Steven Lemke’s first experience recording sound was an unusual one.
Lemke wasn’t in a recording studio when some legendary musician cut his last track. Nor was in a recording studio when some unknown musician cut his first track.
Lemke, a former Navy machinist mate, was hanging out with his roommate in the sonar shack aboard a submarine in the Barents Sea, under the ice in the North Pole, listening to the sounds of whales and dolphins communicating under water.
“It was kind of eerie,” says Lemke, 44. “It was the bellowing and wailing you hear on TV documentaries. Back then, sound was still spliced together on analog tape. This time, it was displayed on a screen in waves. It fascinated me.”
When Lemke got out of the Navy in 1989, he moved to Florida and began waiting tables at a restaurant near Phillippi Creek. Six years later, at the suggestion of a fellow waiter and aspiring recording engineer, he enrolled in a one-year class at Unity Gain Recording Institute, in Fort Myers.
After completing the program, he contacted the organizers of a jazz festival at Phillippi Estates Park and offered his services. It was then that he met Bill Stanley, a longtime Sarasota Orchestra sound technician, who gave Lemke his first gig working sound for a Sarasota Orchestra concert at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
The duo has been working together on Masterworks concerts since 1997.
A Frank Zappa fanatic, Lemke grew up playing guitar and idolizing progressive rock and jazz legends, from the Canadian rock band Rush to jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Classical music, however, was a genre he knew little about.
“I didn’t listen to classical music until I started working here,” Lemke says. “I’m pretty open-minded, so when the other stagehands would go to the break room during performances, I’d be on the sidelines taking it all in.”
Lemke says there’s an art to recording the intricate sounds of classical music.
Not only is he tasked with having to set up the musicians’ chairs and music stands, his prevailing priority is to record the concert as the audience heard it, using as few microphones as possible.
Why as few mics as possible?
Because the more stuff you have to assemble on stage, the more time it takes to set up and break down between performances. Lemke and his crew spend hours each season running between the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, Neel Performing Arts Center, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Sarasota Opera House.
When Lemke first joined the orchestra, the crew could afford to strategically place 16 microphones within the different instrument section.
Now that the budget is tighter, the operation is whittled down to three microphones, simultaneously recording to CD, digital audiotape and hard drive at all times.
“It’s all for archival purposes,” Lemke says, revealing the most bittersweet aspect of his work. “We don’t release the CDs. We would have to get approval first, and then there’s compensation and the stagehands union … ”
He trails off, surveying the stacks and stacks of CDs crowding his desk.
“I’ve got dozens of hard drives in here filled with music,” Lemke says. “I’ve got one that holds a terabyte of data. The last few seasons are loaded on there. It used to be that I couldn’t tell Mozart from Beethoven, now I’m surrounded by them.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Steven Lemke has his own show on WSLR Radio called “Steven in the Evenin’” that runs from 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday nights. The program is a mix of jazz, rock, soul and classical music, followed by 30 minutes of Frank Zappa tunes.
IF YOU GO
The Sarasota Orchestra will perform “Virtuoso” at 8 p.m. Nov. 12 and Nov. 13 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 14, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The program features solos by acclaimed violinist and guest artist Vadim Gluzman. For tickets, call 953-3434 or visit www.sarasotaorchestra.org.