The Salt Lake Tabernacle is many things: gathering place, an example of early Utah architecture, a symbol of pioneer faith and ingenuity.
But a couple of times a year it also becomes a recording studio.
During the last week of May, the doors were closed, a recording center was set up in the back performing lounge, and quilts covered all the benches, as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded American folk hymns for an album that will be released in the spring of 2009.
Many people are surprised at how far in advance the choir works, says Scott Barrick, executive director of the choir. But if you go behind the scenes at a recording session, you quickly realize just how much is involved in putting together a CD of this type.
This is the second CD that the choir has recorded in the Tabernacle since the building's two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation. The first was Mack Wilberg's "Requiem." That one had slightly different dynamics and didn't require as many changes. But this time, they've had to relearn what it means to record in the Tabernacle, Barrick says.
"The object of the engineers who did the restoration was to make the sound no better and no worse. They failed a little on the good side. The acoustics are actually a bit better. Very simple things, like replacing the linoleum in the balcony, have an effect on the sound. They also tell us that it will change somewhat as the plaster on the ceiling ages. But right now it is a better recording studio than ever before."
Still, there were some surprises. For example, they found that the water fountains make noise, so they've had to bring in jugs of water. The smoke detectors that were installed in the organ make tiny noises as they "sniff the air for smoke." So, they had to be turned off temporarily.
"There's a lot you never think about until you hear a noise on a take, and then you have to find out where it comes from," Barrick says. But with all the microphones scattered about, they are able to pinpoint exactly where any noise or wrong note is coming from.
And then, there's the fact that "we are right downtown. Sometime we come to the end of a take and all of a sudden, we hear a siren outside."
The quilts on the benches are also there to improve sound quality. "The quilts are like an audience but with no coughing and talking," he says. "The engineers didn't like what they call a 'swimmy' sound, so we put the quilts out to absorb some of the sound, and the quality becomes crisper, cleaner."
And probably only with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he says jokingly, "could we send out an e-mail in the morning and have every member show up with a quilt that night."
The CD of American folk hymns and spirituals is the 15th that has been recorded since the Mormon Tabernacle Choir started its own label, and is the first to be recorded with Wilberg as the choir director.
"It was planned and programmed before Craig Jessop stepped down," Barrick says, "but it is a fitting one for Mack. He's always had such an affinity for this kind of music."
Wilberg has done most of the arrangements, will conduct each number, as well as serve as a producer. "It's yeoman's duty," Barrick says, "but it's a testament to his dedication, how he's stepped up with a new focus."
The album will start off with the stirring "Saints Bound for Heaven" and include other hymns, such as "His Voice as the Sound," "How Bright Is the Day," "Down to the River to Pray," as well as "Come Thou Font of Every Blessing" one of the choir's most-requested pieces. Choir member Alex Boye will be featured on two African-American spirituals, and members of the Wasatch & District Pipe Band will be included on an arrangement of "Amazing Grace."
"It is music that has such a sense of purpose," Barrick says. "You think of the early American churches and the passion they had in their beliefs. It's in their music."
Wilberg, too, loves these old, old hymns. "They have such a rich heritage," he says. "And they are part of our own LDS heritage. I can't help but think that our early Saints knew these tunes. Our own 'Come, Come Ye Saints' comes out of this tradition."
That was the way things worked in early religious music, he says. "Everyone knew the tunes, and then wrote their own words." Choosing which songs to include on this CD was "a difficult decision. We had a lot of select from. But these are such beautiful songs."
He hopes that the CD will take listeners on a journey not only through the rich folk music tradition, but also to a better place in their own lives. Music can do that, he says.
The recording session has been going well, he adds. "It's such a team effort. We couldn't do this without a great team of sound engineers, stage crew, and, of course, the musicians."
He steps to the podium to warm up the choir before the recording begins. They start off by singing the counts rather than the words. "It not only gets their voices ready to go, it squares up the rhythm," Barrick says.
Five men sit in "performance central" as the recording begins. Bruce Leek, a Grammy-winning sound engineer from Los Angeles has come in to be the lead sound engineer on the project. He is aided by Trent Walker, the choir's sound engineer, and Sean Adams, the choir's assistant sound engineer.
