Married couples who work in the same field can often find that their relationship contains elements of both collaboration and competition. In the rarefied realm of immersive audio production, the technical skills and artistry required to sustain a reputation for unparalleled excellence are indeed rare. With multiple Grammy Award wins and nominations, as well as garnering European awards such as the Echo Klassik and Le Diamant d’Opera, Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz have created a unique partnership that has resulted in a wide range of critically-acclaimed co-produced and co-engineered recordings. Currently, they have a 2021 Best Immersive Recording Grammy nomination for jazz artist Patricia Barber’s Clique (reviewed by Tom Gibbs in Issue 144).
Jim and Ulrike graciously took some time to speak with us about their production approaches, techniques and philosophies, shared some anecdotes on the art of music recording and mixing, and elaborated on the particular challenges they have encountered for working in immersive audio.
John Seetoo: In a previous interview I’d read, you both went into a lot of detail about some of the special skill sets of professional recording engineers. Yet you also mentioned that the engineer’s work should ultimately be transparent or invisible to the listener, so that he or she should be able to just enjoy the music. Can either or both of you cite some examples on where this aspiration has been successful in your past recordings, and which ones in which you think the engineering aspect made itself a little too noticeable?
Ulrike Schwarz: I think I can start on the first part of the question, which means I think we can take Clique as actually a very good example. Because the idea is that you understand every word that Patricia says, but that it comes over as totally natural, and [as] if we hadn't done anything [in the engineering]. However, Jim had ridden the fader on her voice, almost on every word.
[The album] sounds like all of [it] happens this way, which it kind of did, because it was a one-take recording. However, [the sound you hear] doesn't come naturally, because, for example, your ending of words usually falls off in volume and stuff like that. [But] the impression you have is like she's sitting on top; you can understand every syllable. And that's the way it's supposed to be.
Jim Anderson: We don't mean to just put this on Patricia; this is really for every singer you work with, in that you really have to ride the fader, stay with them, and keep the voice really above [the rest of the mix] and all that kind of thing. It's a very natural thing [for a singer] to let the voice trail off at the end of a phrase. But in a recording, you really have to counteract that; you have to kind of flatten it out. Now, you could do it with a compressor, people do it all the time – or with limiters. [Compressors and limiters are used to “even out” a signal’s dynamic range – JS.] But we would much rather have it be a more natural occurrence, rather than “kind of” fix it technically.
US: And the other thing is, of course, you hear solos, you hear bass, you hear the drum kit, and if everything was unmixed, basically the same volume all the time, it would be a big chaos. What happens is the engineer or the engineer and producer [essentially] arrange the music for you. When the bass solo comes up, the bass is getting louder. But the idea is so that you don't have the idea it's getting loud. This is the thing – it always has to be natural.
I can speak more to classical recordings, where basically the engineer and the producer interpret the score for you. If there is a flute solo, you have to give the flute a little bit of a push, otherwise it doesn't come through. You point the listener into the direction that they should go.
JA: It's like putting a spotlight on something or someone.
US: A subtle spotlight.
JA: Yeah, that's the kind of thing we do, but you shouldn't be realizing that that's what we're doing.
US: That this is what happened. Yes.
JA: There are techniques in how you raise the levels and drop them back. You develop them over the years about how to make them “transparent.”
US: You're not supposed to hear that somebody raised [the level by] 15 dB or 2 dB or something; you just notice, “oh, the bass is in the right place” because Patricia is always understandable, but you shouldn't hear how that got to be done.
Another thing that was brought up in my studies is, if you are at a concert, and you look at a certain instrument, you always hear that instrument, but on a CD, you don't have that information, all of the visual information is not given to you. And so, we kind of help it along a little bit.
JA: To [further] illustrate what Ulrike is saying: microphones are a very dumb thing. Microphones just sit there and take in whatever is in front of them. And if you're listening, your brain is acting as the mixer. Essentially, that's really what she's saying. Because you see something, you hear something, and you kind of say [to yourself], “oh, I should be paying attention to that.” But microphones don't do that. You have to be the brains behind the microphones, really.
JS: Which recordings would you say are good examples of where you’ve been the most satisfied with achieving this idea of your work being invisible to the listener?
JA: (laughs) Usually, it's the last one you did; the latest one.
JS: So, it would be Clique?
JA: It would be. We would certainly reference back to it.
Sometimes you go back and you have some distance; you look back and say, you know, I would have tweaked this here, tweaked that there… Also, [once] you get a little bit of distance on a recording, you forget all the…everything it took to get the recording finished. And then finally you can kind of look back at it and address it honestly, [and] can listen to it the way other people are listening to it.
Because for a long time [after finishing an album], everything you did is kind of etched in your brain. And you can't forget that for a long time. Sometimes it takes a decade or two to really go back and listen to a recording that you did, and forget what it took to get there via being in the studio or mixing or whatever. I think critics and listeners are the ones who will tell us if we've been successful.
US: I wouldn't want to take down any project we've done for clients by saying, “oh, you know what, we didn't really do such a great job.” That's something I would rather not answer. (laughs)
JS: You both have decades of experience in recording everything from small ensembles up to full orchestras. Do you have designated specialty areas when you work together, where say, one of you gets better results on drums and timpani, or the other gets better piano or woodwind sounds? This also apply to mixing: do either of you have sweet spots where one is perhaps better with recording vocals and the other is better with piano or other elements?
