A longread blog by Theodoor Borger.
Foreword by Eelco Grimm:
In 2015 Minco Eggersman and Theodoor Borger started collaborating under the moniker UNIFONY. The concept of this project is to invite guest musicians and together search for the pure essence of music. Wandering off the beaten track and rediscover purity by experimenting. Composing through carefully crafted layered sounds instead of starting with notes. It soon caught our attention…
Both Eggersman and Borger have built a career in music. Eggersman has 25 years of experience working as an artist, producer and songwriter but in the last 10 years he mainly focused on creating music for films and documentaries. Borger’s main theme has been technology, working as an engineer and producer for the last 15 years. In these roles, they’ve collaborated on several records of Eggersman, as well as on various albums by other artists. It was during these collaborations that Eggersman and Borger became close friends. Borger assisted Eggersman to record his music, Eggersman encouraged Borger to step up from behind the knobs and take center stage with his musical abilities.
Shy of this talent of his, Borger hesitated quite a while before he gave room to not only assist others but to also revive his talent of making music himself. At the same time Eggersman wanted to step back as a producer and approach music more freely. It was at the end of summer 2015 that Eggersman and Borger blocked 10 consecutive days in their agendas to make music from scratch. They withdrew to Borger’s studio, curious for what would happen. It was during these days that the UNIFONY – project was born.
Grimm Audio played a minor role in this project since Borger uses our equipment in his studio. When we learned about the adventure that started here, we decided to adopt the project as sponsors. In this ‘longread’ blog, Theodoor Borger takes you by the hand and gives an interesting look behind the scenes of music production in cooperation with two of the world’s most famous sound engineers: mixing engineer Phill Brown and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig. Enjoy!
‘Composing’: goal or means?
‘Never break the silence, unless you can improve it’. This bold saying states a bit of my attitude towards a lot of music made and released these days. Should I contribute to the ‘pile of noise’ that already exists in this world? On what terms has music ‘the right to exist’?
For me an important reason to create music is the framework in which UNIFONY exists: it was built on spontaneity, friendship (kinship even), improvisation, uniqueness and beauty. Within these boundaries, a process could be formed in which music in a pure form emerges. Music that is too much conceived via a rational process of taking clear steps to make something sound like ‘XYZ’, does not work for me and Minco. Our form of ‘instant composing’ which formed during the first sessions, is not a ‘rational’ process but an interactive, iterative and highly intuitive process of people meeting heart to heart. That said it’s not pure improvisation since we rephrase and filter our work when we ‘layer’ our tracks during the process. But all of this is the result of the time spent in the studio, the momentum, the (high end) gear and of course the inspiration.
Most of what has been explained above wasn’t thought out at the beginning, but emerged during the process and now makes perfect sense as this is UNIFONY.
The process of recording the creative act instantly is not a standard method for most music productions. One of the reasons is that often the right sound or equipment is not available, or a technically skilled person lacks. Because of this, in the golden era of pop music people burried themselves for ages in an expensive studio, hiring whoever they needed to get the job done. These days are (about) over now, the business has changed for good… But not for us: we could work as long as we wanted in my well-equipped studio, with the wide range of vintage instruments that Minco collected over the years. So we had a perfect starting point.
My ‘Pinna’ studio
My approach has a high-end flavor, rooted in classical recording techniques. I selected gear that has little impact on sound and thus tends to be ‘neutral’. For the gear inspired, here is an incomplete list:
- AD/DA: Metric Halo ULN8
- Recorders: DAW (Samplitude) + Nagra T Audio tape recorder
- Preamps and desks: Sony, Sennheiser, Crookwood and Metric Halo
- Tube Microphones: 2x Neumann M49, 10x Neumann KM64/63, Schoeps CM61
- Microphone power supplies: Grimm Audio MP1, Leo Schaal custom
- Ribbon Microphones: 2x Samar MF65, 3x B&O BM5, 2x B&O BM6
- Other microphones: 3x Neumann KM84/83, 3x Sanken CU31/CU32, 2x Sennheiser MD21, 4x AKG D202, 1x AKG D224e, 2x Audio Technica AT4033, 2x Schoeps CMC6/MK2, and some others.
