Excerpted from Strings magazine, January 2005 , No. 125.
The Borromeo Quartet applies a
do-it-yourself approach to quality chamber recordings
By James Reel
Rock fans can go to a concert and, while they're there, order a CD made during the show. That kind of fast-turnaround service isn't common yet in the classical world, but the Borromeo String Quartet is leading the way in offering listeners CDs and DVDs recorded in concert.
It's a completely do-it-yourself job masterminded by the group's first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen. Since October 2003, the Living Archive project has preserved and distributed recordings of most of the Borromeo Quartet's concerts. You can go to the ensemble's website—www.borromeoquartet.org—and order a CD of a Mozart/Janácek/Beethoven recital given in Burlington, Vermont, and compare that to the same program given the following night in Montpelier. You can find a couple of cycles of the Brahms quartets, recent works by György Ligeti or Jennifer Higdon embedded in mixed programs, and much more.
Kitchen says the project developed from his determination not to let the quartet's work disappear once the notes faded from the concert hall, and a need to interact more with the audience. The next stage of development for Living Archive, says Kitchen, will be the incorporation of this raw material from live concerts into educational DVDs, as well as a kind of encyclopedia, organized by repertoire, of the ensemble's favorite versions of each movement of each piece.
Right now, the group sells anywhere from zero to 25 copies of each concert, including CDs, DVDs, and VHS/CD combos. "We've seen some people who have ordered one immediately following a concert that they attended, then many of these same people have gone on to order quite a few more concerts that they did not attend," says Kitchen.
The bad news is that Kitchen himself is the sole techie.
"Other members of the group, in addition to helping me with what is possible in the setup, handle different aspects of Living Archive," he says. "Will [Fedkenheuer, second violin] handles the website, Mai [Motobuchi, viola] handles the order forms at concerts, and Yeesun [Kim, cello] handles the sending out [of the recordings]. Joseph Correia is acting as a kind of manager for Living Archive and handles the databases of orders and calls to make preconcert arrangements for Living Archive.
"Everyone in the group tries to help."
Want to try it yourself? Here's Kitchen's description of the Borromeo chain of production:
"The sound is picked up by Schoeps stereo microphones in ORTF configuration [centered in front of the group, one mic pointing a bit to the left, the other angled to the right]. These are excellent mics ($2,500) and the fact that they are fixed in a nice stereo configuration means that even if I have an extremely pressed setup, I will not get a strange result. These mics I put onto a very thin aluminum stand that goes up to about 11 feet. Then a thin five-pin XLR high-performance microphone cable runs backstage, where a Y-cord splits the signal into left and right. Then this goes into a Digidesign Mbox [a MIDI compatible micro-music studio], which provides phantom power to the mics and converts the analog input to digital output. The output is then sent through the USB port of a Mac G4 PowerBook laptop, where the signal is recorded in ProTools LE (which comes with the Mbox in a package for around $450). Files are divided and assembled into CDs using the Jam and Toast CD-burning programs ($150).
"The video image comes off a Sony DRV-TRV 900 ($2,500), which puts the digital image onto mini-DV [digital video] tapes. These are transferred through Firewire [a peripheral connection that speeds up the movement of large multimedia images] into the program Final Cut Pro ($800). Into Final Cut Pro, I bring in a large audio file that was converted from 44.1 Hz to 48 Hz in ProTools. I synchronize the audio with the video and then divide the large file into separate movies of each movement, adding small fades to smooth the viewing. I then export these movies as QuickTime Pro files, which DVD Studio Pro ($400) will recognize and work with. I then make TIFF menus for the DVD in Photoshop, one for location, one for the movements. All these elements are brought into DVD Studio Pro and a DVD is created.
"The menus allow you to navigate to any movement, but the DVD is designed so that if you do nothing, it will simply play over and over again. Building a DVD takes five or six hours as the computer rebuilds the file into the particular format used for DVD. Then burning each DVD takes about one and a half hours, because I have learned the hard way that if you burn it at anything but real time, you will not have a reliable disc.
"Once the CDs and DVDs are done, I make labels for them using Discus Pro (it comes with Jam and Toast) and I use printable CDs and DVDs and print the label right on the disc with an Epson 900 (CD printers are quite cheap now—$150 perhaps?). I then hand these to Yeesun, who sends them out to fill the orders. In addition, we send a copy to the presenter and any guest performers, along with their percentage; each person involved gets 10 percent of the profits from sales of the discs.
"The amount of information to archive on DVD for each concert—about 25 gigabytes—means that I use six external hard drives to hold it until I have a chance to transfer it permanently to DVD. Each drive holds between 200 and 250 gigabytes of information.
"So, I would say from one point of view, anyone can do this. From another point of view, you really have to have a pretty strong commitment to the idea, and I certainly had to invest a huge effort in getting over the learning curves of the software. I couldn't be happier that I did it, but I would hate to look at an actual calculation of how much I have slept in the last eight months."
Kitchen says that because quartet members do all the work, Living Archive does turn a marginal profit. "But the motivation for Living Archive," he stresses, "is really about creating a resource for understanding string quartets, as pieces of music and as performing ensembles."