Looking deep: Recording lute music with Toyohiko Satoh

IMG_4661_webThese days we are about to release the third, and most probably final solo CD of lutenist Toyohiko Satoh on Carpe Diem Records, featuring music of Esaias Reusner (1639-1679). For me, this is a milestone, maybe one of the most important albums that I have produced so far for maybe not so obvious reasons. What could be so vital, or even exciting, about a simple solo baroque lute recording? Don’t they all sound the same, somehow, with this soft instrument that has almost no dynamics, is never perfectly in tune, is so difficult to play in the first place? I guess it depends on how deep you decide to go inside a macroscopic sound world.

Toyohiko is a musician of considerable experience and knowledge, having spent the last 50 years playing the lute, and also teaching it at the conservatory of Den Haag in the Netherlands. When he moved back to Japan after retiring from his teaching position, he started exploring traditional Japanese arts, especially chado, the tea ceremony. If you have ever witnessed a chado ceremony, you might have noticed how calm and concentrated the atmosphere was, how complicated and difficult the ceremony is, paying utmost attention to the most minute details. If you look at it superficially, it quickly becomes boring, motionless, overly difficult. All this stress just to have a cup of tea? If you see the macroscopic world that lies within, there might be no question anymore: only being present, without time.

When we arrived at the recording location, a concert hall in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of south Japan, surrounded by wild forest and volcanic hot springs, we both unpacked our equipment and instrument, rather solitary, without talking more than necessary. I put up the electronics while Toyohiko started tuning and playing the lute, going through some of the pieces we were to record during the next days. I put up the microphone stand in front of him in what I thought to be an approximately fitting position, let it stand there, still a bit crooked and provisional, and went over to the control room to check if there was any sound coming in. When I put on my headphones and listened, the sound was perfect. No need to change anything. Instead, I had a sound more close to my ideal of a lute sound than ever before. No mind involved.

What does it take to make a great recording? I feel it is a lot about not making it. I spent a lot of time trying to make the best possible recordings, spending hours on soundcheck, learning the theory behind, comparing, improving, changing things. The moment I let go of everything, a simple perfect result emerges on its own. It was there all the time, obviously, just I would usually not let it exist.

Two or three days before a recording, Toyohiko stops practising, stops playing at all. When we record, we usually do two or three takes of a piece. It is not about achieving perfection. Perfection is already there, all the time. When a note sounds, obviously it is perfect. When we call it imperfect, is that due to the angle from which we look at it? Maybe calling a sound imperfect is a very superficial way of looking at it.

Esaias Reusner was a rare and peculiar figure in his time. Almost no information on his life survived, and he himself only survived for a mere 40 years. He published two books of solo lute music and nothing else. The first book is full of complicated, virtuosic pieces, almost impossible to play but highly imposing. The second book (written 9 years after the first) is just the opposite: The pieces are short, pragmatic, sober. They definitely do not try to impress, they are not at all virtuosic, they are of no use for putting up a big show. If you look at them superficially, they are very boring. What happens if you look not superficially?

When we needed a cover picture, I wanted a very Japanese theme, for some reason, but we also needed Toyohiko to be on the cover. We went for a painting instead of a photograph partly because we could not think of a good photographer. We thought it would seem neat to ask a traditional artist from Japan to make a traditional Japanese painting. I asked Carsten Dietz from Germany. Carsten is an electronic technician. In the evenings, he makes Japanese paintings. He made a perfect picture for us.

I almost feel we’re a family of people who in the right time and place just allowed very beautiful things to appear out of thin air (The Japanese say 無, nothingness): Toyohiko, Esaias, Carsten and my humble self. Four wanderers standing in a magic forest, self-absorbed, watching light leaves fly through a gentle summer breeze, for a short moment not interfering as the moment is so beautiful it luckily stops us from damaging it too much. I realize right now how thankful I am for this unexpected present. Who gave it to us, and why, and what is it for, and why would that matter after all? When I listen to the music, there might be no question anymore.