- Cables: all Grimm Audio TPR
- Master clock: Grimm Audio CC2
- Loudspeakers: Grimm Audio LS1+LS1s
- Headphones: Final D8000, 3x Beyer Dynamic 770, AKG K240, multichannel distribution via Hearback, etc.
- Outboard: Quantec 2496, AKG BX20, Roland SDE3000, Korg SDD 3000 (vintage), several guitar pedals.
It is my vision to combine the control room with the recording room because I want to be with the musicians, not just be a spectator behind a window. Also, I prefer to have my instruments setup with high end microphones and preamps at all times. This makes it possible to work in a continuous flow and still create great sounding recordings. My incredibly musical and precise Grimm Audio LS1 loudspeakers are a great help in this. They offer such direct feedback on the recorded sound that during the UNIFONY sessions, Minco and me could immediately adjust to whatever we were looking for.
Making a record seems simple: just capture sound and reproduce it later. However, the songwriter’s idea of the work should somehow ‘resonate’ with the listener, otherwise, not much happens. And that is not a trivial affair. The communicational art form called ‘music’ needs to be translated from situation A (during the recording) to situation B (during reproduction), which really is an act of magic. I always feel enchanted after finding the right kind ofmanipulation that conveys the core of the ‘musical message’ to the listener. It is during this process that I want to be in full control of every tiny detail. I need to hear or rather ‘feel’ all aspects in the clearest way, so any decision about the story to tell can be made without hesitancy and doubts. To use these kinds of ‘feedback loops’ in the process properly, the signal chain and especially the monitoring should be transparent and musical. Provided with the lowest distortion (literally as well as metaphorically), one can aim sharp for bull’s eye.
Art, creativity and technology
Technology and art are intertwined in the recording studio. Ideally, technology should never stand in the way of creation. Practice however tells that this often is the case, like when tape recorders or computers are not working properly. More subtle technical defects have their influence as well, things that one is not aware of until the difference they make between ‘right’ and ‘not so right’ (thus wrong) becomes apparent. Things like jitter, format conversion, cables and the acoustics of a recording or mixing-room. All technical steps between the artists and fans, composers and audience, songwriters and listeners, are potentially crucial in getting the intended story across and need your attention.
Working on UNIFONY, this was all set. No more worries for us: it all worked well and sounded beautiful. It was even possible to mainly work with my sweet vintage tube microphone collection (Neumann KM64 and Neumann M49), powered by Grimm Audio MP1 PSUs, wired with TPR cable where possible. This inspired to become creative and discover more.
When the song concepts came to light, one of our most daring ideas was to ask a befriended musician to join the UNIFONY journey. And so we did. We believed that by giving a likeminded musician the free hand and our trust, we would all end on the same page of story telling through music. Our inspiration in this was filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky (Stalker, Solaris, Nostalgia) who preferred to keep well in control at the start of a project, being very directive, until the actor was so well informed that he or she totally embraced the idea of the story. And once the actor embodied the story to be told, everything was possible…
For this first UNIFONY album we asked Norwegian trumpet player Mathias Eick (ECM Records) to respond to our work. And he added something beautiful, new and unexpected. We then build on what Eick brought and continued in this style during the rest of the process.
For us it was really moving and compelling to receive such musical response from a respected friend and musician who exposed his own story telling… an unexpectedly strong musical connection from heart to heart!
