The art of the recording engineer: a conversation with Simon Eadon

Friday, August 13, 2021

What does a recording engineer do? How has the technology changed in recent years? The acclaimed engineer behind more than 1800 recordings offers his fascinating insights

Simon Eadon looks back on half a century of working with the world's finest artist
Simon Eadon looks back on half a century of working with the world's finest artist

Simon Eadon is one of classical music's most renowned recording engineers. Starting working with Decca in 1970, in 1997 he founded his own recording company Abbas Records - a career which has seen him oversee the sound of more than 1800 recordings, including several Gramophone Award winners. Gramophone caught up with Eadon, and in a wide-ranging interview he explores what a sound engineer does, how recording technology has changed in the past half century, and shares some fascinating personal insights and experiences.

To begin with, can you describe what a recording engineer actually does?

I always think that a recording engineer is a bit like the aural equivalent of a photographer, or possibly a painter, in that you are trying to represent as clearly as possible what the artist is doing. To present musicians to the listener with the sense that there's no barrier between the performer and the listener. And you try and present the sound in a way which is going to be convincing over headphones, earbuds and loud speakers. It’s always difficult. Just as with a photograph, what you think of as a good photograph of you might not actually be the truth in how it presents you – that can also be the case with sound. And that's more of an issue these days because artists seems to have a lot more say in the sound rather than letting the engineer, who should know what he or she is doing, decide. But in essence it’s about presenting the musician, or musicians, or orchestra or whatever, in somebody's home in as convincing a manner as possible – given that listening to Mahler’s Eighth out of two wooden boxes with holes cut in them is the most ridiculous idea! But that’s what you're trying to do.

Your point about there not being a barrier is interesting – because the paradox is that for all the skill that lies behind it, what you're really after is that nobody notices what you’ve done, you want it to be as perfectly natural sounding as possible.

Exactly, you shouldn't feel that I was here in a way. It's just something that happens naturally – you shouldn't be able to see the brush strokes, or the grain of the photographic paper, whatever the audio equivalent of that is.

'A magnificent hall, so good a natural-sounding acoustic': recording in Zurich's Tonhalle, one of Eadon's favourite venues

Though of course when you listen to an extraordinarily engineered recording, you can be very impressed by feeling that you are hearing the space around an artist. What is it that makes a listener feel like that?

This is where I've been very lucky because I worked for Decca for 27 years, working with the best artists – and if somebody comes along and they're doing a violin recital, you're dealing with a really good instrument in the first place, so a lot of the sound is therefore taken for granted. And it's then about trying to set the music in a plausible acoustic, and one which is appropriate to the repertoire.

When you began your career how developed was the understanding of capturing acoustic, and how has it gone to evolve and change? What have the milestones been?

It was certainly a legacy that I felt I was inheriting – that the pioneering work had been done. And Decca certainly would choose the most ideal recording venue almost at any expense. If you look at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra recordings, they were made in a venue 40 minutes out of Montreal, and at the end of the Sunday Mass they would take all the pews out, lay another floor down – and all this wood had to be stored between trips. I dread to think what each session cost just in terms of sorting the church out! It was very much this approach – that we would find the right space for the sound. Today of course so many things are constrained by the budgets, and you might go to venues where you need to add artificial reverberation. There are still a few venues left that people use, certainly in the UK, where you don't have to fiddle around and have to do post-production work. But back then it was certainly the first staging post to any recording, to make sure that you were in the best possible space for that repertoire.

And once there, how was that ideal sound captured?

It was captured largely by the mic techniques that we used. We’d use principally omni-directional microphones, so that you were automatically capturing sounds not only from the musicians in front of the mics but the acoustic coming in from behind you, from the side, from wherever. An omni-directional microphone gives you a very all-embracing feel to the sound, so you don't feel that anything’s excluded.

'A great musician who produces music in an unfettered way, it just hits you' - Stephen Layton with Trinity College Choir

If someone from the mid 20th-century came to a session now, if they started looking at the equipment, and the computers, it would obviously all be a completely foreign world – but actually looking at the mic placements, the way you capture sounds, what will have changed between then and now?

I would say the way I work, and a lot of other people work, has not changed a lot. If Wilkie – [Decca chief engineer] Kenneth Wilkinson – suddenly turned up on a session he wouldn’t think ‘oh my goodness, what's going on here’. The only thing I find now, especially with the younger engineers, is that there are a lot more microphones than we would use. To do a solo piano recording we'd use two microphones, and you may spend half-an-hour or so moving them slightly, getting the pianist to play something loud, something quiet, something legato, staccato, whatever – they would come in the control room and you would listen to the sound together, and maybe you would move the microphone slightly…

These days some engineers think ‘I’ll put two mics up here, two mics a bit further away, we'll have two mics at the back of the hall…’ – and I just think in a way you take your eye off the ball, or your ear off the ball, if you're not careful, and you think ‘well, we'll sort it out in post-production, we can listen to it then’. But actually you can't move microphones after the recording and quite often it’s the placement of the mics which is critical, and just to carpet-bomb a studio with microphones isn't necessarily the answer. And, of course, the more mics you use, as well as getting additions to the sounds you do get subtractions too, so things get cancelled out, certain harmonics may disappear altogether. So I think it can be dangerous to have too many microphones. Go in with something simple and get what you can from those two mics. Also, the fewer the mics the more transparent the sound will be as well.

Let’s explore that hypothetical recording session with a pianist in more detail – describe your starting point, and the process that follows?

I guess I would put my microphones where I've used them in the past, knowing that you may then have to move them in six inches, nine inches, or maybe raise them in height a few inches. Depending on the artist you may put up another pair of microphones – again this is just to keep the artist happy at the time, although you would try very hard in the final edit not to have to mix microphones. I’m not saying you should never do so, because of course there are times when it can be quite helpful and useful, but I think just to go in making life complicated to begin with is not a good plan really. And with artists it can be difficult – one thing I’ve found is that as I’ve got more and more grey hair people tend to respect your opinion more. When I was young and had black hair, certainly the first few sessions I did, Jimmy Lock would be there, for instance or there would be another senior engineer, and of course the artist, if they had a query, would look at the chap with the grey hair! Suddenly I became the chap with the grey hair. More recently when I’ve been on sessions with younger people and I’ve been assisting them, I make sure that the artist doesn't refer to me – ‘it's the engineer you should be speaking to’ I’ll say. So you would hope that an artist would trust your judgement, but nevertheless some artists do come in with a very fixed concept as to how they would like the sound to be – they've thought about the music, they've thought about their performance, and a particular sound is going to be what they feel presents the listener with their musical interpretation in the clearest way. But it isn't always the case.

How did you become a sound engineer?

When I left school in 1969 I was really interested in film production. I’d studied music at school, I played the piano and organ, but I’d never thought about a career in recording. It must have been several months after I left school that my father thought I should be getting a job, and he knew somebody who worked at Decca Radar in New Malden, and I went along and met him, and we went out to lunch and chatted about all sorts of things including music and recording. And he said ‘well you're not technically qualified to come and work at somewhere like this, but you’re obviously interested in music and recording so would you like an interview at Decca's Broadhurst Garden Studios?’ So I went along, I was interviewed, and taken on for a six month probation – the starting salary was 12 pounds a week, which you got in a brown envelope – and six months became 27 years. I started in the back rooms, tape duplicating because all our foreign territories would cut and press their own discs (except for America where they were all pressed at New Malden I think). I had to make a copy of the master tape, which was as indistinguishable from the master tape as possible. I got to learn a lot of repertoire that way – you could have been copying the latest Rolling Stones album one minute and Britten’s Owen Wingrave the next – a real roller-coaster of music!

The Takács Quartet in the studio: a long-standing - and multi-Award-winning - partnership

You worked at Decca during a period of time when some of the most famous classic recordings were made – it must have been an exciting time?

It was, and I think one was aware of it at the time – but even more so now. It was fantastic, to go and record an opera with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti for instance, two singers I really admire – one was very easy to get on with, the other not quite so… but I will never hear operatic voices like that again. There was just something about Pavarotti’s voice and the way he used words as well as having a thrilling sounding voice. The only other singer really like that is someone like Bryn Terfel who I think has an amazing voice, but again what he does with the words – it makes what he sings compelling; if you're doing something else you have to stop because you’ve got to listen to him. And Sutherland had this voice which was as agile as the most amazing athlete or gymnast, it could just perform incredible manoeuvres effortlessly – and she was great fun too, she was really lovely to work with.

Other highlights included recording Janáček operas with Sir Charles Mackerras, they were fantastic; working in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic was very exciting; and on a smaller scale pianists like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Radu Lupu, and András Schiff - you just felt they were all something special. And then the Takács Quartet – happily a relationship that has continued well past Decca days, and probably the longest relationship I’ve had with a chamber music ensemble. What I really love with the Takács is when they come in to the control room for playbacks - they are great pragmatists, and if something doesn't come out the way they thought it was coming out (again, a bit like seeing yourself in photograph), they would go and rethink it, changing the internal balance, the phrasing, the articulation… I think they realised it’s not up to the recording engineer if balances had to be changed, it was really something they were happy to do themselves, and would rather do themselves.

The musicians who fare best on recordings are people who are prepared to take risks, on the basis that if it goes horribly wrong you can do another take. Obviously you're not going to take that much of a risk in a live broadcast because if something happens then it’s not going to turn out well. But this is the great thing about recordings – musicians who are happy to let the medium do its job and allow them to explore ways to turn musical corners. They're the ones who really manage to get electricity into recordings, and they're the ones who communicate better than most.

Recording in Westminster Abbey, one of the many 'privilege locations' Simon Eadon has worked in

The other great thing we did at Decca, when you were getting the sound right, was to monitor at very low volume levels (it was called 'listening at granny's level' because I think as you get older – and I’m getting there myself! – everything always sounds far too loud), because if you turn the volume down the speaker is not working at its maximum efficiency – but if it still sounds presentable, if you're still getting an impact from the musicians, and you've still got acoustic around the sound, then it will sound good when it's tuned up loud. Everything sounds good when it’s turned up loud because your ears are saturated, the room is saturated, but you can't really judge - so if you turn the volume way, way down, and if it still sounds convincing, then you've hit the nail on the head. The other thing is to go out of the room, maybe take a walk around the block, and let your ears completely reset. That's a very good maxim.

What were the key shifts in recording technology during your career?

The shift from analogue to digital storage – sorry if that sounds very industrial when we're dealing with something very artistic. But from a piece of plastic tape going past a head at 15 inches per second which you’d edit using a razor blade and bits of sticky tape, to a computer where you can rehearse the edit and if it doesn't work you can move it a bit – it was like moving from the era of the Flintstones to something you can really perfect - within reason. That was the biggest change.

Unlike other genres where you may separate players into different booths, in classical music the venue is so crucial to what we hear. Tell me about the challenges and opportunities that different venues present.

Kingsway Hall, which is sadly now a hotel in Southampton Row, that had the most extraordinary acoustic. Nobody knows why, because it was designed as a Methodist Church. It had a raked floor so it was always a nightmare when you had a piano in there, it had a balcony, an organ, a glass dome in the ceiling – and yet the sound in there was magnificent. It was rich, and you felt there was no limit on the upper frequencies that it would reflect, or the lowest frequencies – it was just this limitless space, and it was so good. It was dirty and grubby, horrible to work in really – but you didn't mind because the sounds was just golden. Piano sounded good in there, orchestra sounded wonderful – and ok you got the Piccadilly and Central Lines trundling underneath every few minutes, but that was a small price to pay really.

Today in London there is Henry Wood Hall which is excellent and quiet, and Watford Town Hall - the Coliseum - is very good too. There are other smaller venues in London – Saint Silas Kentish Town is good, though you do have to stop for Mass at 10.30! Further afield, the Tonhalle in Zurich is again a magnificent hall, so good a natural-sounding acoustic that you don't have to do anything to it (if anything when we started recording the Beethoven symphonies there with David Zinman you did have to dampen the acoustic a bit, but they had curtains which we could put up and adjust accordingly). The Grieghallen in Bergen is another lovely space, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is one of those rare venues that sounds as good as a concert hall as it does as a recording venue, Boston Symphony Hall, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore where we did a lot of the Baltimore Symphony recordings – that is a modern auditorium but really fine sounding. For smaller works, the Nimbus Concert Hall at Wyastone is superb – dead quiet, lovely acoustic, that's where we now do the Takács recordings. Apart from those sort of venues, there are what I call privilege locations to work in, places like King's College Cambridge, Winchester Cathedral, these incredible venues that have been there for many hundreds of years or more. What history they have seen – and you can work there and be part of the history.

