ESSENTIAL ALBUMS: Nils Frahm discusses the art of imaginative mastering

The Berlin neo-classical composer explains the history of the practice, and what can save it.

- Feb 27, 2014
Our favourite artists dig up five records that they consider “Essential” by any definition they like. Today, Nils Frahm explains how mastering contributes to so many classic records.

Spaces, the latest album by Berlin-based neo-classical composer Nils Frahm, is a "field recording" patched together from over two years of live performances, presenting new and old songs as new again. But it's a live album more living than most.

"Have you seen me play live before? If so, you were a crucial part in realizing the music on Spaces," Frahm writes in the liner notes. Outside of the obvious gratitude for monetary compensation, his sentences display an awareness that without each person in those thirty venues, Spaces would have been a different album. From the "intimate house concert" for friends to the concert hall, each bated breath or rapturous sigh contributes to a constellation of countless room colours charted through the album's progression. In that moment, their presence is even the nucleus for an entire track, and eventually the album as a whole ("Improvisation For Coughs And A Cell Phone," Frahm says, "inspired the whole project.")

It's not just that Nils Frahm's music transcends - his technical acuity suggests he knows how it got there. This may be why musicians from around the world commission him to produce and master their work at his Durton Studios, eager for a place where the scholarly and experimental collide.

He didn't suggest anything of the sort when I spoke to him on the phone, but as our discussion turned from underrated musicians to mastering, I could hear his brain's fingers first flicking assuredly over a library of overlooked vinyl, then reaching for the knobs of some ancient Scandinavian mastering gear. We split the difference, and discussed the mastering of some of his favourite music, as well as its role and history in completing an album: where it came from, where it's going, and what can be done to make it better.

Nils Frahm is currently touring North America and Europe in support of Spaces, including upcoming dates in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Buy tickets here.
Nils Frahm - Says (Live on KEXP)


I’ve been wanting to talk to you about your favourite overlooked musicians. Could you give five or so musicians who deserve a bit more shine and their albums that stood out to you?

There’s a duo from Finland called The Gentlemen Losers. They are brothers from Finland who make very, very beautiful music. What they’re doing in the studio is absolutely mind-blowing. And they have two full-length albums in the past. I’m really a fan of their work.

Colin Stetson, he’s one of the most outstanding instrumentalists out there at the moment. There’s [a record] called Those Who Didn’t Run.

Canada's pretty proud of him.

There’s also Sarah Neufeld. Her album called Hero Brother, I produced that last year. We spent a week in Berlin recording all over the place with a mobile tape recorder. We went to all kinds of locations with interesting sounding reverb. That was a wonderful process, it was very spontaneous, relaxed, and productive.

Going into Spaces, a live album, was microphone placement something you were preoccupied with?

Recording always came easy to me. I just look at an instrument and look at a room and see where I should put the microphone. It’s usually never how a professional recording engineer might do it.

You're self-taught?

Yeah. I read a lot and learned a lot and talked to experienced engineers and had a big interest in microphones and signal flow, and I was always very obsessed with the sound of old church recordings. I was always curious about how they did it and how they can make such amazing sounding albums on two tracks. I'm into the old history of recording, and trying to redevelop and refine some of these old session approaches with fewer signals, fewer microphones, but bigger sounding electronics.

I got into circuitry [too] where I develop old gear with some technicians to bring it up to today's specifications, to make it usable in a modern recording, and to replicate the character and tonal opportunities of these old machines in my music.

Certain artists have spoken out against the kind of mixing and mastering that undoes the raw sonic work and personality of music to make it a bit more polished. How do you operate when you mix and master work?

Sometimes I make it not polished actually, make it scratchy, a little dirty. [But] when you think of the history of mastering, you come to fall in confusion. Mastering was always there to polish something, because usually the mix is done on an analogue system with analogue tape, analogue mixing board with no automation, and all that was usually kind of rough.

I never wanted to be a classically trained musician who has a vision in his head, but has no idea how to get there.

Now we’re all automated digital setups. I can load as many sections, as many equalizers as I want. I can do everything what I want in the mixing process for no extra cost, with no extra gear because digital has infinite possibilities. Today I was wondering [if] we still need mastering engineers. Basically today, we master while we’re mixing. The role of mastering has changed. Usually [it's] to counteract the musicians who mix the music themselves and have no proper hearing.

So today [in] mastering I attempt to do a lot more mixing by changing the overall balance. I change the appearance. Mastering engineers would traditionally never do that because they would respect the mixing engineer’s record. But since we have no real mixing engineers I feel the mastering engineer should go into that field a little bit too.

Mastering is really up in sky. I try to convince people that it’s worth trying to find new artistic ways to mastering, to have a more creative mastering approach.

To find their voice mastering.

I don’t want to be afraid of doing something wrong. I don’t believe we are at a point in time where we can say "We have perfect technology for recording sound, this is the right way to do it and all experimentation stops [now]."

I feel like a lot of people have preconceptions of what’s good sound, what’s bad sound and what’s a good microphone and what’s a bad microphone. When I was younger hearing about people like John McEntire inspired me to do things wrong and use old techniques. A lot of amazing engineers had something interesting to say with their way of putting a microphone. I started to believe that making a record has all kinds of different layers. And one layer is to definitely understand the art of recording. I never wanted to be a classically trained musician who has a vision in his head, but has no idea how to get there.

In the end it only matters what comes out of the speaker and how it touches you. I always felt that even the people don’t know consciously fully what you did to the recording or what you did to the piano. They will always have an emotional response to it, so I tried to mix in a more psychological way, rather than a technical way. I think mixing is a little bit like a facelift. Like if you’re a surgeon, and you say I see in your face these original and unique features and we tried to bring them more out. Maybe put the eyes a little further apart and maybe make your lips slightly thicker. 

So what are some records that have distinctive mixing or mastering?

All the Portishead records. The last one they did was just mind-blowingly good sounding. Those records really inspired me to explore sound. Also, ECM Records. Their first 100 records are all top notch. They immediately became famous for their sound. They started working with [Jan] Erik Kongshaug, a Norwegian engineer. He would look in other countries, especially Scandinavian, [with] way better recordings than Americans. [They] had very coloured, very bulky gear, while Scandinavians used already more refined, more linear sounding equipment.

There’s one record from Jan Johansson, a pianist from Sweden. He did a record called Jazz På Svenska. It’s a '60s jazz record, [and] was the most beautiful piano sound out there. It’s just piano and bass. You can’t believe it’s so old, it sounds so rich and natural and beautiful at the same time. I feel in pop music today, most of it sounds too compressed and too bright, too flat.

What was the last pop record you remember enjoying?

The last record from The Antlers was really nice. It was really interesting production, beautiful sounds, and arrangements. And of course, Beach Fossils. Both records are just outstanding production, absolutely flawless. And they don’t cut corners [performing live]. They bring studio gear, analogue reverb, [a piano].

It's increasingly rare for a band to bring that experience to a live venue. To make a bad sound system seem completely new.

Yeah, yeah, people should value that these days. Shitty sound always makes me sad, because I hear the potential. You have to use your imagination. Like in the mix or master, you know by instinct or gut feeling it’s not there yet.

There's a lack of imagination?

Yeah, sometimes, often. People have the tools, they have the plugins, they have the gear to make it sound better. You have to imagine in your head how the sound should shape. Then you start using the gear to get there. [But] that’s usually not the problem. In the end, that is what makes a good engineer, [is] to have imagination and to be restless. People get satisfied and excited too easy. They might always miss the opportunity to make something really outstanding.

What comes with being a perfectionist is also hard because you’re rarely ever satisfied. Even the best engineers will listen to their mixes and they won’t be satisfied in the end, they always feel like little things they could’ve done differently, it’s just on a different scale.

Perfection is a state of mind. If I consider something perfect I also mean all the imperfections can be perfect.

So you're a perfectionist?

That’s a tough term because I love imperfection, especially in Spaces. [The imperfections] are chosen to be left in there. I always find something I want to make better or different, and I'm rarely happy or totally satisfied with my own output. But there’s also the point wherever you have to let things go and focus on the next thing. There is no perfection. Perfection is a state of mind. If I consider something perfect I also mean all the imperfections can be perfect. They have purpose, they have meaning. [But] I might be very, very certain about it one day and very uncertain about it the next day.

Has there been a record that you heard recently that you enjoyed but lacked that imagination?

Usually when I really enjoy a record, it's because there’s certain things not right with it. I just listened to Terry RileyIn C, and it had a kind of tinny sound in the recording. It kind of sounds distorted in a way, but it has this whole interesting magical sound to it. I kind of like it for that, it’s just a raw, radical sounding thing. I always get very inspired if things are odd, so I can’t even blame them for having a lack of imagination.

There’s a difference to today’s productions where everything sounds like a sandwich and totally blown up. Like the heavy metal high end production, just everything is totally over the top. If I don’t like the sound of a record, I don’t listen to it. Even if the music or song-writing might be really good. There’s some Bob Dylan records which sound horrible. They’re mixed so sloppily and they’re recorded so bad that even if you sing the most beautiful lyrics, it’s just something [you] put off for better sounding records.

Nils Frahm - Toilet Brushes - More (Live in London)

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