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The Barbican's concert hall. [Barbican Hall with audience C Chris Lee - New York Philharmonic Courtesy of the Barbican Centre]
Tony Faulkner is a respected recording engineer and early advocate of the use of high digital sampling rates. He talks to Rafael Todes of the Allegri String Quartet about modern recording techniques.
In a career spanning over 40 years, Tony Faulkner has worked with many ‘greats” in the classical world. He has recorded for labels including BMG, EMI, Decca, Sony, DG, Philips, Teldec, Telarc, and Hyperion, working with conductors such as Sir Colin Davis, André Previn, Yuri Temirkanov, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Mstislav Rostropovich, Sir Mark Elder, Sir Charles Mackerras, Klaus Tennstedt to name a few.
Rafael Todes: How did you get into the recording world?
Tony Faulkner: I wanted to be a musician, but had no ambitions to be a performer. Playing 2nd flute in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury”, I realized that I was a reasonable flautist, but never going to be a great one and that performing full-time wasn’t for me!
RT: Did you ever have an interest in sound reproduction as a kid?
TF: My dad was the hi-fi expert on the block. He had one of the first tape recorders – a Telefunken KL65 (see http://galerie.magnetofon.de/displayimage.php?album=100&pos=184).
I was a terror at the age of nine or ten, and I wanted to record everything possible off the radio or live. I searched for ways to make it work, and sound interesting.
Later I studied languages, and went to the BBC for a job. They offered me something, but suggested I went off and got a Degree, which I duly did – in Physics. During my first year, the University of Surrey started the Tonnmeister course. I applied and was rejected – my statement saying that I was “fundamentally unsuited to the music industry”. So I thought – this is what I have to do!
I spent all my spare time at University recording student performances, and making contacts. In my final year I was asked to do some projects for Teldec, and chose to focus on that over my Physics degree.
One problem with the audiophile business, is that there is a lot of smoke and mirrors. A scientific background gave me the ability to differentiate between claims that were potentially true, and waffle.
One of my first jobs was doing testing for Angus McKenzie, who was totally blind, and had started Olympic Studios, where the Rolling Stones had recorded for Decca. I had worked in the retail shop attached called “Roundabout Records” whilst still a student, and after university, I got a job measuring things for Hi-Fi Choice, and Hi-Fi News.
In 1976, I was asked to join the new Enigma label where we went on to record Beethoven Cycles with the Hallé orchestra, pianist John Lill and the Lindsay String Quartet, and I left Angus to do recording full time. Since then, I have done nothing but chamber music and a huge amount of orchestral music.
The Neumann USM 69 i stereo microphone with two separate dual-diaphragm capsules. These are mounted vertically and rotate against each other, acting as a classic Blumlein stereo pair.
RT: What are the main principles and philosophy behind your recordings?
TF: My philosophy is to try and keep things simple. Typically for a Mahler or Beethoven Symphony, I’d use two mics if possible, which is a horrible shock! If I pull up the faders and two mics on their own do not work, I would do whatever is necessary but I don’t see the recording process as demanding over-complication, digesting and excreting, but rather a transparent channel.
Some engineers enjoy the process of taking everything to pieces, throwing it around a bit and sticking it back together. I don’t think that’s the right answer. You should try and be faithful to the spirit of the live performance. Once you mess around with it, it’s irreparable.
Most of my colleagues are much more interventionist than I am. Once you remove responsibility from the performers, they get angry, bored or resigned and they switch off. Our role is to try to be invisible. I want the recording and the performance to be as wonderful as possible, and to survive the chicanes of the recording process. My job is “enable and to protect”.
RT: How about spot miking and the ability to change things afterwards?
TF: I’m not terribly keen on it. I quite like making a commitment at the time. If you have worked with old-time conductors like, for instance, Sir Colin Davis, as opposed to studio-based conductors, if he comes into the box and listens to your sound of Sibelius’ 5th Symphony, at Watford Town Hall with the LSO, he may say “I like the sound”, or “it’s a little bit dry”, or “the timps aren’t very clear- is it something I need to do or something you will do?”
Once this sound has been signed off, the prospect of me changing it is not just something he’d find distasteful, but treacherous! Obviously if you get it home and it’s dry and horrible, you need to do something to try to rescue it, but one shouldn’t be in that position.
RT: Does that mean you aren’t keen on reverb or processing afterwards?
TF: I’m not keen on it. But sometimes, for instance in the Barbican, unless you’re very lucky, and particularly with a good conductor – when you tend to be luckier, the acoustic can sound more like a dry cinema or theatre than a live concert hall.
I’ve recently been going over some of the recordings I made with the LSO Live, which were recorded at 176kHz sample rate, but never released at that rate; I just did it because I’ve always liked High-Res, I think it sounds very good, and it doesn’t prejudice the sound of the CD – so what have you got to lose? Only a bit of tape or disc space. Going back to those High-Res recordings, I don’t actually need to add reverb where I did for the CD release.