A privilege to record with: Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé in Manchester's former BBC studios

Such buildings – cathedrals, chapels – must present specific challenges. Take the famous acoustic at King's College, how do you record that?

The thing is not to try and avoid it, it's going to be there. You use omnidirectional microphones – and you may think surely you'd use directional ones, but actually you want to embrace the whole experience. Having said that I was a chorister parent at King's for seven years, and if you go to a concert and are sitting in the antechapel, you've got to be in the first ten rows otherwise it's bit like listening to an echo chamber. But even after working there for 10 or 15 years, and having had a more intimate association with the chapel through my sons, it never ceases to amaze, to inspire. It is in the truest sense an awesome building.

The relationship between engineer and producer is crucial – are there any particular partnerships you can highlight?

Probably the longest working relationship was with Chris Hazell. I think we did our first record together in 1973, and the last time was at St John’s College Cambridge before lockdown came in. So we've had a very, very long career – he was a pupil of Herbert Howells and he helps me with my reharmonizations of the last verse of hymns – so is an especially good friend as well as colleague. And thanks to Hyperion, Andrew Keener is a producer with whom I’ve worked intensively; the first disc we made together was in 1999, and we've worked pretty solidly since then. We both have similar senses of humour. It was Hyperion’s Simon Perry who thought ‘let's put these two together and see what happens’. A good partnership is partly down to trust, and partly to honesty. The three elements – producer, engineer, and artist – have got to be in harmony, and to feel you're achieving the result you want.

What advice would you give to someone starting as a sound engineer today?

Keep a sense of humour at all times! That's really important. Be diplomatic, that's very important too. Keep your mic set-up simple. Listen to as many recordings as you can, and talk to and observe as many engineers as you can. Sometimes by observing you can learn what not to do as well as what's best to do. And always use the best possible equipment for monitoring as possible – whether headphones or loud speakers – and obviously the best possible quality microphones, but I think that goes without saying.

'A joy to work with, and gosh, such a hard worker': Alina Ibragimova with Cédric Tiberghien at Henry Wood Hall

Can you name some of the recordings you’re most proud of having made?

The following particularly stand out: King’s College Cambridge and Stephen Cleobury, Westminster Abbey Choir and James O’Donnell, and St John’s College Choir and Andrew Nethsingha – choirs with three completely different characters, and they’re all great. I’m really proud of two particular recordings we did with Winchester Cathedral Choir, the Waynflete Singers, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and David Hill – a Walton and Vaughan Williams album, and a Stanford and Parry one. Again, it’s this amazing space – I put the CD on today, and it just makes your hair stand on end, it’s a really exciting sound, and David Hill managed to generate this electricity.

As for orchestras, I particularly enjoyed working with Baltimore Symphony, the Tonhalle with David Zinman, the Hallé with Mark Elder (what a privilege it was to record The Dream of Gerontius with those forces), the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Jörg Widmann – they are a really dynamic outfit – and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

As for individual musicians, people I’ve already mentioned like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Radu Lupu, András Schiff, plus Alina Ibragimova – she is just a joy to work with, and gosh, such a hard worker - Cédric Tiberghien, Steven Isserlis (such an intelligently creative musician), and younger musicians like Guy Johnston, who was my youngest son's dormitory captain at King’s. Then there’s also Andrew Litton, organists Peter Hurford, Christopher Herrick, and choral director Stephen Layton with the Holst Singers and Trinity College Choir – he's a great musician and produces music in an unfettered way, it just hits you – it’s refreshing and good for the soul. 

I’ve also got a very short list of people I'd loved to have worked with but never did, including Herbert von Karajan – I don't think it would have been a pleasant experience, but nevertheless you only work with people for two or three days and sometimes people who are tricky or awkward are fascinating to observe. And Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten – I met them both, and would love to have worked with them.

Finally, how many recordings have you made?

More than 1800. And what a privilege it’s been - one lasting 50 years!

Not all hard work! Playing tennis with Kiri Te Kanawa – plus Jimmy Lock and Chris Hazell – whilst recording in Bologna


Selected Recordings

And just three of the recordings mentioned above by Simon Eadon - from the 1800 made! - to listen to. 



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