When I started working freelance in theatre sound, the British Musicians’ Union had a strict rule regarding the recording of music for theatre productions in London’s West End. Developed to make sure musicals didn’t rely on pre-recorded soundtracks, the rule was simple: If you used recorded music, you had to pay each musician as though he or she was in the theatre every night. What’s more, the musicians who were on the soundtrack were not allowed to work on any other show or in any other engagement during show times, preventing them from taking work away from another player. This somewhat draconian edict effectively ruled out any use of backing tracks for musicals, and employment was maintained for London’s pool of respected pit musicians. Then, for some reason lost in the mists of time, someone at the union decided that this rule should also apply to curtain and scene-drop music in straight plays in the West End, preventing the use of specially recorded music using real players in anything but the most lavish production of a straight play.

I was inconvenienced by this ruling on a few occasions, one on a production of a high-profile show for which a famous composer had been hired to write a full orchestral score. When the costs of paying a symphony orchestra every night for an extended tour became apparent, the director, rather more used to working in film than in theatre, handed me a pile of vinyl consisting of the soundtracks of some of his movies and assured me that I could extract suitable music for the show from them. As the first of these albums was the soundtrack to a musical version of a fairytale, and the show was a Shakespearean tragedy of epic proportions, I seriously doubted it and went to some rather more apposite recordings to cover the gaps. On that occasion, the works of Xenakis and Penderecki were the subjects of my razor-bladed restructuring, and a jolly good job we all did too.

The final straw came on a show comprising a series of brilliant monologues delivered by three brilliant actors. The show had started outside of London, where the union rules were not so strict, and we had recorded a series of linking piano pieces played by the composer on a Steinway concert at a top London studio. The show was a huge success and moved to London, where we hit the union rules. We could use the recording, but the musician who performed it had to be paid for each performance. The composer, about to be married and rather impecunious at the time, was delighted, until it was pointed out to him that, as long as the show ran, he would have to sit at home every night, and twice on matinee days, doing nothing. Understandably, he balked at this, and after long discussions with the producers, taking into account the costs of rerecording and still having to pay a pianist, they hired a pianist to play the linking music cues.

Next problem: There was nowhere in the theatre for the piano to go, except under the stage, and no way that a concert grand could fit, so the theatre’s own mini-piano was shoehorned into the space, a reverb unit was added to the show’s sound inventory, and I spent hours trying to make a small piano in a tiny room sound like a Steinway grand in a large recording studio. Eventually—and I’m not sure that the pianist ever found out—we reverted to playing the pre-recorded links while he hammered away in the basement with his microphone turned off.

Shortly after this, and faced with a similar situation involving a guitarist, I approached the union and suggested that the rule was counterproductive, as musicians were being replaced by bedroom tinkerers with synthesizers, and the most terrible deeds were being perpetrated in the name of music. A deal was eventually worked out by which curtain and scene drop music would be paid on a one-off basis, and interpolated music—the off-stage band in The Cherry Orchard, for example—where one might expect live musicians to be employed, was to incur a small per-performance payment if the union was convinced that the use of live players wasn’t feasible. This is how the situation remains to this day, much to the benefit of all concerned.

Freed from the constraints of both the union and the DX7 voice library, I started to look for studios that I could use on a regular basis for theatre shows, within the small budgets that were invariably allowed for sound and music. I found a couple—reasonable both in terms of acoustics and hourly rates—but I soon discovered the downside to these places: I would turn up an hour early to make sure everything was okay and set up correctly, but almost invariably, something would be wrong. The tape machine wasn’t aligned; the noise reduction was playing up; there was a buzz on the desk; or the piano tuner had failed to turn up; and we’d go over time by an hour or two.

