Fiona Joy Hawkins

New Age music has always been a ‘go to’ solution for relaxing and unwinding but in the past decade it has become a mainstream genre in its own right attaining a more acceptable and professional moniker ‘Contemporary Instrumental Genre’. The technical aspects behind the production of this genre are both interesting and challenging. Originally regarded as ‘chill-out’ or ‘digest a parsnip to’ music New Age began to take on a more mainstream appearance once the ‘names’ entered the scene. The introduction of top level composers/musicians and heavyweight engineers/producers saw this genre morph from rudimentary percussive lines mixed with the odd 8 minute pad sound to full-on productions with all manner of acoustic instruments being played with synthetic textures and haunting vocals (think Clannad/Enya here).

The first New Age Recording Grammy was first presented to Swiss musician Andreas Vollenweider for his album Down to the Moon. In recent decades this coveted title has been monopolised by a handful of writers/producers but with the public’s perception being influenced and altered over the years I can see this genre being hotly contested in future years as more mainstream producers enter the foray as the commercial rewards are now very enticing. With this ‘dither’ in mind, I decided to hunt down the engineer and producer behind a new album that I believe will cause a little mayhem in the standards stakes.

Australian pianist and vocalist Fiona Joy’s 9th album “Signature Synchronicity” is a transcontinental collaboration between the team at Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont, USA and those at Crash Symphony Productions in Sydney. Produced by Will Ackerman, Tom Eaton and James Englund, Synchronicity realises all the Jedi production tricks up Will’s sleeve with the talents of Tom’s engineering supporting the mix foundation. Having just come off the back of a Grammy win for ‘Grace’ Fiona’s dynamic playing and haunting vocals have been beautifully captured and represented by Will and Tom’s joint vision, not only in the engineering and production departments but also in how the arrangements sit. Most impressive for me personally has been the detailed production techniques incorporated to capture multi-mic setups of Fiona’s piano playing. When you consider how dynamic Fiona’s playing is you then appreciate the painstaking level of detail to get the mics to sit just right and capture both sympathetic passages and ‘bludgeon my fingers’ stamping!

I have always been fascinated with how pianos are miked up. I find the balance between the actual sound of the piano and the playing techniques can sway a producer to select a different set of microphones with esoteric placements. Most importantly, and the defining problem with spot miking pianos, is the way the microphones are arranged for both close-miking plus the overheads and ambient room microphones, a complicated and experimental route to take.  In the case with Fiona, I notice her playing can be very dynamic as she gets very involved and lost in the music and the capturing of the takes skill and an empathetic approach to miking. I wondered how these problems were addressed and Tom enlightened me with:

At Imaginary Road we use quite a complicated piano micing system with 9 mics. Not a typical approach in any way! Because James Englund, who was doing the piano recording at Fiona’s house in Australia, knew we wanted a number of perspectives on the piano he used 7 mics in various locations that we settled on over the course of a series of test files and email exchanges. I ended up using six of the mics in the final mixes. The approach was very classical otherwise, no processing, lots of headroom. James had a pair of very clear sounding Neumann M149s that ended up being the dominant mics in the mixes, those were supplemented with a KM184 in the upper register where more brightness might be wanted, a low-end friendly Wagner 47 over the low strings and a U87 clone under the piano. There were two 414s recorded but I used only one of them in the mix.

With both vocal and piano pieces, I find the choice of microphones as important as microphone placements. This is an area that always lends to confusion but a good understanding of microphone topologies and an experienced ear can overcome this. I wondered how the silky texture of Fiona’s voice was kept in focus whilst keeping the piano in the forefront without dominating the tracks and Tom, yet again, put my mind at ease:  

We used a Klaus Heyne modified U67 for Fiona’s vocals through a Hemmingway preamp. Fiona’s voice is very airy and the 67 seemed to really reveal everything that was there!

The album centers around Joy’s custom Stuart and Sons piano which was recorded in her home in Kendall, NSW by James Englund of Crash Symphony Productions. Englund used a variety of microphones including a pair of Neuman M49s and a Wagner U47 to capture the massive 97 key instrument. The Imaginary Road tradition is one that favours detail and intimacy, and in keeping with that Englund used a number of microphones in strategic locations around the piano.

Listening to Synchronicity I was left wondering about how to best produce a fusion of New Age music with ambient vocals a la Clannad (Enya). In my mind, I was thinking of sweeping changes to the normal approach but Tom has a few surprises lined up for me:

Will (Ackerman) produced probably the biggest solo piano recordings ever (George Winston), so we are very used to solo works on piano, and of course acoustic guitar (Will’s own albums and the ones he produced for Michael Hedges were groundbreaking). The production on Fiona’s album is obviously tailored to her music but is similar in density and general instrumentation (strings, textural vocals, guitars, percussion, etc.) to much of the work we do.

