Trombones swimming in the luscious reverb of Biosphere2

Gerry Pagano came to town this past week. It’s odd. Every time he comes here, remarkable music gets recorded.

The first time Gerry came to Phoenix after a long absence was to record the CD Roads Less Traveled. Two years later he and Doug Yeo descended upon my studio to record the CD Fratras.

This year, I wanted to record us both individually and together in a space like no other on earth. This is one of those rare times when that phrase is not hyperbole.

A couple months ago, I reached out to John Adams, the Director of an earth science research facility known as Biosphere 2. Biosphere 1 is the atmosphere surrounding the earth, so they had to use another name for this facility. I asked if a friend and I could record ourselves in one of the structures at Biosphere 2. Not really believing they would allow a couple of deadbeats like Gerry and me to do something as odd as play trombone in there, I didn’t expect an answer. But I waited.

I had taken a tour of Biosphere several year ago with my family, and I remember the last stop on the tour was a half spherical structure called the Lung. Because Biosphere is basically a massive sealed greenhouse, when air gets hot it expands, and the increased air pressure must go somewhere. The Lung allows for expansion and contraction through its flexible rising and falling membrane at the top.

Biosphere 2 from the air

Because of the Lung’s enormous size and round structure, the reverberation inside is close to 25 seconds long. And again, because it is perfectly round, the reverberation is very smooth. No standing waves. So of course, my first thought several years ago when I entered the structure was, “I need to play my trombone in this.”

Surprisingly soon after reaching out to John Adams, I heard from him and he said agreed to give up access to the facility. There were a few conditions, but nothing I wasn’t willing to meet.

At that point, I began composing music for the event. I requested a day that I knew Gerry would be here and my 18 year old son would be available to help.

I composed five pieces. I mocked up recordings of them between my samples of Gerry’s playing and my own recording. I used a great reverb plug-in called R4 by Exponential Audio set to 25 seconds of reverb to test the pieces. I made some changes, realizing that with reverb that long, intervals had to be somewhat wide and the pace of the playing somewhat slow. Consecutive frequencies too close together will sound dissonant and notes to close to each other in time will sound muddy. In order for the reverb to sound even close to what we heard in there, the music and our playing would have to be done in a certain way.

John, the director, and others at Biosphere couldn’t have been more accommodating to us. They basically opened the heavy steel door for us to enter and wished us well with our little project.

I brought a lot of audio and video equipment, wanting to properly document this great opportunity, so it took us a while to bring everything into the lung and set it up.

I used four microphones. One each close by Gerry and me, and the other two placed deep within the massive space to catch reverberation from far away. After testing and adjusting, I finally settled on good placement for the mics. We began to play.

Both Gerry and I were blown away by the pure reverberation engulfing our bodies as we played. We could play just two notes and the room would come alive as if a choir of trombones was playing.

We played the five pieces I had written and we each recorded several minutes of improvisation. Pretty much anything we played in that room sounded amazing. One of the great things Gerry played was a snippet of Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries. As I did with each of the pieces we recorded, I came back and put music around the trombone playing. And of course I had to create a video for the piece.

In the end, we came out with several very unique pieces. I will admit that the recorded sound coming from two stereo speakers is nothing like being there live. As I was lamenting that fact, Gerry reminded me that if nothing else, the experience and lifelong memory of playing in that remarkable structure was payoff enough.

I produced music and mixed the final pieces and improvisation snippets at a breakneck pace in order to have something for Gerry as he returned to St Louis. I haven’t yet had the time to create the other videos I want to produce, but I will leave you with this gem from that remarkable day.

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