The ECM Sound
Beyond Silence, transparence



An atypical producer, world-wide known for his work, Manfred Eicher has created a new kind of jazz sound, then allowed the public to discover a series of non-academic contemporary music. Behind this inimitable ECM sound, theres’s more than an esthetic choice : what can be called real production ethics. Franck Ernould & Bruno Heuzé.

ECM : three mythical letters, for Editions of Contemporary Music. This independant record company, based in Munich and distributed in France by PolyGram, was founded by Manfred Eicher in 1969. A former classical and jazz bass player and jazz fan, Eicher invested DM 16.000 to express his musical tastes and desires. An ‘amateur’, according to the real meaning of this word : a man who loves. Not a naive, an idealist, but a wise producer, a lucid and realistic record company boss, an often just musical intuition and a very sharp ear ! "My choices have never been influenced by the record market evolution. I keep on choosing very intuitively the artists I want to produce, mainly because their music appeals to me, touches me, and that I feel it should be in our ECM catalog. If I have enough money in the bank, I produce the record !"
The first ECM record is a Mal Waldron’s Trio recording, made in Germany, entitled “Free at last”. A kind of manifest ! Thirty years later (happy birthday !), the ECM catalog contains 700 references, has opened to written music (from Middle Age to contemporary) via its New Series releases, and Manfred Eicher has become one of the most respected and most sollicitated record producers in the world…

Faithful musicians

For his first productions, Manfred Eicher chose American, English then European artists. He allowed two bass players or a free guitarist and a cellist improvise on a whole album. He goes where the musicians are, booking studios in London, New York or Francfort, and gives their chances to quasi-unknown musicians : Corea or Jarrett were among the first, but years later in 1976, Eicher produced the very first record of a very young guitarist he had heard on a former ECM Gary Burton record. His name was Pat Metheny, then 21 years old. Birth of a star !
After being signed that way, many artists stay faithful to ECM, even if Manfred Eicher only signs artists on a per-album basis. For his seventh production, he goes to Oslo, hometown of a young saxophonist he met a few years before at a jazz festival in Bologne, Jan Garbarek. Jan, then a member of George Russell’s band, records his first LP as leader. His 23rd (double) CD has been released on ECM a few months ago &endash; in between, hundreds of thousands of copies sold. It is on this ECM 1007 that the name of Jan Erik Kongshaug appears for the first time &endash; but not the last ! This Norvegian sound engineer had an atypical career (see box) before becoming a sound engineer. He’s a major contributor to what has been called the “ECM sound”.
"It is a coincidence if Manfred Eicher met me in the Arne Bendiksen studio. He had come to Oslo to record “Afric Pepperbird”, the first Garbarek solo album. He had tried to record the quartet in the Hall of the Art Museum, but it didn't work very well, because the acoustic was much too live for this kind of recording. So they called me at Arne's place, asking me if they could try to redo this recording in regular studio conditions... a coincidence, I tell you !". Jan Erik is then a beginner, as was Eicher. They are both former musicians, and the studio’s Steinway sounds wonderful. Eicher will come back very soon to Oslo, recording with JEK Paul Bley’s “Open, to love”, Corea’s “Improvisations”, and a pianist named Keith Jarrett…