Whenever I listen to an album I tend to put on my producer’s cap and begin to analyse and rip apart the production to find out what was used and how it was used. Most notable for me is the area of Mix Bus dynamics. I was desperate to know what Tom threw on the MB to get the best out of  all the content:

I usually insert a compressor and an eq on the master bus as soon as I start mixing. For this album, DMG Compassion and the Waves Puigtec EQP-1a were the mix bus glue. Compassion has a mix control and I typically have that set around 75%, the ratio is the 2:1 or 3:1 ballpark, not working hard at all. I adore the Puigtec. Usually, I am adding a little down at 60 and both adding and taking away top. The hi-cut is so nice sounding…can make things so much nicer on the ears.

I know that whenever I have tracked vocalists I have had to use some form of dynamic to control the wayward peaks and this left me wondering if some Jedi techniques were used at the tracking stage with Fiona voice bearing in mind the huge range she exhibits:

No compression at tracking at all, anywhere on the record. Some compression at mixing for sure, H-Comp or Compassion, with the mix control at 70 or 75% and a low ratio in either case. I like blending multiple reverbs and for Fiona’s vocals depending on the song I was using at least two of the following: Valhalla Vintage Verb, Valhalla Plate, Exponential Audio R2, Waves H-Verb. Each does something very distinct and different from the others. Sometimes I’ll insert a de-esser before the reverb (not on the vocal channel but before the reverb on an aux bus) to keep sibilance from taking off in the verbs.

My focus for this album has been the vocals and pianos and I was left wondering what method of tracking and processing took place. I was expecting a list of rhetoric in the compressor department but was left nicely surprised at Tom’s response:

No, our typical model is to record a few takes and then cull the best from those takes. Fiona and James were keeping track of the bits they liked and sending me written notes with the audio files. I went fishing into other takes here and there but for the most part, they knew when they had the best performances and I just had to concentrate on making the edits work. Where I felt that something wasn’t as good as it could be the other takes always had exactly what I was looking for!

Overdubs took place mostly using Ackerman’s Heyne-modified Neumann microphones: gorgeous pairs of U67s and KM256s, through custom Hemmingway preamps. Both Eaton’s studio and Ackerman’s use Dynaudio M2 three-way monitoring, with Eaton’s room supplementing the M2s with NHT B20 stereo subs.

I now understood how the balance of low end was married to the dominant mid and top ends of Fiona’s tracked piano playing. The U67 was no surprise but the Hemingway preamps took me off guard as I was expecting something more coloured.

I noticed a few familiar textures during the listening phase and I wondered if Tom had gone all out and used the classic or whether there was a new approach that was reliant on plugins. My mind was not only put at rest but I exhibited glee. Tom said nice things to me:

API preamps, Apogee Symphony converters and Logic Pro running at 96k were used tracking multiple takes of the ten songs for the album. Additionally,  as files trickled in from Australia, Tom started to settle on a final sound for the piano while assembling the tracks in ProTools 10HD and comping the piano performances at his coastal Massachusetts studio Universal Noise Storage. Of course, he has yet to invite me to his gaff.

The underlying strength of Apogee converters is that of ‘colour’. They impart a glossy and smooth sheen to acoustic recordings, so I was happy to hear that Tom used them on the whole album.

Listening to the album you can almost be forgiven for not noticing the wide array of strings in the background. This is a testament to good production techniques: an understanding of the focus of music coupled with vision. I wondered how the lower end strings were handled and predominantly the cello section as this are can play havoc with the lower registers of the piano. The myth known as Tom came through again.

Eugene Friesen, a multiple Grammy winner for his work with the Paul Winter Consort, did his cello overdubs using a pair of 67s, one near the bridge and one over his left shoulder, plus an AKG 414B-ULS room mic in the larger tracking room at IRS.

I wondered how this approach yielded results bearing in mind the complexities of 9 mic arrangements coupled with extensive testing and setting up for correct mic placement for the cellos and Tom kindly put my mind at rest with:

Will and Fiona provided input along the way, produced through a kind of guided improvisation, choosing the best moments of Friesen’s improvisatory playing and refining (frequently simplifying) the parts through punch-ins or additional layers as needed.

This made perfect sense as Friesen’s playing is renowned and he is known for flying off lines all day long. Prolific and professional don’t begin to describe Eugene’s approach to playing.

I was now left with the task of working out what had been done to the wonderful esoteric percussive lines to make them sit in the background but be attention-grabbing at the same time. This required some fancy tracking and production techniques. Most noticeable was the actual playing rather than the final production and I was not surprised when Tom hit me with:

Percussionist Jeff Haynes, Grammy winner and collaborator with Pete Seeger, Pat Metheny, and Alicia Keys among many others, played his assortment of hand drums and percussion through pairs of AKG414s or Schoeps CMC5-Us with an Audix D6 serving to catch the bottom of the lower-pitched drums.

This proved to me that you don’t need expensive boutique products to get great results. The Audix D6 is known as a kick drum mic but is so versatile it can capture all manner of low-end frequencies without the noticeable smearing you get with sub-standard microphones.

