Engineering the Virtual Festival: An Interview with Michael Quam

October 7, 2020

Since I began my tenure with the Colorado Music Festival & Center for Musical Arts in May of 2016, I have consistently been astonished at the incredible talent of our orchestra members as well as our Center faculty. Not only does this organization have a way of attracting top musical talent, it also attracts some of the most intelligent and experienced administrative staff. Working hard behind the scenes to ensure the organization’s continued success is a small, but mighty group of individuals I have the great honor of working with every day. With that in mind, I decided to interview these deserving individuals, dive into their rich backgrounds, celebrate their individual accomplishments, and give you (the public) an opportunity to get to know the people who keep the music playing. 

As I was reading through the many comments from our 2020 Virtual Festival, one thing became clear: attendees wanted to know more about the amazing engineer who was pivotal in constructing all of those beautiful performances. The artist behind the scenes was musician, guitar teacher, and sound and recording engineer Michael Quam. In my interview with Michael, learn more about his efforts “backstage” during the Virtual Festival and the interesting path his career has followed.

ELIZABETH McGUIRE: What is your history with the Colorado Music Festival and Center for Musical Arts? 

MICHAEL QUAM: I began as Sound and Recording Engineer in 2002 for the Colorado Music Festival and I have been on the faculty of the Center for Musical Arts since 2006 as a guitar teacher. I started each position when these were independent non-profit arts organizations, until 2010 when they merged

I also provide sound reinforcement and other related technical services for the Center for Musical Arts. My favorite Center events are their annual fundraisers Crescendo, Performathon, and the annual Student Honors Recital. My students are regularly selected to perform in the annual Honors Recital.

ELIZABETH: You were heavily involved in the Colorado Music Festival’s first-ever Virtual Festival. Please describe your role in bringing the Virtual Festival to life. 

MICHAEL: Yes, I helped to produce the six virtual concerts for the Virtual Festival. For some of the concerts, like the opening night concert with the Takács Quartet and Festival Orchestra, I played numerous roles. For that particular concert, I was the recording session producer as well as audio recording engineer and videographer. In addition, I did all of the post-production audio mixing/editing/mastering and video post-production. 

[The Takács Quartet concert] was filmed in the beautiful, historic Chautauqua Auditorium, but we did not record all of the videos here in Boulder. Much of the content for the Virtual Festival was recorded by the Festival musicians and our guest artists in their own homes using cell phones and mini audio recorders. These recordings come from all over the country. My role for a number of these concerts would be to take the individual recorded parts and combine them to create a complete piece of music. We had very good results with our video productions, but the process was not without its share of problems and complications. I believe the key to our success was the excellent performances from our Festival musicians and guest artists. Great performances will always overcome the limitations of the technology of the time and in this case it was the audio and video quality of the cell phone.

Michael Quam hard at work during the 2020 Virtual Festival

ELIZABETH: You are a musician as well as a recording/sound designer. Which came first? How do the two roles support one another? 

MICHAEL: It all started when I began recording my original music for short films I created as a kid. For the music I played all of the instruments, and for the videos I did all of the filming and editing. I produced maybe 30 or so in a two year period. Many were stop-motion animation and others were music videos. I really had no training at the time but it was really fun and was a great creative outlet for me.

I continued to expand my interest in audio recording in college pursuing a certificate in music technology while at the same time working on undergraduate and graduate degrees in guitar performance with the renowned guitar pedagogue Bruce Holzman.

I studied classical music recording engineering and production with John Hadden. He is known for his early music recordings for Sony and Harmonia Mundi. Since then I have held a number of positions that have helped to broaden my skills in the performing arts with recording engineer and managing performance venue technical staff positions for both universities and municipalities in addition to my own audio and video production company. Over the last 25 years, I have recorded and provided sound reinforcement for many thousands of concerts in addition to producing commercial recordings. I surpassed the 5,000 mark years ago. Back in 2015 I decided to offer high definition multi-camera video production services to my clients. 

In short, I have essentially been doing this sort of work my whole life. I guess you could say I was ready for this Virtual Festival opportunity. Does being a trained musician help? Of course, and in fact it would be impossible to produce classical music otherwise. It is not a universal language and requires a deep knowledge and musical experience to produce it as a recorded art form. Some incorrectly think it is all a matter of turning knobs and pushing buttons. The audio and video recording equipment are only tools and the tools will always change and evolve. The musical mind is the only thing that really matters.

ELIZABETH: What is one thing that you learned from engineering the Virtual Festival? 

MICHAEL: That it was an absolute honor and pleasure to work with [Music Director] Peter Oundjian this summer. He was amazingly supportive during the whole season. I could not have done it without his help.

Interested in taking guitar lessons from Michael? Learn more at his faculty page at the Center for Musical Arts website. If you missed the 2020 Virtual Festival, you can still watch brief clips on our YouTube page.

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