Light

Manfred Eicher asked him for a traditional “trio recording”, but Jarrett, then a member of Miles Davis’s band, replied he would prefer a “solo piano” session. Agreed ! As Miles Davis European Tour goes to Norway, Keith Jarrett comes to Arne Bendiksen Studio and records, in a few hours, a series of improvisations on the Steinway. “Facing you”, ECM 1017, will sell hundreds of thousands of copies, as will “Return to forever”, the eponymous record from the band including Corea, Stanley Clarke and Airto Moreira. This means money at the bank for the young record company…
ECM has become famous in the United States, and many American musicians want to record for Eicher. Names ? Abercrombie, DeJohnette, Connors, Burton, Motian, Phillips, and many others… Eicher welcomes them, but keeps a large part of his catalog to European musicians, coming from scandinavian countries (Rypdal, Andersen, Garbarek), from England (John Surman), from Germany (Weber). He also tries astonishing cocktails (a duet Garbarek/Jarrett, or Phillips/Surman…) : it definitely works ! He relies on his instinct, and gives their chance to apparently “crazy” projects or musicians.
Eicher doesn’t go as often as before to USA to record American musicians : they come to Oslo ! When the recording must take place in NYC, he hires Tony May, and JEK mixes the tapes. There’s another recording engineer in Europe who works extensively (a huendred records in all) for ECM : Martin Wieland, who succeeded to Kurt Rapp in Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, Germany, but JEK gets the lion’s share. "I love to record in Olso, mainly because of the light, and the atmosphere inspired by this light", Eicher explains. The world-wide success of the “Köln Concert” by Keith Jarrett (over two million and a half copies until today !) lets him do what he wants and give his label “the most beautiful sound after silence” &endash; his main concern.

Evolution

As we listened back to the first ECM releases, we felt a little strange. Stereo placement like ping-pong (piano at the right, drums at the left, bass in the center in Mal Waldron’s Trio), sometimes aggressive sounds (Dollar Brand), perfectible sound balances… No surprise : recording and mixing in one or two days inevitably leads to compromises, even if the music itself is astonishing. But very soon, Manfred Eicher refines this sound which will become his trademark : very precisely recorded instruments, a very homogeneous stereo image, and many levels of depth in the mix, thanks to electronic reverberation units, setup for long decays (this was unusual at the time). He already loves to melt unusual timbres : orchestral strings and electric piano melt with Eberhard Weber’s bass in “Following Morning” (ECM 1084).
"I think I put in practice what I had learnt during my sessions as an assistant producer for some chamber music recording sessions. I listened to a lot of jazz records, mainly Impulse! Or ESP releases ; I found the music very interesting, but I didn’t like the way it was produced, mainly because I felt something was lacking, a part of the message had disappeared. My main concern, when I founded ECM, was to respect every aspect of the music. That meant be able to hear every nuance of the instrument, every colour, and respect the dynamics of sound, as given by the musician. This was quite a different way of recording jazz, and public was sensible to it".
In many pieces, Eicher asks the musicians to play quietly, and the tempos are often moderate. And the labels fall : “fjord music”, “Great Northern Sound” for some critics, “icy aesthetics”, “cold sound”, “jazz planant” for others. Manfred Eicher simply doesn’t care, and follows his own way. He is aware to the tiniest details : weight of the paper and fidelity of reproduction for the superb pictures which illustrate his record sleeves (often real art works - cf. the book “ECM, Sleeves of Desire”). To ensure the best possible reproduction on the listener’s turntable, he cuts and presses his records at the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, a famous classical music label known world-wide for the quality of its discs. "We searched for high-quality vinyl, we changed the head of the cutting machine for every new record, we drove as quickly as we could to the galvanization plant, to obtain a good mould. This was like a funny ritual… Nowadays, vinyls are still pressed, but quality is not the word here !".

