file-sharing service Napster, change was imminent, he recalls.
Gleeson began witnessing the change when colleagues he had known for years at Record Companies were laid off and began looking for work in real estate. “This is when I knew that the technological shift was underway.” [Funny coincidence what happened a few years later in 2008!
Prior to that, the major recording companies such as Warner Bros, Decca, and Sony, had spared “no expense” during what the Brit describes as the “excesses of the 1990s. They were very powerful and influential at that time.”
But ultimately, has the recording quality changed for the better?
Despite the technological transformation in which the metrics of sound quality are incontestably better, the question is how much better do they need to be, Gleeson asks, and points to the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) on the Deutsche Grammophon label to make his point. “The Fischer-Dieskau recordings remain delightful and esthetically beyond excellent,” no matter they were made on what would be considered inferior technology by today’s standards.
Continues Gleeson: “The quality of recording hasn’t changed. It is all contingent upon the overall quality of the performance regardless of what has happened over the past 40 years.”
But one thing has changed. One can hardly purchase CDs anymore.