Norwegian Road Trip, Part 4: Oslo and an Interview with Jan Erik Kongshaug

Norwegian Road Trip, Part 4: Oslo and an Interview with Jan Erik Kongshaug
John Kelman By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
[Editors Note: From July 6 to July 26, 2010, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman will travel throughout Norway to cover both the Kongsberg Jazz Festival (also participating in Silver City Sounds) and Molde Jazz. He'll also spend a week between the two famous festivals in Oslo, where he'll check out the scene, talk to musicians and labels, and visit the legendary Rainbow Studio for a look around and an interview with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who has participated in hundreds of ECM recordings. He'll publish every second or third day, so be sure to follow him as he goes from the east coast to the west, in search of Norwegian artists known and unknown].

The weather in Oslo can be mercurial: one moment, raining; the next, sunny. But while inclement weather scuttled a chance to travel to Tonsberg for Slottsfjell Festival and another chance to catch Jaga Jazzist, overall there's been little else so bad as to ruin what has been a tremendous trip.
Walking around Oslo, the striking mix of old and new can be found on every street corner. And while Oslo has its fair share of problems endemic to larger cities—drugs, the homeless, areas where closures have made for some less attractive spots with boarded up shops— overall it's a gorgeous city, with beauty to be found wherever the eye wanders. It's also a dog-friendly town; Vigeland Sculpture Park has, in fact, a dog park within its 80 acre space, and it's hard to imagine a more beautiful place to bring your dog, meet people and other canine friends.

As the week in Oslo approached its end, meets with artists and labels continued to take up considerable (but always pleasurable) time. But before a lunchtime meet with guitarist Stian Westerhus and a mid-afternoon drink with pianist Helge Lien, one of the more compelling reasons to come to Oslo in the first place: a chance to visit Rainbow—the legendary recording studio where so many albums on the German ECM label have been recorded—and an opportunity to speak with the studio's owner, Jan Erik Kongshaug, the man who, alongside ECM head/producer Manfred Eicher, helped redefine jazz in the early 1970s.

Chapter Index
  1. July 16: A Morning at Rainbow Studio with Jan Erik Kongshaug
  2. July 16: Coffee with Stian Westerhus
  3. July 16: A Light Meal with Helge Lien
  4. July 17: Bare Jazz and Onwards to Molde

July 16: A Morning at Rainbow Studio with Jan Erik Kongshaug

Oslo has recording studios located in some of the oddest places. 7etage is literally located on the seventh floor of an old building in the center of Oslo, across the hall from saxophonist Karl Seglem's NORCD office and practice room. Rainbow Studio is one of the last remaining "big" studios in Oslo, inauspiciously located on the east side of the city. It's the second Rainbow, in fact, owner/engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug having moved the original Rainbow of 20 years to its current location six years ago for the most mundane reason: the studio was situated above a bar which, after many years, began to feature live music that would leak through the ceiling into the studio. Despite the contract stipulating no live music, and Kongshaug taking legal action, the problem became protracted, and so he chose to relocate rather than continue fighting.

For an engineer who has built an international reputation for his almost unparalleled instincts and keen attention to sound and detail, it may come as a surprise to learn that Kongshaug is largely self-taught. "I started playing accordion when I was seven or eight," Kongshaug explains, "because my father was a professional guitarist. We lived in Trondheim, where I was born, but he moved to Sweden, where he was a professional guitarist for many years; he was quite good, actually. He asked me what I wanted to play, and I said, 'Piano,' but we couldn't afford a piano so I got an accordion instead [laughs]. When I went to high school I began playing guitar, when I was fourteen or fifteen."

"Every weekend I was playing at parties in the area where I lived, and when I finished high school I got a job as a guitarist on a cruise ship. So I went around the world; the base was New York, so I was there ten times in one year, and I heard a lot of great stuff—it was 1963/64—I heard Coltrane live, and Miles' new band [Miles Davis] with Herbie Hancock...it was fantastic, really a great year. And the job onboard wasn't very busy, I played for a lot of American tourists; we had quite a nice time, because we played three hours in the night, and when the boat was at sea, we played, but when we were in the harbor we were off. We were not like the other people on the boat—they had to work shifts. But for us, if we had three days in Tokyo, we had three days off in Tokyo. I really got to see the world at that time."