Sound and technique

The Arne Bendiksen studio closed at the end of 1975. Jan Erik Kongshaug went to work as a salaree at Talent Studios, in Oslo. Manfred Eicher follows him, and a beautiful era begins for ECM Records. ECM 1100 is a 10-LP set, including five recordings of the Keith Jarrett solo tour in Japan. Following albums build the legend of ECM : Ralph Towner, Codona, Kenny Wheeler, David Darling, John Surman in solo, or, more ‘free’, AEOC or Enrico Rava. The unanimous opinion is then that all these musicians, who all had a career on their own before appearing on ECM Records, have never sounded better ! Manfred Eicher seeks for the beauty of the sound, but is not a technology addict : "We should never forget that music appeared well before the microphone was invented ! Today, producing a record means getting the music through a technologic chain made by the microphone, the wires, the console and the tape recorder. Nevertheless, I think my role is not only to handle all those parameters, but begins well before the microphone and the recording process. That’s why I think the phase of preparation of a recording, together with the musicians themselves, is so important : phrasing and timbres, reading the scores (if there are any), esthetic choices to establish for the music itself, and of course, the mood in the recording studio, the ambience which mainly determins what will come through the sessions. For all these reasons, I consider myself as the first listener of the music, before it is even recorded. That’s why musicians consider me as a partner, not as a technician".
"As soon as the music hits the microphone, then my role is to get the sound the best I can, as natural and direct as the musicians offer it to us. The job of the producer is, very simply, to receive in the best conditions what he is given, and to give it back with the most transparency possible".

The ECM sound

Very early, in 1981, Manfred Eicher publishes the first digitally recorded ECM - soon followed by many others, proudly announcing “Digital Recording” on the front sleeve. Asked why he adopted this new technology so soon, Eicher answers : "Right, Cellorganics was recorded digitally, but as we have no analog comparison, it would be unwise to make a mystery out of this". If you listen carefully, on a very good stereo, to the digitally recorded ECM from the 1200’s series, some cymbals seem a little more acid, some instruments become a bit harsh, and the long reverberations sometimes lose the “analog” feeling. By the way, “El Corazon” (ECM 1230) - a duet with Ed Blackwell on drums and Don Cherry on trumpet - is one of the most beautifully (and digitally !) recorded ECM’s of all times - thanks to Martin Wieland. But that’s technology : it evolves rapidly, and the transparency of the “Rainbow-era” recordings is now obvious.
As Manfred Eicher points out, the notion of “ECM sound” can be deceptive : all ECM records don’t have the same sound ! "Recorded sound is the result of a very personal way of hearing music. The realization of a score or the documentation of a spontaneous jazz improvisation requires an act of precise reflection from a sound engineer and a producer. The role of a producer, the way I see it, could be compared with the collaboration of a director in a movie and his director of photography. However, this only can be a vague comparison. For instance, Jean-Luc Godard will always be JLG, whoever his director of photography is. Bergman worked with many different directors of photography, but we always speak about a film by Ingmar Bergman. And this is true for Truffaut, Rivette, to name just a few. If you compare different recordings on ECM by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jan Garbarek or Don Cherry, you might hear different sounds depending on the given musical concept. Similarly, if you listen to recordings on the New Series, from Arvo Pärt to Johannes Brahms, you may find different engineers in the recording block and hopefully a different sound, according to the musical score. But you may also recognize a sound direction and concept which originate from the players and the producers".
[To appreciate this comparison, let us recall that Manfred Eicher directed himself a movie, Holozän, and that he has very close relationship with French director Jean-Luc Godard, from whom he published recently on ECM New Series the soundtrack of his 1990 movie “Nouvelle Vague” (without picture), and, very soon, the soundtrack of his “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” (a 5-CD set !). He also released on ECM many records of Eleni Karaindrou, Theo Angelopoulos’ favourite composer]

The ECM sound (foll.)

When you ask Jan Erik Kongshaug what the ECM sound secret is, he answers "It’s a whole… At the beginning, it’s Manfred and I who choose this or this type of sound, we try some reverbs : as we know perfectly each other, we know how to get this particular sound ! But we couldn't do anything without the musicians themselves, who listen to Manfred's indications (or mine), and their contribution to the ECM sound is not to be neglected !"
[The fact that Eicher and Kongshaug are both former musicians must certainly help them to communicate with the artists they record in the studio]
So can the ECM sound be recreated everywhere in the world ? "Of course, the studio where we record is important too, the acoustic side is not to be neglected... But the most important thing is the musicians, how they play, how they work together with the producer. Another important point for this kind of music is the piano : there are very often problems to get a piano sound right, not so many studios own a very good piano. I am lucky enough to have one, here in Rainbow !".
Technically speaking, Jan Erik Kongshaug uses close miking : "According to the instrument, the microphone is placed at around 10 to 50 cm away (10 for a bass, 50 for a saxophone or a trumpet for example). I like Neumann mikes (U87 or the new M149), and Schoeps are very good too. I don't play much with ambience mikes : I have so many room simulators, reverbs and everything in my racks that I prefer creating the room sound afterwards".