Samples from the recording can be found on the Carpe Diem Records website:

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Recording “Vox Cosmica”

Here I give an introduction to my sound-technical approach to the recording of the CD “Vox Cosmica” with Arianna Savall & Hirundo Maris. You can find more info about the album and even purchase it from here: www.carpediem-records.de/en/vox-cosmica


The recording of the CD „Vox Cosmica“ took place in the Heilig-Kreuz church in Basel-Binningen, in February 2014. This church is a comparatively recent building dating from 1896, situated on the top of a hill overlooking the city, and is for most of the time sufficiently silent for acoustic recordings, despite its closeness to the city center. Thanks to the geometry and the construction materials being mostly hard stone, very little wood and little interior, the church features a strong and bright, long-lasting reverb. What could be seen as a disadvantage when producing rhythmical complex music or bigger ensembles, played directly in our hands in this case: A smooth, ever present and colorful room sound, which I let become part of the essential character of sound of this recording, almost like a natural extension of voices and instruments.

IMG_2324I still remember that moment in our first sound check session with singer Arianna Savall, when the sound of her incredibly lucid voice, flowing through the ceilings of the high nave and vibrating like liquid light, completely overwhelmed me. My brain really needed a few seconds to bring into conformance what I heard and perceived in that moment with what could be seen and felt in the “reality” of the actual room.

Speaking of recording equipment, I have used mainly RME devices: Two Octamic XTC preamplifiers and converters were set up right next to the musicians in the church. The audio signal was transferred through optical MADI to a RME MADIface XT in the control room, and recorded on hard disc via PCI express onto my laptop (HP Elitebook). The talkback system (to communicate with the musicians) was realized over the very same MADI connection. The recording software used was Magix Sequoia. The system was clocked on 192 KHz and recording resolution was 24 Bit. The channel count varied from 6 to 16 channels depending on repertoire and line-up.

IMG_1977I like to have the converters directly in the recording room as this allows me to use rather short microphone cables (here I used 5m Mogami-Quad and Sommercable Galileo), minimizing electric hum and crosstalk and also saving a lot of setup work and weight carrying compared to conventional analogue multicore systems. In fact I managed to transport the complete equipment for this recording in one big Pelicase trolley and thus to travel by train from Berlin to Basel (microphone stands and power cables were provided from the location).

The approach to using the microphones was based on the idea of two-track recording, which only uses two microphones that are then reproduced on the two speakers of a stereo system, and allows for a maximum of sonic clarity and transparency. I also had spot microphones for each musician, but used them only very carefully in the mix. In some pieces you hear only the true two-track sound, in others I used the spots to add tiny hints of warmth, closeness or color to individual voices or instruments. I also used two room microphones placed more in the back of the church for a possible surround edit, but these were not at all used in the stereo mix.

IMG_1995The main microphone is a pair of Neumann M149 tube large diaphragm microphones, which, according to some experts, do not sound overly precise and realistic, but still are incredibly beautiful and have a finely nuanced overtone spectrum which proved to be the perfect choice in interplay with the bright and reverberant room. For the voices of Arianna and Petter I used two DPA 4011 small diaphragm cardioids which sound very neutral and let me add the voices in the mix in an unobtrusive way. The other instruments were recorded with Neumann KM140 and KM184 small diaphragm cardioids.

The recording does without any artificial reverb and without overdubbing (recording of single voices) of any kind. The musicians always played together in the same room, which was absolutely necessary for the intimate and emotional atmosphere that we strived for. The balance between the instruments and voices was largely established already in the recording session through placing some instruments closer to the main microphone, others further away, sometimes even using risers to place an instrument a bit higher than the others. My ambition was to create a sound that conveys the closeness, immediacy and emotionality of a good studio recording and at the same time keeps the instinctiveness, authenticity and dynamics of a puristic two-track recording.

If you want to hear the results yourself, find the finished album on the Carpe Diem Records website: www.carpediem-records.de/en/vox-cosmica
It is available as CD, MP3 and High-Res FLAC (96Khz/24Bit).

