Producer David Frost: Artist of Recording Music

On the other side of the concert stage or recording booth, the artist of recording music works its magic. This person is consulting about repertoire, preparing for the recording sessions and producing them, later supervising all post-production activities. One of the best in this field – David Frost – has produced numerous critically acclaimed classical music recordings. Metropolitan producer is working with the biggest labels (Sony Classical, Deutsche Grammophon, etc.) and the biggest names (including Yo-Yo Ma, Andrea Bocelli and Pierre Boulez). He is second music producer to win the most Grammy awards (behind Quincy Jones), who was named Classical Producer of the Year seven times total – most recently this year. Now there are nineteen Grammy wins and twenty-five nominations at his disposal.

Behind the accolades there is a music lover, who started out in Julliard as a pianist, but whose father’s success as a producer inspired him to change gears and work in this field. This year he recorded two Grammy awarded CDs: Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar” and Gershwin’s “Porgy And Bess”. Pandemic changed his responsibilities in the Metropolitan Opera – now he is producing and mixing live broadcasts. In the interview, David Frost discusses the art of recording music in both broadcasts and recording sessions. He also answers why he believes his newest recordings were a highlight of his career.

You have been nominated for Grammy Awards throughout your career. How has your relationship with its meaning evolved throughout the years?

It’s always an honor to be nominated, whether I win or not. The Grammy Awards are the most visible acknowledgment of the work we do in audio production, and since producers and engineers are “behind the scenes” people, it’s fun to have this bit of public attention once in a while. After all, I started out as a pianist and performer! The first time I was nominated, however, I was nervous at the ceremony, not because I was concerned I might not win, but because if I did, I would have to speak in front of so many people. Performing as a pianist is very different from public speaking and I wasn’t sure how I would do. I’m more comfortable now, but back then I was terrified.

At this time the MET opera has launched an online concert hall with a series of events. How has that changed your work?

The MET recital series is different from the operas because the performances involve very small groups of people. They take place in remote locations, with each venue presenting new and different conditions. Equipment needs to be brought in and set up. I have only worked on one of these recitals – Renée Fleming’s. At the opera house there is a huge infrastructure and dozens of people who contribute to make the broadcasts happen. I’ve never seen anything like it. When the curtain goes up at the MET at any given performance, and especially when there is an HD broadcast, it is the culmination of months and months of preparation and represents the work of hundreds of people who all contribute in very special ways. It’s a magical moment to me, and every time it happens I am struck by the idea that so many people’s efforts have come together for this singular purpose.

Did the pandemic change how you understand and value your profession?

The pandemic showed me how creative and determined our musical community is by finding new ways to stay in contact with our audiences. I have been impressed and inspired by how my colleagues have organized and used technology to its greatest advantage. Streaming audio and video, which has proven to be essential to our children’s education, has also been a lifeline to the performing arts. During the pandemic I have learned some new technical things and have also learned, because of its absence, how important it is to experience music live, in the same space, both for musicians and the audience. This seems like an obvious observation, but one I have never felt so strongly – it’s certainly something that is easy to take for granted during normal times. The pandemic has also shown how much we in the performing arts truly need each other. The MET, for example, employs people who do many different things, and for over a year now, hundreds of them have been out of work. Opera is truly collaborative and the role each person plays, whether on stage or off, is crucial to the creation of the whole. Opera is nothing without everyone’s contribution, all working together. 

What helps you deal with the constant multitasking of the recording and streaming process?

With experience I’ve gotten used to juggling the various parts of the process. In recent years, working at the MET, I have learned to become a live mixer of opera. This has been perhaps the biggest challenge in my career. It’s very different from being a producer at a studio recording. The live broadcasts require a different set of skills and are both exciting and terrifying. It does remind me of when I was a performer as a pianist because the broadcast is in fact a performance, not only by the singers on stage and the musicians in the pit, but by me as the mixer. Tens of thousands of people are listening to and watching the live broadcasts, so I feel a real responsibility to the audience and to the great artists who are performing. The fact that opera is theatrical and involves singers running all over the stage makes live mixing a big challenge. As opposed to a studio recording setting where microphones are placed in front of the singers, and the singers stay there, a staged opera production is constantly in motion. The live mixing I do, therefore, is also in constant motion – I’m continually making adjustments for the changing distances and angles the singers have to the microphones, for instance, in order to keep them in balance. When it works and it all comes together, it’s amazing.

