In our previous blog post A conversation about sound with Ulrike Schwarz and Jane Ira Bloom, we spoke to recording engineer Ulrike Schwarz and Jane Ira Bloom about their relationship with sound and music, and the inspiration behind their new album Picturing the Invisible: Focus 1. Here, we discuss the extraordinary recording story behind this album which was recorded remotely during the pandemic.
The album was recorded remotely in Stereo and 5.1 Surround Ultra High Resolution (384kHz/32bit) using Merging Technology Horus/Pyramix recording systems and the Merging+Clock U by grammy-nominated recording engineer Ulrike Schwarz with mixing engineer Jim Anderson, and mastering engineers Ulrike Schwarz and Morten Lindberg (immersive). The album was co-produced by Jane Ira Bloom and Ulrike Schwarz.
Editor: This album was performed in real time connected remotely from your homes in NYC. Please can you tell us about the recording process? It seems to have been very successful. If there were elements of improvisation, how did you manage this unique process remotely?
Ulrike: Once we had decided that this should be done in the highest possible recording quality that we could get, I set up my Merging Technologies Pyramix v12 recording system at Jane’s apartment. We set up the Neumann TLM 170 and Sanken CU-41 microphones in her office. Then I went to Alison’s house and set up my Pyramix v14. Through my main recording system at Alison’s I could run Jane’s remotely and connect them.
For the musicians to hear each other I had a second set of computers and interfaces. The microphone signals were split analog after the mic preamplifiers and went to the Pyramix systems (in 384kHz) and the Acousta LE03 interfaces (in 192kHz). The LE03 works in a very ‘broadcasty’ and analog way by providing an n-1 where each musician gets their own microphone signal analog (that means without any latency) and the other musicians feed with only the delay that the transmission and the communication program provides. As latency is created in samples a higher sampling frequency will effectively cut down latency. However, one needs a higher data transmission rate (better internet connection).
For communication we used the program Sonobus which Jane recorded her first album with Alison and Mark with. Jane was used to it, I wasn’t. I had to run a lot of tests to make this as fast, and with as little latency, as we could. In order to do this, I brought in high speed gaming routers. Jane and Alison had very good internet, however the weakest was Mark’s. Jane and Mark were so used to playing with each other that even a bigger latency works.
The experimental part of it was matching the internet to the speed that all the devices could take for the communication lines. The interesting part was to establish communication between the musicians and to get the latency down.
Jane: If you think about it, less on a technical level, just how many platforms we’re trying to use to communicate with each other. The musicians are using zoom with no sounds, just looking at each other to feel each other. Then we’re using this Sonobus platform to actually communicate sound and improvise with each other.
Ulrike is trying to keep the latency as low as possible, but when you think about it you’re playing with jazz musicians who you’ve improvised with for a long time, there’s a lot of mysterious anticipation that you use. You almost make decisions before you hear them, people in sport know all about this. You make split second decisions, it’s a marvelous thing that your mind does when you make things up.
So that’s all going on with all the technical clarity. At the other end of it is Ulrike’s recording, which is separate, which is another platform and time relationship. It is interesting all these different ways our ears are trying to reach out to try and find one another.
Ulrike: There were different computers for everything so that things wouldn’t slow down the oral communication. Zoom, although it was very out of time, was so important just to see that the other person was still there. I’ve done fifteen years in broadcasting, the process wasn’t new for me, but what was new was that I couldn’t demand a fixed analog line. The costs for booking a fixed internet rate were too much so we had to be more adventurous.
Editor: How did you manage the acoustics? Did you make any changes to the room?
Jane: Yes, I put a towel on my desk!
Ulrike: We put jackets on the sofa! I am really amazed at Jane’s office. It is a very small room equipped with several microphones. That could have created some unwanted effects. But at Skywalker we spread the microphones fully and had wonderful results. It is fascinating how we were able to shut out that room and replace it with the big sound stage of Skywalker. Jane lives in a quiet apartment building. At Mark’s it was a little louder. He has some acoustic treatment in his room, but the bass is not as loud as the saxophone or drums, so his recording was the most difficult. Alison has her drum set setup in her basement room. The great thing was that she got to play her drums, they are so well tuned and set exactly how she wanted.
