Q&A with Jim Anderson: Recording Engineer and Grammy Winner, Many Times Over
When Jim Anderson was a kid, his teacher told him to put down the records and focus on his studies. Luckily for the world of immersive audio, he didn’t listen.
Jim Anderson’s recordings have won a whopping 11 Grammy awards. His projects have been nominated for another 27, most recently for his role as the Surround Mix Engineer on Gisle Kverndokk: Symphonic Dances in 2020. Jim recently spoke with IAA about mixing this album, teaching at NYU, how he got into immersive music, and more.
How did you first get into immersive audio? What do you enjoy the most about it?
I think it’s in my DNA. I always had a fascination with recording music ever since I was a kid. If I had a choice of say, going out and playing or staying home and playing records, I would rather sit and play records. I would rather kind of listen to music and just absorb it.
If I went to somebody’s house and I saw a record player sitting out, I’d ask, Is that a record player? Can I play it? And I’d play their music. I always had a fascination for electronics and technology.
Did you grow up with a lot of music-related tech?
Yes. My elder brother was the kind of guy who could take things apart and put them back together again. And so he was always building and rebuilding radios. And so, we would always have, you know, like little Philco cathedral radios around the house.
And when I think back about it, my father really was an early adopter. We had the first stereo in the neighborhood. I remember I woke up one Christmas morning, and there were these two huge boxes. One of them had a turntable and radio receiver, and the other one had a couple of speakers.
I still have the first record that I heard in stereophonic sound. It was Enoch Light’s Toot, Toot Tootsie, a recording by a barbershop quartet with New York studio players playing Dixieland. It’s like ping pong, it’s one person on the left singing, All aboard! and one person on the right singing, All aboard!
With bassist Ron Carter at Avatar Studio One
Back to your entry into immersive audio. How did you get into the field?
I always had this fascination with technology. I had a paper route as a kid, and I saved my money to buy a Sony tape recorder. So I would make recordings. When I was at university, I was walking home one day, and my piano teacher asked me for a favor. The recording studio was not working, and she said to me, “Could you possibly record my masters recital?” I said, “Sure, why not?” So, I borrowed a couple of microphones from what was the unused Duquesne University School of Music recording studio and made this recording for her.
A couple of days later, she was talking with the dean of the music school and I heard them say, Oh, he could probably do it. And I asked, What’s that? They said The recording studio. Would you like to run it? I said, Sure. So, another student and I took that place over and rewired it and got it up to snuff. And so, for the next two and a half years, I was running the recording studio.
Some of those tapes made it up to the local radio station, WDUQ-FM. And they sent word to the University to say, “Who’s making these recordings? These are pretty good!” And they offered me a job. So, when I graduated, I got a job with the local public radio station in Pittsburgh.
Growing up, the radio in Pittsburgh was very strong and very active and creative. By the time I got my first job, it was 1973 and this was the time when public radio was really starting. For the first time, I heard NPR and All Things Considered and I thought, Wow, this is pretty good stuff. I’d like to be involved. And within a year, I had a job at NPR as an engineer.
I was the only engineer that actually had a music degree. I could actually read a score, I could show you where the downbeat was – things like that. And so, I started working on symphonic shows, jazz shows, folk music shows, and then also doing a lot of radio documentaries and things like that. With the jazz show, I built up a fair amount of prospective clients. For Jazz Alive!, I made a couple of recordings of Phil Woods and his band and I got to know Bill Goodwin, who was Phil’s producer and drummer. And so, when I moved to New York City after leaving NPR, I gave myself some time to get established. Did you want this much detail?
So, I moved to New York City, and I had given myself about five years to get myself established. My first real record was a Bud Shank recording, This Bud’s for You with Ron Carter, bass, Kenny Barron, piano, and Al Foster, drums. And so all these guys, such as, Ron and Kenny, I’ve now worked with for the past 30 years.
It just kind of built from there. And that’s how I became a recording engineer.
And somewhere along the way you met Ulrike. Did you meet as professionals first?
We did. She was studying at the University of the Arts (UDK) in Berlin as a Tonmeister, then she had a chance to go to Berklee in Boston and study. She was talking with her piano teacher there, and they spoke about what she wanted to do. She said, “Well, you know, I don’t want to record the next Beethoven cycle.” (It’s ironic, because actually, she did record a Beethoven cycle with the Bavarian Symphony Radio Orchestra, eventually.)
But she said, “I want to record new music, like jazz.” And he said, “Well, whose recordings do you like?” And she said, “There’s three people. One is David Baker (who was a really wonderful recording engineer and was a close friend of mine), James Farber (again, another wonderful engineer and friend), and Jim Anderson.” He said, “Well, here’s the numbers for these three. Call them up.”
So she left a message on my phone, and she called David Baker. And David said, “Well, I’ve got a recording down at Smalls next Tuesday. You want to come?”
She packed up her stuff in Munich and went and assisted Baker. Somehow, she found out that I was going to be working on a David Murray album at a New York studio called Sound on Sound. She was there among the assistants working. And at the end of the session, she introduced herself. She said, “Hi, I left a message on your answering machine. You never called me back.” I had to apologize.
