“I suppose you can’t have true respect for something unless you’re willing to challenge it,” we posit to Nils Frahm. “Exactly,” he replies. “Exactly.”
It feels good to have Frahm agree with us. Not only because his music is as much part of the What Hi-Fi? test rooms as the light fixtures and furnishings – it’s because he comes across as an expert on whichever topic he is speaking about.
That devilish streak of tinkering with his instrument, which is celebrated on Piano Day, is just symptom of a wider curiosity this composer applies to every part of his life. Even Piano Day cannot be taken at face value when Frahm, who appointed it as the 88th day of the year, discusses its more menacing symbolism.
To celebrate this year, Frahm has released Graz, the first album he recorded for Erased Tapes. This grand piano recording took 12 years to surface and captures a musician at the start of his relationship with his instrument.
What Hi-Fi? We should probably start by congratulating you on getting Erased Tapes finally to release your debut album. Is it as recorded in 2009?
Nils Frahm It was recorded in a place with a special set up. It was basically a big studio that has variable acoustics, realised through microphones and speakers where there’s a custom-made reverb algorithm, which takes the sound from various points – it has about 16 microphones and 64 speakers – and you can change the parameters of the ambience through this.
The shortest reverb is maybe 1.8 seconds, then you can turn on the engine and it will generate a reverb in that room. It is impressive; when you close your eyes and play, and somebody tweaks with the settings, you basically travel through space. While I was improvising, my colleague was turning dials on this reverb engine and it was inspiring me to play in a different way.
Reverb has been a huge part of your playing. How important is it to hear the space that it’s been recorded in?
The room for acoustic instruments plays a big role, because essentially the room makes stuff louder and more immersive. With reflections and some sort of ambience an acoustic instrument sounds like it’s floating around you.
This is why a piano or a symphony orchestra sounds much better in a room than being played outside; I don’t understand why some festivals curate classical concerts outside, because the whole classical ensemble without natural reverb doesn’t blend.
What other things are important to
get right when recording the piano?
The performance. Because when the performance is well put and the balance between the notes and in the voicing, the loudness of each finger, is right, then the recording is quite stable. If you have an unstable performance, you have to work much more with the mixing, or the choice of reverbs and processing to get the performance organised.
Because sound, in the end, is decoded in our brains into an emotional reaction; if you hear something that doesn’t get you emotionally, you will analyse it more technically. And if something just strikes you, and you don’t know why, you will not ask so many questions.
When I listen to Chet Baker records and I hear the voice then the piano, the piano sounds kind of bad, honestly. But together, it becomes something that’s hard to explain why it works. I think it’s because Chet really sings so beautifully and the piano plays wonderfully, and that gives you so much freedom as a producer to put these elements wherever you want. When you play well you can make that element louder or quieter: it will still be amazing. If you have a bad take, you will fiddle with the volume, because it will never be right.
You have an almost two-way relationship with the piano. What makes it such a special instrument?
All instruments are pretty special, but the piano has had such a big part in the history of music, especially in the Western world. It is a testimonial to a capitalist industrialised society, because you need vast skill sets and machines to make a piano – and a lot of money.
The piano is a symbol for power as well. These are all components I am also aware of. I try to have the awareness to treat the piano with a certain respect, but also show a sense of humour. You get more interesting results from the piano if you treat it with respect, but with a rebellious angle. I don’t think the West created a fair world or a better place for everybody and if the piano is a symbol of all this, then whatever the critique is towards society or our culture, the critique also addresses the piano. It’s philosophical, but if the piano is also a symbol for all the things I don’t agree with, it creates an interesting angle for me to approach this special instrument.
As well as experimenting with your instrument, you have a lot of different ways of recording. Is there a particular sound to each medium that you really like and want to capture?
For me, it’s a bit like with photography: the best camera is always the one you have with you. You can say the best recorder is always the one you can work with in the moment, and is reliable and records the music. They all sound a little different, but when I choose to record something on a cassette tape it probably reflects the approach of that session. I probably just don’t have real good equipment available and I take maybe just a cheap USB sound card rather than my high-quality converter.
I like to record on interesting broadcasting master recorders, such as the Marantz PMD that was made for documentaries. It has a certain quality: it’s made out of metal, you can listen to the record head and you can check what you’re recording.
If the machine is well designed, I go with whatever sound comes out. I’m a big fan of the Nagra tape recorder as well. For me – tape, digital, analogue – whatever gets the job done and I feel happy with is my colour of choice. I know that, whatever I do, there is so much flexibility to treat material further in the mixing processes.