Normally after recordings are done, an album is mixed and then mastered. Although both Minco and I have a lot of experience in these steps, we both felt UNIFONY needed another ear listening in. Minco’s network had grown through his contribution to the biography of Talk Talk (“the Spirit of Talk Talk”). Someone was so kind to connect him to mix engineer Phill Brown, famous for his work with Talk Talk but also for his albums with artists like David Bowie, Brian Eno and Pink Floyd. It took some courage, but when Minco asked him to mix our project and sent him some rough mixes, Phill Brown immediately caught on to the spirit of UNIFONY and called it a ‘labour of love’. His praise and recognition of the quality of the recordings and music took turns. Though officially just having retired, he agreed to do one last job. Phill suggested we’d mix in the famous Miloco Red Room Studios in London. Many classic albums were recorded and mixed there, from artists such as Coldplay, Enya and Madness. Phill knew the place well and thought it would be the perfect fit. Me and Minco working with Phill Brown in such a special place promised to become an unforgettable event. I kept a diary during the process and it forms the basis of the rest of this article.
London, February 13th
Until the day of departure, it was all cloudy in the skies and in my head. Getting up in the morning however, the sun was out, the sky was blue and all worries that prevented me from fully enjoying our journey was gone. Unfortunately, Minco was troubled by a flu virus that had spread out so heavily in the Netherlands that it made it to the Iceland news (a friend told us). That said, he was starting to feel a little better, or at least good enough to cross the Channel by plane… We left the Netherlands with a blue sky but as soon as England was in sight, the clouds appeared again. But who cares – we would be in a studio for the next four days anyway!
After settling our luggage and stuff in the hotel room we made a plan for what to do with our precious spare time this week. Since from tomorrow we would be working 12 hours a day, the only opportunity we got to enjoy the city was now. We decided to head for Westminster Abbey to catch an Evensong service which is best described as an ongoing conversation between God and his people that was there long before we are here and will continue long after we are gone…Minco attended one before in York, and it made a great impression so he told me we HAD to go. I’d never heard of it, but organ, boys choir and sacral music is a lovely combination, can’t fault it. We chose to walk as long Minco could take it (with him still recovering from his fever). After crossing the Tower Bridge twice (as we walked the wrong way obviously… what is it with the British and directions…) we took a taxi since otherwise we’d miss the service.
We chatted with the taxi driver about our trip and plans for the week, and guess what: his favorite band was Talk Talk! He was glad his son picked ‘Spirit of Eden’ of the shelves in the record store the other day, and he drove another Dutchy before, that goes by the name of Anton Corbijn… We chatted a bit about art, money, etc, you know the story. Anyway, we managed to get there in time, got seated, when a clerk told us we could sit in the midst of the choir itself. Minco immediately jumped up, knowing this was special and so we ended up next to the boys choir, the vicar and minister, the altar and all that beauty. Joining this centuries’ old tradition of continuous worship with the Evensong felt as a relief from the pressure that society puts upon us modern people, if only for that night. As it lifted our spirits, it was really magnificent to listen to the melodies, the harmonic directions of the organ and choir in such a beautiful and natural sounding cathedral.
I had to think of Wolf Buchleitner, the designer of the Quantec Yardstick reverb that we used a lot in our project. Wolf sang in church choirs during his youth which made him listen to music and sound in large acoustics a lot.
This eventually led him to design his QRS algorithm, which forms the basis of the Yardstick. And you know what, the cathedral or ‘St. Peter’ preset sounds pretty real!!! Unfortunately, Wolf has not the legendary name of his colleague David Griesinger of Lexicon. But he is known for his work in certain parts of the audio engineering world. My bet is that the Quantec legacy will become much stronger the coming decades.
Anyway, after the service ended, we sat quietly down and left as last in row. We were very much impressed by this experience, by this rich tradition of boys singing in a choir on such a location. What a shame we don’t have this in The Netherlands. Even though tired, by listening to the beautiful music and words, chanting (sang by heart by some), we felt ready for our next step in UNIFONY.
