Ólafur Arnalds

The 'Chopin Project' Recording Sessions
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In the hallowed halls of classical music performance and recording, tradition is a master to be obeyed, from the conductor’s dress to prescribed orchestral dynamic levels to the customary length of applause from the devoted audience.

This regimented observance of customs, by master musicians, cunning conductors, and a devoted public serve to maintain the status quo in performance, and in the techniques used to record classical music. For example, it is widely accepted that the pinnacle of classical audio fidelity is to capture the epic reverberations of New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, or Boston’s Symphony Hall, using standard miking schemes such as the famed Decca Tree. (For an explanation of the Decca Tree classical recording method, read the article on recording “Beethoven’s Ninth in 5.1” from our sister publication Mix at mixonline.com.) The mighty orchestra captured with distant room mics within a cathedral-like concert hall is the art form as God intended, so tradition goes.

Then there are the renegades, the shape-shifters messing with the minds of classical music’s upper crust. Pianist Chad Lawson’s The Chopin Variations (Hillset) takes a beautifully minimalist and textured approach to the work of Frédéric Chopin. Nils Frahm’s inventive classical and electronic music using acoustic and electronic keyboards; the Erased Tapes label’s atmospheric treatments of its avant-garde releases; and pianist Max Richter’s stunning Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (Deutsche Grammaphon) all also bring fresh blood to staid ideas.

And now, Icelandic classical/ambient music pioneer, soundtrack explorer, new millennium music stylist, and former hardcore punk drummer Ólafur Arnalds takes a different, totally unexplored turn on The Chopin Project, recorded with prolific and award-winning pianist Alice Sara Ott. On The Chopin Project, Ott performs on a 100-year-old piano, which Arnalds captured using original miking techniques that allowed the piano and the pianist’s every movement to be heard. He then mixed the results with found sounds: one heresy among many on The Chopin Project.

“Modern classical recording is very pure-istic,” notes Arnalds. “Everyone uses the Decca Tree mic setup and the same DPA 4006 mics. It’s very much about capturing a pristine concert hall, a $200,000 Steinway D Grand Piano, and everything tuned to perfection. In rock music there’s a lot more freedom in what you do with the recording technology. With The Chopin Project, I wanted to show how big a part the sound world plays in a composition—like how important the sound is in a composition; if you hear the same piece recorded twice using different methods you might have a completely different reaction to that piece.”

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In another radical departure, Arnalds recorded Ott playing Chopin in bars and pubs on old pianos around his native Reykjavik, as well as in his studio and Nils Frahm’s in Berlin. Arnalds embraced the concept that altering the recorded event, merging piano with found sounds and human sound effects, would upend the spotless approach typically applied to recording Chopin’s compositions, and shake up hidebound attitudes toward classical music recording in general. Although classical music fans were among the first to embrace digital recordings, classical recording engineers came last to the party of flavoring digital recordings with older analog gear.

“Classical music today uses the flattest mics you can find, the flattest preamps, and the perfect stereo image with the Decca Tree,” explains Arnalds. “They record straight to Pro Tools with the highest possible bit rate. We went the opposite way. We recorded to Pro Tools and tape as well. We mastered everything to tape. We used portable Nagra tape machines, the ones made for location recording that have batteries, which was great when we went looking for old pianos. We mastered to Ampex tape at Nils Frahm’s studio. We tried a few different tape mixes, then chose our favorite when listening back without really knowing what we were choosing.”

Following a lineage that includes recordists and artists from Sam Phillips to Phil Spector to Brian Wilson to the Black Keys, Arnalds brings the “studio as instrument” approach to classical music. “We’re using the studio as an instrument to interpret the feelings that I get through music,” says Arnalds. “The interpreter is not only Alice playing the piano but also me holding the microphone or adding synths or mixing the album or doing effects or arranging the music. There is a lot more to interpretation than just performing the piece.”

The Chopin Project began with Ott and Arnalds searching for old pianos throughout Reykjavik. “A part of this whole idea was to add an environment to the recording to help tell the story,” Arnalds explains. “So we went exploring. We walked around Reykjavik and found bars and pubs and pianos that hadn’t been played for years or were only played on weekends by jazz pianists. We recorded a song on all of them using the portable Nagra.

“Without exception, there would always be some phones beeping,” Arnalds continues. “So we made field recordings and put it all together in Pro Tools. When you hear creaking or voices, those are the natural sounds from the piano. And there are voices recorded from the pubs. Sometimes you’re hearing Alice’s voice because she tends to hum along to the songs involuntarily. I really like that. It’s a part of the idea to really capture the atmosphere in the room, not to get rid of these extra involuntary sounds but to include them.”

