The Copper Interview

    Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz: Immersive Audio’s Power Couple, Part Two

    Issue 157

    Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz have multiple Grammy Award wins and nominations to their credit, as well as European awards such as the Echo Klassik and Le Diamant d’Opera. The couple has a unique partnership that has resulted in a wide range of critically-acclaimed co-produced and co-engineered recordings. Currently, they are up for a 2021 Best Immersive Recording Grammy nomination for jazz artist Patricia Barber’s Clique (reviewed by Tom Gibbs in Issue 144).Part One of our interview in Copper Issue 156 included their thoughts on making their mixing techniques as “invisible” as possible, in working with live orchestras and big bands, and discussed their favorite recordings done by each other.

    John Seetoo: When I was researching your discographies, obviously there’s tons and tons of classical and jazz stuff you’ve worked on, but I didn’t see that much for country, R&B, rock and roll and other kinds of music. Can you go a little bit more into some of the work you’ve done in those genres? Any particular anecdotes you might have? And, have you ever collaborated together working in genres other than jazz and classical?

    Jim Anderson: We have a series of symphonic recordings that we’ve done with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in Norway. I was brought in as the engineer, and Ulrike as producer. She essentially was my boss for the three recordings, the last of which was a Grammy nominee two years ago in the Immersive [Audio] category.

    And so, we had the chance to go to Norway; Stavanger, Norway, and work with an orchestra. The one nice thing that we were doing was [that] we were recording in sessions. We weren’t doing live recordings with patches [punching in passages in the mix] and things like that. We actually had an orchestra on the stage. We could put microphones down [on the stage in their best locations].

    I think those recordings were very successful. [We had] a chance to go to a foreign country, bring in the equipment we needed, and actually have the time and the resources to do the recording [the way] we wanted to do [it]. They allowed us to [then] go out to Skywalker Sound and mix out there, and we mastered [the album] with Bob Ludwig. It was all first-class. So, I thought that was a really wonderful experience.

    Ulrike Schwarz: Yeah, and about the mixing process: Of course, as somebody who has done orchestras a lot, having [the time and ability to do] a different mix – that was actually quite, quite interesting. The good thing is that Jim and I, we hear very much the same thing. We really know what we want in a sound, which is, I think, very, very important for a producer/engineer team: that you can express what you want to hear.

    Because if you have two very different sonic ideas between a producer and an engineer, then you’re running a little bit into a problem. Then there is the third [problem] when the conductor comes in and voices another opinion. Because I think it’s very important that everybody’s on the same page. Otherwise, things get can get out of hand at some point. So, it’s something I enjoy very, very much – that [Jim and I] have the same ideas.

    And it is very, very easy to communicate that and very often, I didn’t have to say anything anyway, because it was either as I expected or better.

     

    Ulrike Schwarz. Courtesy of John Abbott.

    Ulrike Schwarz. Courtesy of John Abbott.

     

    JA: Especially the last piece, Kverndokk’s Symphonic Dances, that we did. That was the Grammy nominee from 2018, I think…

    US: 2020.

    JA: Sorry. When was the last year?

    US: That was, I mean, the Grammys; the ceremony was 2020, January 2020. But isn’t it a nominee from 2019 then?

    JA: Well, I guess, yeah, you know, the last couple years, you can just kind of throw away. (laughs)

    But the thing about that was [that] we said, okay, this music, we want to have it be much more cinematic; much more like a film score. The immersive [surround sound] element of that recording is not the orchestra on the stage, [but] the ambience in the back. It really wraps around, and I think that’s why it became a Grammy nominee. We very successfully took an orchestra and made [it] a very immersive experience.

    US: About other styles. When you work for big broadcast networks, as I did, then you end up doing [many types of music]. I did a project with The Keith Emerson Band and [an] orchestra, which was kind of interesting, because we were known [in] a classical environment, and some Norwegian conductor brought in Keith Emerson and the band to Munich and Los Angeles. It was a big, let’s say, crossover, one of the biggest crossover projects I’ve done. I can’t say it was entirely successful because the ideas of how to produce something were too different. I think the outcome was, quite okay.

    I’ve done Indonesian gamelan music; I’ve even done stone xylophones. Fado (Portuguese traditional music) with Mariza (Mariza – Live at Philharmonie im Gasteig in Munich). This was from a radio broadcast at Bavarian Radio, Channel 2. Most of Ulrike’s recordings were for BR Klassik. BR 2 is something different.

    And Parisienne – I like Zaz very much. That was one of the best ones: Z-A-Z (French singer-songwriter Isabelle Geffroy, aka Zaz). She is great. (Zaz Live Tour – Sans Tsu Tsou, released in 2011, was from a live broadcast at Studio 2 on Bavarian Radio for a show called “Bayern 2 Studio Club.”)

