Todd, you founded M.A Recordings in Japan in 1988. How did the label begin and what was your goal in with it’s founding?
Todd: During my first years of living in Japan, it seems that more often than not, I was in the right places at the right times… Before the label was conceived, I was offered the opportunity to release my own debut recording by CBS/SONY in 1986. I had met Japanese saxophone legend Sadao Watanabe who eventually asked me to play with him on his weekly radio program, “My Dear Life”, insisting that we play all my music. The producer of the radio program knew a producer at CBS/Sony and this led to the above mentioned recording debut which, at my request, was recorded using a Bosendorfer Imperial Concert Grand piano in a concert hall close to Tokyo. Fortunately, this first attempt is now out of print, but at the time, because LPs were still a viable format, the record was released on LP, CD and even cassette!
Unfortunately, the record did not do well (perhaps for good reason), but I thought to try to keep the momentum going and produced a second recording with my own funds and therefore had total control over production. While the record for CBS/Sony was piano only, my 2nd recording was done with a bass player friend of mine, Shigeo Sugiyama. And, unlike my debut, which was a multi-microphone production, despite being a piano solo, I decided to attempt recording both piano and bass with only two microphones.
I contracted an independent recording engineer who had access to two high voltage Bruel & Kjaer omnidirectional microphones and we spent a full day in a concert hall in the Japan Alps, recording what later became the first release on the MA label. Of course, I should mention that I had Shigeo get onto a 3 foot high choir riser which I positioned just behind, but near the tail end of the piano which had its top completely removed. The microphones were also placed high up on the same type of riser at the tail end of the piano, facing the keyboard. While it did take considerable time finding the right spot for the microphones, we were pretty well rehearsed and completed the record in one 13 hour session.
I took this 2nd recording to the CBS/Sony producer who told me he always liked my melodies, but he had no intention of releasing it partially because he had no hand in getting it recorded, but mostly because the first record did not meet sales expectations.
I then took it to Pony Canyon Records who had a licensing agreement with Windham Hill and asked them for an introduction. After 3 months, I had the opportunity to meet with producer William Ackerman who told me he thought I had potential… I then went back to Pony Canyon and asked them if they might be interested in starting a new label. I showed them how inexpensive it was to make a great sounding record in a great sounding concert hall for the fraction of the cost of recording in a good studio. And, to my surprise, they went for it! The MA Recordings concept label was born!
To help me realize my productions, I had a custom made microphone amp made for me by Jim Williams of Audio Upgrades, bought a pair of Bruel & Kjaer 4006 omnidirectional microphones, acquired the first DAT that Pioneer came out with (It sounded best at the time) and we were “off to the races……”
Most musicians who start recording labels hire other engineers, but you became the sole engineer and producer at each M.A recording session, from old European churches to modern halls in Japan. Why did you feel that you could deliver the best work as an engineer for the label?
Todd: I had some two microphone engineering experience before I moved to Japan and it never occurred to me that someone else should do what I do. As you might infer, it was also an artistically oriented decision, as well as a challenge and ongoing learning experience. The policy from the outset was that everything would be recorded in large spaces, such as concert halls and churches and that I would only do pure stereophonic recordings with two omnidirectional microphones. As it turned out however, in the beginning, I did release two live concert hall recordings done with more than two microphones, but they were the exception.
In the late 1980’s digital recording was just coming into being in professional studios. What were your feelings about digital vs analog source recording at the time, and how do you feel about it today?
Todd: The label has always been digital. The timing was right as the label became a reality when the Japanese started making DAT machines. I never really felt an aversion to digital vs analog. Digital is dead quiet and if done right, is amazing. It is also very manageable from the standpoint of portability, even though I used to travel with a full size and quite modified Pioneer D-07A 96kHz DAT machine, wrapped in bubble-wrap and stuffed into a large back pack that would fit into an airplane’s overhead bin.
What would you say is your philosophy for making recordings?
Todd: As stated above, the policy from the start was only to record projects in large, preferably elegant sounding (if not looking) spaces. The projects would be purely stereophonic, utilizing only two microphones and they would sound as natural as I can make them sound. I would never add reverb and of course, there is no overdubbing as the recordings are all two channel.
Musically speaking, if jazz or “world” oriented, I would strive for something intriguing and if at all possible, not done before. I always found it interesting to juxtapose different cultural or musical elements. This should be evident in the recordings I have done in Portugal, Argentina, Macedonia, Spain and France. One that most comes to mind is “Out of Time and Country” M080A in which Swedish Folk Singer, Susanne Rosenberg (whose expertise is of course Swedish Folk) is performing with French musicians whose forte is Medieval French Music. The result is a mixing and blurring of the cultures from Northern and Southern Europe. French songs are translated in Swedish and sung as such, Swedish songs are sung of Swedish, but played on instruments from France, or at least Southern Europe.
Your attention to detail in every area of an M.A recording is evident. Why is it that M.A Recordings stands out from virtually all other record labels in the business for it’s quality and presence of recordings?