It was a different time to be coming up as a musician in Norway, as its now famous educational system, with world-renowned institutions like the Trondheim Academy—responsible for musicians like saxophonist Hakon Kornstad and trumpeter Arve Henriksen—didn't exist. "I got interested in recording because I had a tape recorder with two microphones, and that's how I got started. Then I came back to Trondheim after a year, and I started studying electronics, which I did for two years at a school there. Then I was planning to go into broadcasting, to NRK [Norwegian Public Broadcasting]—they had education for sound engineers—but the year when I wanted to go, they couldn't take any more people, and so that's why I went into electronics instead. Then, after two years of electronics I got the job at Arne Bendiksen Studio [where some classic early ECM albums were recorded, such as saxophonist Jan Garbarek's 1970 debut, Afric Pepperbird]. It was because I played guitar; there was a bandleader here who had a lot of TV gigs, and he didn't have a guitar in his band, so he hired me, had me come to Oslo with him. He had a lot of jobs at Bendiksen studio, and he recommended me. I couldn't do anything; but I got the job; I had an electronics background but no engineering education."

Kongshaug is, then, the poster boy for the value of learning on the job. But it was nothing short of serendipity when, three years later, he had a chance meeting with a young Manfred Eicher, who had just started a label called ECM. "Eicher had heard the band [Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen] and wanted to record them, so he came to Oslo to record this quartet. And they actually recorded this album [Afric Pepperbird] outside Oslo at Henie Onstad Arts Centre [see Norwegian Road Trip, Part 2]; they also had a studio there. Bjørnar Andresen was the engineer, but the room wasn't suited for this band, it was too live; for a classical recording it was nice, but not for a band with drums and electric guitar. So they came to Bendiksen Studio to do it in the evenings, because I had a session in the daytime, and so it was just a coincidence that I met them. Manfred didn't know me, and I didn't know him, but that was the beginning."

Kongshaug and Eicher have been working together for forty years, and have recorded hundreds of albums together—first, at Bendiksen, then at Talent Studio, and then at Rainbow. The relationship just seemed to click. "We had the same attitude towards sound, it was very easy. We didn't have to talk; it just worked, and it sounded nice."

Kongshaug and Eicher's relationship has to be one of the longest in jazz, and yet word is that when they are working together, they rarely have to speak; they just seem to know what they want. Even Kongshaug alone—and for all the recordings made for ECM, there are far, far more made at the studio for other labels, and for independent artists—is reputed to be a largely silent presence at sessions; things just get done. Pianist Helge Lien—who has recorded all six of his trio albums at Rainbow—commented, in an interview later the same day, that set-up is very quick at Rainbow. Normally an hours-long process at most studios, Kongshaug gets the sound together in a matter of fifteen minutes, and with minimal fuss or discussion, so that the musicians can start playing almost immediately. It's surely one reason why so much of the music recorded at Rainbow sounds so fresh—the artists aren't hanging around for hours while each musician gets his/her sound.

In order to do this, Kongshaug's skills have to be strong; but, more importantly, his ears have to be good. "I think it has to do with growing up listening to and playing a lot of music," Kongshaug says humbly, "it was very easy for me to understand what the musicians meant; I think that's more important than all the technical knowledge."

From Bendiksen, Kongshaug then moved to Talent Studio. "I worked at Bendiksen until '74," says Kongshaug, "and then, I think the room was too little and there were plans to build a bigger studio, I met this guy, Arve Sigvaldsen, who had made a lot of money with popular music, and he built Talent. I was not a partner; I was just hired by him. I was there from '74 to '78, and then I was a freelance engineer for five years. I moved back to Trondheim for three years, and I traveled a lot. I did some recording in Talent, and a lot of sessions in New York at Power Station. So when I moved back to Oslo again, and Talent Studio was breaking down into bankruptcy, I had to decide whether or not I should continue traveling all the time—because there was no other studio in Oslo that could do these kinds of recordings. So that's why I started Rainbow Studio in 1984. We spent twenty years in that location, and then we moved here six years ago. When you have a live Irish band playing on the floor below you, while you're trying to record [pianist] Bobo Stenson...it was impossible, and so that's why we moved here. Then we had to start all over again."

For a studio as busy as Rainbow, it employs surprisingly few people. "We are three people here," says Kongshaug. "Me and another engineer—he's a freelance—and a woman who takes care of all the administration."

