March 10, 2022

Behind the Scenes with Alan Bise: Musical Producer and Recording Engineer for CIM Opera Theater’s Dido and Aeneas

Behind the scenes of Dido
Sneak peek from the filming of Dido and Aeneas with Red Point Digital.

Recording Arts and Services Director Alan Bise (BM ’94, Knab) is the musical producer and recording engineer for the CIM Opera Theater’s Dido and Aeneas film, premiering in Mixon Hall on Friday, March 18 at 7:30pm ET. Director and Faculty of Digital Media Ali King spoke with him about his sound approach to Baroque music, the challenges of capturing a socially distanced soundtrack, and working with Hollywood A-listers.

Alan BiseAK: Hi Alan! For those new to the roles of musical producer and recording engineer, tell us what your responsibilities were for Dido and Aeneas.

AB: I worked very closely with Harry Davidson, the conductor, to ensure the musical performances were of the highest caliber – not only the details of intonation and ensemble, but also spirit and energy. Since we knew this would be played back in a room rather than listened to traditionally via headphones or a home stereo system, I made decisions about microphone placement and reverb that complement both the film footage, some of which takes place outdoors, and the space in which listeners are hearing the performance – in this case, Mixon Hall.

AK: You mentioned that Purcell’s time period influenced your sound approach – how so?

AB: For Baroque music (this is Baroque music played on modern instruments), there's a certain vitality in the sound that comes along with this style of string playing which uses a lighter, faster bow – it’s an energetic, brighter sound. When I’m picking microphones, I'm trying to make sure that I capture that brightness. Microphones, like instruments, have different colors to them; I’m choosing electronics that will help enhance the feeling that I'm looking for in the sound. Sound quality can convey an emotion, even if subconscious – which is exactly what I want!

AK: You recorded this soundtrack in February 2021; how did COVID-19 affect the process?

AB: The space that allowed for a socially distanced orchestra was Kulas Hall, which is where I recorded the entire orchestral soundtrack. Once that was edited, mixed and approved with Harry, the singers wore headphones and performed to the orchestral recording – not a click track, which has consistent tempo from bar to bar, but a very musical recording. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly they adjusted and delivered strong performances. This happened in Mixon Hall, where they were conducted by Harry. The real challenge with this process was matching up the sound for the orchestra in Kulas and the singers in Mixon to represent one performance space.

AK: What do CIM students learn from adapting to this kind of extenuating circumstance?

AB: In professional recording, I run into musicians and singers who’ve never had to perform as an overdub while listening to playback tracking – some of them have real difficulty with it. Especially for singers who do commercial work, this is good experience to have at a high level. Our students did a great job, and this music isn’t easy to sing. I think it would be useful for CIM students to get more of this kind of exposure. I’m imagining a situation where one of our composers works with a Cleveland Institute of Art filmmaker to compose a score, which is recorded by a CIM chamber ensemble and then premiered in University Circle – there are a lot of possibilities for collaboration.

AK: Have you produced soundtracks for other films?

AB: Yes, a few times – I worked on the soundtrack for a film called A Late Quartet, starring Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The director, Yaron Zilberman, was a huge fan of the Brentano Quartet, who are longtime clients and friends. We recorded Beethoven’s Opus 131 string quartet for the movie and had to film scenes of them practicing and rehearsing on a sound stage – it was a lot of fun as long as you didn’t get in the way of the Method actors…

AK: Many of us learned more about DIY audio production during the pandemic-induced necessity of remote rehearsal and performance. Any silver linings here?

AB: I’m biased of course, but I think it reinforced how much production quality still matters to the end listener. As the pandemic progressed, I noticed fewer and fewer big-name artists streaming at-home concerts. While charming, the sound is almost always mediocre. Organizations that invested in high quality production better maintained their audience with online streaming. Production just matters. But I’ll be the first to say that nothing I do replaces an excellent live concert, and I’m glad that we’re finally getting back to experiencing consistent live music.