ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Cast Albums

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Cast Albums
 
Playbill.com answers your (and sometimes our own) theatre-related questions.

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This week's question comes from Thom Sellwood.

Question: What goes into the process of recording and producing a cast album? Answer: For this question, AskPlaybill.com spoke with Kurt Deutsch, the president of Sh-K-Boom Records (full disclosure: I once wrote liner notes for Sh-K-Boom). First, Deutsch says, the record company executives see the show, agree to create the album and make a deal with the show's producers. A lot of times, record companies have established relationships with certain producers. Deutsch says his relationships with Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, for instance, led to him creating cast albums for The Drowsy Chaperone and In the Heights.

The next step is to come up with an overall concept for the album. This task isn't always as straightforward as it seems. For The Drowsy Chaperone, for instance, Deutsch and the producers decided to record the show more or less live in the room — with performers and musicians performing at the same time, as opposed to the traditional method of everyone performing at different times and layering in various tracks later. Deutsch says, "We wanted it to sound like the way they would have recorded it in 1928," in keeping with the show's theme of nostalgia for old musicals. Sh-K-Boom's Passing Strange cast album was recorded live in the theatre, which is hardly ever done.

The main difference between recording a rock album and a Broadway cast album: time. While rock albums can take weeks to record, a typical Broadway cast album is recoded in two days. For a rock album, Deutsch says, "You could spend one day just recording one vocal track and putting down layers and layers of guitar overdubs. You could spend a whole day setting up drum sounds, getting the drums exactly how you want them."

One reason for this difference in recording studio time is that in rock music, recording is a big part of the artistic process, while in musical theatre, the music is pretty much set by the time everyone gets into the studio (the songs are, of course, being performed the same way every night). Plus, since Broadway is an extremely risky business, and cast albums hardly ever become hits, there's a big push to keep costs down. A smaller Off-Broadway show costs around $100,00-$150,000 while a big Broadway cast album costs around $500,000 — a significant chunk of change for a $10 million show. Union rules affect these costs. For instance, a performer gets a week's salary for every eight hours spent in the recording studio. The rule of thumb, Deutsch says, is to schedule the sessions so that the actors don't work more than those eight hours.

This recording studio time issue is one reason why the Passing Strange album was recoded live, Deutsch says. Stew and Heidi Rodewald, who composed the music and play instruments and sing in the show, are used to making rock records. "They're used to going in and laying the tracks down and spending a lot of time on the vocals, spending a lot of time on really making a record the way that you would make a rock record," Deutsch says. "It would be cost-prohibitive for us to make a record like that with Passing Strange." A live album is a concept that rock musicians are used to, and it doesn't take up studio time. But beyond these practical maters, Deutsch says, the live concept fit because for Passing Strange "half of the energy is the [audience] reaction and how Stew plays off of the audience, so the audience is almost like another character in the show."

To maximize the efficiency of the process, scheduling the studio time is very important. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle," Deutsch says. "It's usually scheduled very, very specifically, down to the minute."

For In the Heights, for instance, Deutsch scheduled a three-hour Sunday-night session, an all-day Monday session, and a Tuesday-morning session, all at Legacy Recording Studio on 38th Street. On Sunday night they recorded mainly the musicians. While the musicians played, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's songwriter and star, did some vocals. Then, Monday morning, Mandy Gonzalez, who plays Nina, the plucky Stanford University student, did her solos. A bit later they brought in Christopher Jackson, who plays Benny, Nina's love interest. Eventually, Karen Olivo came in to do her solo stuff. Towards the end of the day, the ensemble vocals were recorded. Tuesday morning, Carlos Gomez and Priscilla Lopez, who play Nina's parents, came in to focus on their solos, since they're not in a lot of the group numbers. Despite the cramped schedule, Deutsch likes to do at least two takes per song.

The leader during this process is the producer — the equivalent to the director in theatre. There's also a recording engineer, who oversees a lot of the technical aspects of the recording session: making sure the studio is set up properly, making sure all the microphones work, and making sure the sound is being captured in the right way. (Deutsch serves as the producer on his albums but will often co-produce with the recording engineer.) Another job is the ProTools engineer, who makes sure the sound is being fed into the ProTools software in the correct way.

Later, a mixing engineer (often the same as the recording engineer) leads the mixing process — when all the tracks are assembled together. After that comes the mastering process, which "puts the icing on the cake," Deutsch says. The producer and his team make sure all the songs on the album have a consistent feel. In areas where the show is sung-through, without any obvious endings to songs, they decide the point at which one track ends and the next one begins, so that the individual songs will sound okay when shuffled around on your iPod. And, for the songs that do have obvious endings, they decide how much blank space there should be between one song and the next. After the mastering process, an album takes about three weeks to manufacture and put into stores.

While mixing and mastering, you're also working on the album cover and the booklet with the lyrics and the liner notes, while also creating a marketing plan. Usually you make sure to check that the lyrics in the booklet fit with exactly what's sung on the album. But sometimes you run out of time. "For In the Heights, this was the first time I had to hand in the artwork before the finished product," Deutsch says. "It was more important to make the street date than to check every single 'and' or 'but.'"

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