With so many legendary ECM recordings under his belt—Chick Corea and Gary Burton's Crystal Silence (1973), Keith Jarrett's Belonging (1974), Ralph Towner's Solstice (1975), Jan Garbarek/Bobo Stenson Quartet, Dansere (1976)...and that's only a handful, and only in the first years of the label's existence—do any sessions stick out for Kongshaug, as being especially memorable? "The first one must be the first time I worked with Keith [Jarrett], on the solo album Facing You (1972)," Kongshaug answers. "That was very early days and it blew my mind when he played this solo concert, because he recorded the whole album in three or four hours. Also, all the Jan Garbarek groups, different groups with Jan Garbarek, at the time they were just fantastic. And then when Jan and Keith played together on Belonging, and then when we moved to the other studio [Talent] to do My Song (1978). And also the trip to Tokyo with the Belonging quartet [also featuring bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen], where we recorded Personal Mountains (1989), that's a fantastic record. And then I got to work with all these great guitar players—Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell...there's been so many."

While adverse circumstances forced Kongshaug to relocate Rainbow (and at no small expense), in the end it was worth it. "The new studio is much better acoustically, because the old studio was much drier," Kongshaug explains, "which was good if you were recording a lot of loud, electric music; with acoustic music, it's good if you have a little bit of the room, even if it's not really live, because then you have to be much bigger. This room is built much better."

And so, with a room that has some air in it, Kongshaug will sometimes mike a guitar, for example, with both a close mike and a more distant one, to get a bit of the room sound—only, of course, if there's not too much other sound happening in the room, as he often chooses to put much of the group in the big room to record with as close to "live" a feel as possible. There is a drum booth and a smaller vocal booth, though the sight lines between them are all good, and the two booths are in a part of the main room where there's a little nook that, sometimes, can be used to set up a small group for even greater intimacy, even if the players are separated by glass.

One of the myths of "the ECM sound" has been that the label and Kongshaug have used some kind of stock reverb setting. Nothing could be further from the truth; while reverb is a characteristic of many ECM recordings—part of the label's pursuit of creating unique soundscapes for its recordings—every session is different. "I work with a lot of different reverbs to create different 'rooms,' says Kongshaug, "I have all kinds of reverbs, but I don't like the plug-in reverbs; I have the real ones, like the Lexicon 960, the TC, and others. You can create the 'room' you want."

Each musician at Rainbow also has the ability to create his/her own headphone mix, with reverb dialed in as well. But what is recorded to tape (or, now, hard drive) is dry—just the sound of the instrument and, at most, some of the sound of the room, with the more expansive soundscaping done later, during the mix. Because, oftentimes, there are a number of musicians recording in the same room without absolute separation, there can be some "leakage"—the sound of one musician's instrument heard a bit on other track(s). This can be a problem if there's a mistake that needs to be fixed afterwards, but since ECM is almost pathological about not doing any later editing or "punching in"—preferring to keep the best take, warts and all (not that there are many)—this is rarely a problem. "If you have a 'live' room and many musicians," says Kongshaug, "you can also get a nice sound by leakage. But if you have a weak [soft] acoustic bass, and a drummer who plays very loudly, then you have to separate them. Otherwise you have to record the bass direct [a direct line from a bass pickup to the recording console], and that usually sounds terrible. I like the acoustic sound of the bass, and I think it's really nice now that so many young jazz musicians are now using acoustic bass."

One of the aspects to recording that has made Kongshaug's name has been his attention to piano sound, though he has a surprising opinion as to why he achieves such a rich sound, while so many others do not. "I always get this question," Kongshaug says, 'what kinds of microphones do you use, where do you put them?' I don't think it's that important at all; you have to have a good condenser mike—I usually use a Schoeps or a Neumann—but that's not important. You have to have a good tuner; you have to keep the piano in shape. Every session it's tuned. I have one very good tuner, and one backup; if not, it's not the same instrument. I often get music recorded elsewhere, and every time, everything sounds good—the saxophone, the drums, the bass; the piano is always shitty."

"I don't understand how piano players can play on these instruments," Kongshaug continues. "I think that people are so used to a piano being out of tune that they don't notice it, and I think that's terrible. They say it's a bad piano sound, and they don't understand that the piano is out of tune. It's not a bad sound, it's an out-of-tune piano. I read a review in a Norwegian jazz magazine recently, and normally they talk about the music—and, of course, that's the most important thing—but sometimes they'll also talk about the sound, and in this case wrote that the piano sound wasn't good. I haven't heard the record but I know what the problem was: the piano was out of tune, because most recordings have out-of- tune pianos [laughs]."