Still a little overwhelmed, we walked out when it all came down crashing fast. On our way to Rough Trade Records and a good Indian restaurant, we walked through ‘the City’, the economic heart of the country. Hundreds of people all dressed up on their way home after a hard day’s work. All of them in their own world, most of them connected with the world just through their phones, which makes you wonder if they are connected at all. Minco described it as like walking in this famous scene of the movie ‘The Square’ by Ruben Östlund. If you ask me, all those city workers should attend at least one Evensong service per week. It will do good to the world. Anyway, after a few blocks a guy came up to us and asked us to stop. He appeared to be homeless and begged for some change. For what it’s worth we gave him some euros but then we also had a nice chat. Afterwards he thanked us many times for actually stopping and listening to him since that was what he missed on his daily route through the crowd… sad but true.
Luckily, it started off as a blue-sky-day. We both slept alright and enjoyed breakfast. We discussed the fashion taste (or lack of it) of the British people over breakfast. Not so polite perhaps, but we could not help it since in this hotel no one seemed to care about fashion. After getting our stuff together we enjoyed a short walk to the Miloco studio complex. We arrived at 10AM, assistant Adam Durbridge was already setting up. A relaxed, long haired guy. Very friendly, helpful and patient. There was a tape op (Declan) calibrating the tape machine (Ampex) since we would print the mixes to tape.
After an hour or so, Phill came in. We introduced ourselves and he immediately stated that he was afraid he couldn’t make it better than what we’d already done. Of course it’s a huge compliment to get from him but it was a different starting point than we expected to be honest. To break the ice, I started to talk a little bit about where I come from, recording, Protools, the 888 interface of which we agreed that was a dog. Minco started about the biography of Talk Talk he had contributed to and asked what Phill thought of the book. And after a good cup of coffee things started to run a bit more smoothly.
While Phill and Adam set up the rest of the gear, we did our things, went for a walk and got some groceries. Upon our return, the desk was setup and they’d even began to work the drum sound into a direction we liked a lot. After about an hour or so, Phill came to a point when he thought the mix was OK. We listened carefully, gave some feedback and after a few runs, everything was set. Phill really knows what he is doing, he is so fast in getting things done. When we had a remark he turned a few knobs here and there and it sounded great, can’t fault it!
Next we printed to tape, which for me was the first time to experience first hand the effect of it. Tape won’t save lives but it does smoothen things out in a way that’s different from any other way. It eases transients which offers room for perspective, or whatsoever. Of course, the masking of the tape hiss is also part of the overall effect but it worked out well. For me, being focussed on transparency and clarity, I find it hard to say that it is better with tape. But, it adds niceness in a way I like, still keeping most of the transparency.
Today we started where we left off yesterday. I think the track ‘Rock’ is one of our best tracks on the album with a very jazzy improvised piano piece up front, followed by an energized groove with trumpet and synth.
Phill really did a great job and again so fast that we even had time to talk about recordings Phill had done in the past. Since he is a living legend you can imagine we hung on his lips, certainly when he proved to be not too shy when it comes to sharing his experiences. After this moment we got at least 10 great stories a day. A lively addition to his biography that we just read!
We didn’t come to London for a complete uptake of our music, but mainly to get an extra ‘face’ to it and hear a different opinion. Since I have a major musical role in this project, I considered to not have enough distance to move my own mix to a higher level. Sound design and composition went hand in hand and this makes it hard to get beyond a certain point.
We worked at Miloco Red Room Studios to experience what an analogue desk, outboard gear and tape brings, combined with the craftsmanship of Phill. For me all this is a lesson in letting go. Not used to being just in the role of a creator after all the projects I spent behind the desk (or mics), letting go of my engineering control was a leap of faith. But since our motto to this project is that ‘to get something we haven’t achieved yet, we have to walk paths we never walked before’, this mixing phase with Phill was certainly one of the more extraordinary paths we walked.