In Frahm and Arnalds’ studios, three pairs of mics covered Arnalds’ 1903 Beckenstein grand piano, including AKG C12As, Coles ribbons, and Neumann KM84s. Preamps included Telefunken V72 and V76. Arnalds says that compression was “heavily EQ’d on the way in,” using a Pultec EQ, Teletronic LA2A, and a stereo UREI 1178. This is all in contrast to the way classical music is conventionally recorded: via distant microphones, to Pro Tools using digital compression and EQ.

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“We actually compressed the sounds, we closemiked the piano and prepared the piano,” Arnalds says. “We dampened the hammers with felt and put the mics literally a couple of inches away from the strings to capture every single creaking part of the piano. You can even hear Alice’s fingers touching the keys. You can hear her breathing, the creaking of the wood; this is very unusual for classical music to actually intentionally capture the imperfections and to record with mics like the AKG C12 and preamps like the V72 and V76, which are very colorful mics and preamps. They don’t capture sound as we hear it with our ears; they actually change the sound. That’s in total opposition to how classical music is usually recorded.”

Rather than employ the Decca Tree, Arnalds close-miked his fully restored Bechstein, using three pairs each of Neumann, Coles, and AKG microphones. “The Neumann KM84s are the closest mics and the widest stereo span as well,” Arnalds says. “They were right above the hammers. They pick up all the extra sounds, all the hammer sounds; it’s an old grand piano, so the hammers creak as well. You can hear the dampers lifting up when Alice presses the sustain pedal. We used felt on the hammers to dampen the piano and make it quiet. Doing that, you get more sustain in a way. You’ve flattened out the transient a bit. And because the piano is quieter you hear more of the extra sounds. Suddenly Alice’s breathing becomes louder, and all of the hammer sounds become louder because the strings are dampened.

“A foot above the piano and also in wide stereo above the hammers, I had the AKG C12A pair, which became the main mics in the mix—the sound I liked the most,” he continues. “They were the warmest and captured such wonderful noises from Alice’s breathing because they weren’t so close to the piano. They were set on omni, the others were cardioid, so they picked up more of the room. And then under the piano, mirroring the KM84s under the sound-board I had a pair of Coles 4038s for the low mids, which are often missing when you put mics very close to the piano.”

The Chopin Project is a beautiful, soothing and occasionally macabre album, with its delicate piano, strings, and odd found sounds flowing together. What sounds strange and unintelligible in Nocturne in G Minor is simply the sound of tape noise and rain, generated through a 1/4-inch tape deck similar to a Sony Walkman. “Eyes Shut”/Nocturne in C Minor includes what sounds like breathing, rustling papers, and wind. “Those are all the sounds of the piano and Alice, all natural sounds, nothing we added,” Arnalds says.

Arnalds conducted many experiments during the recording process, none more fruitful than remixing and adding strings to support the piano sections. “The other whole part of the record is the idea of re-composition, mixing and adding strings to works that were originally only piano,” Arnalds explains. “Making new works out of ideas from Chopin: In the last piece, Prélude in D Flat Major (“Raindrop”), you’re hearing a Roland Space Echo create an ambience that follows the piano throughout the piece. It distorted the piano to hell! And we put echoes on a very long feedback, which is definitely not something done with classical piano. It’s there in the background as an ambience.”

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The sound of The Chopin Project was further developed during the mixing phase, when Arnalds used various EQs within Pro Tools to define the mix. “A lot of surgical EQ’ing was done in Pro Tools but not much else,” Arnalds says. “I used the FabFilter Pro-Q; that is my favorite for surgical EQ. But most everything is vintage. Even the reverb is an EMT 240 plate, and an outboard Lexicon unit. So most of the mixing is out of the box.”

Currently taking a break from his soundtrack work on BBC’s Broadchurch series, Arnalds is developing an installation with German artist Joachim Sauter for Barcelona’s upcoming Sonar Music Festival, and a permanent installation for Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport, which will boast the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, and a massive indoor park with indigenous trees and plants and walking trails.

“Sauter’s work involves kinetic art,” Arnalds says, “like digital objects that move in real space in very computerized ways. We are using the signals from these machines to control sound, a very interesting area of music.”

Speaking of controlling sounds, we asked Arnalds what he imagined Chopin would think of The Chopin Project. “Chopin was himself an improviser; he would play his music in bars and pubs,” Arnalds replies. “I think he would definitely prefer this approach to his music always being played the same way and always recorded with the Decca Tree. He would have experimented with ways of recording like composers do today. When I write a piece I think, ‘How is this going to sound and how will I record this?’ That’s part of the composition. Chopin was a composer and if he was alive today, I think he would also think ‘I’ve got the notes, and the performer, now how are we going to record it?’ That’s always another part of the piece.”