Typical ECM recordings consist of two days recording, one day mixing. How much attention is paid to the piano varies, depending on the music, the touch of the pianist...and the order in which the music is recorded. It's tuned before the session," explains Kongshaug, "but then sometimes people want the piano tuned down to [A]440 , because the normal tuning is [A]442—that's the most common for classical and in Europe—I don't know, but maybe it's more common to tune a piano in North America to [A]440. But if you have a Hammond organ that's [A]440, then you have to tune down the piano, and you need to do it twice—one day before, and then on the day."

"But usually it's enough to tune it once," Kongshaug continues, "but if you have recorded for six or seven hours and the piano playing is hard, then sometimes it needs to be tuned again. Sometimes the musicians are playing and they say, at the end of the day, 'Now we're going to do a solo piano ballad.' What?!? [laughs] You should have started with that; the piano is now out of tune!' But I guess most people aren't aware of that; they're used to pianos that are out of tune."

With Kongshaug often hired to mix albums recorded in other studios, is there anything he can do if he receives tapes where the piano is out of tune? "No, it's lost," says Kongshaug. "If it's out of tune it's out of tune. You have to live with it."

The goal is often to have as many musicians as possible in the same room. When guitarist Jacob Young recorded Evening Falls (2004) and Sideway (2008), for example, the quintet was placed in the main room, with Young's amplifier placed in one of the booths. The only time Young was not in the room with his band mates was when he was playing acoustic guitar, which was so quiet that, for the sake of separation, he needed to sit in one of the booths.

As much as Kongshaug records in Rainbow, he is also, sometimes, hired to mix albums recorded elsewhere, and that includes ECM recordings like trumpeter Mathias Eick's forthcoming disc, due out in the fall of 2010. As is the case with most studios, Kongshaug has a large set of studio monitors, but also a smaller, bookshelf-sized set, and it's on this smaller set that he normally does most of his mixing. "I usually use the small speakers," says Kongshaug. "If you have a good balance on the small speakers they'll sound great on the large ones, but not the other way around."

These days, Kongshaug does far more sessions for artists and labels other than ECM. "ECM maybe does ten or fifteen albums a year, but that's only three days at a time," says Kongshaug. "I have to work a lot more than that; it's actually just a small part of what I do."

But is there a difference between the sessions Kongshaug records for ECM and those he does for others? The answer is no, though Eicher does have some personal views that impact how Kongshaug does his job. Kongshaug has, in fact, become a set of ears for the Norwegian scene, often helping artists to make a connection with ECM—and other labels like ACT as well—since Eicher no longer accepts unsolicited demos. "That also happens; when Tord Gustavsen did his first recording, they did it on their own, and then Manfred got a copy. He liked it and they did another session for a few more songs; that's how that started [Changing Places (2003)]. Manfred, he gets hundred of demos a year, and it's impossible for him to listen to them all."

With all the artists who come through the doors of Rainbow, are there any that Kongshaug feels are particularly special? "There are a lot of great musicians; I've done a lot of great recordings with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, which has different people every time, and fantastic musicians. There are so many fantastic musicians these days that you have to be very original, you have to be doing something very new, to get yourself heard. There are hundreds of John Coltrane copiers; they're very impressive but not so interesting. The other problem is that some of these players are so great, but some of them experiment and they go over the heads of normal people."

At 66, does Kongshaug see himself moving towards retirement? "I work every day," Kongshaug says, "I have only a few weeks' vacation, but as long as I love it and can do it, I'll continue to work; of course, you don't always know when you'll have to stop. If we didn't have an international reputation we'd have closed years ago; if we only had Norwegian clients, we'd never make it now. It's because we have all these international clients coming in, it also encourages Norwegian artists to record here. I know that most of them want to record here, but it's only those that get the [financial] support that can do it. The price to record now is about the the price as it was in New York in 1980, thirty years ago. $200 was the price when I worked with ECM there, including an assistant engineer; but my salary was not included; you had to pay me extra. Today it's 1,500 Kroner, including me, so it's actually cheaper. But there are very few studios left, in a few years I don't know if there'll be any studios like this; they're closing down all over the world."



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