It was interesting in that she was the first person I’d worked with that actually understood what I wanted. She had all the technical training that she knew, so I could just say Go do this, and it would get done. We realized that we could actually work well together. And also, we could work very well on our own things too, at the same time.
Recording Patricia Barber’s “Higher” CRC Studios, Chicago with Ulrike Schwarz
Tell us about teaching at NYU. How has it been affected by the pandemic?
I started working at NYU in 2003 with the Clive Davis Institute. I was the second faculty member that was hired for that department. So we basically started this back in ‘03.
And well we’ve been pretty much up and running. We closed down in March, when everybody else did. And the closure happened just the week before spring break. So, we had about 10 days to kind of figure out how the heck we’re going to do everything.
I was in the middle of finishing a couple of classes. One was on surround, the other one was on podcasting, and I had four sections of ear training or critical listening. It was actually a good thing to figure out how to make these classes work remotely. For the surround class, fortunately, the students had done a couple of mixes, and I was able to actually render them in binaural using Dolby Atmos and we could listen to them all on headphones.
The other thing that was nice – no one had work and so everyone was around. So, I was able to have all kinds of people drop in to my classes. For example, in my podcasting class NPR’s RadioLab’s Bob Krulwich, who is a friend of mine from NPR, came by. Another fellow who I knew from NPR, Jay Kernis, who’s now a producer with CBS Sunday Morning, came by for a couple of hours, as well. Also, other friends from the world of recording and broadcasting dropped by and we had masterclasses in recording, surround recording, and podcasting.
Mixing the “Judas and the Black Messiah” score in 7.1 at Valhalla Studios New York
Are more engineering students wanting to make immersive audio, or do you feel that you have to convince students to explore that?
When I first started teaching what at the time we would call “Advanced Engineering,” the one mistake that I made with that first group of students was that I didn’t realize they hadn’t seriously listened to surround that much. How could I expect them to do something that they hadn’t heard?
My assumption was, “Oh, you hear surround all the time in TV and movies and all these kinds of things.” But it wasn’t the kind of listening that you need to do if you’re going to produce it. And so, now, for the first class, which is almost three hours long, I come up with a list of all kinds of surround music, like classic recordings, an Elton John that Greg Penny would do or Hotel California, by Elliot Scheiner, or some of Morten Lindberg’s classical work on 2L all in multichannel. And then [we would listen to] a couple of things mixed in surround that don’t work, things that shouldn’t be taken apart.
That helps to get their opinion on the music and get them really thinking about it. And then I would give them a session that I’d done and say, “Okay, now here’s something I’ve mixed in stereo. What I want you to do is take it and mix it in surround. How would you approach this?” Our studios were always set for at least 5.1. And now in the new rooms we also have Dolby Atmos. So we can do basically anything we want in the new studios. (And if you have the recent copy of Mix magazine, they have a large spread about our studios. The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music Studio One is on the cover, in fact, of the November issue.)
After the students get exposed to these recordings, they really start seeing the possibilities. The other thing is, music recording is always lagging behind film and television production. For some reason, music is very happy to just do stereo. But I think once you kind of push the students and artists in the direction of multichannel, they really do like working in immersive.
What advice would you give to someone interested in the field?
It’s very hard. I think about some of the things that were said to me. I remember once being taken aback by one of my elementary school teachers. He said, “You know, if you stopped playing with tape recorders, and record players and things like that, your grades would be pretty good.” And I’ve always remembered that.
As a teacher, you have to be careful what you say to students, because you may be completely off the mark as to what the person is really interested in. So with that, what would I say to a student interested in immersive audio production? I would ask them to stay awake and aware and forward-focused on what the next trends are.
And with everything I do, I always think of the value added. What’s the thing that we can bring to this project? Okay, you’ve done the stereo, that’s fine. Now, at some point, we’re gonna want another release of this thing. What can we do to make it special? Make it attractive to another audience?
With Patricia Barber, when we recorded Modern Cool, I had always tracked with some kind of surround or immersive product in mind, but at the time, when we recorded it back in ‘98, there was no release format. And then finally, 2012 came around, and that’s when we were able to make a surround mix on Modern Cool. That’s the thing. Think about: what can you bring to the project?
When it comes to choosing projects, is there a process you go through when you’re considering working with an artist?
Certainly, along the way I’ve learned that if you don’t like the music, you probably won’t like working with the individuals, and you won’t have a good time. So, I’ve always tried to make sure I’m working with people I like to work with on music I want to work on. If that’s the direction you strive for, then there’s flexibility. Because if you’re locked into working on something you don’t like, you’re just gonna be miserable. So I always try to make sure that it’s something I want to do.
Occasionally, Ulrike and I create a project that is self-generated. We’ll go out and say, Wouldn’t this be a great idea? And also, sometimes opportunities just come along. We were asked to come in and work with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra for three projects. They said, We want you to come in and just blow us away.
One of those projects was Gisle Kverndokk’s Symphonic Dances. Congrats on that nomination! What was it like to record that?
