How we recorded Steve Reich's Drumming

Ian DeardenFri 9th March 2018

Sound Designer Ian Dearden explains how he went about recording Drumming with the Colin Currie Group

Eight bongos, three marimbas, two women’s voices (one doubling as a whistler), three glockenspiels and a piccolo; that’s the line-up for Steve Reich’s masterpiece Drumming. In live performance it is all amplified, though not for the reason you might first expect. Certainly it makes it louder and helps the music punch through; however the real reason for amplification is to balance the wildly different timbres of the instruments and voices and to help bring forward their character and colour.

Steve’s music is a treat to mix live. It is at once still, yet driven forward by kaleidoscopic changes in timbre and teasing melodic and rhythmic ambiguities. Indeed, some of the melodies and rhythms we hear are not even notated in the score. They result from the collision of repeated patterns; but more interestingly, they also arise from the fusion of the harmonics of those sounds. It’s an aural illusion, a subtle alchemy in sound and it’s why I love this piece.

In recording Drumming for this album, Colin wanted to preserve the thrilling sound of live performance and combine it with the precision of a studio session. We began by laying out the studio exactly as we would a stage, with marimbas on the left, glocks on the right, singers and piccolo at the back and bongos front and centre; you’ll hear this in the recording. We chose not to vary the layout with each movement; by wheeling marimbas into the centre of the image for Part 2 for example. Then we miked it as we would for a live show – close up. A second array of microphones, this time with a bit more distance between the instruments and the microphones, gave us a sense of space and depth. The recording you’ll hear is a mix of all these perspectives. It gave us the possibility of focusing in on musical lines when they’d be otherwise lost in the overall sound; it’s something I have to do all the time when I’m mixing a live show.

Each performance of Drumming is unique and differs in subtle ways from any other, particularly during the phasing of patterns. To put this another way, whilst the destination points for the phasing of patterns remain the same, the journeys to them are always different. This makes editing tricky and so we made a point of recording in long takes, allowing patterns to evolve naturally and with fluency.

We recorded the work in one single - exhilarating - day in May 2017.

The new recording of Steve Reich's Drumming by the Colin Currie Group is released on Colin Currie Records on March 9. For further information, please visit: http://smarturl.it/drumming

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