Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Making sweet music

A behind-the-scenes look at the choir's latest recording session

Published: Saturday, June 21 2008 11:50 p.m. MDT

Mack Wilberg conducts during a CD recording session for the Tabernacle Choir.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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."

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