New Series

When CD was commercially launched, presented as a sonic revolution, Manfred Eicher seems to hesitate a little, then, from 1984, he goes in this direction, reissuing a large part of the catalogue in parallel with the new issues. He abandons the LP format around 1990 : "Publishing a digital recording on vinyl is a non-sense &endash; it’s technically incoherent".
1984 is the year of ECM’s 15th birthday. Manfred Eicher, for the occasion, decides to add a new division in his record company, called New Series, for written music, from Middle-age to contemporary music &endash; some older records will be reissued under that label, the Steve Reich records for example. Until then, most of the records he had published found their source in jazz : improvised music played by jazz musicians (even if, for instance, some Oregon pieces can be considered as chamber music…). An anecdote told by a former ECM collaborator : in 1978, Manfred Eicher listens to the tapes of “Music for 18 Musicians”, originally produced by the Deutsche Grammophon. Nobody there is willing to publish this hour of orchestral repetitive music anymore… Eicher publishes it, and sells around 100000 copies of the record, which will help to establish Reich’s fame in Europe.
With the New Series, ECM’s palette of musical styles becomes even wider. Eicher begins to get away from jazz, a style he considers as less creative than it was in the 60’s. But the “Standards” collection, by Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette, sell very well, and have certainly helped to produce many ‘difficult’ recordings &endash; let’s quote Skardanelli Zyklus form Heinz Holliger, or Heinz Reber’s ‘Ma’.

The art of melting

ECM New Series reveals in Europe completely unknown composers, like Arvo Pärt (Manfred Eicher firts heard Pärt’s music while he was driving accross Germany, and fell in love with it &endash; it was very hard to get back to the composer himself !), John Adams, Kurtag, Meredith Monk, Kancheli… Some critics say it’s retrograde, new age, tonal, ‘nordic’, ‘musique planante’ (heard that before…). Eicher couldn’t care less, and he publishes splendid recordings of more or less forgotten Middle-Age composers (Pérotin, Frye, Tallis, Gesualdo…), sounding astonishingly modern in their writing.
Among the first ECM New Series issues are five CDs recorded live at Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival. For the occasion, Manfred Eicher invites Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann, who have just left recording school in Detmold, to record the performances. "Our first encounter, recording chamber music under live conditions, was a very positive experience, and so we continue". Their names regularly appear on ECM New Series productions. This catalogue is rich of more than 100 references, from solo instrument to orchestral, including, as has been said, chamber music. Many of these records call for a reverberant acoustics (including the Chartres cathedral !) &endash; this seems to be a constant factor in ECM productions.
In parallel, Eicher publishes more “electronic-oriented” records : we can hear Simmons drums on ‘Lask 2’, rhythm machines on Shankar/Garbarek’s ‘Who’s to know’, electronically treated instruments on ‘Piano/Harfe’, and synthesizers on Ralph Towner’s, Rainer Brüninghaus or John Surman’s solo records. The multitrack-oriented Steve Tibbetts records at home. Even more, Keith Jarrett uses a 4-track Portastudio to record at home, during a depressive phase, the splendid ‘Spirits’, one of his most touching records. Eicher publishes radio tapes from Heiner Goebbels’ adaptations of Heiner Müller’s dramas, or electroacoustic works from Karlheinz Stockhausen. He then asks Keith Jarrett to ‘go classics’ and record the well-tempered clavier, the Goldberg variations, the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, and, more recently, the Mozart Piano concertos. He has the brilliant idea to leave Jan Garbarek improvise live on medieval polyphonies : the ‘Officium’ record is a winner ! (follow-up soon).
Everyone is amazed when Nils Petter Molvaer publishes his electronic, loop, drum&bass oriented ‘Khmer’ : never heard that in ECM before ! This album is excellent, will be air-played on radio stations for whom ECM is unknown, and will even be remixed by famous DJ’s. In the most recent issues, Eicher gives occasions to Michael Cain (heard in Jack DeJohnette’s Oneness), Christian Wallumrod to be heard under their own name : but he still records John Surman’s orchestral and choral ‘Proverbs and Songs’ (but curiously, not under the ECM New Series label), Dave Holland, Stephen Micus or Charles Lloyd. He likes to find ‘weird’ combinations of artists who record for him since years : Anouar Brahem with John Surman and Dave Holland, for instance, or Dino Saluzzi with a classical quartet. And all those records are absolutely brilliant, thanks to his musical intuition.
To be honest, let us say that Manfred Eicher has not produced every ECM record : since 1975, he sometimes lets some other producers at the controls, but it’s rare. For around 10 years, he regularly lets Steve Lake produce some more ‘free music’-oriented projects, like Evan Parker or Joe Maneri…