    JA: John, I have a whole background in [doing] radio documentaries to add to that. When I worked with [soprano saxophonist] Jane Ira Bloom and her Emily Dickinson project (Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson), basically, she gave me the poetry that was read, and the music, and said, “you know, do your NPR thing and turn it. So, essentially, we turned it into a two-record set. One CD has the music and the other CD has the kind of NPR-type produced audio experience with poetry and music and it’s all timed out. That’s kind of where I started actually doing that kind of work and I still enjoy doing it every once in a while.

    US: We have two audiobooks lined up where we want to actually, in part, do the readings and the music to them. Those will be coming out in the next two years, I think.

    JS: When you’re dealing with unfamiliar instruments – say you were doing Japanese music, and you may have to record koto and shakuhachi, for example: do you have a standard fallback protocol? In order to be able to capture unfamiliar sounds, what would your favorite mics would be – those you are most familiar with?

    JA: We recently did an album with Min Xiao-Fen called White Lotus. I’ve done Chinese instruments for many, many years. And I’ve always had a fascination with trying to make these instruments [which] are really foreign to, let’s say Western ears or American ears, and trying to make them so that they’re pleasing to listen to from our aspect. Trying to actually make them very high-resolution audio, and very hi-fi, because they have fascinating sounds, and they have a lot of detail that you can bring out.

    Ulrike was – I like to call her my “technical producer” on that kind of thing. I was doing the recording and the mixing, but she was really maintaining our technical quality as we record.

    [For a project like this], we would rely on good-quality tube microphones like the Brauner VM-1, or work with a lot of omnidirectional microphones like the DPA 4007 or 4006. We would also use Sennheiser [MKH] 8020s, and the Neumann KM 130, and all that kind of thing.

    And, worrying about and really trying to create space, through spacing of microphones, doing a lot of stereo [recording], not just panned mono. With that stereo [recording], you can actually get a lot of detail that you wouldn’t necessarily get if you just put a single microphone out there. White Lotus is really a stunning recording.

    US: It starts with getting out the books and reading about these instruments. When I was in Japan and asked my host there what certain instruments were, the next day I got 15 pages [from her] on the shakuhachi and the shamisen and all these things.

    There is a very good book that we always go back to. It’s a German thing from Professor Meyer – What is it called again?

    JA: Something that was done early on: Acoustics and The Performance of Music [1971] by Jürgen Meyer.

    These days, computer simulations make everything easier, but he studied the frequency ranges of all these instruments [at various locations from the instruments]. Three-dimensional readouts of how an instrument sounds, and things like whether it might actually be useful to place a microphone sometimes even behind it, because that’s a frequency range that maybe you’d want, or don’t, or something like that.

    A couple of times, [recording] with Toshiko-san (Toshiko Akiyoshi), we had three taiko drummers and a big band, and when Lew (Tabackin) played the flute, very often was trying to imitate a shakuhachi. And so, kind of knowing what that should sound like, and then being able to interpret that sound and then incorporate that into big band…

    I also spent time in Japan and worked on some film soundtracks, working with the Japanese with koto ensembles [and other musicians and groups] they call Living National Treasures. All of this ends up entering [our] collective knowledge. And I can kind of know that either [something] worked or didn’t work. And I can then use the technique [that worked].

    JS: Both of you are working in very high-resolution digital and specializing in immersive mixing. Since you both have long-enough track records to remember it, do you miss analog tape at all? And, are there any projects that either of you have worked on in analog that you wouldn’t mind revisiting to try to do as an immersive digital audio remix?

    JA: (laughs) It’s not particularly the analog tape that is going to make it into an immersive recording. When I remixed Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool in 2012 or 2013 and turned that into an immersive recording, that was a recording from 1998. I had printed [recorded] two sets of microphones that I knew I could use in various formats. I essentially had enough material on tape that I could actually kind of bend and stretch and create a surround [sound environment] for immersive impression. And a lot of that comes from [the] microphones [originally used], seeing either [their] different spectral responses, or the differences in the time arrival of the sound because the mics are in different locations. And that’s really what makes [the surround mix] feel like it’s a natural environment that you’re sitting in.

    As far as reverting [to analog] tape… You know, I don’t know if I really want to go back there. First off, wherever do you find the tape?

    US: And the technician who can maintain it?

    JA: The last recording I recorded on analog tape was back in about 2001, Terence Blanchard’s Let’s Get Lost. It was mixed and mastered to DSD by Mark Wilder and released on SACD on Columbia Masterworks. . We worked in two different studios. And the first time we did a playback, before the musicians entered the room, I hit play, and the speed was all over the place. It was just a mess. I actually had the maintenance guy come up, and I said, “get this machine out of here, get in another machine. And let’s do it again.” So, I talked to the musicians and said, “hey, we have a little problem over here; we’re gonna have to reset our machine, and we’ll have to do a new take.”

