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La Cage Aux Vol: recording 4’33”

Paul Watson 6 December 2010
La Cage Aux Vol: recording 4'33

At London’s Dean Street Studios, formerly Tony Visconti’s Good Earth, MPG award-winning producer Paul Epworth has just recorded John Cage’s iconic 4’33" with an all-star cast for charity, writes Phil Ward. The aim is to emulate Rage Against The Machine’s spirited attempt last year to steal the Christmas No.1 slot. How did he do it? What’s so special about silence? “There’s not much of it about!” What’s your signal path for this critical test of pro audio technology? “We’re using Pro Tools 8 as the recording platform, with all of the mic channels going through a 48-channel SSL Duality. We also have 30 additional mic pres, including 16 vintage Neves, as well as racks and racks of compressors, additional EQs, effects and other signal processors. It’s a large live room – 650sqft – with scores of vintage and modern guitars, amps and pedals. The keyboard collection tells a similar story, with a Bechstein piano that’s over 100 years old, a 1970 Hammond C3, a newly built Mellotron M4000, George Harrison’s harmonium, and, er…” Hold, it, hold it. Apart from accommodating all of these kind-hearted artists who have packed in here today, why exactly are these details relevant? “We’re trying to capture as much silence as possible!” Right. On how many channels? “There are three individual microphones placed around the room, plus a stereo pair. So that’s five tracks of Pro Tools, receiving a few ambients and a cross-figured pair in the middle.” Was it a good performance? “I was quite impressed that everyone was as quiet as they were. The piece is about the moment, but any conductor would frown upon gratuitous noise. It’s about musicians being present, but not playing. It’s a written piece of manuscript that requires all the musicians to play a ‘rest’ – in three separate movements – simultaneously. That’s what you have to remember. It’s actually nothing to do with ‘silence’ as you might understand it technically, as something measurable in decibels.” As a ‘concert’ piece, how does it translate into a pop recording session? “I just hoped to God that everyone knew how to play a rest. As Frank Zappa said, people don’t know how to do that any more.” Did you want absolute silence in the studio? “It’s about not playing your instruments, so you should hear them breathing, you should hear them shuffling from side to side a bit… you should hear them thinking.” What’s next? “I’m just trying to decide whether to bounce the five tracks down to stereo or not. We don’t actually know, at this point, whether there will be a commercial release. If all goes well there will be a mastering stage when we have to consider all the formats and how best it will come across on radio. Look at the waveform in the Pro Tools window – you can see how high the noise floor is. Can you imagine how loud that would be by the time it’s passed through the dynamic range compression for broadcast…?”

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