What are the main criteria according to which you pick audio bits?

For studio recordings the process of editing is directly tied to my approach at the recording sessions. At the sessions I am always thinking about the editing and how all the material will be shaped and put together. I also have the opportunity to know the artists I’m working with and how they think and feel. For the work at the MET, since it’s always live and there are never any recording sessions, I have less direct contact with the artists themselves. There is also video and considerations of the stage production, so it’s much more restricted in terms of my ability to edit and shape a performance.

How much creative input did you have when working on the nominated recordings (Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 13)?

Although both recordings were made from live performances, therefore with no recording sessions, both the editing and the mixing of these projects were totally in my hands. In the case of the Shostakovich, Maestro Muti listened to my work and added some thoughts of his own. Porgy and Bess, which is a fantastic production, was unusual for the MET in that it was a CD audio only release (in recent years their releases almost always involved video). This gave me a lot of latitude to edit and combine the performances free from any video considerations that normally restrict what I can do. At the MET I am also functioning as the balance engineer and mixer, so I have total input over where the mics go and how it all gets mixed. So, for both releases I had a lot of creative liberty. I would also say that both these recordings were a highlight of my career. What an honor to work with such great conductors as Riccardo Muti and David Robertson and two of the best orchestras in the world, the CSO and the MET Orchestra, not to mention the CSO chorus, Alexey Tikhomirov, and the incredible cast and chorus of Porgy and Bess.

There is a historic aspect of music recording, as you can preserve some sounds for the future and make performances last relatively forever. How do you deal with that?

Having grown up in a musical family, with a father who was a record producer, I have always held the view that any recording is a document that will outlive all of us and therefore should be approached with the utmost care in how it is made and preserved. This idea can be daunting and to some, even paralyzing, bringing out perfectionistic tendencies that can be counterproductive to the creative process. How can one be uninhibited while simultaneously imagining the lasting and permanent existence of one’s performance? So I have adopted this philosophy: a recording is an important and long lasting document that must be made with respect and seriousness, but it is also just a snapshot of an artist’s performance on any given day. It is very common for an artist to make a recording and later come back to that repertoire and re-think it and find new ways of approaching it. Sometimes the lasting recorded document doesn’t reflect an artist’s final vision or interpretation of a given work. I immediately think of the two famous recordings by Glenn Gould of the Goldberg Variations – one made at the beginning of his career and one at the end. So different, and both so wonderful. The world is a better place for having both!

Do you listen to the records produced by your father? What meaning do they and your father’s work have for you today?

I spent my childhood listening to my father’s recordings and every other recording that made its way into our home. Each month a box of all the new CBS recordings would be sent to us – classical, jazz, pop, Broadway – I listened to everything. Some of my Dad’s recordings became very important and historic and this only became clear to me when I was older. When I was a boy, they were simply things to listen to, but I now see them as an archive of the great musicians of the day. I came into direct contact with some of these musicians as well – Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Horowitz, Eugene Ormandy, Pablo Casals and others. This was a fantastic world for a young pianist to be exposed to, and it certainly shaped me in a very significant way. My exposure to their concerts and rehearsals revealed music making on its highest level and inspired me to become a musician.

How much does your pianistic experience influence your work today?

It’s a huge influence. Without my extensive training as a pianist and my musical education, I don’t think I could be effective as a producer. I also understand very well what the musicians have gone through to get where they are. As a musician I have respect and admiration for their journey and the challenges they face. Being a producer for classical music means being directly and intimately in contact with the music and the artists performing it – producers must have a musician’s understanding, ear and sensitivity to be able to get the best result at the recording session and during the post-production.

When music listening is your job for so many years, are you able to listen for pleasure? Are your sound producer’s ears always “on”? How do you listen for environmental sounds in general?