    Then we had to go to another studio, [and] we had kind of the same band, but different vocalists. I’m not naming names here. But the thing was, we did a take, and before the musicians came in, we hit play. And guess what? That analog machine again was a mess – the speed was all over the place. I mean, you couldn’t play it back. The musicians would [have] looked at you and asked, “what is wrong here?” Again, we had to throw that machine out and start [over]. That was the last time I used an analog tape machine.

    At the same time [this was happening], we were moving on, getting more and more into 48 channels of digital [recording] and all that kind of thing. At that time, Pro Tools really was just a toy, and hadn’t stepped up to the game yet. So, we were using a Sony 48-track for the most part back in the early 2000s. But as Pro Tools got better, we got 192 kHz [resolution] and all that kind of stuff, [and] it just became ubiquitous. Also, at that point, you couldn’t even get tape, and the [analog tape] machines became boat anchors. So everything kind of flipped over.

    The one thing that has really sold us [on digital recording] is improving the sampling rate, and the sampling frequency. And improvements in clocking. I think we’ve [now] gotten results that, frankly, are better than what you could get on analog tape these days. A good high-resolution file is really hard to beat as far as we’re concerned.

     

    Jim Anderson.

    Jim Anderson.

     

    US: Well, I think what is interesting in analog is, from a production point, is that in analog, you have to make decisions. The problem about digital is sometimes people can’t make decisions anymore, because track count isn’t really a thing anymore. And the hard drives are so big that everybody thinks they can do 5,000 takes, and that doesn’t necessarily get better [results]. So, there are some production aspects of [using] tape that I kind of like in that you actually have to rehearse. And then you have to make decisions. So that’s good.

    On the other hand, a lot of all of what we do these days with, you know, flying in a vocal here, doing a little thing there…that would not be possible, if you happen to like the standard of what people are [now] used to, which is a good and a bad thing of perfection. It’s simply not possible in analog unless you have unlimited funds, your own technicians, and really good tape machines. And those things rarely come together.

    We had recently a discussion about [using] 16 tracks, with no noise [reduction]. I mean, that is really a great sound if it’s transferred well. I did a transfer of 16 tracks last April. But we had to fly to Skywalker Sound to do this transfer, because there are just so few people around that still have machines on that level and the maintenance on that level so that you can actually do these kinds of transfers. They took care of the analog side. I took care of the digital side and I think it was a fantastic transfer.

    But in terms of revisiting, I mean, we just actually did a remix of an analog thing…

    JA: …but from 1992.

    US: But the [original analog recording] had been transferred at 24/96 [24-bit/96 kHz], and not really with special care, which I understand, because they didn’t have the budget for it. So, it is what it is, I think, you know? (laughs)

    JA: [When] I think of the analog format, I think 16-track, 2-inch [tape] at 15 ips was probably about as good as it was going to get. There’s a 1997 analog recording I did with Cassandra Wilson, Jacky Terrasson and Mino Cinelu (Rendezvous). I just got a copy of the Japanese release, and it just sounds great. Bob Belden was the producer on that. He said, “I want you to do 16 tracks.” and I asked, “Why?” He said, “so we limit our decisions here.”

    So, we couldn’t load it up with a lot of vocals, and we couldn’t load it up with a lot of percussion. By the time we did a pass, we basically filled up 16 tracks at one time. It made for a very nice, spontaneous recording. But also – [having only] 16 tracks, my god.

    There’s a recording I did in 1998 on Blue Note with Tim Hagans and Marcus Printup on trumpet called Hubsongs: The Music of Freddie Hubbard, and Freddie Hubbard was in the control room producing, along with Bob Belden. When I compare that album to other recordings I made during that time, it just sounds bigger and fatter than anything else from that period. And that really is because of the 2-inch 16 track analog tape format and again, at the time, there was nothing that could beat it, but now, a good high-resolution file really can compete.

    Because, if I wanted to go back and do something [on analog], again, it would be to do it in that mode. I really wouldn’t go to do a 24-track analog. You know, I heard something on the radio yesterday, Ron Carter – The Golden Striker album, and when I was listening to it, I thought, “gee, that sounds pretty good.” And then I thought back, “Oh my god, that’s the one I did on 16 tracks, 15 ips with Dolby SR!”

     

    (Part Three of the interview with Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz will continue with their comparisons of the pros and cons of analog tape vs. digital; artists they had always wanted to work with; and a discussion about immersive audio production.)

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