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Tales from the Trenches with Recording Engineer Mary Mazurek

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Mary Mazurek sets up while Lyric Opera’s Craig Terry practices.

In honor of Engineer Appreciation Day, the WFMT sound engineers responded to a little in-house survey. Here are some of the answers; WFMT audio engineer Mary Mazurek offers some particularly colorful recollections:

The worst conditions were:

I had to record the Rembrandt Chamber Players at Theater on the Lake for a Music in Chicago program − Theater on the Lake is a semi-open-air space. That evening, it was blustery and pouring rain. I had to move my equipment twice due to leaks in the ceiling. We couldn’t avoid the sound of the driving rain. It was very prominent in parts of the recording, not to mention a gust of wind every so often. It was disappointing because I think we were only able to use one or two of the pieces from the whole performance.

The biggest scare was:

On March 1, 2008, I went into the station to cover an uplink shift. Because it was Saturday, and machines don’t care how you look, I thought I’d be comfortable and wear sweat pants and a t-shirt. When I got there, my boss Don Mueller was waiting for me. He said that Chris Willis had had an accident, and that I needed to go downtown to mix the live opening night broadcast of Lyric Opera’s Eugene Onegin. Fortunately, I had a change of clothes in the car, so I wasn’t a total slob when I walked into the Civic Opera House. I was nervous because I had neither seen the production nor the inside of Lyric’s audio booth, at least not for a few years. Thankfully, everything was clearly labeled; and Norm Pellegrini was there with the score to give me cues. I think I held my breath for the entire opera. After it was over, Chris called to ask how it went. I asked, “Are you okay?”

He responded, “Yes.”

I said, “Don’t ever do that again!”

Your best, most heroic “save” was:

I was preparing to broadcast a Dame Myra Hess concert, but the ISDN box, which converts the audio to digital, and sends the signal over the phone lines, failed. I called A. J. Bautista at Merlin Media and asked if he had an ISDN that I could borrow. He did. I ran from the Chicago Cultural Center to the Prudential II building where A.J. was waiting for me in the lobby. “Here, borrow Steve Dahl’s ISDN.”

After the hand off, I ran back to the Cultural Center, hooked it up, programmed it, and got it connected just moments before we went live. I told Carl, “We have Steve Dahl’s ISDN.”

He said,”Maybe I should have worn a Hawaiian shirt.”

The pickiest, trickiest musician request was:

I was sound-checking a violinist and pianist before a Live from WFMT broadcast. I aim for clarity when it comes to the piano, but this violinist couldn’t tolerate the sound in the room. “Too loud,” she said. First I adjusted the piano lid using the short stick, then propped it open with a roll of gaff tape, then a quarter inch tape reel box, “Still too loud!”

I had to tape PZM microphones to the lid of the piano with lots of gaff tape and close it. It worked pretty well, but then I had to pull all that gaff off, and clean the residue. I think it was 1:00 am by the time I finished.

The most unusual location was:

See above

Your favorite commercial recording is:

This is tough, because I can’t decide on one. It changes, too.

I like John Eargle’s Engineer’s Choice disks. He was the chief engineer for Delos, and wrote the book on recording, literally. The Handbook of Recording Engineering was one of my text books as an undergraduate. I’ve always liked the sound of his recordings, and was fortunate enough to meet and talk with him at an Audio Engineering Society convention. He even signed my book.

Another favorite is the Shostakovich 4th Symphony with Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on CSO Resound. It’s a great piece of music engineered by Chris Willis. I often play it for my students and brag, “This was recorded by four-time Grammy recipient Christopher Willis. I know him.”

Another choice is A Roomful of Teeth recorded by the Massachusetts-based contemporary vocal ensemble of the same name. It was recorded by Mark Donahue. The audio style is exaggerated and a little over the top, though it compliments the extended vocal techniques and experimental nature of the performance. I like it!

Finally, I like Winter Morning Walks by Maria Schneider with Dawn Upshaw, Frank Kimbrough, Scott Robinson, the Austrailian Chamber Orchestra, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It was recorded by David Frost, Brian Losch and Tim Martyn. The vocal quality is just beautiful, and the recording is so smoooooth.

  • Mary Mazurek

    I’d just like to add one thing, because I’m really proud of these albums.

    In 2012, I recorded the sixth album for the Chicago Chorale at Monastery of The Holy Cross. The acoustics are just gorgeous and compliment the choir well, and the performance is really top notch. Former WFMT’er Mark Travis produced.

    http://www.chicagochorale.org/recordings-merchandise/the-sealed-angel/

    And this past December, I recorded the debut album Soirèes ď été for The Chicago Harp Quartet in the Levin performance studio. It was a real pleasure to work with this ensemble and producer Christopher Willis.

    http://chicagoharpquartet.com/debut-cd/