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The Department That Sets the Record Straight

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With the exception of the truly seasoned and fearless musicians, recording sessions have the ability to scare and rattle even the most calm and composed players. Unlike live performances, where the fleeting moment dominates and mistakes are momentary, a mistake recorded will reoccur at the exact same place every time the recording on which  it’s preserved is played. Thankfully, the recording engineers at Juilliard take on the extra responsibility of making each performer feel relaxed at recording sessions, to lessen the  perpetual fear that accompanies just about every musician into the studio.  

Robert Taibbi, head of Juilliard’s Recording Department, strives to make musicians feel comfortable when they step into the studio.

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With the exception of the truly seasoned and fearless musicians, recording sessions have the ability to scare and rattle even the most calm and composed players. Unlike live performances, where the fleeting moment dominates and mistakes are momentary, a mistake recorded will reoccur at the exact same place every time the recording on which  it’s preserved is played. Thankfully, the recording engineers at Juilliard take on the extra responsibility of making each performer feel relaxed at recording sessions, to lessen the  perpetual fear that accompanies just about every musician into the studio.  

The head of the Recording Department, Robert Taibbi, has been Juilliard’s sound engineer for more than 37 years. “I came here before cassettes,” he said in a recent interview. “I hate to admit it, but when I came here, eight-tracks were the thing.” Taibbi, who studied electronics at the RCA Institute with the interest of working in television production, first joined the Juilliard staff in 1973. At the time, the School was much smaller—there were less people, smaller venues, and fewer concerts and events than today. The Recording Department consisted only of two people, and the two of them managed everything from archiving and logging to booking and recording. With the expansion of the School, there are now five sound engineers as well as an office manager to oversee the daily operations of the department.  

Studio recordings primarily take place in Studio B, Room 319. Studio A is in the orchestral rehearsal studio, Room 309, and is only used for occasional orchestral recordings. While recording technology has evolved with time, the physical recording space has remained unchanged since 1973. Studio B was designed to be a classical recording studio and as such, it does not feature accommodations like isolation booths or heavy padding commonly found in many other recording facilities. But the roomy space, with its hardwood floors, 20-foot ceilings, and adjustable curtains, provides an ideal, controlled area for recording classical music and most jazz. 

The studios are flanked by one control room and what used to be a copy room. The control room, which once only consisted of a six-foot rotary attenuator board and doubled as the director’s office, is now filled with a large, mind-boggling console. The copy room, which was originally used only to make copies and occasional edits, now acts as a second control room, complete with a recording console, computer, and rows of tape decks and disc burners. The technology used by the Recording Department has been consistently updated with the latest advancements. In the earlier days, the studio only handled audio recordings and all copies were made on large equipment in the copy room. Editing was only possible with razor blades. Today, the studio is equipped to handle both audio and video with ease, razor-blade editing has given way to digital editing, and copies of audio and video can be made quickly on burners that are the size of CD players.

The five engineers—Michael Piasio, Stephen Roessner, Yvonne Yedibalian, Shane Mathews, and Taibbi, as well as their office manager, Diane Roe—rarely have a fixed schedule. During operational hours, two studio sessions occur daily at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., with the engineers setting up the microphones and equipment most suitable for the type of ensemble they will be recording. Aside from the two studio sessions, the engineers’ schedules revolve around the maintenance, repair, and installation of equipment all over the building and concert halls. If they have time left over, their focus turns to post-production work, which ranges from reducing the audience noises and trimming applauses from live performances to editing sessions for studio recordings. 

The department also records most public performances that take place at Juilliard—about 120 audio and 35 video recordings a year—for the archive, and videotapes the third- and fourth-year drama productions, as well as opera performances. Other events, such as master classes and student recitals, are recorded or videotaped upon request, and students are responsible for recording fees for recitals. The microphones found in Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Paul Hall, Morse Hall, Room 309, and the newly-constructed Woolfson Orchestral Studio are wired directly to the control rooms. 

“April and May used to be the busy months,” said Taibbi, “but now, we are packed from convocation until the very last days of school.” The demand for studio time is so high that it is not unusual for the studio to be booked up to two months in advance. Beyond handling the various studio recordings and archival recordings, the engineers are responsible for the maintenance of all the audio and video equipment found in most classrooms, as well as responding to occasional “tech support” calls from professors struggling with classroom media equipment.  

While recording mediums and formats have shifted from vinyl to cassette to compact disc and recently to MP3, what has not changed is Taibbi’s drive to capture the performer’s individual sound. A true audiophile, he remains sensitive to the different characteristics of various audio formats. While he insists that “it depends on who you speak to and the generation they come from, because it’s an opinion,” Taibbi could never turn his ears away from the rich and warm nuances produced from vinyl. “I come from the vinyl generation—to me, the sound of vinyl is the sound.” He concedes that digital recordings are cleaner, but feels that a certain amount of warmth in the sound is lost with digital recordings. 

This same passion is reflected equally in Taibbi’s perspective on the role of an audio engineer. He understands the stress of recording for performers, and believes that his job as an engineer is “to make the performers feel comfortable so [they] can get the best representation of their abilities.” Contrasting his job with the role of a producer, Taibbi does not make any artistic suggestions during sessions, but strives to provide the performer with anything he or she needs in order to capture the individual’s sound.

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