From the Recording Studio with Nick Parker
From Pyongyang to Abbey Road, sound engineer and producer Nick Parker has a wealth of experience, dating back to the days of long-playing records and casettes and editing with razor blades. Nick Parker's career as a producer has brought him into every sort of recording situation you can imagine, going literally almost all the way to Timbuktu.He talks to Primephonic about stage setup, hermetically silent venues, teamwork and memorable recording experiences in Mali and North Korea.
1. What exactly is your definition of a (great) producer?
For me, producing is about careful listening, not only to the music and the performance but also to the performers themselves, their aims, ambitions and dreams. So perhaps a great producer is someone who can instinctively anticipate what the musicians are likely to want to achieve throughout the project. She/he should also be able to articulate in advance what possible pitfalls and problems are likely to materialize, insisting during the planning on as many of those being ironed-out or mitigated well before any fader is raised. In my view, producing should be all about facilitating and assisting, rather than about any form of interpreting or coaching.
London Symphony Orchestra in a recording session
2. Over the years, while working on any given project you have had different roles (engineer, producer etcetera). Has it always been your goal to become a producer? And how did you get to this point in your career today?
I started my career combing my production and engineering work with performance as a freelance violinist, working in a wide variety of genres, modern and baroque classical orchestral and chamber music, Film/TV and theatre work and rock and pop session work. Many of the record productions back in the 80s and 90s were for smaller independent labels for whom it was often more practical and cost-efficient to act as both producer and engineer.
(I should perhaps clarify that we are still talking analogue tape recorders, editing with razor-blades and delivery on long-playing vinyl and cassette!)
In those days most orchestral and opera discs were generally made in studio sessions, whereas today the total revolution in the business has determined that the majority of this sort of repertoire is recorded live. During recent years, many of the larger-scale orchestral productions I’ve worked on have required more manpower in order to fulfill the increased technical demands. Nowadays when we produce live orchestral recordings it’s expedient to take as much of the rehearsal as possible so that we have the chance to fix small problems which might occur in the live show. The takes we record of the first few minutes of the rehearsal might end up being the only quiet versions of a particularly delicate opening which could, for instance later be obliterated by a coughing audience member during the show itself. Therefore we aim to be ready to record the rehearsal from the very outset on the morning of the concert day; additionally various important time elements have become much more restricted, sometimes for budgetary reasons but also on account of venue-access restrictions; therefore the efficient rigging of a symphonic setup in a typical hall necessitates a very skilled, fast-working team just to get all the capsules in place and the signals correctly routed in good time. It’s become the work of a large team rather than an individual. For these reasons I now specialise predominantly in production and I am very happy to say that I’m blessed and privileged to work alongside several truly wonderful engineers, (who actually do most of the hard work!)
3. Could you share one or two moments in your life that defined your career?
My strongest memories include, in 1997, recording Kora duets into the early hours of the 37th anniversary of Malian Independence. After an exhausting five-day recce (pre-filming location visit) all over Bamako, the only remotely practicable venue we found was a modern Sino-French conference centre right in the middle of the city. It was far too noisy to record during the day, but having managed to negotiate the night-time use of a large carpeted conference room (and having also waited until the centre’s officials had all gone home for the night) we swapped the rooms around, setting up the gear in the conference room itself and inviting the musicians to perform in the marble vestibule, which had a superb gently resonant acoustic which turned out to be ideal for those delicately colourful instruments. I will never forget that night. “Nouvelle Cordes Anciennes” was released on Hannibal Records.
Kora-playing brothers Toumani And Sidiki Diabaté.
Toumani recorded the duo album 'New Ancient' Strings with Ballaké Sissoko in 1997, which was produced by Nick Parker
I have vivid memories of recording a 150-strong symphony orchestra in a fabulous and massive concert hall in central Pyongyang in 2011. The stage was completely empty when I arrived and I was asked how I would like the band to be set up. I quickly specified a few ideas and was then shown into the available control rooms, spending 10 or 15 minutes deciding on the disposition of the gear. I then returned to the stage and to my utter astonishment found that my spec had already miraculously appeared, as if by magic. They had a huge crew of extremely efficient and fast-working stage-hands who had constructed the platforms and set out the orchestra in virtually no time at all. I simply could not believe my eyes.
Then more surprises followed; the orchestra arrived, all proceeding directly from their coaches to the green rooms at the back of the stage. The conductor was in miltary uniform, his immediate (and more decorated) boss sitting just behind him a few rows back in the hall – and in turn his superior sitting a few rows further back to overseee the whole proceedings; he was dressed in even more flamboyant regalia. Apart from the two female harpists, the orchestra was comprised exclusively of men, all with identically groomed black hair, no facial hair or baldness, all wearing identical blue suits, all sitting in exactly the same, body posistions in perfectly regulated rows, resembling a CGI creation and in complete silence in between bursts of stunningly loud and militaristic North Korean music. The score I was given for mark-up was the original composer's pencil manuscript and what’s more, each and every part in the orchestra, even down to the 6th desk of violas, was hand-written in pencil. These sessions felt like recording on the moon - totally unforgettable.
4. How much freedom do you have as a producer and what is the influence of the artist and the label during the whole process?
It all depends on the particular label and the artist. If the relationship with the label is as it should be, then our input is both encouraged and accepted. When a label consults the right producer for the job, they might well view the contract as a sort of insurance policy against the production going ‘belly-up’ in some way; we can often be in a position to protect them from intractable future problems some of which they may not be aware of during the planning process.
London Symphony Orchestra
Similarly, in my view, there’s little point in ever working against the wishes or intentions of an artist; indeed if I ever feel that I’m not in harmony with the artist in question, I try not to accept the job. If an artist has a strong view on any particular issue of a production, I will always try to comply with that view, unless I am sure that it will cause specific problems further down the line. If I strongly disagree with the intent of the artist then I’m clearly not the right producer for the project. Fundamentally it’s vital to be working closely with the artist because that is the relationship that will be crucial, both in the studio and during any post-production consultations.
If I perceive strong antipathy between the artist and the label then I would generally question whether the production should be undertaken in the first place.
5. As a producer you have an audio-sonic vision of what the end result should sound like. Could you tell us a bit about how you bring this vision to life?
Indeed I usually have some sort of preliminary “image-concept” in my mind’s ear when embarking on a project. This image would partially determine the choice of venue, the engineering approach, the time allocation, and many other aspects of the planning.
I always discuss the technical approach fully with the engineer before the job. The production team must be working in harmony or chaos will ensue. There is nothing worse than inflicting an unsettled control-room on a nervous artist; when under the sort of extreme pressure that recording induces, the performers need to feel that there is nothing but total understanding, expertise, support and patience emanating from the control-room.
The choice of venue is vital as it provides the blank canvas for the ensuing painting. When choosing the venue, the essential colour, acoustic character, reverberation-length, and detail level must all be carefully considered. However, pragmatic considerations sometimes force us to make an assessment as to whether an acoustic which on the face of it might not initially seem suitable for the repertoire, can in fact be adapted using post-production processing to end up close to the ideal.
Geography and costs obviously play a part and then there is the important consideration of environmental noise and external disturbances such as planes and traffic.
The most vital component is of course the engineer, who is in truth the only one of the team who can “bring the vision to life”. The producer’s role is to properly support both the engineer and the musicians in their respective efforts and thereby form a team who can cooperate to achieve that common end.
6. The studios or venues where you record, all bring their own acoustic character to the production. How does this affect the artistic production and what are the advantages and disadvantages?
The advantages of using the correct venue are seminal. Effectively, if you work in the right room, with the correct colour for the repertoire, an appropriate reflection-level of and a sufficiently silent ambience then most of your problems are already solved. However if you are forced to work in a hall which is too dry for the repertoire, and it is agreed that the length of the reverberation should be enhanced electronically then additional time has to be taken to allow the musicians to adjust to this artifice. They need to carefully audition the playbacks in order to learn how the added length of the resultant recording might affect their articulation and pacing. Similarly, if you find yourself in an acoustic that is too rich or too swimmy for the repertoire, then this will restrict the engineer’s choice of capsule and pattern, it being necessary to gather only specific segments of the total sound in the room, so that the result will artificially show more detail and clarity than ever actually existed in the live situation.
Most classical music is recorded on location rather than in studios, and noise intrusion has always been problematic. Some of the most acoustically suitable venues for orchestral music have terrible external noise issues and this often results in our having to discard otherwise great takes. On the positive side, one factor which has improved is the recent massive drop in typical aircraft-engine noise; I am happy to say that we now lose far fewer takes due to plane-noise than was the case twenty years ago. In the UK today, at least for chamber music productions, it is now fortunately possible to choose from amongst several wonderful venues that are hermetically silent, which is far preferable for serious productions.
