A Record Seven Grammy Nominations for Reference Recordings

"I'm still in shock," Reference Recordings recording engineer Sean Martin blurted out during a conference call with his recording engineer stepfather, Keith O. Johnson. "When Jan Mancuso woke me up at 5:30 or 6 to tell me the news, I couldn't imagine who would be calling so early," was Johnson's follow up.

Reference Recordings and Johnson have been nominated multiple times for Grammys over the years. ("I hate to say how many times I've been nominated for the Engineering Award," quips Johnson, "although I only won it once, in 2010, for Best Engineered Surround Sound on Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.") Their former producer, John T. (Tam) Henderson, Jr., was also nominated for Classical Producer of the Year, as were a number of titles for performance and musical content. (You can find the complete list here.) But never before has the small Bay Area audiophile label received seven Grammy nominations in a single year. Regardless of its eventual wins, which are determined by an eyebrow-raising selection process that customarily grants awards to artists, engineers, producers, and labels with the most name recognition, it is quite an achievement.

RR's latest nominations include Best Engineered Classical for Saint-Saäns' Symphony 3, "Organ," an audiophile demo blockbuster which both men recorded as a team, and both Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and Best Classical Compendium for Nadia Shpachenko's Woman at the New Piano, on which both men did post-production. A fourth nomination, Producer of the Year, Classical, goes to the venerable team of Marina A. and Victor Ledin for three RR and RR "Fresh" recordings—Dances For Piano & Orchestra (Joel Fan, Christophe Chagnard & Northwest Sinfonietta), which both Johnson and Martin recorded; Tempo Do Brasil (Marc Regnier) which Leslie Ann Jones recorded at Skywalker Sound, and on which Johnson did a fair amount of post-production work; and Woman at the New Piano. Others nominations are Best Orchestral Performance for Bruckner: Symphony 4 (Manfred Honeck, conductor; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra); Best Choral Performance for Paulus: Far in the Heavens (Eric Holton, conductor, True Concord Voices & Orchestra); and Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Paulus' "Far in the Heavens" from the same eponymous Paulus album.

"Post-production work is becoming a really good, creative craft for me," Johnson told Stereophile. "It's been useful to very subtly, fine-tune things, and I spend a lot of time at it. I didn't used to do much of it because workstations were so primitive. They still are, because they tend to orient themselves to a mono-culture, "mike-in-the-mouth" process where you slather on various effects and plug-ins, such as reverb and limiting, that will give some spread to something that's pretty much mono. But at Reference, we record everything with stereo mikes—I can't imagine using a mono mike anywhere—because we listen with the two ears.

"After Sean records, I do some massaging to ensure that the mikes aren't fighting each other and everything is in phase. This gives the sense of reality that you actually hear at live performance in the hall, where you move your head in a visual-acoustic manner. The brain has evolved to do an enormous amount of networking and processing of subtle musical cues and timing differences around the ear in an attempt to ensure survival. My post-processing allows it to discern the same subtle musical cues that it would process in an actual concert situation. It makes for a very powerful listening experience. There's far more going on in listening than test tones."

Martin feels the organ the men recorded the Saint-Saäns on was perfect for the task. "It was built like the early mechanical, romantic-sounding organs they used at the time of premiere in 1887," he said.

Johnson eschews using so many microphones that they compete with each other and diminish clarity. Instead, he pairs a minimal number of microphones with a passible mixer board that allows him to choose which microphone feeds to capture.

"I do it on the fly, capturing the feelings of conductor, producer, and musicians. It's just like back when, when mixes were done on the fly. It allows me to reach in and catch the charisma of it. Thus, I facilitate the same kind of active listening as in live performance, where your focus changes according to what you see and hear. I work with a much simpler set-up than many do nowadays. It's as they used to do in the good old days of analog."

Michael J Bishop's picture

Big Congratulations to Keith, Marcia, Tam, and Sean!

I'm thrilled for the recognition!

philipjohnwright's picture

Their website is poor - no search facility, badly laid out, basically not a nice shopping experience. Come on guys - you go to all the trouble of making fantastic recordings and then let yourself down at the last stage. It would be worth you investing a little in a decent e-commerce site; I used to work in the field, it won't cost much to do a good job.

I never did find this disc by the way..........

Comments meant as constructive feedback, not a moan; the more money you make the more recordings like this you can offer

RBrooks's picture

A wonderful recording

Free 28 day trial period at Naxos, then $14.95 / month

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you for letting everyone know. My January article on the Naxos Classics Online HD hi-rez streaming site is here:

dalethorn's picture

Ordered the CD, for $14 on Amazon. Do I presume there's a hirez download available?

RBrooks's picture

16/44 $9.99
24/176 $18.99

Sal1950's picture

Come on, time to get real. The extra bandwidth does not justify almost doubling the price.

volvic's picture

Keith O. Johnson is a genius in so many ways. Will seek out the CD, do I need another Saint-Saens 3rd? No, but after purchasing Ikon of Eros years ago I just can't resist.