Rainbow Studios

Since 1984, the words ‘Talent Studio’ has been replaced, on the record sleeves, by ‘Rainbow Studios’. The sound engineer is still Jan Erik Kongshaug ! "I went free-lance in 1979, still working a lot at Talent Studios, but I began to move to New York for ECM (for Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett…). Then Talent Studio closed at the end of 1983. I had to choose : going, as a free-lancer, here and there, which meant everywhere in Europe or in the USA, or create my own recording studio. That’s what I did ! Rainbow Studios opened in March 1984".
So Jan Erik Kongshaug is a studio owner since 15 years ! He is the main engineer too, helped by a couple of free-lancers. The big studio (around 150 m2), made of wood, is day-lighted (as we saw, Manfred Eicher loves that !), and the control room is pretty big (around 50 m2). Kongshaug went digital as soon as 1986 (Mitsubishi 32-track, replaced by a Sony 48-track in 1991). He also owns a Pro Tools 24 bits 24 tracks system, 3 Apogee AD-8000 converters, his console is a Harrison Series Twelve, and he has racks fulled of outboard gear, like Lexicon 480L, PCM80 and 90, Klark Teknik t.c. electronics M3000 and M5000 digital reverbs, many Yamaha SPX90 and 990, many delays, an EMT 240 plate reverb… "I recently went into the valve microphone thing &endash; I bought a Sony C800G, and I find it wonderful. It’s been a year since I began recording in 24 bit format on the Sony (thanks to the AD-8000’s bit-splitting feature), and I love more and more to record directly on the Pro Tools, in 24 bits too. Even if backup is always kind of a problem, I think that in a few months, I won’t use the 3348 anymore !".

