Talking with WGUC’s Master Recording Engineer Stephen Baum
Stephen Baum joined the WGUC team in 2016.
Stephen is the station’s recording and mastering engineer, responsible for the recording, editing and production of all WGUC’s live recorded broadcasts. You hear his work on Sunday evenings throughout the year as WGUC shares with listeners live recorded performances of our region’s finest music organizations.
Stephen is integral to the partnerships Cincinnati Public Radio has with the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra, May Festival Chorus, Cincinnati Opera, Linton Music Series and Vocal Arts Ensembles. Recorded performances are shared weekly through over-the-air broadcasts, on-line streaming, the station app and encore performances. These recordings are also archived by each partner organization, providing a valuable historical record. WGUC is one of only a few public radio stations to employ a full-time master recording engineer.
“My first instrument was the phonograph,” says Stephen. “I played the piano a bit as a child and as an adult, I tried my hand at the clarinet.” “And, my appreciation for music deepened during my time singing with the Mendelsohn Choir of Pittsburgh.”
Stephen began his career in “the business” when he was a student in Salt Lake City back in the 1980s. He traveled to Salt Lake from his hometown of Pittsburgh to pursue his skills as a skier. While taking mass communications classes at the University of Utah, he was actively competing in the amateur circuit that bred most of the US and world freestyle champions (he was that good)!
“I happen to be in Salt Lake during the dawn of the digital age and working with Soundstream, which was founded in Salt Lake by Dr. Thomas G. Stockham, Jr.,” says Stephen. “Salt Lake in the 80s was ground zero for digital tech – Soundstream produced and recorded many of the world’s best-known labels - RCA, Warner Brothers, Decca, CBS, and of course, Telarc.” “I also worked at a local radio station and recorded chamber concerts and the Utah Symphony.”
After his time in Utah, he moved back home and spent the next 29 years working in public media in Pittsburgh before joining the WGUC team.
“I get the instrumentation several weeks in advance. I make sure that I am at each rehearsal so that the mics are place properly and I know what to expect during the full performance,” he says. He makes it sound like it’s no big deal, but very few can capture the sound of a full orchestra, choral group or opera like Stephen. Not only are listeners of WGUC able to hear these recordings weekly, but his productions are regularly featured on the worldwide stage, too. Since 2020, thirty of Stephen’s CSO concert recordings have aired on SymphonyCast and Performance Today.
“When I arrived in Cincinnati, I was immediately impressed by not only the amazing arts opportunities that exist here, but the wonderful partnerships that exist among these groups,” Stephen says. “This doesn’t happen everywhere.”
From his sound booth above all the action in Music Hall, Stephen records each subscription performance of our artistic partners. “I’m always concentrating on what might need to be fixed – a cough here, a slight sound there, should a mic be moved by a few inches.”
Afterwards, the cover conductor makes the selections from each performance on what will be edited for airing. “Sometimes it’s a bit simpler and we use one night’s piece over another, but there are times when specific movements are selected from different concert nights.”
Several of the photos shared with this story were taken as Stephen was preparing to record the CSO’s performance of Prokofiev Symphony No. 5. “This is one of my favorite pieces to record. It brings back a wonderful memory when I traveled with the Pittsburgh Symphony during their only European tour during my tenure. Prokofiev 5 was their final piece of each concert.” When asked if he recalls what the orchestra opened with, he says, “Why, Boléro, of course!”
NOTE: Congratulations are in order for Stephen – as this article was going to “press,” Stephen was promoted to Cincinnati Public Radio’s new Production Director!
Thank you to the Louis and Louise Nippert Charitable Foundation and The Willard and Jean Mulford Charitable Fund and The Victoria L. Memmel Charitable Fund of the Cambridge Charitable Foundation for their support of local concert and performance broadcasts on WGUC.
Heather Stengle, long-time Director of Operations for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, shares a humorous anecdote about Stephen to convey her deep appreciation and admiration for his work and dedication to the CSO:
“For the first couple of Pops live streams last season, Stephen would assist in the audio booth. He played an important role to relay chat comments from the remote engineers to our Pops live engineer behind the controls. I distinctly remember one stream in particular where Michael Bishop and other trusted ears were listening downstream. During the first half, they were texting a lot of helpful feedback regarding what they were hearing and what the streaming platform was doing in order to properly manipulate the mix.
Stephen would watch the comments come in, scribble something quickly on his notepad, and then succinctly and articulately show the notepad comments to the live engineer. Adjustments were then made in real time.
Well, about halfway through the live stream, it was as if someone flipped a switch and all of the mix comments instantly stopped. It appeared that the stream mix had settled in nicely and the downstream engineers were pleased with what they were hearing. Our Pops engineer finally looked over at Stephen after about 15 minutes of dead silence and asked if there were any more comments or adjustments to be made.
Stephen simply shrugged his shoulders and showed him his notebook, on which he had simply written, “Crickets?”
I hope this conveys what was an incredibly funny moment in what is normally a very intense, pressure-cooker type situation.
Sincere thanks to Stephen!”