The 10 Commandments for Recording Your Chorus

Professionally produced recordings are still one of the best ways you can enhance the quality, image, reputation, and morale of your chorus.

For several years now, almost everyone involved in classical music has been singing these familiar refrains:

"The recording industry is in shambles."

"Music downloads and internet media are making CD recordings obsolete."

"No one will make classical recordings when the economy is in a tailspin."

So why bother to invest in recordings of your ensemble? Because professionally produced recordings are still one of the best ways you can enhance the quality, image, reputation, and morale of your chorus.

Assuming you hire an experienced professional to produce your recordings, you will employ a process of takes, retakes, and critical listening by two sets of ears, yours and the producer's, to perfect your musical performances. Through this process you will establish a new benchmark of excellence for your ensemble, a collective sense by everyone in your organization about the level of artistic achievement that your ensemble can and should be reaching, a greater sense of responsibility on the part of your choristers for the quality of singing needed, and a means of establishing a reputation beyond your local community.

Through this process you will establish a new benchmark of excellence for your ensemble, a collective sense by everyone in your organization about the level of artistic achievement that your ensemble can and should be reaching.

The process of preparing repertoire, perfecting performances for recordings, and refining the product in recording sessions is perhaps one of the most effective means for getting your singers to understand their individual and collective responsibilities to perform music at a high level, raising the stakes for future performances. Furthermore, when you use a skilled producer and approach recordings with a positive attitude, the process will build a sense of pride and excitement in your organization. And, if you sell your recording to a commercial label or invest in advertisements in the national trade journals, it could be reviewed and receive radio play that will enable you to reach a much broader audience.

To help you navigate the shoals and produce the best possible product, here are my "10 Commandments" for recording your chorus:

1. Don't Expect To Make Money

It is not realistic to assume that you will make money on the release of a professionally produced recording of your chorus—it makes more sense to aim for breaking even. Yes, it is possible that one of your tracks will become part of a movie soundtrack and that your recording may actually generate a profit. However, such outcomes are the exception rather than the rule. You will fare better in convincing your board to invest in a recording by explaining the various nonmonetary benefits of recording. While turning a profit is not a likely outcome, you can reasonably plan on a break-even project. This can be accomplished through sponsorships and agreements by your singers and community to commit to advance sales. In my experience, a sponsorship of $5,000 and advance sales commitments of 500 to 750 recordings along with post-release sales of an additional 1,000 will generally be sufficient to recover the costs of producing an a cappella recording of a volunteer chorus within a year's time.

2. Use an Experienced Professional Producer and Recording Engineer

A high quality recording cannot and should not be made without using the services of both a professional recording engineer and producer. A professional producer will study the scores and work closely with your conductor and chorus through the use of takes and retakes to make sure that you and your singers leave the sessions with the best possible performances on the final recording. An experienced producer will also help maintain the morale of the conductor and singers throughout the sessions, transforming the recording process from a grueling experience to an exhilarating one. Once the session takes are in the can, the producer will work with the conductor to develop an editing plot, but don't neglect the producer when you record.

3. Put the Schedule and Expectations in Writing

The recording processis a business venture. Treat it as such. Make sure that your schedule (including deadlines for all deliveries), budget, and contracts with your recording engineer and producer are in writing. This ensures that everyone involved understands and agrees with all deadlines.

4. Be Prepared, Be Patient, and Listen

Recording time is expensive, so do not use the recording sessions to rehearse selections. Prepare your chorus adequately in advance by ensuring they number every measure of their scores so the sessions go as efficiently as possible, and advising all participants of the need for patience because multiple takes and playbacks may be needed. You should also work with your producer to plan a strategy for dividing long tracks into less tedious takes that may easily be performed without errors and spliced together. Finally, make the recording process as comfortable as possible: Advise your singers to dress comfortably and provide refreshments during breaks.

5. Never Release a Product that Cannot Withstand Intense Critical Scrutiny

The recording you release will be a permanent record of the quality of your ensemble at a given point in time. Hence, this is the time to be a perfectionist. Be very careful when considering releasing live recordings or compilations of live recordings. Many ensembles have made this mistake, only to find that their live recording ends up being the subject of a negative review.

6. Work with an Established Record Label

If possible, strive to release your recording through an established record label that works with a professional distributor. Though there are few labels that will actually produce recordings of your ensemble, there are labels such as Gothic, Naxos, and Harmonia Mundi who are interested in releasing top quality chorus recordings. The benefits of using a label are numerous.

To begin with, they will take care of all mechanical royalty obligations, which in my experience, most community choruses cannot handle effectively on their own. In addition, release through a label will establish immediate credibility that a newcomer to recording cannot duplicate. An established label will have contracts in place with distributors, who will ensure that your recordings are in retail outlets and available on Amazon.com, iTunes, ArkivMusic.com, AlbanyRecords.com, and numerous other websites and stores.