My favorite way of listening to music is on equipment that isn’t professional, under conditions that aren’t anything like a studio. Then I turn off my producer ears and just focus on the music itself. As soon as “audio” becomes part of the listening, I am at work. And after a long day of working, I really don’t want to hear ANY music! That’s not to say that I don’t love music – it is at the center of my life – but in order to stay fresh and engaged I like to have some time away.

Are there any ear practices or listening exercises for sound engineers?

I have never thought of this! I think this happens naturally on the job. When my father first explained to me what stereo is, I realized I had been listening for years and years, not understanding what I was listening to! I knew stereo sounded better than mono, but why? How does it work? Having even a rudimentary understanding of stereo was incredibly enlightening to me and made me listen to recordings in an entirely different manner. When working on editing music you learn yet other ways of listening. The same is true for mixing music. I think the ear training happens naturally through the work. In fact, I would say the only way to educate your ears for audio is through exposure to the production process itself.

Would you say making a good recording is an art?

Yes, I believe recording on its highest level is an art. Sometimes when a particular project comes together in just the right way, it creates a magical result. There are many decisions and circumstances that go into making a recording (and compromises too). Availability of venues, schedules, budgets, equipment choices, microphone choices and their placement – decisions large and small, both logistical and artistic – all play a role in a recording’s outcome. When things are really done right, the result becomes a work of art.

Is there often a difference of opinions between musicians and producers when making a recording?

There are sometimes different opinions between musicians and producers about musical approaches, the details of the performance, or the recorded sound. As a producer I always remember that it is not MY recording, but the musician’s. My name is not on the cover. An experienced producer understands that they are needed very differently depending on who they are working with. Sometimes we are true participants in the process and are a serious musical influence, and other times it’s best for us to stay out of the way and let the musicians go. Learning when, and how, to involve myself has taken experience and sometimes means checking my ego at the door. It’s not about me – it’s about the work, getting the best result from the musicians, and leaving the session with all the material necessary to make a great recording.

There is often a comparison of a recording producer role as being akin to that of a film director. Would you agree?

Yes, although a classical music producer is not really an “auteur” in the way a film director can be. After all, we are recording works that have been precisely mapped out – every note, every dynamic marking, etc. – so there isn’t the huge range of creativity that a film director has. But in terms of describing what a producer does, logistically, yes, it’s a good comparison. Organizing, managing time and deadlines, having direct control and input in the creative process, and dealing with budgets, venues, engineers – all have similarities to film production.

Do you have a utopian dream recording that you would love to work on?

My experiences and opportunities already have surpassed my wildest dreams! I remember many years ago someone asking me this question and at the time I hadn’t recorded any complete operas. My answer was that I wanted to record operas. How fortunate that I am now doing just that.

Maybe there are some technical innovations planned in the Metropolitan opera that you are able to share?

When I first started there about 5 years ago, I did change things such as some new microphones, microphone positions, and reverb units, for instance, and subsequently we changed how we send our surround sound audio to the movie theaters.  I think we are currently in a good place technically but of course we will also be prepared to continue to adapt and move into the future. There is always new gear to try, and new approaches to explore but it’s also important to value and keep what is working. Thanks to my predecessor Jay Saks, from whom we all learned a lot, my current excellent colleagues John Kerswell, Tim Martyn and an outstanding audio crew, we are in the enviable position of having a collective of great engineering minds and experience.

In your opinion, does opera need saving today? What would be the right way of doing it?

People discuss this often – the relevance of opera, or of classical music in general. I like to think of it this way: we are still playing and listening to music that was written hundreds of years ago and I suspect we will continue to do so. Something about the music of Bach, for instance, still speaks to us today. How amazing is this? His world couldn’t have been more different and yet what he created reaches us emotionally centuries later. I don’t know the answer but often wonder: what music of today will this hold true for, looking forward into the next several hundred years? In an historical context, classical music does not need saving because it has proven it can survive generation after generation. In our culture, value is almost always measured by immediate success and by money, but perhaps the real success comes with longevity and the music’s ability to transcend cultures and time and technology and speak to us directly.

Thank you for the conversation!

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