The horns section formed a strong impression and it didn’t surprise me when Tom revealed who was involved in the playing:

Ambient horn player Jeff Oster’s flugelhorn overdubs were cut with a coincident RE20 and U67 about 10″ off the edge of the bell of the horn, emphasizing his already warm tone.

However, the biggest surprise for me was the saxophone tracking and I was surprised to find that Premik Russel Tubbs, who has played with Whitney Houston, Sting and Santana, played his Yamaha EWI parts through one of Eaton’s Radial JDI direct boxes. Yes, you heard me correctly. The man played a Yamaha wind controller for the sax parts and I had a damn hard time telling the difference from the real thing. I think this comes down to the artistic qualities that Premik extols combined with excellent engineering by Tom.

The guitar parts were played by Marc Shulman, well known for his playing with Suzanne Vega and Chris Botti, and he brought his custom amp and pedalboard from New York to IRS where his parts were captured from his stereo guitar amp with pairs of Beyer 160s and Sennheiser 906s. Ackerman contributed some acoustic guitar overdubs as well, using those 67’s again, one near the neck body joint and one below the bridge on the lower bout, each roughly 10″ from his Froggy Bottom guitar. Call me a purist but I love ribbon mics and the 160 is lovely for capturing low to mid ranges.

Now we come to my favourite frequencies: LOW END! So, who is the best session bassist around?  Tom spoke: Tony Levin had introduced Ackerman and Eaton to the sound of the NS Upright bass and it was decided that IRS should own one for the times Levin’s instruments were on the road. For this album, Levin played both the “house” NS Upright, which was miked at the fingerboard with a 414 and taken direct through a Radial JDI, and his Music Man electric bass which he refers to as the “Barbie” bass due to its colour similarity to a particular toy model. The Barbie was taken direct as well.

I was not surprised to hear that Tom had used the 414. The AKG 414 is a ‘go-to’ condenser for all tracking chores. The versatility of this condenser is amazing.

Quite often, when dealing with Grammy winning content, one is left wanting to find faults. As music is subjective what you like I might not like so it really comes down to two things: technically sound production techniques coupled with the coloured vision of the producer. I couldn’t find any technical faults that warranted investigation and that is no surprise when you amass the pedigree of people involved. However, I wasn’t sure about how the colour was attained that marked the signature that both Tom and Will live by. I needed to know what surprises Tom would throw at me:

During the mix Tom added a few additional overdubs as well, including some textural guitar and keyboard underscoring, putting his massive collection of synthesizers to work to subtly support Joy’s piano. A CraneSong HEDD192 served as the master clock and primary converter at Universal Noise Storage, NHT subs and Dynaudio M2s, which are wired with Anti-Cables. Yamaha NS10s, JBL LSR6328s, the “Clearmountain” Apple powered monitors and a 3″ pair of Optimus cubes are available on the monitor switcher as well, and each was used as a reference during the mixing process. This is nothing new. We have used the famous Yamaha NS10s for mid-range referencing for a long time but the Optimus came as a nice surprise. I tend to use Avantone MixCubes  which I think are the best tool available for reliably balancing a mix so that it works in a wide range of listening mediums. But it does go to show that you do not need expensive referencing monitors for mono and multi-medium referencing.

Tom used iZotope SRC to bring the mixes to 44.1 and then assembled the album in Nuendo, an industry-standard editing suite by Steinberg, where final levels and anomalies were sorted out using DMG plugins, which shows that you can get by quite well with sensibly priced plugins. The album was rendered as a continuous 44.1/32bit WAV file, imported into iZotope RX for some noise clean up, and then marked up and exported as a DDP file (using type II dither) with Audiofile Engineer’s WaveEditor.

When you are so intimately involved in a project like this you cannot help but go through all the expected emotions, from recording to hair pulling production, and in almost all cases you take something away from the experience. I pestered Tom about this:

Fiona is a complete pro…so organized and has great ears and ideas… it was such a blast to work with her and Will to bring this music to life. She loves creating drama in the music, and loves using unusual instruments, too… which makes the process much more interesting! I particularly enjoyed working on the vocals on this album. We do a lot of instrumental music and it was so nice to be able to have a voice as the centrepiece in some of these songs. My recording background prior to working at Imaginary Road was in folk and singer/songwriter music so it was a welcome return to familiar territory!

Synchronicity is an album that you simply must own even if New Age is not your chosen genre. The sheer talent on display makes for a geek’s wet dream. The piano playing is beautiful and expected when Fiona Joy caresses and attacks those ivories. Tom and Will make for a potent and formidable engineering/production team and the multiple awards this album has collected is a testament to their skills and vision. The musicianship on hand is quite staggering with ‘known’ names all strutting together to create an album founded on the mutual love of the genre and the desire to collaborate with the finest our industry has to offer.

Eddie Bazil