Jim Anderson: The Educated Ear

Tune those young ears, Mr. Anderson! After a 30-year career in audio engineering that's seen his name appear in the credits of over 1700 albums, Jim Anderson, who won the 2013 Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album, for his remastering of Patricia Barber's Modern Cool, thinks education is the key to stemming the tide of degraded sound that threatens to swallow the recorded-music industry. Anderson, who's taught for a decade in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, starts his students early.

"In ear-training class, I try to get the students to hear and recognize and create a vocabulary, and articulate that vocabulary to describe what they are hearing. I make them listen to full-range, high-resolution stuff as much as possible. I take one of Patti's recordings, 24[-bit]/96[kHz] and I dump it down to 44.1[kHz] and then I take it down to MP3. I play them the 44.1. Then I'll play them the [MP3], and I don't tell them what it is. If they are careful listeners, they'll tell me the first one sounds like this, the second one sounds like that. And when they describe that, all the words they use actually are describing an MP3.

"I had one student once said it sounds like you took the first one and put it in a little box and tied it up and put a bow on it. Others will say, 'It doesn't have all the depth,' or 'It lacks reverb,' or 'Did you change the mix?' Then I take a subtraction of the two, and show them what's in this that's not in that, and they'll hear the distortion and the artifacts and all the crap that's actually being hidden very cleverly by the signal. What I am noticing as the years go by is that people sometimes like the MP3 better than the 44.1, and it's only because they're used to that sound. Years ago, when we started this department, I remember thinking, That is the one thing that somebody has to educate them about. If I can teach them how to listen, I will have taught them something."


Anderson trained his own ears early. A fan of the Henry Mancini recordings engineered by Al Schmitt, he cites Schmitt's recording of Mancini's The Music from Peter Gunn (RCA Victor, 1959) as a touchstone in his listening history. "I always felt, if I ever made a recording as good as that, then I'd really made it."

Another early model was the late Phil Ramone. Anderson cites as particular favorites "The Girl from Ipanema," from Stan Getz and João Gilberto's Getz/Gilberto (1963), and Peter, Paul & Mary's Album 1700 (1967).

Another obvious influence on the development of Anderson's auditory acumen was Mercury's Living Presence series, particularly the label's recordings of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, mono copies of which still hold a cherished place in the record collection in Anderson's New York City home. "To me, that's what it's all about. It's good, clean sound. It doesn't draw attention to the engineering. The engineering should be transparent. You should be able to just put it on and not know anything I did. It should just sound like music."

Most engineers' personal taste in music plays a large role in determining what kind of music they're drawn to work with. Although Anderson has engineered records by bluesman James Blood Ulmer, country fiddler Vassar Clements, storyteller Garrison Keillor, and something called the Intergalactic Maiden Ballet, his main interest has always been jazz, and that's where he's made his living.

"If you go back and listen to recordings from the early 1980s, the gated snare sounds and the gated echoes and that kind of stuff, I'm guilty of that too. But that was the style at the time. But you find what works for you. The reason I don't use a lot of delays or a lot of compression is because I hear it and it bothers me. It doesn't sound natural. So I'm trying to do what needs to be done and serve the music, but at the same time not kind of overdo it as far as any technical stuff goes. What you learn as an engineer is that if you don't go in there and really do the proper surgical EQ [equalization], if you don't put in the right kind of atmosphere, the recording just sounds dead and flat.

"I've gone through what I would call my 'audiophile' phase. When I was at NPR, I would hear recordings on the air and they would just sound lifeless. What it needed was a little bit of pumping up. It needed a little bit of EQ and reverb and all that. In fact, people have gotten used to hearing those effects; they've become the natural vocabulary of listening to a recording. Even these classic recordings, Columbia Records, the six-eyes, those things had tons of EQ, tons of compression, tons of reverb, and we listen to them and go, 'Wow, isn't that great classic recording!' That's my starting point."

Anderson's actual starting point was Butler, Pennsylvania, where he was raised and went to high school. "I took electronics courses in high school, and my French horn teacher was an audiophile. He had an AR-1 woofer, Jansen tweeters, and McIntosh amps. I remember when he traded in the McIntosh for a Scott amplifier. I watched him go through all the processes."

Anderson and I are connected by more than just this profile. We grew up within 40 miles of each other, and now both live mere blocks apart in New York City. We also attended the same summer camp in western Pennsylvania, where he amused himself by listening to records in the dining hall while I remember laying in my bunk and hearing The Who's Tommy and the Original Broadway Cast recording of Hair for the first time. Given those events, our adult lives seem positively preordained.


Anderson attended Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, where, in 1973, he began his engineering career at local radio station WDUQ (now defunct). Although his mother and father insisted that he work toward a teaching degree in music—"my parents were concerned I was going to go down there and become a hippie"—he majored in French horn and minored in piano. But he'd already been bitten by the audio-electronics bug.

With KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, the site of the first commercial radio broadcast in the US, as an exemplar, Anderson fell in love with broadcast. After successfully recording his piano teacher's master's-degree recital—Anderson's first official recording—he was handed the keys to the recording studio at Duquesne's music school. His eyes twinkle as he remembers recording Duquesne's famous folk-song-and-folk-dance company, the Tamburitzans, and toting around his Sony 260 reel-to-reel recorder and a couple of mikes, and "literally twisting the wires together to make them work. I had always wanted to be involved in some kind of occupation that had something to do with sound and something to do with music. As a freshman, I'd read a book from the Duquesne library, Alec Nisbett's The Sound Studio: Audio Techniques for Radio, Television, Film and Recording [1962]. I just read it and read it and read it, so by the time they handed me the keys, I was ready to go. Up to that point, I was a kid-and-a-tape-machine kind of thing."

One of Anderson's classmates at Duquesne, the Catholic university "on the bluff," near downtown Pittsburgh, was the saxophonist Eric Leeds, who has worked with Prince in various musical roles since just after the release of Purple Rain. "There was a great record shop up in [the Pittsburgh neighborhood of] Oakland, and Eric said, 'Here's Sketches of Spain, here's Kind of Blue, Coltrane's Lush Life, Giant Steps—you gotta listen to this stuff!"


Oldsport's picture

Two thoughts come to mind regarding Jim Anderson:  


A few years ago I set out to compile for my own use a collection of serious jazz that was Christmas-themed.  I happened upon a “Silent Night” by pianist Benny Green that was really something­—not just the interpretation and playing—and they were great—but how the recording really captured it.  I checked to see who had captured this beautiful beast: Jim Anderson, of course.  (The cut was on a compilation itself: Yule Struttin’-A Blue Note Christmas. I’d hoped this meant there was an entire Benny Green/Jim Anderson Christmas album out there, but alas, no.)

I was lucky to enjoy being a high end audio salesman for several years.  Some of the days (and memories) were golden.  One was finding myself in a soundproof room, quietly listening to two men having a discussion on several common interests.  The men were Jim Anderson and Peter McGrath.  Oh please-please-please, I kept saying to myself, don’t even notice me; I’ll be good, just let me stay and listen…