Later that day, we struggled through our song ‘Ghostly’. It seemed as if all things went wrong on the rendering of this song. Naughty software, sloppy me, but thankfully I brought my gear along so I could rework it. Phill was trying to A-B his mix with the masters sent to him earlier as he missed some elemental parts when playing the rendered bounces. I tried to hunt down what happened in the low end of the bass part, but without the desired effect. He and Adam found different ways to provide more bottom end with an octaver, distortion etc. It made me feel quite clumsy, but this is part of the game too. Dealing with mistakes, which of course is obligatory if you want to learn in life and discover new paths, is not my strongest character feature…
Minco started to feel a little worse unfortunately. Therefore we started with our song ‘Heather’, a melancholic duet of trumpet and Theremin that kinda fitted his state of being. Anyway, besides a small Protools hick-up, everything went smooth for that track.
After Heather we worked on Ascend which also went very smooth up until we ran it to print. There was a sort of flanging effect on the trumpet that Minco mentioned. Since his fever was rising he thought it was just him but when he told us, I heard it too and we were glad we ‘heard’ it in time. Soon Adam found out the cause of the flanging effect, as well as why the trumpet was too loud.
After that, we ran the stems and all took off quickly. Soon we started to work on ‘Drive’. A great song that originally had a big drum part, which we had to kill (kill your darlings) because it didn’t add to the story. Over the months we had really fallen in love with the song, now being more atmospheric with a very lyrical trumpet melody. But again something went wrong in the printing stage. Just before approval of the definitive mix, we played back all digital prints to the safety backup tape. During this process some timelines and routing were changed. We reprinted the mix, but Minco (again at first blaming his fever), mentioned he lacked groove in the floor tom. It turned out the snare drum was off because of the mingling of timelines for the safety backup print.
We fixed it, and also fixed a strum guitar thing I had fumbled with in the automation. After this we did the print and all went fine but this story shows how much continuous attention is needed during a mix session (fever or no fever).
Despite the hassle we got into Phill’s stories a lot today, and to be honest we enjoyed it to the full! It’s so nice to hear stories about all these legends first hand. Phill was on a roll and talked about this famous edit he did on ‘I shot the Sheriff’ of Bob Marley & the Wailers. A hilarious story about ‘we all make mistakes but it was my last time smoking pot right above a tape machine’… I asked if he had ever worked with Daniel Lanois. Phill told that he had worked in his New Orleans studio, but there were a lot of strange things going on there. One time when he got ill, instead of calling the doctor, he let a witchman come in and what not. He also told us the story – which is also in his book – about Kirstin Hersh of Throwing Muses and how everything was different when her husband (and manager) with child and dog came into the ‘studio’ which was set up in a regular home. Didn’t work out. No spouses around, period.
By the end of the day as everything went smooth – we were on schedule – Phill shared some of his multi tracks from the early days. He had recently ‘baked’ them in his oven and copied them to hard disk. We could not believe our ears, listening to Sgt Pepper’s original 4 tracks, a Jimmy Hendrix 8 track, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s going on’ 16 track and Bohemian Rhapsody on 24 track. The latter being remarkable because with all faders at 0dB it’s almost the final mix. What a remarkable experience to hear all these classic songs in detail. What extraordinary performances. Music really is about performance and ‘story’ and ‘vibe’ or ‘mojo’. Not about the micro details of tuning or whatsoever.
If you listen to solo-ed tracks of these legendary recordings they sometimes sound terrific, however other tracks, for instance certain guitars or vocals on Bohemian Rhapsody, can sound weird in isolation, but in the mix it just works. Also remarkable to hear was that so many decisions were made so early in the process: all kinds of slap back echoes and stuff is just printed during recording and not added later in the mix as an option. It’s the problem of these days with digital endlessness.
Phill told us he really enjoyed working in mobile studios on location, like myself. Actually, for a long time I only worked on location. Environment adds so much to the whole atmosphere of music that in my opinion it should be taken into account way more when producing an album. Numerous stories of Phill and myself make the case for working mobile. Adam invested in a mobile rig as well. Good for him…
Anyway, lots of other stories passed, of Bono in his early days, when recording back-ups where not made, the legendary albums Phill did with Talk Talk. We also spoke about many friends of him who sadly died from alcohol and drugs abuse which made us feel even more blessed with the fact that Phill is still with us.