Eventually, a studio that I had booked for a piano quintet recording the next day rang to say that its ceiling had fallen in on the mixing console and that they’d be unable to take the session. In desperation, I called several other small studios, but either they were all booked, they didn’t have the space, or they didn’t have a decent piano. That’s when my wife, an experienced session player alongside her career as a classical cellist, suggested I try one of the big London studios, which is how I ended up recording a session for a small out-of-town show at EMI’s famed Abbey Road studios. At that time, Abbey Road had a well-kept secret in The Penthouse Studio, which was big enough to hold up to eight musicians, had a Neve desk and a Steinway piano, and was often free, because everyone wanted either to use Studio 2, the studio that most often housed The Beatles’ recording sessions, or the cavernous Studio 1, in which many major film scores were then, and are still, recorded.

I also discovered that The Penthouse wasn’t that much more expensive than the rather tatty studios I’d always used previously, and, because everything worked from the moment the session started, we actually saved money by minimizing time. As an adjunct, everything also sounded a great deal better than it had in the low-rent facilities, so composers, musicians, and directors were all happy, and I had to do far less post-production work.

I used The Penthouse on several shows until EMI decided that the space would be better off as a dubbing suite, but by then I had a taste for fine studios. I moved to another secret location, the new, massively expensive studio that had been custom-built for BBC Television’s music department and had wonderful acoustics and a brilliant house engineer, Tony. As a publicly funded organization, the BBC was not allowed to advertise, so the studio was often empty. It also sported the latest Neve console, a superb piano, and, if needed, a chamber organ, along with isolation booths. We recorded many scores there until it became a financial drain on the BBC and was closed. The studio is now full of computer workstations, and the drum booth does occasional duty as a continuity announcer’s suite with the world’s first fully automated, fully digital Neve console sitting idle in the control room.

My next port of call was Angel Studios in North London, another fine complex with three rooms of varying sizes, just a few hundred yards from The Almeida Theatre, for which I am sound consultant. The studio offered us a discounted rate and once again provided first-class equipment and engineers to make the entire process relatively painless. Over time, the staff at Angel became used to the sometimes rather strange line-ups I would produce for them, but they also welcomed the challenge presented by some productions. Steven Warbeck, the Oscar-winning composer for Shakespeare In Love and veteran of many soundtracks, requested a vocal session for a production set in WWI, where we would hear a dispirited group of soldiers singing as they slouched back to base from fighting on the front line. Nobody at Angel turned a hair when the request came through for the studio floor to be carpeted with old recording tape, with microphones set up to record the feet as well as the voices of the singers, all of whom were shod in army-issue boots, as they tramped in lugubrious circles around the studio, with the old tape standing in perfectly for dead leaves and grass. Another extraordinary session at Angel involved the late, much-missed Harold Pinter and a lot of dirty jokes, but that’s for next time.

London is blessed not only with a wealth of experienced session musicians, but it is also home to a number of world-class orchestras and chamber music ensembles, whose members are frequently available for sessions at the standard union rate, which can be daunting to some of the younger composers with whom I work. On one session, the composer arrived a little late and was in the process of handing out the band parts, when he stopped and dragged me into the control room.

“Are these really my musicians?” he asked.

“Yes, why?” I retorted.

“But that’s Crispian Steele-Perkins [a world-renowned baroque trumpeter], and he’s playing the third trumpet part!”

Crispian came in on another session to play solo trumpet in Jonathan Dove’s score for Moliere’s Tartuffe, having turned down a more lucrative, but rather mundane, session on the same day in order to work for Jonathan.

On one notable string quartet session for the same composer, the director commented on the beautiful sounds coming from the studio. The fixer (session musician booker) looked down at the musicians and commented, “That’s what a first-class studio, about six million dollars’ worth of instruments, and some of the finest string players in the world will do for you.”

What’s my point? Well, it’s simply that it’s always worth going for the best, rather than assuming that it will be out of reach. Even the best musicians need to eat, and even the best studios have dead time that they need to fill. Start at the top, and with luck and a little gentle persuasion, you’ll soon discover that you too can have the very finest working on your show.

John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for over 30 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound.