Jim Anderson: The Educated Ear Page 2

After graduating with a degree in music education in 1973 and starting work on his master's in that subject, Anderson scored a tour of NPR's studios on M Street, in Washington, DC, where he landed a job as broadcast technician in November 1974.

"I was in the second generation of NPR people. The early folks were Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer. I was in the next bunch. We were sort of inventing it as we went along. I was Carl Kasell's first engineer. I was doing a weekend All Things Considered as it developed from a half hour to an hour, and the first host was Mike Waters, and then we went on to Noah Adams, then Jackie Judd. I was deep inside with all those guys, most of whom are still on the air. We were all in our mid-20s to maybe early 30s. The adult was Carl Kasell, and he was probably 40, but we all looked up to Carl like he was a grownup.

"When I turned 60, my daughter, Noel, asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said 'I want Carl on my answering machine.' It took her six months, but she finally got to Carl's cell phone. She wrote a limerick for him to read. She called me and said, 'It's done!'"


From 1974 to 1980, Anderson recorded a variety of projects for NPR, almost all of them in two-track, everything from news reports from Three Mile Island—"I drove up in my Volvo with Nina Totenberg"—to catching five minutes of sheep shearing on his Nagra recorder at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Capital Mall, to recording Ella Fitzgerald, Eubie Blake, the Jazz Crusaders, and others at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where he met jazz producer and future Mosaic Records co-owner Michael Cuscuna.

"Jim's great in a lot of the most important ways that an engineer is great—speed, taste, and musical accuracy," Cuscuna said recently from Mosaic's offices, in Stamford, Connecticut. "He's got something that a lot of [non-classical] engineers don't have: the ability to read a score. He knows how to mike. He's knows how to get a great sound, a nice blend. And he is your ally in the most important thing in the world which is keeping the session moving. And he's incredibly discreet, in terms of he'll never venture an opinion or say anything unless he's sure it won't sabotage what the producer is trying to do. That sounds small, but it's really major."

An Anderson memory illustrates this point nicely: "I was working with [bassist] Ray Brown on the Don't Forget the Blues album. They had to do a tag out, Ray counted it off, did it, and I went on the talkback and said, 'Ray, that tempo's not going to match.' He looked at me like, 'Who the hell are you? Some 30-year-old telling me!' Two weeks later, I get a call from the record's producer. 'Ray apologizes. You were right—that tempo doesn't match. What can you do to fix it?' Had I not said anything, I would not have been doing my job."

Cuscuna also paid tribute to what was undoubtedly the biggest obstacle to Anderson's becoming a recording-studio engineer: "He beat the odds. I remember his nervousness when he decided to leave NPR and come to New York. He had to work hard to overcome the stigma of being a radio engineer trying to become a recording engineer. It was an uphill battle, but he pulled it off very well."

Although it eventually clicked, Anderson's move to New York, with his second wife and two young children, to become a jazz recording engineer had its shaky moments early on. His first big record job came in 1984, when the Muse label hired him to record and mix Bud Shank's This Bud's for You in a single day. "We started at 10 or 11 in the morning, recorded till maybe 5, then took a lunch break, and then at 6 o'clock we started mixing until 2 in the morning. I got home sometime after that, and the baby's up, and I'm changing my kid's diapers, putting him back to bed, and I'm thinking, I was just in the studio with Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, and Al Foster and Bud Shank, and now I'm changing diapers. It put things in perspective."

Asked to name some of his favorite sessions from the nine-page discography listed on AllMusic.com (which—beware—contains colossal errors), Anderson rubs his chin and looks skyward. "Joe Henderson, So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) [Anderson's first record for Verve, it won two Grammys]; J.J. Johnson, The Brass Orchestra; John Zorn, The Circle Maker.

"I'm a believer in the 10,000-hour thing. I feel like I know when it started clicking for me. I can kind of preconceive a recording now because I know the palette of microphones. I can kind of hear it before I walk into a room. It comes down to knowing all the tools you have available to you."

Perhaps the biggest change from radio engineer to recording engineer was dealing directly with musicians on a daily basis. "Some of them know [about recording]. Some of them haven't a clue. And the ones who haven't a clue sometimes are the ones I've done the most. I like working with the older guys, like the Phil Woodses, the Billy Taylors, and the Ron Carters of this world. Ron will come in, listen to the first tune, and if it sounds fine, that's it. We're here to record. We're not here to have a party and listen to playbacks. A lot of those records with Ron are done in three hours. We start at nine in the morning and we're done by 12–12:30pm, and then we might mix until 6 in the afternoon. You shouldn't have to spend 24 hours mixing an album if it doesn't need to be done. And Ron knows what he wants. We just kind of knock them out, and I think they sound pretty good."

Anderson and Carter have made seven albums together. "Jim gets the sound of the band as quick as anybody I've ever worked with," Carter said in a recent interview. "There's not an hour sound check and an hour of moving microphones and all that shit. He brings his great gear to the studio, he sets it up way before the band gets there, and he knows the rooms we work in, and when we play, it's just a matter of him finding the right volume levels, or whatever they do inside that glass booth that he's in, to make it work."


Even his best-known and most frequent recent client, the famously cranky Patricia Barber, managed to praise Anderson in a brief e-mail: "Jim brings that uniquely clear sound quality as well as all his expertise to the studio. His equipment and the way he records is so pure. He creates a silence as landscape and an intimacy that listeners understand as such. His mikes pick up so many frequencies he doesn't have to add any."

Asked if most musicians know much about sound, and what they want to hear on a recording, Anderson, who served as President of the Audio Engineering Society from 2008 to 2009, takes a deep breath and furrows his brow. "Most don't want to know how it's made. They're musicians. They are not technical people. The problem is that now so many of them are playing around with Pro Tools, and they tend to think they know what's going on. Pro Tools sucked until about 2003. When the 192kHz, high-definition version came in, that's when you could take it seriously. Until that time, it was a low-cost alternative.

"When you're in therapy and you describe what you do, I've had more than one say to me, 'You're more of a therapist than I am,' and 'It must be difficult to have your work be transparent.' But that's the job. Other engineers listen to it and go, 'Oh, nice.' But the general public shouldn't know. If you're doing that, you're not listening to music for the right reasons."

Back in downtown Manhattan, at NYU, Anderson is having trouble convincing his students that audio engineering, at least in the jazz genre, is a viable profession. Engineers are hired hands; they're not routinely cut in on a recording's success or failure. "I've probably made a hundred bucks on residuals in my entire career," Anderson says. In addition, given the sway of today's music business, most of his students want to make hit tracks, not great albums. But if jazz engineering is in danger of becoming a lost art, all is not lost for the still-youthful Anderson.

"Playing the horn actually taught me a lot about career guidance. When you play the French horn, it's an unusual thing to do, and it's really hard. But if you can do something unusual and hard and actually be not bad to pretty good at it, so much the better. It's sort of like now: Who wants to be a jazz recording engineer? There's about four or five of us. In fact, when I talk to students about careers, I'll say, 'Who here wants to be a jazz recording engineer?' Not a single hand goes up. And I'll say, 'Thank you. I have 20 years' more work!"


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…