Jonas Niederstadt 2014

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GLOSAS This is the sequel to the “Yr a oydo”-CD by Spanish ensemble More Hispano. I recorded this one in the same recording session as the previous CD, but the music is quite different. Not much free improvisation, but more of Vicente Parrillas own embellishments on 16th Century music. Again with Raquel Andueza singing and all the other musicians from the band playing, but more in smaller settings, rarely playing tutti. Its a nice introverted CD with really beautiful music. And it is our first CD in the back-then new cardboard Profilepack packaging, which I chose to avoid plastic packaging as much as possible, and because it looks and feels nicer than the jewelpacks. We also printed the CD booklet on recycling paper. Cover and boklet photos for this CD were also made by Julia Steinbrecht. http://www.carpediem-records.de/en/glosas

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Engels Liedt

Engels Liedt
Today I present a CD that is very dear and special to me. Recorded in 2008, released in 2011, “Engels Liedt” by recorder genius Gerald Stempfel is not only one of many recordings of the music of Jacob Van Eyck. To me, it is more a piece of sound-art, or the destillation/manifestation of a unique interaction between the musician, the music, the sound engineer(s), and the room, here also including those who live in that room or who lived there, long times ago. Gerald Stempfel wrote about our meeting in the CD booklet:
“On the evening of the second recording day of the “John come kiss me now” chamber music album in August 2008, I was practicing the recorder by myself in the church, preparing for the next day, while Jonas, the producer, was storing away a bunch of cables. Then, it was all quiet. At some point, I took a break to make myself some tea. Jonas was still standing around in front of the church, absorbed in thought. Seeing me coming, he said he had heard me practice and thereupon come up with an idea for a van Eyck recording: during my play he had been hearing the Lachrymae variations of van Eyck in his mind’s ear. I was utterly puzzled – hadn’t it been Jacob van Eyck, and in particular his Lachrymae variations, which had moved me deeply as a child, such that I had been convinced of my vocation to become a recorder player. Thus, spontaneously, this solo album came about in a single night at the end of the chamber music recording. ”
What Gerald did not mention here was the ghost of an ancient knight who was buried in the church, and who visited the recording just at midnight, leaving the sound of his gloomy footsteps on our harddiscs. The presence of beings more subtle and immaterial than us boosted some great creative moments. Listen to these sound samples and see if you get a glimpse of it: http://www.carpediemrecords.de/en/engels-liedt (JN)

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Kurofune CD recording

Being my second collaboration with lutenist Toyohiko Satoh, this CD was recorded in one of my favorite recording spaces, the small church of Schönemoor, near Bremen. Toyohiko’s wife, Chiyomi Yamada, had conceived this program of Japanese and European songs from the 16th and 17th century, a beautiful compilation with a long and fascinating story to it, which you can read yourself in the CD booklet🙂
It was really interesting to work with those three musicians (David van Ooijen was playing theorbo). Chiyomi’s voice is so delicate and soft that sometimes the lute was almost covering her singing, which I have never experienced anywhere else. So we created a very silent music, delicate and fragile as a Japanese painting, or a flower arrangement. Photos for this one were taken by Toyohiko’s and Chiyomi’s daughter Miki Satoh near their home in southern Japan. It is an extraordinary place as you can see: http://www.carpediemrecords.de/en/kurofune-songs-from-the-black-ships (JN)

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Fortune my foe

This is the debut CD of Alina Rotaru which I recorded and released in 2010. I remember her playing a demo tape of her Sweelinck playing to me, and I was immediately hooked by the musicality and singularity of her interpretation. We recorded in a church somewhere in the middle of nowhere in northern Germany, but as people were cutting trees or something in the direct neighbourhood, we could record only in the evening & night. I recall it still took us only two days for the actual recording, as on the second day Alina got into an incredible artistic flow and just put in one piece after the other until it was done and over. The photos for this one were again taken by Leif Marcus. http://www.carpediemrecords.de/en/fortune-my-foe (JN)

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Style Fantastique – Le Concert Brise

To record this CD by ensemble Le Concert Brisé (dir. William Dongois) we went to Neuchatel/Switzerland. Actually it is a real live recording – the only one on the label so far. The ensemble played three concerts on three consecutive days in the museum of art and history, as they happen to have an original Ruckers harpsichord from 1632 there, which is a most beautiful instrument that I have used for another recording two years later as well. They played those three concerts in a way that each program would be different, but still every piece would appear twice during the whole time, so that we had some choice for the editing later. The music is beautiful, quiet and soothing, and the photos, taken by Dominika Bonk at the shores of the Neuchatel lake, add perfectly to this atmosphere. The recording work was done together with my friend and colleague Johannes Wallbrecher. http://www.carpediemrecords.de/en/style-fantastique (JN)

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