JA: Well, if I can speak for Ulrike…her orchestral work, I think, is really quite good. She specialized in that for 15 years and was doing it live in stereo and surround on a weekly basis. When you work under that kind of pressure and that kind of timeline, you get to be pretty good.
I used to go and do a jazz festival up in Detroit every Labor Day weekend for about 20 years, doing live mixing for national public radio broadcast of 40 bands over the course of the four days and I would do it just [to] keep my chops sharp. One hour it's a big band. Next hour, it's a trio. The next hour…and it will [keep] changing. It's a really good experience and good practice to do that kind of thing.
US: I've grown up in the hall in the classical world. [In learning how to record and mix], they start you off with chamber music, and then [you] get to orchestras. My favorite thing to do was, the bigger the better. At some point, it was like, a 90-to-150-piece orchestra with 80-to-100-person choir. That's when I thought, “okay, this is fun.”
My overwhelming body of work would be in classical music. Not all of it is released; most of it was for national broadcasts, or broadcasts in Germany and Europe.
I have done quite a bit of jazz, and even rock, which are the things that also come along, of course, at a [broadcast] network, but probably what I would think my specialty is, is really large-ensemble classical music.
What else I really like to do is folk music, that kind of German Alpine folk music, because [growing up], it was part of our DNA. And I’ve learned [about] folk music [in other countries] when I traveled. I spent a fair amount of time in Japan, and when you know how people want their folk music to be recorded and to sound, then you kind of know how they want all their other stuff to sound like too, because I've noticed that the approach to classical music in Japan is a little bit different than let's say, in Europe.
I found out more about that when I spent a lot of time [in Japan] recording traditional Japanese music. And I think the same goes for jazz. I mean, Americans have a different idea of how classical music should sound recorded than Europeans, and that has very much been influenced by how [they] listen to jazz, rock and roll, and all these other things. So, there's a lot you can learn from the folk music of the continent or the country that you're in, in terms of extrapolating it to other styles of music.
JS: Actually, that touches on a question I want to ask you a little later. Say you had to record a jazz big band, like the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin band. Which one of you would be more prone to take the lead?
JA: (laughs) Probably me, only [because] I have a long history of association with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin. I think I've done about 10 big band albums [with them], and probably 10 of Toshiko’s small groups. [We go] back almost 50 years, at this point. Also, I love recording big bands.
US: My favorite three recordings of Jim’s are all actually big band recordings. One of them is Joe Henderson’s Big Band. Then there is J.J. Johnson’s The Brass Orchestra and Ed Palermo’s The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. For Ed Palermo and Joe Henderson, I was actually one of the assistants, because I wanted to learn how to record a big band from a certain Jim Anderson, who was an engineer that I really admired a lot. So, there you go. (laughs)
JA: Yeah, and big bands are fun to work with. The other thing though, is – big bands, especially these days – you can't cover them with a pair of mics and do it like you maybe would live. There was one big band that we did at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center for NPR with Woody Herman in the late ’70s. They were performing a piano concerto that Chick Corea had written and the fact was that I could actually take a stereo microphone and cover all 15 horns – with [just] a [single] stereo mic (an AKG C-24) – that was because that band played on the road 49 weeks a year. I think that was probably the most, let's say, “audiophile” [big band recording I’ve done] in that it was very limited in the [amount of] microphones [used], and we were [recording it] at Avery Fisher Hall.
I had an AKG C-24 stereo mic over all the horns, a solo mic down front, a mic on the piano, a mic on the bass, and a mic on the drums. And that was it. It was like six microphones. And it [turned out to be] a really great live recording, and made for a great [live] broadcast. It was so simple.
But it was a band that had played; they knew how to make an ensemble sound. You get a big band in a studio these days, and they usually haven't seen the music. [Bandleader and arranger] Bob Belden used to say, “it's always take two or take three,” because the first take is a run through, the second one is maybe going to be OK, and then the third one is probably going to be the best. So generally, when you're working with large ensembles like this in the studio, you get – maybe if you're lucky – three chances to get it right. So, you have to be really on your game all the time.
JS: Ulrike named three favorites of your work, so what are your three favorite records of hers, where you said, “wow, I couldn't have done any better than what she did.”
JA: She recorded a box [set] of Beethoven's nine symphonies with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons conducting. I could pull three of those symphonies out, the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth, from the Beethoven box, as my favorites, if that counts (laughs). I want to say that, to me, they’re the rock and roll of classical music. It has power, it has impact, and it's just a really great set of recordings. [The sound is] not like it's set back from the hall. You're really, really inside the orchestra. To me, it's the state-of-the-art of what you can do with modern recording techniques in recording classical music.
They were mixed from multitrack [recordings], but they're not edited to death, mixed to death. They're really spontaneous.
Part Two of the interview will continue with Jim Anderson’s and Ulrike Schwarz’s experiences in recording music from different countries and cultures, thoughts on mixing for radio broadcast, opinions about working with analog tape, and other subjects.