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Creators of sound

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

An uncompromising attitude to producing a recording is worth it, because even though music is being listened to in increasingly diverse circumstances, one can always recognise quality. This, at least, is the firm belief of professional producers and recording engineers. Investing in sound quality has become an essential part of the lifestyle of many, even if they never acquire actual hi-fi gear.

Many have been eager to proclaim the death of recordings in the shape of physical discs. Although the figures are rapidly going downhill, this is not to say that the importance of recordings in music culture is going anywhere.

“It is unthinkable that all music should disappear at the moment of performance and leave not a trace behind. Recording music will never stop, although the distribution channels may change,” says recording producer Laura Heikinheimo.

For musicians and composers, albums are calling cards with a sound content, and the recording process may in itself serve as a tool for personal development. In the era of streaming and social media, the album remains a key marketing tool in the classical music sector. Heikinheimo is convinced that the award-winning discography of her employer, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – most of it released on the Ondine label – has played a vital role in raising the orchestra’s international profile.

Markku Veijonsuo created an extensive career playing trombone with the UMO Jazz Orchestra and is now involved in producing and recording classical, jazz and light entertainment. He considers that the physical disc still has a role to play in these genres. “We’re marginal, to be sure, but the margin is a big one,” he says.

Veijonsuo identifies himself as a hi-fi enthusiast whose approach to technology comes from music making, from finding a specific sound. He believes passion comes across no matter what equipment one uses to listen to the recordings. “There’s always something there that you can sense even in MP3 format, if the recording has been done properly. In popular music, tracks are often customised for streaming services so that the music will have an impact even when played through tiny, tinny speakers. I wouldn’t go there myself.”

Laura Heikinheimo sees no contradiction in producing recordings at the highest possible level of sound quality even though few people these days own the equipment required for reproducing that kind of quality in sound. “Why shouldn’t we use the best equipment and the most recent technology available? You can always recognise quality.”

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Laura Heikinheimo.
Photo by Joel Ward.

A second pair of ears

Laura Heikinheimo is one of Finland’s most experienced producers of classical music. She has been the senior recording producer of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra for ten years, in addition to which she freelances as a producer. This position was preceded by years as a salaried producer with the now defunct Finlandia Records label in the 1990s; since then, her freelance producer work has covered everything from solo piano music to opera and from Medieval music to the very latest in contemporary works.

Heikinheimo considers that a producer must have a solid musical background to acquire the professional skills needed. A producer is in effect a musician’s second pair of ears and the backstop that ensures the quality of the end result, and hence the producer must know the music inside and out.

“The performer must be able to trust the producer to hear everything and have a command of everything.” The producer is responsible for time management, coordination of takes and quality control of the musical product as a whole. The producer must also have a psychological sensitivity, considering how easy it is to simply bark out instructions over the PA system from the control room. “A recording session is enormously taxing, and the producer has to keep everything going and calibrate what to say according to the performers at hand. I am in the service of the musicians and adapt myself to their personality,” says Heikinheimo.

The producer’s work begins with a thorough study of the score. The key moment before the actual recording begins is the sound check, where collaboration with the recording engineer is crucial. The performer may also have things to say about the overall sound. Everything has to be heard clearly but naturally – in the same sonic mix but with enough separation to allow the listener to follow along with any line in the score.

During the recording itself, the producer is called upon to do some serious multi-tasking, according to Heikinheimo. There will be hundreds of takes, and the producer has to have a note-taking technique that allows him or her to keep up to speed of what is going on. After the recording sessions comes dozens of hours of hard work in which the producer decides how to edit the takes into a seamless end product.

“Then the package goes to the recording engineer, who actually produces the finished recording. It’s an exciting moment!” says Heikinheimo. “Post-mixing is much more relaxed. Putting some more glow on the violins or bringing out some detail or other. Everything has to be done subtly, naturally.”

Live or studio?

In a recording assembled from multiple takes, the producer carries great responsibility. Heikinheimo’s priority is to listen to the performer’s wishes.

“Some see the technical quality of the music making as important, while others value a good feeling and overall shape. Live recordings always have a drive of their own; you really cannot beat a live concert experience. But that is not to say that a well-made studio album is necessarily musically less merited. Yet it is also possible to kill the music on the editing table,” explains Heikinheimo.   

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra releases both live recordings and studio recordings. Heikinheimo enjoys live recordings the most. “There’s a sense of danger and flow when you’re recording live! But we always also schedule a backup day when we can record patches, because everyone will be displeased if some glitch is left in. Despite this, they are still live recordings as far as I’m concerned.”

Hannu Lintu, Chief Conductor of the FRSO, is actively involved in all stages of making a disc. Heikinheimo is also often joined by composers in the control room, from Kaija Saariaho to Sebastian Fagerlund. “I have huge respect for artists and composers,” says Heikinheimo. I often like to think what it would have been like to have Brahms or Mozart sit next to me. What would they have focused on?”

The domain of Finnish classical music producers is very small, and the number of producers who make a living doing only that is even smaller. Heikinheimo emphasises that it is always a good thing to have an outside producer on a recording. “It is not the recording engineer’s job to comment on musical content. Many have said that it is a relief to be able to pass the responsibility on to an outsider and to concentrate on the musical performance.” 