Chad Steffey, conductor of the Band of the Air Force Reserve, stationed at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, is the producer for the album; Ed Thompson, interim assistant director for the choir, is there to be a second pair of ears.
Leek and Steffey are "not of our faith," Barrick says, but they bring a great deal of expertise and sensitivity to the project. "Except when they want the choir to sing with more angst," Barrick says jokingly. "Mormons don't do angst well."
Leek has been coming to Salt Lake City for about 25 years now. "I worked with the Mormon Youth Symphony back into the '70s. I've been with the Tabernacle Choir since the beginning of their label."
He's recorded with a lot of professional groups all over the world, he says, but this all-volunteer choir and orchestra beats them all. "You don't see this professionalism anywhere else. It doesn't exist. It is a marvelous experience to come up and work with them."
Steffey's job is to be "Mack's ears. I listen in real time, and he relies on me to tell him whether it's good or not." He and Wilberg communicate privately by phone after each take. He can also speak to the choir by microphone.
They are recording "My God, My Portion, and My Love." "We need to work on the 'ah' sounds," Steffey tells Wilberg. And, "we're not quite together on the breathing."
"Use more of the second flute."
"We need a cleaner break after measure 20."
"Pick up on 14; we need one more chance for the woodwinds."
"The word 'the' needs to be higher."
"Is the 'and' in tune?"
"Is there any way to warm it up? Try playing on the A string."
"Make sure the 'N' goes in your molars."
It is a different language these musicians speak, but they all work toward the best they can get.
The way it works, Barrick explains, is that the choir and orchestra perform the number once all the way through to give them a "bed." Then they will perform the number a bit at a time, "until Chad says they've 'got it.' After the session, he and Mack will go through all the takes. They will maybe pull 1-6 measures from this take and 11-14 from another. And then Bruce will take all that and smooth it out into one flawless take."
The choir "gets it right within three times, on average," Steffey says. "We do about one tune an hour."
Recording is the "most intense period for the choir," Barrick says. "They have to be here every night for a week and then all day on Saturday. This, and Christmas, are the busiest times."
But it's fun, too. "All the women bring in cookies."
And then there's the orchestra. "With the choir, you have the same eight parts each time. But the orchestra changes song by song. Plus, this week there's a huge trombone convention in town that some of our members are involved in, so we have to schedule around that."
Barry Anderson, administrative manager of the Orchestra at Temple Square, is the person who puts the orchestra puzzle together for each recording session.
"We have some 110-120 musicians on the roster. Like the choir, they audition and are set apart as music missionaries." But because it is a volunteer organization, "we have people from many walks of life. We have professional musicians, music teachers, other professionals, moms. But the sound they create, when they all come together, is very high caliber, very close to professional. It's amazing how it all comes together and meshes."
But not all members are needed every time. Plus, because this album features a lot of folk music, new musicians are brought in: a banjo player, the bagpipers, more harpists, piano players, penny whistle players.
What happens, Anderson says, "is that as the repertoire is selected, they bring it to me. My job is to do an instrumentation list. With the choir, if a couple of altos can't be there, the rest just sing a bit louder. But with the orchestra, if the clarinets aren't there, the bassoons can't just play louder."
So, he says, he has to find out when everyone one can and can't be there, and then put together a schedule. "Every night we have a different roster. We schedule around everything else in their lives."
But, he adds, the orchestra, which came on board in 1999, "adds so much emotion. The choir sounds wonderful. You add the orchestra and it enhances everything."
Mac Christensen, president of the choir, agrees. "We are blessed to have such harmony in this organization. It's very different from the business world, where you get a lot of strong-minded people pulling in different directions. We have strong-minded, talented people, but they are all here for the right reason. It's such a pleasure to be here."
In the past, he says, there were communication problems between the two entities. "But Barry has done just a good job. We are now one group, blended together."This is more than a one-person job, he says. "The thing that probably blows my mind more than anything is how many people it takes to make it a success. We have a facility with sound second to none. The orchestra and choir come in and give everything they have. They go over it and over it to get it right. It's unbelievable. When it all comes together, it's a little miracle."