Producing Voices of Gotham's Debut Album

   Matt Gallagher is an arranger, Assistant Director, and the Baritone Section Leader for Voices of Gotham. In addition, Matt serves as a Broadway musician and music director.


Matt Gallagher is an arranger, Assistant Director, and the Baritone Section Leader for Voices of Gotham. In addition, Matt serves as a Broadway musician and music director.

BY MATT GALLAGHER
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR

My earliest musical memories involve a turntable and a series of great old barbershop albums. My dad, the late Fred Gallagher (still my all-time favorite Baritone), played the Four Renegades, the Schmitt Brothers, the Oriole Four on what seemed to be an endless loop. Most often, though, it was the powerful sound of the Boston Common that filled our home. I would later come to love the recordings of the Bluegrass Student Union, the Louisville Thoroughbreds, the Four Rascals, the Vocal Majority and many others; but I always come back to the recordings of the Common. They never feel fussy, over-produced, slick, or artificial. The listener gets a from-the-heart delivery, unparalleled blend, and even the rare note error—reminding us just how close to a live performance their albums could bring us.

The trick, of course, was simply that the quartet sang exceptionally well. When the source material is great, a great recording can be achieved with very little studio magic. I approached the production of Voices of Gotham’s debut album with this philosophy.

When I entered New York City’s Gurari Studios on the evening of February 27, 2014, I had no idea that I’d be producing my first album. Though I had previously written two arrangements for the chorus, “Let’s Do It/Let’s Misbehave (Medley)” and “LOVE & Marriage (Medley),” I had only begun actively singing with Voices of Gotham a few weeks earlier. I scrambled to learn the songs for the first session, and I expected to simply blend into Gotham’s smooth wall of sound. Because of my background as a professional musician, I was asked to do some constructive listening.  When I entered the engineering booth at the request of Eric Engelhardt, the chorus’s Assistant Director and the driving musical force of the album, I learned something quite valuable: Voices of Gotham makes a fantastic sound! With no effects, no balancing, no dubbing—just the raw audio—there was already a sound that made me want to hear more. We know it more personally as That Gotham Sound.

For the remainder of that session, and throughout the recording process, I made the booth my second home. With the help of our indispensable engineer, Jeremy Gerard, I took up the task of lending my ears to making an album worthy of the already formidable sound of Voices of Gotham.

The first and most delicate undertaking was the series of studio performances. The chorus would tackle two or three songs in each three-hour session, and this involved several full run-throughs of a given song. Because of the tight schedule, it was crucial to have several options for each song by the end of each night. Going back to re-record would be almost impossible. In order to get the most out of every take, I would confer with Eric and the chorus between takes to communicate the ways the chorus could improve each performance. Sometimes, it would be something as simple as fixing a note, clarifying the placement of a breath, or adjusting a tempo. Other times, we’d address the more subtle aspects of vocal mastery: balance, vowel matching, vocal placement, etc. Beyond the technical, however, is the element of storytelling that bridges the gap between harmonic excellence and the indefinable spark that touches the listener and makes a performance unforgettable. To help the chorus communicate the various stories of our songs, I suggested visual imagery, subtext, personal connections, pop-culture references—really anything and everything that allows for the joy of our singing to bust through the headphones and speakers.

   Recording engineer Jeremy Gerard and Matt Gallagher in the studio recording booth


Recording engineer Jeremy Gerard and Matt Gallagher in the studio recording booth

With roughly 15 hours worth of studio recording time, the next charge was to select the very best takes of each song. Since every take sounded like a winner, my job was both thoroughly enjoyable and painstakingly tricky! Pulling the worthiest version of every moment of every song ended up being the easy part; the hard part was stitching them together in a way that would represent the chorus’s style in a way that never felt like patchwork or trickery. I would most often choose long segments of songs, but Jeremy would often be required to fly in small bits seamlessly. The end result needed to be a track that would sound like one perfect take.

Once the hours of studio recordings had been edited down to 12 solid tracks, the next step was mixing. Because the chorus has such a strong sense of internal dynamics, this step was very much a fine-tuning process. The broadest challenge was balancing and blending the three songs we sang with our talented sister chorus, the Sirens of Gotham. The precise, moment-to-moment balancing of those eight-part harmonies is a particular point of pride for me and a testament to Jeremy’s keen ear.

The remaining step was to master the recordings. This part of the process involves running the tracks through analog gear, removing most of the extraneous noises, producing the warm, listenable sound that provides the best showcase for the material. The final product sounds like the chorus’s very best live performance. 

Long hours in a confined studio on a demanding schedule can often be grueling for the participants. Not so with this chorus, whose good humor and inexhaustible work ethic made the hours fly by. I already miss our time in the studio, but every listen to the album takes me right back there. There are very few studio effects involved, just a natural enhancement of the chorus’s signature, Gotham Sound.