Has MTSU professor engineered a Grammy win?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 12:49pm
Staff Reports

You probably couldn't throw a rock at any car in Nashville and not hit someone nominated for a Grammy Award. This is after all Music City.

However, you'd have to aim in a southeasterly direction with something a bit stronger than your arm to nail Grammy nominee John Hill in Murfreesboro. The Middle Tennessee State University professor and recording engineer is in the running for Best Classical Album — one that likely will be announced in passing during Sunday night's telecast of CBS.

Hill worked on a pair of tracks — “L’Enfant et les sortileges” (“The Child and the Spells”) and “Sheherazade” — on 2009's Ravel: L’Enfant et les sortileges, one of the first recordings ever made in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. The compositions of Maurice Ravel were first recorded in late 2006 and much of 2007 by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Alistair Willis, but released only last year. Also featured in the recording on the Naxos label are the Chattanooga Boys Choir, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Nashville Symphony Chorus and eight operatic soloists.

The album is up against some heavyweight internationally renowned competition, including Michael Tilson Thomas directing the San Francisco Symphony, and James Levine directing the Boston Symphony.

Hill seemingly isn't fazed by the competition.

“Of course, the source material is the orchestra, molded by whoever is conducting them,” says Hill. “But it also takes a solid technical team to put together a recording that’s going to be good.”

Hill’s responsibility on the recordings was the so-called acquisition phase of the process, positioning more than 30 state-of-the-art microphones in just the right places and funneling the sound into a multitrack recorder. Typically, for a symphonic recording, the primary pair of mikes is placed behind the conductor, and spot mikes are scattered in various areas of the orchestra.

The technique of creating the mix in real time, as the orchestra is performing, is quite old school in an age when artists don’t even have to be in the same country, let alone the same studio, to lay down tracks. However, that’s standard procedure for recording classical music.

“It helps if it’s not your first rodeo,” says Hill, who rearranged the mikes for recording purposes following three live performances of the same material.

Of course, it wasn’t Hill’s first rodeo, as he has served as the Nashville Symphony’s recording engineer since 2000. In addition to a master’s degree in sound recording from McGill University in Montreal, he has a bachelor’s degree in music from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. No mere functionary, Hill considers his technical skills an extension of his artistic appreciation of the material being performed.

“I really consider myself a musician who has a set of technical skills to draw on,” Hill explains. “For this type of work, you would definitely not want to have somebody who is just fiddling with knobs. … One really has to have some type of working knowledge of music.”

To hear brief excerpts from the CD and a Jan. 10 interview with Hill that aired on WMOT-FM’s MTSU on the Record, click here.