You know, it wasn’t like we were just being presented with the orchestra and the conductor. We were much more involved in putting that whole package together, and we got to know Gisle [Kvrendokk] very well. He’s a lovely fellow, and a very talented and very prolific composer who lives in Oslo. He’s writing operas all the time, and other compositions, too. I mean, he’s really just prolific. So when this piece came along, and heard the story of how Gisle created it, we realized that we had something very special.
Also, Ken-David Masur was the conductor. He’s Kurt Masur’s son and he’s a rising star as a young American conductor. And Ken’s recording approach is so unlike what many conductors do.
I really like long takes. I don’t like to do bits and pieces and then have to put it all together and Ken and Ulrike, our producer, feel the same way. It really works from a musical standpoint, in that the final recording is not really an assemblage of takes. It’s really a performance with a couple of fixes here and there.
So, we had recorded the third movement.. And I think we were toward the end of the week of recording. Ken said, After lunch, let’s go back into that third movement again. Because, you know, it’s sort of like after lunch, everybody’s lazy and slow and tired. And that’s what that movement is, just beautifully languid. And it’s got this very lazy kind of feel about it. And that’s really the after-lunch take. And it really is just relaxed. Everyone knew we had a good version of it in the can, so they just played music at that point. It was a wonderful connection.
Gisle came back into the control room at one point and listened for about two seconds. He said, Guys, this sounds great. You don’t need to see me in here ever again. And we never saw him in the booth again.
They asked, Who would you like to master? We said, Bob Ludwig, and they said, Fine. So, Bob mastered all these projects for us and we’re very proud of the work we’ve done with the Stavanger Symphony. To have gotten a Grammy nomination in the Immersive Category was really wonderful, last year.
In session for Kverndokk Symphonic Dances
Any particular favorite projects you can tell us more about?
Jane Ira Bloom. I’ve worked with Jane for over 30 years now. There was one CD we’d done called Chasing Paint, and it was her impressions of Jackson Pollock. We were saying, Wouldn’t this be wonderful? We could get some depth and dimension into it. At the time, there was no playback format available.
A few years later, Jane came to me, and she said she had a ballad project that she wanted to do. So we did some test recordings, and I brought her in to the control room to hear the playback. I had just set up a quad playback, and I said, Here’s my concept of how we could do this. And she said, Okay, I know this can work.
That was an album called Sixteen Sunsets that ended up getting nominated. That was her first nomination in the Grammys.
And then, two or three years later, we were working at Skywalker Sound, and I had finished all the projects I had taken out there to mix. I realized I was going to have a day and a half leftover. And you know the thing about Skywalker is once you book it, you have to pay for it. So I called back to the office at NYU. And I said, there’s a drive sitting on my desk. Would you please ship it out to me?” It was Jane’s album, Early Americans. And so, with my extra day and a half at the studio, I just mixed it for fun and eventually won a Grammy.
When I came back, I called Jane to the studio. I said, Jane, I have something to play for you. And all of a sudden, this little trio record that we had done, now exploded around the room. She said, That’s great! And so I said, Let me see if I can make a deal, and let’s get this out. Sono Luminus agreed to put it out, and in 2018, we got the Grammy first round with a little jazz trio. I have [the Grammy] right here. When my wife is occasionally working on something, I’ll plunk that down right beside her and say, Here’s inspiration.
Are you working on anything new now?
We have another project that we’ve just put out called Wild Lines. It’s the music of Jane with the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It’s a two parter, in that the first part is just the music. And for the second part, she said Make this like one long NPR piece. It’s a restructured version of the first part, which is the way they do it on stage with a reader. And so, we have an actress reciting the lines of Emily Dickinson with music. It’s all woven together like you’d hear on public radio. And again, we’ve mixed all that in surround, too, and to me it works even better in surround than it does in stereo. There’s a space for the voice. You make the voice kind of float.
We also just finished the score of a Warner Brothers film that’s coming out in the spring. We mixed that in 7.1. It’s a movie called Judas and the Black Messiah with music by Craig Harris and Mark Isham. We had a 50-60 piece orchestra that was totally, completely socially isolated.
We were in the Manhattan Center. The ballroom up on the fifth floor is a huge room where they’ve recorded the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. It’s a room that’s used to record symphonic works. We had this orchestra fairly nicely spread out, but we could kind of adapt the micing to make it work. And so we got this beautiful spacious sound. That was our latest thing that we’ve done, it should be out in the springtime.
What do you use to listen to surround sound at home?
It’s a full 5.1 system, and it’s set up in the dining room. It’s a Marantz 9.2 receiver, and we listen to Japanese speakers called Eclipse, which I think are the TD712ZMK2. They look a bit like eyeballs. We’ve got five of these speakers and their TD725S subwoofer around the dining table. Also, there’s an Atmos soundbar in the bedroom.
And in the living room is a stereo setup, which is also set up for mixing. We’ve mixed about four albums since March in the living room. We’ve been very busy back here.
Well, thanks so much for sharing your stories. One final question – if you could encapsulate everything about immersive audio into one word without using the word “immersive,” what word would you choose?
You said that without thinking.
You know, when it’s good, it really is satisfying. I just love listening to surround and immersive music. It’s my favorite way to go.