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Markku Veijonsuo (left). Photo by Teemu Salminen.

Enno Mäemets (right). Photo by Jori Tossavainen.

Challenges of multimedia

The role of the recording producer is discussed by Tuomas Auvinen in his doctoral dissertation The Music Producer As Creative Agentinspected at the University of Turku in late 2018. He describes how the making of recordings changed over time from creating an ‘illusion of reality’ to producing a ‘reality of illusion’. Even so, Auvinen notes, in the realm of classical music recordings are typically perceived as copies of concert performances, although they should really be considered as an artwork in their own right.

Recording engineer Enno Mäemets concurs.

“You can bring out things in the mix on a recording that you can never hear in real life. It is a joy to discover details in the score that would be impossible to pick out in a live performance but that can be highlighted through microphone placement and mixing.”

Mäemets does not consider this an ‘ethical issue’. “It’s about enriching the music. A streamed performance is something you listen to once or twice, but an album is set in stone, so to speak; it is its own thing.

Enno Mäemets has worked for years on recordings, collaborating as recording engineer with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, among others, and mixing the recordings of the FRSO, and he has a clear conception of the differences between the various media. He was involved in the design process of the Helsinki Music Centre at an early stage to ensure that the infrastructure would cater to modern media requirements as far as possible. “It was an important insight back then that orchestras would explore multiple channels to take their music out of the concert hall.”

Today, a recording engineer for an orchestra has to work with multimedia: the music goes online, on TV, on radio, on disc... Mäemets is happy that the Music Centre provides the ideal environment for working with all this.

Mäemets describes the multimedia approach as meaning that the same material can be used for as many different purposes as possible. Video, audio and their various combinations each have demands of their own; different things are required of discs than of live streaming.

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Laura Heikinheimo and Hannu Lintu during a recording session. Heikinheimo and Mäemets have recorded and produced many discs made by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu that have won numerous classical music awards. The discs were released on Finland's Ondine label, known for its meticulous artistic planning and high sound quality.

Embrace of sound

Mäemets says that sound quality is above all about balance. “In classical music, everything revolves around the relationship between an instrument’s own sound and the sound of the space.” The sound of the space means the reaction of an acoustic to a sound in it. “The space should provide a seamless continuation of the instrument’s sound. The tools needed to make that happen are a story unto themselves,” says the veteran recording engineer with a smile. (See also FMQ's article on concert hall acoustics.)

The distribution format plays a vital role. The current state-of-the-art format is Super Audio CD (SACD), Mäemets’s speciality. SACD has five channels and conveys the sound to the listener with a high level of accuracy. “The goal is for the sound to embrace the listener, so that he can close his eyes and visualise how the instruments are located in the space.”

SACD requires much more work than usual from the recording engineer. The listener, meanwhile, has to have the right equipment and the right number of speakers properly tuned. Is Mäemets worried about the fact that only a small fraction of listeners actually invest in such a listening experience? “It’s our job to offer customers material that is of a quality as high as possible, so that it can be listened to in a variety of circumstances,” he replies.

The majority of stereo equipment can only play traditional CDs. Hybrid Super Audio CDs always include the content also in the traditional CD format. In other words, an SACD is an amalgam of two discs, and they can be customised in different ways. “You can tweak the dynamics of the SACD according to hi-fi parameters and mix the CD so that it will sound good even in less than optimum circumstances,” explains Mäemets.

While SACD recordings can be downloaded as sound files, they are so large that they cannot be streamed. In other words, the sound quality in streaming is always a compromise.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Teemu Salminen: Markku Veijonsuo

Everyday sound quality?

Audiophilia is often perceived as a masculine pastime, a conquest of space in the home by manly hi-fi gear and a game of technological one-upmanship. 

BY Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

In November 2018, Tommi Uschanov wrote in Yliopistolehti, the newspaper of the University of Helsinki, that the history of technology is very rarely considered from the perspective of usage and experience. Such an approach would reveal that good sound quality has always been appreciated by women as well as men. In April 2018, Hifi Pig – a British magazine and website for to all things audiophile and hi-fi – dedicated an issue to woman leaders in the field and woman audiophiles. The interviews revealed that for them, hi-fi is above all about a profound appreciation of music in which the technology is simply a tool.

Today, hi-fi can be understood as more than just a superlative, as an appreciation of good quality rather than spending every dime on the latest and greatest in tech porn. Insistence on sound quality is creeping into our everyday lives: refusing to wear ear buds, liking a trendy bar because of its Genelec speakers, or bringing a Bluetooth speaker to an outdoor picnic are all examples of preferring quality in sound production. A home rental business named Lumo markets ‘music-ready’ homes fitted with Bluetooth speakers in the walls, and HifiStudio is involved in buildings homes with in-built hi-fi equipment.

Today’s lifestyle culture includes top-of-the-range headphones and good-looking speakers. This is as much about appreciating music as it is about interior decoration and identity.

But where should we draw the lower limit of hi-fi enthusiasm? Markku Veijonsuo, who considers himself a musician-audiophile, notes that there is no such thing as a perfect equipment setup or a perfect sound but that there is a lot of poor quality out there. Hi-fi is a state of being where the music, instruments, space, musicians, recording and reproduction equipment contribute to a good sound quality.

“To be interested in sound quality, you always first have to be interested in music.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi