Echoes of ECM

Pierre Boulez used the term musique savant to describe 'knowing music' that transcends conventional categories. In the same way should we not now be using the term musique sans frontières to describe classical music that transcends the conventional frontiers between East and West?

An excellent example of musique sans frontières is the newly released CD Mantra, seen above. Musical conversations across the Indian Ocean is the disc's subtitle and it brings together The Orlando Concert and Indian forces. Mantra takes as its starting point the mix of Catholic liturgy and Indian instruments heard in the churches founded by Portugese missionaries in Goa in the 16th century. These medieval experiments in musique sans frontières were not notated so the CD is an exercise in conjecture rather than scholarship. Which is not a problem as it is the music that matters and musically this is a very adventurous and stimulating release. If you want to hear what the plainsong Salve Regina sounds like with sitar and tabla accompaniment this is the disc for you.

ECM are one of the main proponents of musique sans frontières and Mantra could well have come from them label instead of Keda Records, a small English independent label. Except for one caveat, the sound. It is not that the sound is bad. But for my ears anyway it is wrong. Production and mixing credits go to Steve Cooper and John Gallen, a duo who have quite a reputation in the rock field. Which probably accounts for why the sound of Mantra is close miked and fails to create a plausible image of the musicians spread between the speakers as they would be on a concert platform.

But the problems go deeper than that. Reverberation has clearly been added in post-production, and its addition favours voices over instruments. Mantra was recorded in Red Fort Studios in Southall, England, and a visit to the studio's website takes us down an interesting path. Red Fort looks like an excellent small studio (50 square metres), but the equipment list is illuminating. Outboard hardware includes the Lexicon PCM70 digital reverberation (echo) unit seen below. Now Lexicon reverb is pretty standard in recording studios, but it is also an essential component of the so-called ECM sound.

Now click over to Rainbow Studios in Oslo, seen in the photo below. This is a favourite ECM recording venue and was used for their musique sans frontières production Ragas and Sagas. There on the equipment list is a Lexicon 960L plus other reverb hardware. As I have said before, standard equipment in top studios. But this comment by Manfred Eicher is very revealing:
I grew up in the analog era and I was sharpening my ears and listening-capacities with analog in mind, including all the drawbacks which were also part of the reality – just think about the limitations of editing. But perhaps that wasn’t a limitation at all because it required a much higher awareness of the recorded material. We always had to ask ourselves if a certain edit is justified. Although, when new recording developments arrived, we were ready to try different microphones and microphone positions. Then, in the early 1970s, came the revolution of the Lexicon reverb, a very good musical instrument and a close friend of mine …
As Manfred Eicher says, the advent of his 'close friend' the Lexicon (and also EMT) reverb unit revolutionised the ECM sound. The difference between ECM recordings and Mantra is that the ECM engineers have learnt the art of starting with the natural reverberation found in warm acoustics and enhancing that with digital reverberation, whereas on Mantra artificial reverb has been used to unevenly enhance a dry sound.

It is an interesting but discursive path and I want to conclude it by making two points. First, the sound on Mantra is not a deal breaker. This is a very rewarding disc. It is a pity that the engineers did not achieve ECM quality sound, but the fact that it has sparked this path is a measure of its merit.

My second point is a thought provoking one. ECM are rightly praised for their 'natural' sound. It is also a fact that digital processing of some form is used in every recording today. But industry folklore has it that guitarist Pat Metheny left ECM because he disagreed with Manfred Eicher over the excessive addition of reverberation to his recordings. The founder of ECM makes no secret of his label's use of digital reverberation to create its signature sound. As he explains in another interview:
'Reverb is used only to draw your final landscape in a mix ... A 'natural' recording just doesn't exist. If sounds and music go through microphones and wires, there might be something mysterious once in a while.'
That is Manfred Eicher below pondering the range of digital processing options available to him. So how natural is the ECM sound? Or is it true "a 'natural' recording just doesn't exist"? With more and more listening being done using iPods and headphones is the ideal of 'a plausible image of the musicians spread between the speakers as they would be on a concert platform' simply redundant? Was it so long ago when the sound really mattered?

* My main listening room is equipped with Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803 speakers powered by an Arcam 10 integrated amplifier. Front end sources are Arcam 9 CD player, Thorens TD125 Mk II/SME Series IIIS/Audio-Technica AT-F3 turntable, and Denon TU-260 tuner. Sennheiser HD 580 headphones are available for late night listening, high quality interconnects are used and power comes via a custom built mains smoother. This room is 42 square metres, which is largish by UK standards but probably small in American terms. It is interesting that this listening room is only slightly smaller than Red Fort Studios, Southall (50 sq. m.) which explains the dry sound of Mantra. Rainbow Studios, Oslo has a much bigger footprint of 180 sq. m. but the effective volume, a key metric for acoustics, is many times greater due to the high ceilings. Unfortunately, despite all the clever things that digital technology can do, you can't change the laws of physics which state you need a big space for good recorded sound and big loudspeakers for good reproduced sound.

Mantra was bought online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Martin Fritter said…
Two days ago I had the good fortune to hear the Takacs Quartet give an incendiary performance of the Grosse Fugue. I was in the 5th row center in a small, dry, hall at the University of Colorado - a virtually perfect seat.

There was basically no "stereo image."

I have latterly come to the conclusion that the ideal way to record music is in mono.

Lovely as many ECM records may sound, I have never heard one that even approximates the sound of unamplified acoustic instruments.

Back when I had a real audiophile system, I was struck by the fact that those recordings that sounded most realistic were somewhat dull and unengaging.

Regards and keep up the good work.
Pliable said…
Thanks Martin, and your perceptive comment takes me back to my 2005 post about the the Griller Quartet's recordings of the superb Bloch Quartets -

'The sound from these mono 1954 Decca studio recordings is staggeringly good'.

and to my post a year later about Karajan's never bettered Hänsel und Gretel -

'Don’t let the mono label put you off, because the sound is staggeringly good on the recent Naxos budget re-issue of this classic recording. What you will hear when the CD transfer is played on a top-end audio system is a salutary reminder that more than half a century of technical developments have done very little to improve the sound actually coming out of the speakers.'
Pliable said…
Martin's email arrived just as the CD of Günter Wand conducting the NDR-Sinfonieorchester in Beethoven 4 that I was listening to finished. So after posting my reply I played the Decca CD of the Ernst Bloch First and Third Quartets recorded by the Griller Quartet in 1954 to remind myself what it sounds like.

I can only restate what I said in that 2005 post. If you want a unique sonic and musical experience buy that 2 CD set while it is still available. There is also an MP3 download, but as it is sound quality we are talking about the Red Book standard is the format to go for.

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