Last night sleep was not that good for me. Too many impressions to process and the room was too hot. But nevertheless, I looked forward to finish the mixes today! The days went by so quickly and today is already our last session with Phill. Initially things went kinda smooth, but at the end of today’s first song (Found – my favourite), I heard some noise. Sputter, metalic crackling or something like that. We’d heard that before since several of the pan pots and switches of the SSL were crackling because they were not used that much. Since it was really soft and not continuous, I felt insecure of my judgement. Nevertheless, we chased the ‘noise’ and found that my Quantec reverb was messing with its clock… A reset solved the problem. Because the deadline approached, things got a bit tense but we managed to find a way. We had to do some recalls but were able to fix it in time.
Amsterdam, February 18th
After the tense last day, we were glad we were allowed to add the Sunday morning to our studio time to iron out a few things. With the help of Adam we managed to do a backup transfer of the tape just in time to catch our flight.
Luckily traffic was our friend that day, rushing towards the airport. When waiting in line, I found a small pocket knife in my hand luggage that I had totally forgotten about. It was supposed to be in my checked luggage but due to all the stress, I forgot. It led to an interesting rendez-vous with the English airport security service, but I will save you the details. Luckily we managed to get on board our plane just in time. After this grande finale we were glad we made it back home safely. All’s well that ends well.
Having these great mixes, the mastering should be magic too, but who to ask because UNIFONY turned out to be about so much more than craftsmanship alone? Who has the experience but also the mindset and right spirit to take these tracks to heart and raise the level yet one more time…?
Fortunately Eelco Grimm of Grimm Audio told us he would love to introduce us to Bob Ludwig. Famous for his mastering work (eleven Grammy awards, amongst a pile of other awards) for artists like Radiohead, Beck, Madonna, Sting, Daft Punk and Paul McCartney, he is a true living legend. Bob was curious to hear Phill’s mix – one of the few famed engineers he had not worked with. He immediately caught on to UNIFONY’s spirit and said he loved the music and would enjoy to master the album. Again overwhelmed by the involvement of such a celebrity we sent the tracks to the USA for Bob to add his magic. When the final result came back we could not believe what we heard. Bob’s creativity brought out way more from the recording than we ever expected. I experienced my most emotional 50 minutes so far when listening to the final results, a gift that keeps on giving…
The graphic design
Interaction plays a major role in the UNIFONY concept and from the start we knew that the graphic design should be part of that. When Minco worked on the “Spirit of Talk Talk” biograpy he had become friends with James Marsh. James is a famous English graphic artist, responsible for the art of Talk Talk and Jamiroquai amongst others. We were extremely happy that he agreed to work for UNIFONY at an early stage. We gave him a free hand in responding visually to our music when designing the cover art. The result was overwhelming as he really caught the spirit of UNIFONY in visuals! Because we invited him in an early phase of our writing process, we could respond musically to his work as part of the UNIFONY process. This interactive approach worked out wonderfully, and the UNIFONY cover in our opinion is a true piece of art.
All in all, the album got mixed and mastered and designed by true professionals that really understand what UNIFONY is about. The process of letting go of structures and habits has offered us so much. We have an album we could never have made on our own. Sharing gives so much more, it results in something very, very special.
UNIFONY is a tribute to the work ethic of the early days of music production: being able to spend time in an inspiring studio, using great instruments and recording equipment without constant pressure. This method was recognized and appreciated by Mathias, Phill, Bob and James. UNIFONY is the end result of joining all this talent. We are grateful.
Minco Eggersman is a Dutch musician, producer & composer. He is singer and drummer for ‘at the close of every day’, but his main focus in the past few years has been on writing movie sound track scores. Last year he released the critically acclaimed ‘KAVKASIA’ solo album.
Theodoor Borger is a Dutch producer, musician, composer and engineer. He’s the owner of recording studio Pinna and has worked on albums by artists such as Kim Janssen, Lárus Sigurðsson and SILMUS.