A record label will spend money to advertise your release in the major recording publications such as Fanfare, American Record Guide, and Gramophone. Under almost all circumstances (except for the accidental and unwanted review mentioned previously), these publications only review releases of labels that purchase advertising in their publications. Finally, a label will distribute copies of your recording to local and national radio stations. National distribution of your recordings, reviews in name publications, radio play, and the imprimatur of an established label will bring inestimable benefits to your chorus.

While working with a label is preferable, not every ensemble is able to manage it. If you proceed on your own, you will need to do the following:

  • Contract with vendors for the design and manufacture of your disc
  • Obtain the necessary mechanical licenses for copy-protected tracks
  • Purchase advertisements for release in recording publications
  • Arrange for distribution of your recording through the internet, retail outlets, and music downloading sites
  • Distribute copies of your recording to potential reviewers and radio stationsA Google search will provide you with the names of many vendors who can design and manufacture your product. Thereafter, you should contact the Harry Fox Agency in New York City to obtain mechanical licenses for all of your tracks that contain controlled compositions. Administering your mechanical royalty obligations on your own is a cumbersome and time-consuming process. Finally, do not overlook the distribution and marketing tips above.

7. Choose Repertoire in Demand

Choose your repertoire carefully. There are two key considerations here: First, make sure the repertoire can be performed well by your ensemble. Second, choose music for which there may be a market. Ask record distributors and labels to tell you what kinds of choral recordings they would like to have in their catalogs to sell. In order to land a contract with a label, you may need to "pay your dues" and record repertoire that satisfies the label's business needs rather than your own artistic sensibilities. However, by talking with distributors and labels and doing a little research, you should be able to find a match between your repertoire interests and their needs.

Recording executives have told me that they know of no greater frustration than that of dealing with a conductor who has an insatiable desire to provide the world with their own interpretation of a masterwork that has already been recorded by many others. As an executive at Universal Music once said to me, "Why should any label be interested in investing in a new recording of a choral masterwork by your chorus when that work has already been recorded by dozens of major artists, including, for example, Shaw/Atlanta, Van Karajan/Berlin, and Bernstein/New York?"

It is also my experience that record labels find it especially difficult, unless they are dealing with holiday music of a well established artist, to market compilation recordings containing works by multiple composers. The bottom line is that you must be realistic and approach your recording project from the perspective of people who will need to make a return on this investment.

8. Avoid Common Mistakes in Your Label Contracts

When approaching a label, propose a contract that is mutually beneficial. Ask the label to:

  • Assume all costs of manufacturing your disc;
  • Provide you with several hundred free discs
  • Pay and administer the mechanical royalties due on your recording
  • Pay you an artist royalty on discs, in the event that sales surpass a given limit

You, in turn, should expect to commit to purchase a minimum number of additional discs at a wholesale price in the range of $7.00 each. Be sure you protect your ensemble by retaining the right to buy back the recording from the label, for a nominal sum, in the event that the recording is no longer distributed. By the same token, it is often a mistake to confine the duration of the contract. This is because you want your disc to remain in distribution for years to come. You should also ask the label to include a provision that guarantees an artist royalty (usually in the range of $.85/disc) in the event that the recording is especially successful. I call this "home run protection." Finally, given that reviews in major publications are usually contingent on advertising, your contract should require the record company to advertise your release in the major recording publications.

9. Be Mindful of the Editing Process

Employ the services of an experienced producer who will work with your engineer and conductor to edit your recording. Together, you will need to review all of the takes and agree on an editing plot containing the appropriate portions of takes that will comprise the final edit of each track. A good producer will maintain a session log identifying "good takes." Accordingly, do not depend entirely on your producer or engineer to do all the listening required for preparing the editing plot. Involvement by the conductor will improve the final product and save money that would otherwise be spent on paying a producer to listen to all of the takes from start to finish.

10. Never Treat Your Recording as a Vanity Project

No matter whether you self produce every aspect of your recording, pay to record your ensemble and then resell your recording to a label, or record with a label from the start, be sure never to treat any aspect of your recording as a vanity project. The only thing that matters is the quality of your product and the image it conveys of your organization. To the extent that album covers or other materials contain photos of your ensemble, make sure that they look professional in every way.

If you approach it with the right spirit and are mindful of the "commandments" above, a professional quality recording can provide your ensemble with things that money alone cannot buy. The rigor of the process will improve your ensemble and give your singers an understanding of how good they can be. A superb recording is an excellent calling card that speaks to the quality of your chorus—it can result in giving your ensemble a national or international reputation. Each of these benefits will, in turn, strengthen your singers' pride in and enthusiasm for your mission.


This article is adapted from The Voice, Winter 2009-10.

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