Five-day recordings

On every ECM record sleeve, location, month and year of recording appear. Does that mean that musicians have 30 days of sessions available ? "Not quite… I would say one to three days for the recording, depending mostly on the number of overdubs to make, and two to three days for the mix", says Kongshaug. "So we can’t afford to lose time during the balance before recording. And we don't ! Once the musicians are ready to play (they take usually one hour or so to install themselves), my balance is already on the console ! In the studio, I have built myself monitoring systems for the headphones. Every musician has his own little mixer, he makes his own balance - one fader for our mix in the control room, one fader for drums, one fader for the bass, one for the piano, and so on. Every musician can decide himself what instrument he wants to hear less or more, and doesn't have to ask for it : he just has to play with his faders ! So, he feels immediately comfortable with what he hears in his headphones, and I think his playing can only be better".
"Advantage for us in the control room : we don't spend much time for getting the phones balance right. As I told you, usually one hour after the musicians have arrived, we can begin to record".
If he’s not ill or otherwise disables, Manfred Eicher is always present at the sessions, and takes a very active part in every recording &endash; whether in a two- or three-day recording or a one-night stand at the Grossmünster in Zurich. I like to get options, input or ideas from the musicians or from the sound engineer, I respect and welcome them, but I take the final decision. So far, I am very helpless if it comes to finding the appropriate plus for the socket". Confirms Jan Erik Kongshaug : "I don't think Manfred's technically into the console thing. But he knows exactly what he wants to hear, and asks me to make it work ! During the mixing process, he's actually working with the faders. Manfred is involved in every aspect of the records he produces : from the choice of the musicians themselves, with unusual combinations (remember Codona or Magico !), to the mikes we will use, the balance in the mix... the whole process ! So he's mostly responsible for the final sound".
As we could expect, ECM Records is Rainbow’s main client ! "ECM sessions keep me busy 40 to 50% of the time", Kongshaug confirms. "But we record all kinds of music here : folk music, classical music, pop singers... Jazz music is around 60% : we have customers coming from all over the world, Germany, England, Brazil. Not only record labels, but self-produced musicians or groups too. They finance their sessions, then they go to record companies to distribute their records. You know, the market is very small for this style of music : there are a lot of good jazz bands here in Norway, but very few can make a living from their musical activities...". Kongshaug’s name appeared on many records, including the Ornette Coleman/Metheny’s ‘Song X’, on Geffen Records, or Yellowjackets, ‘Green House’ (JEK went to L.A. for this one) and ‘The Spin’, made at Rainbow in 1989. "I recorded some acts for Blue Note, some others for a Brasilian company, which keeps coming regularly to Rainbow".

Final word

The final word in this article is for Manfred Eicher : "I believe the producer’s role is to capture the music he likes, to present it to those who don’t know it yet. It’s a very important a difficult task, which must be dealt with reponsability and integrity. If you work in that direction, caring for the sound, getting some precise information or inspired sleeve notes in a booklet, working on the pictures for the record cover, then a kind of symbiotic unity is at work, and people feel you have been producing the record for good reasons. So you can touch them, beyond cultural borders, they understand and appreciate what you have to offer them. It’s all about taking risks, but still being generous and rigourous. I sincerely belive these are the reasons why ECM kept running for 30 years now".
"For us, the decision on which score is to be realized or which musician or group of musicians is to be recorded will be the ‘given’ for the direction of the sound. And this varies, greatly. In the past, we have recorded in many different locations, from monasteries to modern studios and with various engineers, using diverse technology &endash; analog, digital, two-track, multitrack… Over the last six or seven years, Steve Lake has also joined the journey as a producer. A lot of factors influence each recording. All that can really be said about “ECM sound” at this point is that the sound that you hear is the sound that we like. What is too often forgotten by occasional critics, none of whom has been at our sessions, is that the musicians are our partners all the way through the mixing or editing process as well. Recording is also teamwork".



BOX ‘Jan Erik Kongshaug’.

Jan Erik Kongshaug has been a musician since he was a teenager, and even before that : his father was a professional jazz guitar player. So JEK started playing accordion when he was seven, then learnt how to play guitar when he was thirteen. When he was in high school, he used to play every weekend, in a dance band, to make some money. After high school, he worked one year on a cruise ship, travelling around the world, as a guitar player. All this before being interested in engineering !
After this, he went back to school for two years, to get an electronics education. In parallel, from dance, he turned into jazz. In 1966 and 1967, he even played at the Molde International Jazz Festival. Then in 1967, he got a job in a recording studio in Oslo, named Arne Bendiksen Studio (the name of the owner, a former pop singer). That's where, three years later, in September 1970, he met Manfred Eicher... The rest belongs to record history.


Cet article appeared, in French version, in HOME STUDIO MAGAZINE #30.

Copyright © 1999 Franck Ernould (franck.ernould@sfr.fr)

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