Tam Henderson, Reference Recordings Page 2

It's been, I believe, a somewhat tempestuous relationship. It hasn't been all smooth by any means. We've had some ups and downs and difficulties, Lord knows, and not everything has turned out equally well, but by and large, when things work well with Keith's techniques, they're superlative. I think they're the best I've ever heard.

Atkinson: I would have thought that the relationship between producer and engineer always features a degree of conflict because the two are actually looking for different things from a recording.

Henderson: That certainly is the situation in our case. We do have differences about what we want a recording to sound like. In the beginning I pretty much left the miking, the placement and so on, up to Keith, but as I have to be involved in the commercial aspect of the business, I have to keep an eye and an ear on what the public is interested in hearing. Keith might like to do the microphoning from the balcony, and that's never going to sell! Certainly not at CES. So yes indeed, we compromise. We try to reach a middle ground. And we don't disagree all the time, by any means.

Atkinson: One of the sad things that appeared in Stereophile's 1988 readership survey was how few of our readers regularly go to any live concerts. One in three doesn't go to any live music. This creates a problem, as people who only experience reproduced music are educated into a different set of expectations concerning sound from people who do regularly attend live concerts. I've heard other producers express regret that to some extent the public is educated to expect, even demand, a sound that is rather different from what a naturalistic engineer like Keith would want to capture on tape.

Henderson: Especially a listening public which has grown up primarily listening to multi-miked, studio-type recordings. Our kind of sound is so very different that people are often disappointed and send records back to us, even complaining that they're defective! (Incidentally, talking about live concerts, all you can really speak about is classical music. If you go to concerts, that's now the only unamplified sound you'll ever hear.)

Atkinson: How then do you, as a commercial producer, make records that are honest in how they portray both the music and the original sound, yet still appeal to people who have no idea what live music sounds like?

Henderson: Well, that is a conundrum, isn't it? All I can say is we do the best we can to get the kind of sound that is pleasing to us and hope that someone else enjoys it too. But in recent years the philosophy of recording an orchestra seems to have changed with the major labels. They are backing away from the overdone, over-microphoned, multitrack approach and going back to a more naturalistic miking technique. Which is very encouraging. I'm so happy to see and hear that happening. It doesn't apply to all of them by any means, but it's not uncommon to find a relatively simple miking approach being used by a major label. I think Telarc is largely responsible for that. Their success in the marketplace has drawn the attention of some of the major labels. CBS, for example, is calling on Jack Renner himself to engineer some of their sessions. And even others are going back to a less complicated approach, with good results. So that, I think, is a positive outcome of the success of Telarc and their digital sound in the marketplace.

As far as we are concerned, our methods tend to be a little different from anyone else's simply because Keith's equipment isn't quite like anyone else's. His microphones behave differently, and we don't have a hard and fast or rigid approach to microphoning, as some do. I think Nimbus uses only that one Ambisonic Soundfield microphone, and Telarc apparently sticks with a three-mike approach (though I believe it's not always that these days). But we will do whatever is necessary—or, I should say, we'll do the best we can under the circumstances. We'll be flexible and use as many or as few microphones as we need to get the best sound we can under those circumstances.

Atkinson: What specifically do you try to capture?

Henderson: In a nutshell: We strive for recording in real concert spaces that have an agreeable acoustic sound that doesn't interfere with the music and adds a reverberant field. And we try to get a nice three-dimensional holographic sound reproduction of the performing forces within that field. That isn't always easy. It isn't always highly successful. But that is our goal. Maybe, for example, we will use a Blumlein approach mixed with spaced omnis. That's sort of heresy; it's either / or with most recording engineers. But sometimes it works very nicely.

It's also important, if you're using more than one pair of microphones, to have one of them be dominant. They mustn't conflict or confuse one another or fight, and that's a very delicate thing to manage sometimes. But, for example, the Nojima Liszt recording [RR-25] was less complicated than with a group of instruments. We used two Coles ribbon microphones in a Blumlein configuration for the primary pickup, with then a pair of spaced omnis further back to help open out the sound. The Blumlein configuration gave a rather close, dry sound that we didn't think was what we wanted, so we opened it up a bit with a pair of spaced omnis. So, as I said, we'll be flexible and do the best we can with as few microphones as we can manage to get an agreeable holographic sound to it. With enough presence to satisfy the presence freaks!

Atkinson: I thought you did a great job with your Albert Fuller Rameau recording [RR-27], particularly the way in which you and Keith captured both the fragility of the harpsichord and its powerful tone.

Henderson: That's precisely what we set out to do. Most of the harpsichord recordings I've heard are tinkly and rustly, and lack the visceral presence that certain harpsichords can have. There are polite, rustly harpsichords. This instrument was not one of them. It's a French-style instrument that has a great deal of body and weight when that's called for. Albert Fuller is a great Rameau specialist. He's spent a lifetime studying and performing his works...and he welcomed the opportunity to record some of them again. So when I heard this particular instrument in his home—he was playing casually for us one evening—I just moved around the room, at various perspectives, to find the place where it really came together and sounded its very best. And I was surprised at how close that turned out to be. When I got within maybe 3' of the instrument, in just the place where the sounding board focused, an astonishingly rich and satisfying sound came from it, full of complexity and all sorts of lovely harmonics. I said to Keith, "Come put your face right here. That's what I would like to try to capture."