A Capella choral productions are more of a problem, as the best results are usually attained by working in large-volume resonant buildings which are intrinsically vulnerable to environmental noise. Churches afford the best acoustics for choral recordings, and particularly in London, (where many of the best A Capella groups are forced to record) it’s impossible to find any churches with fine acoustics that are quiet enough. Sadly, a typical set of sessions for these groups involves the producer having to act more as a traffic monitor rather than any sort of artistic advisor. Even though the sessions have to be stopped and started for external disturbances, some of the best musical takes will contain a certain level of outside noise and nowadays these intrusions can be removed with sophisticated software which allows most of the signal to be preserved while the offending noise is carefully stripped off. If it’s used with great care this process can be only very slightly destructive but extremely effective.
7. How has technology changed how you make music or approach a production throughout the last decades?
For mobile classical work the major factor has of course been the coming of digital technology which has revolutionised both the size and weight of the rig. From the engineering point-of-view the most pronounced difference is perhaps the huge amount of engineering time saved. Analogue machines used to require the engineer to work for several hours before each session just to accurately line up the recorders to the particular batch of tape being used, checking the frequency response of each machine, cleaning the record and play heads and adjusting azimuth for phase accuracy and high frequency. Hard to believe, but sometimes we even had to take a break in a session to re-adjust the response when the first reel of a new batch was opened! Today it's just a question of booting-up and recording.
Sir Simon Rattle at the Barbican
From the production point-of-view, the most pronounced change has been the ease with which one can now record multiple time-aligned discrete feeds on separate tracks. Back in the last century the weight and bulk of multi-track recorders necessitated enormous rigs on location recordings which was impractical on low to medium-budget productions. We were accustomed to mixing down 'live' to stereo, often monitoring in swiftly installed and more-or-less improvised monitoring conditions, thereafter being constrained to whatever balance had been achieved on the sessions. Today, a laptop connected by a single fibre to a set of local mic-amps affords very easy and accurate multi-track recording which then allows us to delay the fine-mixing of a production until much later in the post-production process, when it can benefit from a properly tuned monitoring environment.
Fundamentally though, the process is still exactly the same - the challenge is to get the right musicians in the right venue with the right engineer. Once all that is in place, then for the producer much of the job has basically already been done!
8. What are your thoughts on high resolution recordings and streaming services that offer a high quality of sound?
There is no question that high-resolution files sound better than their compressed or low-res equivalents over extended listening periods. The benefits can best be perceived when the whole listening chain is of top quality and perhaps even more importantly, has been properly set up. However we should be cautious not to make glib assumptions about technical “progress”. Sadly, I recently auditioned a proudly demonstrated system playing lossless downloaded files through ferociously expensive amps and speakers in surround only to find that the front left and right speakers were wired out-of-phase. I’ve enjoyed more musical veracity from a well-adjusted cassette machine from the 1980s, or even a 100 year-old horn-gramophone!
In my view, it is usually the quality of the original engineering, the brilliance of the music and musicians, the effect of the acoustic and the care taken during subsequent processing that have far greater influence on the essential emotional musical experience than the number of samples or playback channels.
9. What key lessons would you share with younger producers and musicians to achieve their goals and build a career in music?
My goals as a producer have changed subtly over 40 years in the business.
The common quest for some sort of quintessential “perfection” has now more frequently given way to a more indefinable search for the true emotional connection between the performer and listener. That has changed the way I approach the sessions. I now tend to focus on encouraging the artists to take every possible risk with their expression and the scope of colours in their performances, rather than adopting any sort of "play safe" attitude, or taking the "try-to-get-it-right” approach. The priority is to allow the music to come off the page and to create a recording that really moves and touches the listener. Far too many thousands of “correct” or nominally “perfect” recordings have been released (and deleted). Those that stand the chance of lasting depend on this indefinable essence which is created by truly sincere music-making, irrespective of other factors. As discussed, if you can achieve this essence and also ensure that the recording benefits from all other contributing conditions being optimised, that’s the best chance we have of producing something really enduring and exceptional.
I think it’s important to keep listening. By that I mean observe, meet with and talk to as many esteemed colleagues as possible and never hesitate to ask for advice from "old hands" who have already travelled a similar journey to the one chosen. Try to attend as many rehearsals, sessions and concerts as you can access; watch and listen to the best of what you observe so that the innate culture of the profession becomes completely natural. There is virtually no way that the correct procedure in this profession can be comprehensively taught, so for me it is experience itself that is cardinal; this can best be passed on in the field through practical demonstration from seasoned professionals to those aiming to enter the profession.
Producer Nick Parker in conversation with Primephonic's Jordy van Wijk