Todd: I guess I can only thank you for your kind comments. There are a number of things unique to what I do. Nobody has my ears. My microphones, of which there are only two, were built for me. My gear is almost always modified. I use some pretty exotic audio cables. Finally, one could surely say that the synergy of all of the above, combined with mutual understanding between myself and the musicians, make for something that you may not experience on other label’s recordings.
In the process of moving from Vinyl records and tape reels to other formats there have been many versions of optical discs that play music. What is your preference of media to listen to your recordings on, and what could the industry have done to create better standards from the 80’s?
Todd: My preference for listening to music is definitely High Resolution playback. This could be PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) or single bit DSD (Direct Stream Digital) the format for SACD, which very few labels are releasing now. As for standards and formats from the past, it has always been an ongoing evolution. For me, it became a real game changer with the possibility to record at high sampling rates, or double DSD on either Hard Disc or Memory recording devices.
There is a hand-crafted quality to M.A recordings. The photography is stunning, rich liner notes, and the music is always remarkable. Essentially you create art from the art of music. Why is this such a rare thing when the resources exist to make it more present in our lives?
Todd: Again, thanks for the nice comments and so glad that you feel this way! Obviously, it is my sensibility at work. As for graphics and presentation, almost all of the packaging is printed in Japan which in my opinion, has the highest standards I’ve seen anywhere. Unfortunately, they do not come cheaply…. Perhaps cost is one of the reasons for the rarity you mention above, but certainly not the only reason….
How did you learn to make the recordings you have become known for, and what is it that engineers don’t recognize that brings us so many flat lifeless recordings every year?
Todd: Again, thank you. I never went to school to learn what I do. My experience recording was first one of trial and error, but always working in a large space that would add an extra and of course, unique dimension to the project. There is also the synergy between the musicians and the space in which the music is being performed. The sound of the instruments in the space is of course, reverberant so the reaction of those performing the music is going to be different from a performer who is working in a dead sounding studio environment. It is not really possible to create what I do in a studio because the sound of the space doesn’t exist. Besides that, there is the unique quality of the gear that I use, as well as my ears perhaps….
It seems, as with many things in music, that people become self taught as engineers and need little credentials to call themselves a ‘professional recording engineer’. What do you think defines what a good engineer must know and how they should practice their profession to capturing the best of what musicians are creating?
Todd: I do not call myself a professional recording engineer, unless I get paid for it and unfortunately, I do not get that many requests to record for others. My forte is two channel, not multi-channel so I would be lost in most multi-channel situations. A good engineer should have a feeling for what the instrument actually sounds like. He or she should strive to understand the musicians’ desires, balancing them with his/her’s.
In terms of trends in recording, it seems the old method recording engineers employed was to use the room as an equal partner to capturing the music in it. Was this approach lost as the quest for isolation and presence was sought in modern recordings of world, classical, and jazz music?
Todd: I would say it is true that, since there were either one, two or three channels to work with when recording first became possible, it was more the case that the sound of room or space became an integral part of the end result. The contemporary, modern approach is one of convenience and commerciality, the goal being to create a marketable product that can be listened to on the go, whether in the car, on the train, or in an airplane, etc.
What do musicians tell you who have been on other recording labels, and then get to work with you at M.A?
Todd: If I am lucky, they say, “it sounds like me”
How do you select the talented artists featured on M.A Recordings?
Todd: I have been at this for a long time. It is almost always a networking issue. Someone I have worked with in the past will suggest a project in which I will meet more musicians. And, of course, since I trust the integrity of the musicians I have worked with in the past, I can almost always be sure that those new acquaintances will be very capable musicians as well. There are a few of these “networks” that have grown over the years, some are classically oriented, some ethnic, some jazz, etc.
What are some of the sessions that were special to you in making?
There are really too may, but here are some catalog numbers and titles.
My early recordings can be found here.
If we want a world with better recorded music, what would you say is the key to getting there that others could learn from and put into practice?
Todd: Both engineers and listeners should know what real instruments sound like. It would be advisable to attend concerts in concert halls designed for music appreciation. As well, it is not just the case of how the music is recorded, but the fact that many of those on the receiving end have no idea what natural sound is like because they are listening on devices that have fundamentally compromised designs. It is not possible to fully enjoy music on an MP3 player as the music is compressed. That said, if one has the means to put out the extra money involved, it is possible to derive a truly mindboggling and meaningful listening experience with portable players that are designed to playback high resolution music files.
With almost eighty recordings in M.A’s catalog and being in business for 25 years, what is your vision for the future of M.A Recordings?
Todd: It is getting harder and harder to get the music out there. Most of the shops have disappeared and contrary to the distant pass, there are some people that do not expect to pay for music, but rather get it for free or very little. Thus, the existence of monthly services such as Spotify or Pandora. For many, the experience of enjoying music has changed. Pure music listening enjoyment has become secondary for many. The internet, television, mobile telephones, all cost money so there is less money to go around.
There are no easy answers. I still have a presence among audiophiles and I exhibit at many audio shows where I meet young people interested in what is possible within the two channel, pure acoustic music realm. It is of course, always encouraging to meet people that are looking for that “special” listening experience.