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

John Kelman By

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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.

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