If you set a certain recorder up, does that affect the way you play?
I don’t try to make the recorder a big inspiration or compositional element. I would rather record in a way that I can play loud notes without distortion, and if I play quiet I will record in a way that I don’t just hear noise. But obviously the piano is a dynamic instrument: if you want to get a good recording, before you start playing you should think ‘Is this a loud piece or a quiet piece?’.
I always turn the gain on the mic preamps to an according position, because the piano has over 90dB of usable dynamics. If I play super quiet, I have to crank the preamps up otherwise I will record almost nothing. If I play a loud piece or dynamic piece, I have to turn the amps down knowing the quietest elements will not sound as good. So, yes, I take this into account, but it doesn’t change the way I play.
Do you have a list of favourite piano recordings that you go back to?
My favourite piano record, that I have gone back to for years, is one that doesn’t sound like my style of recording. It’s actually the opposite: it’s a recording called Bagatellen Und Serenaden by Valentin Silvestrov, a Ukrainian composer; it’s like nobody recorded the grand piano in such a loving way. Another mind-blowing recording is Der Bote by Alexei Lubimov – there’s one piece, In the Landscape by John Cage, and that just sounds unreal.
But again most of that is how the piano was treated and prepared by the piano technicians prior to the session. These people don’t tune the piano, they touch it in every possible spot; they put oil here, they sand down the hammers. So each note gets basically custom tuned and the piano becomes one thing that sounds like an instrument and inspires the player. It all becomes like one beautiful thing: the room, the acoustics, how the piano is set up, who is the piano builder and the player, the performance.
How do you listen to music at home? Do you have a mix of sources and amplifiers?
At home I listen strictly to vinyl at the moment, just because I don’t need flexibility. I have the studio where I can listen to digital files. I have a good pick up on a customised Technics SL-1200 MK2. I love that record player.
And that goes through a phono stage. I forgot the name: it’s a custom box from Sweden by a guy who put all the equaliser curves of all the different pressing plants – the Philips and Columbia. Then out of the phono stage, I go into an Air Tight, used 34W tube amp. I need the boost to drive my 15 ohm Klangfilm speakers. I made some custom wood panels for it so it’s not a closed chassis, it’s an open-baffle speaker. They have a coaxial driver with a tweeter in the centre. I made my own frequency divider for this with just an old British condenser, which sounds fantastic and takes the low out of the tweeter.
It’s rough but it gives me such a good overall sound. When you play resonant, atmospheric music, like piano or jazz, it sounds almost like people are in your room playing. It’s absolutely mind-blowing. Obviously it’s not a reference system, but it’s a good sound system.
It sounds like the way you approach the piano, tinkering and tailoring. Is that something you’ve always been interested in, on the listening side?
Yes, every aspect in life for me is similar. I don’t want to buy brands, I think it’s boring. When I like something I want to know why. For example, why do I like coaxial speakers? The principle for me is much more important than the brand. All the forums that try to figure out how to make stuff sound good, people discuss brands and models; but they don’t really discuss physics, principles or types of signal flow, so there’s little knowledge about Class A, B, C, D. People try to remember what they should buy, and they think, ‘I heard Class A sounds the best, so I need class A’. But often you don’t need class A. For me it’s always about looking under the bonnet.
Everything is an interaction rather than a consumable for you. Is it a similar set-up when you’re touring?
No, my life is simple: when I don’t have a sound system I like, I don’t really listen to music. I need time away from sounds, so if I’m not in the studio, I stop listening to music. In the car, I go with whatever sound system is there. I would never spend money on that: it’s just a car.
I’m not a picky type – I value good-sounding records over a good-sounding system. A lot of people are crazy, they start buying CDs that are made for good speakers, where the music was recorded through golden cables or whatever. For me, that is the point where I get lost, because the sound system is just there to play music from talented people with a message. Sometimes these moments are recorded great, and if so, I can also listen to that on a shitty sound system.
I know records that sound good on every sound system, and it’s interesting to learn about this. People are not familiar with how music is made, they need to know that when something doesn’t sound right, it’s mostly a problem with the producer. It should not be up to the consumer to fix whatever didn’t work in the recording stage. If you want to listen to good music, just find good music. It’s easy and you don’t need to spend too much money.
Those recordings that sound good on any system, what are they for you?
Basically anything Miles Davis recorded in the 50s and 60s, especially Kind Of Blue. The Chet Baker example is the most convincing for me, because when you play that on your iPhone and then put your iPhone into a Pringles box, it will almost sound as good as if you were listening on €1000 speakers. It’s a rough statement, but people will get the point.