Jane: When you asked what is special about these musicians, and why this recording, these musicians have a sound, a voice, on their instruments that is extraordinary. It is a testament to all the audio engineering that it captures it, however, try to remember that in the craziest space in the world if you don’t have a sound what’s the point.
Mark has an extraordinary bass sound, Miya will make you want to cry when she’s expressing a single note on the koto, and Alison has an extraordinary sound on her own drums. Usually a drummer has to go to a studio and play somebody else’s drums, instead she is playing her own set and her own percussion instruments.
Ulrike: Anything Alison wanted to pick up was there. With Mark we selected basses for a while, there was a freedom in the choice of weapons you usually don’t have in a studio.
Jane: When you think about the strange concept of taking something from a small room and putting it into a palatial sound space, the core of what is at the center of that is a musician with a sound, and how important that is. That’s what is at the center of a recording, and that is what translates into the microphone that Ulrike is capturing with great technique and great skill, to then amplify in terms of its sonic space and how it’s perceived.
Editor: This album was all mixed at Skywalker studios. Can you tell us why you chose that studio and the recording system used? Were there specific techniques in the mix to prepare the album for mastering?
Yes, we flew our Merging Technologies Pyramix v14, Horus system, and Clock U to Skywalker. We used my recording system not theirs. Jim and I love to work at Skywalker. The control room is set up in a way that whatever we mix we know it works. If it sounds good in there it will translate to every other system in the world.
The most important thing with all these recordings in small single spaces is that Skywalker has this fantastic sound stage. We turned the big sound stage into a live chamber, and this is how all these instruments get this enormous space. They are fed into the live chamber, and re-recorded in some ways and then mixed with the original instruments, and that’s how they become so big and free. The room at Skywalker is where the silence comes from and the space that everybody lives in.
Jane: We wish we could have played in that chamber so we did the next best thing.
Ulrike: We (Jim) mixed in stereo, 5.1 and 3D. I mastered stereo and 5.1, Morten Lindberg brought all masters together with his 3D mastering in order to make them correlate on all platforms.
Coming back to the recording and the latencies, I had two systems running that had to be synced. I had Jane record her side of the Sonobus system, and I recorded the other side. I always knew what the latency was by comparing those two, and if any corrections needed to be made. Sometimes even they locked in to their latency and it sounds like they were standing together. This is because of their anticipation. So I only had changes for a few milliseconds to make it totally lock in, and only in very few places.
Jane: It still amazes me how we do it, it’s mysterious even to us. We are playing as if we are together.
Ulrike: Even on stage you don’t know. We had 8 milliseconds latency at our best. If you translate that into distance, 3 milliseconds is about a meter. On stage it is very easy to have ten feet distance, and bad monitoring, so in certain ways you heard more of each other than on stage, with less latency. So once we had a stable delay, it’s just like playing with someone on a bigger stage, but with a clean headphone system.
Jane: There are two of us, there’s no place to hide in a duet, you either have a sound and an idea or you don’t. A lot is exposed.
Ulrike: The same for recording techniques, if something went wrong it would be very exposed. Something either takes or it doesn’t. Some things were actually better than on stage, but without the feeling you’re in the same place. We tried to create that with the headphones and zoom, but in many ways it wasn’t that bad.
Jane: If you think about the absence of the other during the pandemic, we haven’t been able to physically be with one another. Something happens, I’ve found over several years with remote recording – you find that your ears reach out even more to the person you’re playing with. It’s almost like hyper ultra-hearing. You’re so wanting to connect that it’s like your ears go into overdrive.
There is something really interesting, neurologically, and emotionally going on about how tuned in you are to listening and responding this way.
Ulrike: It will be great when you get back together with them on stage, but there is still something in when you first played with Mark with bad zoom with bad delays, just the possibility to make music again was so overreaching.
Jane: We were euphoric to play together again.
Ulrike: It was a very interesting time, and thankfully music could still exist.
In our previous blog post A conversation about sound with Ulrike Schwarz and Jane Ira Bloom we discussed Jane and Ulrike’s relationship with music and sound.
Listen to our playlist Jane Ira Bloom in Playlists by Roon on your Roon Home Screen.